Wandering Through Western Australia

Wandering Through Western Australia

From the deck of an immense, three-masted wooden ship, I look out at the Swan River estuary, trying to mentally erase the buildings of downtown Perth to imagine what the area might have looked like to the original pilots of this boat. The ship is the Duyfken, an exact replica of the eponymous 1606 Dutch vessel credited with being the first European ship to claim sight of the fifth continent. The Duyfken is spending this year on a 400th anniversary voyage around the coast of Australia, the country it put on the map.

Alas, the era of the exploration of Australia’s Western Coast by ship is long over. But the exploration of it by grape vine is, in many ways, just beginning. The wines and wine regions of Western Australia—WA, as they call it here—are still largely unfamiliar to many Americans, whose knowledge of the area most likely begins and ends with the Margaret River, WA’s most famous winegrowing area. Known for its complex Cabernets, bracing Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blends and graceful Chardonnays, Margaret River wines have achieved worldwide recognition. But WA is a vast place. Today, Margaret River finds itself in a difficult transition, having to share the limelight with some of its neighbors. These emerging regions, with names like Great Southern and Geographe, are terra incognita for many palates, but are well worth discovering.

About five times the size of Texas, WA has only 2 million people, about 75 percent of whom live in the Perth area. The wine regions of WA are nestled along the south and west sides of the coast, beginning around Perth and extending down to the bottom-left corner of the continent, where the Indian Ocean and Southern Ocean collide. Warmer and more temperate, the Indian Ocean is the source of WA’s moderate tropical tendencies, while the Southern Ocean is colder and more severe (as its next shoreline is Antarctica). An ax blade-shaped promontory that protrudes into the sea where the two oceans meet, Margaret River is affected by both climates. Surrounding it, developing regions such as Geographe to the north and Great Southern to the east are invariably influenced by one ocean more than the other. And, as in California, weather and temperature are further influenced by how far inland the vineyard is from the sea.

A Six-Pack of WA Wine

92 Howard Park 2003 Scotsdale Shiraz (Great Southern); $21. This vintage of the Scotsdale has cherry and light spice on the nose, and a palate brimming with juicy plums and black cherries. The feel is excellent—like smooth stone or clay. Bravo. —D.T.

91 Cape Mentelle 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon (Margaret River); $40. Firmly structured, but the tannins are ripe, not hard, while the flavors bring waves of cassis, plum, tobacco and vanilla without ever seeming overly rich or jammy. Drink this wonderfully harmonious offering from 2008-2015. —W.E. (12/31/05)

91 Leeuwin Estate 2004 Art Series Riesling (Margaret River); $22. Delicious, precise and excellent, but this Riesling isn’t built to satisfy the masses. Its acidity is scouring, and it gives the wine a tartness that makes your mouth water. Editors’ Choice. —D.T.

89 Wise 2003 Reserve Chardonnay (Pemberton); $35. The best of the Wise Chardonnays, this bottling offers apple and pear aromas, and pear and mineral flavors. —D.T. (12/01/05)

88 Ferngrove 2005 Cossack Riesling (Frankland River); $15. This is a fresh and appealing Riesling, with floral and mineral aromas. In the mouth, it’s crisp and elegant, its stony, rocky notes overshadowing very light hints of fresh herb. 1,000 cases produced. —D.T. (04/01/06)

88 Rocky Gully 2004 Riesling (Frankland River); $14. Nimble and understated. Pear and citrus hold the fort down on the palate, surrounded by a cloud of dust and mineral. Just as dusty on the nose. Refreshing and classy; a good opening to an upscale dinner party. —D.T. (10/01/05)

For full tasting notes on these and other wines from Western Australia, visit our Buying Guide.

Cool-Climate Viticulture
This is cool-climate viticulture, which means that those expecting the superripe, jammy flavors of the Barossa and McLaren Vale will be surprised. The Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots and Cabernet Francs of West Australia can be some of the most Bordelais-tasting outside of France. They are structured classically with plentiful natural acidity, fine tannins and flavors not only of cassis and red fruit, but heaps of earth, spice and tobacco as well. Likewise, it’s still called Shiraz in WA, but the wines will make you think of Syrah from the Northern Rhône, with all the game, pepper and leather you could hope for. Rieslings here are dry and steely, full-bodied and minerally. And these more European qualities seem to be amplified as you head along both coasts from Margaret River.

