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Wild west: Australian Wines

As Australia's regional styles get more defined, Western Australia emerges as an area of varied and maybe confusing traits. Giles Fallowfield reports

As regular and interested consumers of Australian wines will probably have noticed, broad regional differences in wine styles are becoming increasingly discernible Down Under. While it used to be simply Australian Shiraz or Australian Chardonnay, or the still more basic Aussie white or red, today in UK retail outlets – even in supermarkets – wines are increasingly sold with a regional identity attached.

Autralian wines

It’s not hard to find examples of Shiraz from Barossa, Hunter Valley Semillon or Coonawarra Cabernet. These specific grape varieties are readily identified with the three regions, just as the Clare and Eden valleys have established a reputation for producing most of Australia’s top Rieslings, and Tasmania appears likely to emerge as the ideal area for making the most complex and elegant sparkling Australian wines and Pinot Noir.

This is not to say that other areas are unable to produce commendable examples of these varieties. Shiraz in particular, now the single most widely planted grape across Australia, has shown itself to be capable of taking on a large number of different but attractive forms, which also tend to have a distinct and recognisable regional character. Michael Hill-Smith of Shaw & Smith took the example of Shiraz when talking about Australian regional differences of style. He identified Barossa Shiraz as typically ‘ripe, alcoholic, rich, soft and spicy (but not peppery)’; McLaren Vale’s spin on the variety he likened to ‘milk chocolate as opposed to Barossa’s dark chocolate’; Eden Valley as ‘finer and more elegant’; Victorian Shiraz from Great Western he typified as having ‘Rhône-like spice’; and the Hunter’s style ‘love it or hate it, is funky leather chair’. This association between varieties and certain regions has helped consumers both to learn regional names and to start having some idea of what styles of wine they are likely to get from them. This theory works reasonably well with the above fairly small and defined areas, where identifiable regional styles have emerged over a number of years. It is, however, much harder to apply in Western Australia which, although it is a vast and varied wine producing region, tends to get treated as one homogeneous mass.

There are, historically, a number of reasons for this. Firstly, wine production in the southern part of Western Australia – where most of the best producers are located today – is in its infancy, even in Australian terms. Before the late 1960s, the WA wine industry was concentrated in the Swan Valley to the northeast of Perth. While the well-drained alluvial plain there combines with hot, dry summers to provide an ideal environment for table grape production, it’s not really suitable for much else, and certainly couldn’t be described as ‘cool climate’. This is ably demonstrated by Houghton and Sandalford, two of the biggest producers based there, who both source the majority of their grapes from regions at least 300km to the south of Perth.

WA production also tends to get lumped together because, in terms of the total Australian vineyard, it is pretty small. There are just 3,500 hectares (ha) of productive vines – another 1,000ha planted have yet to come on stream – compared to 35,000ha in South Australia, with another 9,000ha soon to be bearing fruit. This gives the whole of WA just five percent of the total Australian vineyard against South Australia’s 43%.

Nor has WA been at the forefront of Australia’s wine export drive. It only sends overseas one percent of the total volume of Australian wine exported, although the two percent by value share it commands gives some idea of the premium price range this wine is nearly all in. Up to now, WA wine has mainly been drunk by the relatively affluent locals.

According to James Halliday, 95% of new plantings, though, must be translated into exports, so the UK and the US – Australia’s two top markets abroad – can soon expect to see a big jump in the number of WA wines available. What will we see? In terms of styles and grape varieties, it really is a mixed bag with everything from Pinot Noir to big concentrated Cabernets and Shiraz among the reds, a wide selection of aromatic whites, plus a few classy Chardonnays. In the Great Southern region Riesling appears to be a particular forte with some fine examples both from medium-sized producers like Plantagenet and Howard Park, established in 1974 and 1986 respectively, and each making more than 35,000 cases of wine, and from smaller boutique operations including Gilberts (established in 1980), Castle Rock Estate (1983) and Jingalla (1979) who don’t as yet muster 10,000 cases a year between them.

Australian wineries

Jingalla, whose 1998 Riesling from the Porongurup sub-region is in the floral, richly concentrated vein, with noticeably honeyed overtones, also makes a very attractive barrel-fermented Verdelho and has just secured the services of the highly-rated winemaker John Wade, formerly of Howard Park (and before that Goundrey and Plantagenet), as a consultant. So it’s definitely a winery to watch, even if at present its whites impress more than its simple but attractive reds – Cabernet and Shiraz. Castle Rock is another Porongurup winery producing good quality Riesling, which, while attractively drinkable in its youth with lots of zingy, limey fruit, will also really benefit from bottle age.