It’s a three-hour drive due south through monotonous gum-tree forest from Perth into the town (and region) of Margaret River, which from its viticultural origins in the early ’70s was hailed as a less-rainy, more consistent Bordeaux. Garnering early praise were the now iconic wineries of Cullen, Cape Mentelle, Vasse Felix, Moss Wood and Leeuwin and their suave, complex and thoroughly un-Australian Cabernets. Elegant and prize-winning Chardonnays followed in the ’80s, then the sharp and racy blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. Everything comes easily for this place, which is reflected in the way people live here. Wine be damned, many people move to Margaret River for the lifestyle. In the evenings, kangaroos pose idyllically in bucolic fields. Fresh lobster, prawns and abalone abound. Miles and miles of perfect beaches stretch down the coast, home to whales and dolphins while offering up some of the best surfing in the world (a major pastime here). A laid-back pace of life prevails, and the people tend to be smart, quick-witted and gastronomically sophisticated. Think Napa Valley, but with beaches.

As Napa has endured its share of battles caused by its own success, though, Margaret River, too, is undergoing change. Consider its rapid growth. In 1991 there were just 24 wineries, but 10 years later there were 72. And a mere five years later, there are now over 100 producers. Meanwhile, the town has dramatically expanded. The roads that used to merely lead to vast, empty countryside now lead to winery after winery.

This would hardly be an issue if the wine being released was all good. But it’s not. Today’s best wines still tend to come from the original, pioneering estates. Vanya Cullen’s Cabernet-Merlot blend, Diana Madeline, is an example of a delicious wine that seems to improve with every vintage. The same is true with the Art Series Chardonnay at Leeuwin or the Cabernet at Vasse Felix, all complex, concentrated wines capable of great longevity. Of course, there are some excellent wineries beyond the most famous, such as Rosabrook and Juniper Estate, that have yet to be discovered in the U.S., as well as some newer wineries, like Voyager, that already have a presence here.

But there are also vast new plantings of vines that one winery owner told me, “should never have been put in the ground.” Another winemaker echoed the sentiment, saying that “most of the new vineyards in the area are on substandard soils and should not have been planted.” Partially at fault are government economic policies that offer tax breaks as an incentive for planting vineyards. Hence the recent appearance all over Margaret River of wineries that are “managed investment opportunities.” These are wineries conceived purely as financial propositions, with hundreds or thousands of shareholders (“Mostly doctors, dentists and lawyers,” one property manager told me), much like any business deal. One managed investment winery I visited was pristine, all the components thought out with maximum efficiency. On my tour, the manager proudly recited numbers and statistics about the winery’s planned growth, the strategic successes of its dedicated sales force, and he told me how far ahead of schedule all the 1,100 investors would see return on their initial investment. “That’s marvelous,” I said, “but do the investors have a passion for wine?” His answer was yes; however, this was contradicted by the wines themselves, which all tasted as soulless and dull as the venture. There are dozens of such places springing up all over Margaret River. At stake is the very reputation of the place, which will erode over time as its best wines become a smaller and smaller percentage of the whole. And help is not exactly on the way. Rather, it’s a bit out of the way.

Frankland River – from Sheep to Vines
My prop plane rises over a slight tree-covered hill in this largely flat landscape, sending some sheep scattering on the ground below, and glides in for a not-too-bumpy landing on a strip in the middle of a vineyard. We did what would have been a five-hour drive from Perth (three and a half from Margaret River) in just about an hour, and it’s a good thing. In these parts, there’s not a lot to see—mostly just gum-tree forest, grazing land and vineyard. We’re in Frankland River, a subregion of the Great Southern region.

Great Southern is Australia’s largest wine region and one of its most ascendant. But because it encompasses such a large mass of land, it’s been broken down into a somewhat oddly named collection of subregions: Frankland River, Mt. Barker, Albany, Denmark and Porongurup. Though they differ subtly from each other in climate and soils, one thing the subregions share—besides rapidly growing acclaim—is isolation from even Western Australia’s already-isolated hubs.

“Maybe it’s not the nicest place to live in as it’s a bit remote and out of the way,” says Murray Berton of Ferngrove Winery, whose vineyard we landed in. “But sometimes you have to go to those places if you want the best grapes.”

Berton turned to viticulture from farming and sheep-raising, as did most of the other producers in the area. For some, it was out of need. Merv Lange started Alkoomi, not far from Ferngrove in Frankland River, in the early 1970s because sheep farming wasn’t cutting it. Likewise, Tony Smith started what would become Plantagenet in Mount Barker out of desperation because other farming ventures were failing. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but in wine a little luck never hurts.

Kim Horton is the winemaker of Ferngrove, and, while many of his wines are eye catching, it’s the Riesling that stands out. To taste the lean, perfect edginess of a Ferngrove’s Cossack Riesling is to understand why Great Southern Riesling already rivals the more heralded South Australian valleys of Clare and Eden for bragging rights to Australia’s best Riesling. “We don’t do anything too special,” Horton assures. “Most of it happens in the vineyard, where we work hard to keep yields down. And we’ve really tried to figure out when to pick. Most years we could let them get more ripe, but we’ve learned to love that acidity we can get here. And as long as we have that, the flavors just seem to follow.” Indeed, the acidity keeps the wine taut, but the lime and tangerine flavors and a coating of mineral are what really make the wine sing.

Minerality is a Constant
Minerality is a constant here, asserts Plantangenet’s winemaker, Richard Robson. Robson, a young and intense fellow, can speak with some authority on the subject of Riesling, having previously worked at Yalumba with its Riesling ace, Louisa Rose. “Many visitors have pointed out the mineral character in the Rieslings,” says Robson. “It’s a delicate thing to try to encourage in a wine, the lean, sharp flavors that come from grapes that don’t get overripe. We have such cool nights here that the grape flavors at harvest time don’t get muddy or flat.”

While Riesling is the show-stopping white, the reds from Great Southern are equally impressive—and defy expectations. To put one’s nose into a glass of Frankland Estate’s 2003 Rocky Gully Shiraz is like smelling a good Crozes-Hermitage. There’s pepper, game, meat, herbs, earth and ripe blackberry and blueberry fruit. Aromatically, in no way could this wine be called fruity, but rather savory, complex and utterly beguiling. In body, however, it’s definitely Australian, with the roundness, ripeness and alcohol you’d expect from Down Under. These wines are true hybrids.

Michael Kerrigan, the winemaker for Howard Park, makes a Shiraz from the Scotsdale vineyard, from Frankland River. Though Howard Park has also become well known for its excellent Margaret River Cabernets, Kerrigan—a WA native, charmingly rough around the edges—takes joy in tasting and discussing the wines Howard Park makes from Great Southern. “Don’t get me wrong, I love Margaret River,” he says. “But I just love the spice that we get on this wine. Year after year it gives me the most interesting aromas and flavors.” Indeed, compared to the Leston Shiraz from Margaret River the Scotsdale is a spicy, brooding demon. Likewise, the Cabernet Sauvignons from each site display a similar dichotomy, the Leston being a bit more fruit forward, round and New World, while the Scotsdale Cab is earthy, savory and Bordeaux-like.

Another winemaker enticed by the flavors and aromas of Old World wines is Peter Pratten of Capel Vale. His steely Mount Barker 2004 Whispering Hill Riesling and gamy 2002 Kinnaird Shiraz are jaw-dropping in their ability to suggest the Wachau and Northern Rhône, respectively. However Capel Vale, which Pratten, a former radiologist, founded in 1974, isn’t located in Great Southern, but rather in Geographe. Pratten, like Kerrigan and a growing host of others, increasingly takes varieties for his top wines from only the regions in which they grow best. Given his taste for the Old World, Riesling and Shiraz come from Great Southern. His Merlot, though, comes from Geographe.

11% of WA’s Production Comes from Geographe
The large appellation just north of Margaret River, Geographe was established only in 1999 and is still very much in its early stages. Though 11 percent of all of WA’s production comes from there, much of this is used as blending wine. With influence coming only from the warm Indian Ocean, Geographe is generally warmer and more humid than Margaret River, which has caused some to write it off. That seems unwise, though, considering that some remarkable wines are coming from there. One is Capel Vale’s Howercroft Merlot, the best Merlot I tasted from WA. Dense, earthy and stony with rich dark fruit, the wine comes from red loam over limestone. “Many people have yet to recognize the potential of Geographe as a region,” said Pratten, “and we admit that it has a long way to go. But we identified it early on as perhaps the best region for Merlot and Chardonnay and after 30 years, it has borne that out.”

t’s not only Pratten’s wines that have borne that out. Wise, a winery founded in 1991 by Ron and Sandra Wise, may be located just across the appellation border in the north of Margaret River, but one of its top Chardonnays comes from a vineyard in Geographe. Called simply the “Single Vineyard” Chardonnay, the wine comes from a vineyard in the Donnybrook district. Supremely smooth, the 2004 is aromatically complex with melon and citrus, with graceful acidity—all so well integrated and balanced that you hardly notice its power. Made by the hand of Amanda Kramer, a young winemaker on the rise, the wine may also represent the rise of Geographe as a region. “We worked hard for this wine,” says Kramer. “But site is everything and this is a great vineyard.”

Winemakers clearly have many more such sites to discover. Not just in Geographe and the Great Southern, but other highly encouraging regions, such as Pemberton, Manjimup and the Blackwood Valley. “We’re just getting a glimpse,” says Kerrigan. “I know the good sites we’ve found are good. But there’s a lot left to figure out.”

Published on August 1, 2006

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