Further to the west, Gilberts is one of the first wineries you pass on the long Albany Highway 350km south of Perth, just before entering Mount Barker. Its 1999 Riesling, made under contract at Plantagenet, is lighter in alcohol, but again with bags of lively citrus acidity so looks likely to last well. A recently tasted superb 1990 vintage of Goundrey Riesling, made from Mount Barker fruit, underlined the point that older wines from this part of the Great Southern can develop the length and complexity to challenge the best from the Clare and Eden valleys.

The Goundrey operation was the second significant winery to be established in the Mount Barker sub-region after Plantagenet. Originally a family business started up in 1978, it was acquired by wealthy Perth businessman Jack Bendat late in 1995 and now, after several years of massive investment, makes close on 200,000 cases of wine. Here, as at Plantagenet and Howard Park, good reds made from Shiraz and Cabernet in part-icular, complement high quality Riesling. Goundrey and Howard Park – the latter with a new state-of-the-art winery near the town of Denmark (although it buys fruit from all over the Great Southern area) are two companies big enough to have second labels and both have produced a Pinot Noir under them. Howard Park’s winemaker James Kellie believes the spicy 1998 Madfish Bay Pinot with a whacking 14.5% of alcohol is the best they’ve made, but he admits the consistency is not yet there for them to market it under the premium Howard Park label. They’ve concentrated on the Cabernet, Riesling and Chardonnay to date, he says.

Influenced by Leeuwin Estate’s benchmark Chardonnay, Howard Park’s version has undergone major style changes. ‘We are looking for a leaner wine, with better acid retention and more of a grapefruity, citrus palate,’ says Kellie. ‘Our Chardonnay was falling apart after three years, while Leeuwin Estate’s is still going strong after 10.’ Goundrey’s Fox River Pinot Noir is in a much lighter, raspberry-fruited style (available in Asda soon at £5.99), but the best Pinot I saw in the Great Southern area came from Bill Wignall, whose vineyards are located in the coolest part of the area to the east of Albany, close to the influence of the Southern Ocean. Wignall’s new winemaker Ben Kagi has also put time spent in New Zealand to good use, making a pungent Kiwi-style Sauvignon – one of two decent examples of the variety we tasted from the area, the other a softer, gooseberry-fruited version made at Yanmah Ridge further to the west in the Pemberton region.

Although there are several notable wineries in Pemberton and Great Southern, the reputation of WA rests on the wines and prod-ucers located in Margaret River – the westernmost region, which is nearly as distant from Mount Barker as it is from Perth – built on red, Cabernet and Cabernet-based wines. Names like Vasse Felix, Cullens, Leeuwin Estate and Cape Mentelle are the WA wineries non-Australians are most likely to have heard of. At tastings held in Margaret River, however, it was the aromatic whites rather than the reds or Chardonnays that stood out as a consistently high-quality category.Happily, in a part of Australia where production costs drive prices up from the start – one owner said winemaking typically costs 80 cents a litre in the Barossa but AU$2 a litre in WA – the prices of these wines mostly come in at under £10. There were excellent palate-rich Semillon- Sauvignon blends from Cape Mentelle, Cullens, Capel Vale and Voyager Estate; crisp, gooseberry-fruited Sauvignons made by Abbey Vale and Brookland Valley, and classy straight Semillon from Vasse Felix and Voyager Estate, plus Xanadu’s agreeable Secession 1999, a Semillon-Chardonnay blend which sells in the UK for under £7.

There were also more top quality Rieslings from Leeuwin Estate and Capel Vale, the latter making two styles, the first essentially an easy drinker, clean and fresh in the mouth with lively limey fruit, the second under Capel’s connoisseur premium label from Whispering Hill (1998), with more palate richness and a whiff of kerosene on the nose. Also from Capel Vale, whose winery is actually located near the coastline bordering the Indian Ocean in the Geographe region immediately to the north of Margaret River, there was a rather good creamy Verdelho. Capel Vale – one of the bigger Western Australian wineries, producing over 100,000 cases a year and growing – illustrates the problem the region has to overcome if less well known areas like Geographe, Porongurup, Pemberton and even Mount Barker are going to get known to consumers for a particular style or a varietal strength. Although most of its Riesling comes from vineyards in Mount Barker and much of its Shiraz and Cabernet from Pemberton, you wouldn’t know it looking at the label. Then, many so-called Margaret River wineries also source fruit from outside the region, causing more problems with regional differentiation. For the moment, the producer name is still the best guide to quality, and identifiable regional styles are still some distance away.

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