Everyone loves an underdog. In the wine world, there are regions that, for one reason or another, have to work harder to be noticed. In Australia, the Great Southern is one such contender.
Despite being one of the largest wine areas in the country, spanning 125 miles from east to west and more than 60 miles north to south, the region has faced its share of challenges.
It may be big, but it’s also remote. Great Southern occupies a slice of the southwest corner of Western Australia that’s an arduous 260-mile drive from the state’s capital, making it Australia’s most isolated wine-producing region.
Despite being identified as a potential quality wine-producing region a decade earlier, Great Southern has long lived in the shadow of its more famous neighbor to the west, Margaret River. And while the world began to know Australia for its powerful, fruit-driven, sunshine-soaked Shiraz, Great Southern’s cool climate was producing just the opposite: Its lean, savory Shiraz bore more resemblance to the Northern Rhône than to South Australia, to go along with its elegant and austere Riesling and Pinot Noir.
Today, new producers are mingling with the old guard, experimenting with alternative winemaking techniques, new clones and traversing the many miles of this massive region to explore its nooks
But times are changing. With travel easier than ever before, wine lovers are more willing to brave the journey to the country’s lonely yet staggeringly beautiful southwestern shores to discover these vinous gems. And when they arrive, tourists will find that there’s much to like.
Great Southern’s vast and varied terroirs are reflected in an increased attention from a number of small producers toward single sites. Its lighter, lower-alcohol wines also meet a growing preference by consumers, which makes this wild Western Australian region an underdog that wine aficionados can easily love.
A Slow Start
The Great Southern region may seem like uncharted territory to those outside of Australia, but it has produced world-class wines for more than 40 years, and its potential as a premium cool-climate wine region was recognized long before that.
When Dr. Harold Olmo, a viticulture professor from the University of California, Davis,visited Australia’s southwest in 1955, he reported what many early experts already knew: The Great Southern region was highly suited to cool-climate grapes.
All the hallmarks of a dynamic wine region were in place. The Great Southern region enjoys plentiful winter rainfall. It boasts diverse soils, composed of Marri loams (iron-rich lateritic sandy/gravelly loam) and Karri loams (sandy loams from gneissic/granite bedrock), which drain well. And its temperatures are regulated by the influence of the Southern Ocean.
It would take another 10 years or so before the region’s potential would translate into commercially planted vines, and yet another decade would pass before Plantagenet released the region’s first retail wine in 1975.
Today, new producers are mingling with the old guard, experimenting with alternative winemaking techniques, new clones and traversing the many miles of this massive region to explore its nooks and crannies. It’s all part of a seemingly endless journey to better understand Great Southern’s diverse and sometimes uncharted terroirs.
“There is so much diversity of site and soil across [Great Southern’s] subregions, and most likely, a lot of incredible sites for grapes that have yet to be planted,” says Guy Lyons, general manager and winemaker at Forest Hill Vineyard. “We are seeing more experimentation in the vineyard and winery, which is helping to breathe renewed excitement into the Great Southern.”
The Lay of the Land
One of Great Southern’s challenges, and one of its intrigues, is its size. Matt Swinney, of Swinney Vineyards, whose family were pioneers in the region nearly 100 years ago, says that Great Southern encompasses nearly 3.7 million acres.
To drive into Great Southern is a bit like Los Angeles—you never quite know when you’ve arrived. That’s because Great Southern comprises five sprawling subregions: Denmark, Albany, Porongurup, Mount Barker and Frankland River. All have a multitude of differences in topography and climate.
Ask a Great Southern winemaker to describe the variances between subregions. Invariably, there’s a pause, followed by a quick disclaimer. “Hang on, I need to take a deep breath for this one.”
The pristine, aqua-colored shores of Denmark and its easterly neighbor, Albany, scrape the bottom of Western Australia. Their maritime climates are influenced greatly by the chilly waters of the Southern Ocean. Wines from here tend to be light-bodied and soft-fruited, often from varieties like Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay.
Move away from the coast, and you get into the belly of this beastly region. A little more body and structure creeps into the Riesling, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir from the inland subregions, which receive more sunshine, less rain and enjoy cooler nights.
Young producers rarely own vineyards, so they source fruit from throughout the Great Southern. They’re usually eager to encourage diversity, drinkability and experimentation.
Porongurup, one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, lies 25 miles north of Albany, and its namesake village sits on the northern slopes. Composed of eucalyptus forest and round granite boulders that resemble a sandcastle after the ocean’s waves have begun to lap it up, the Porongurup area boasts some of the world’s most diverse plant species.
Its slopes provide excellent drainage for the vines, which produce Riesling with intense, flinty minerality and purity of fruit. The Pinot can be spicy, red-fruited and tightly wound, perhaps bordering on austere, but age-worthy. Its Shiraz can exhibit herbal, garrigue-like characters.
Conversely, Shiraz from Mount Barker, west of the Porongurups, expresses game, earth and spice, while Riesling has more fruity weight and floral tones. The historic Forest Hill Vineyard, home to Great Southern’s first commercial vineyard planted in 1965, produces a Riesling from its original vines.
“The [1965 vineyard] is really special, with painfully small yields,” says Liam Carmody, senior winemaker at Forest Hill Vineyard. “We consistently see this purity of acid backbone and lingering finish, which we often describe as savory, almost sea spray-like. This mouthwatering finish is the hallmark of Mount Barker Riesling.”
Even farther inland, northwest of Mount Barker, is Frankland River. Great Southern’s largest subregion, it accounts for 60% of the region’s total plantings. Frankland River is warmer and drier than the rest of Great Southern and has broader day-night temperature swings. It produces wines that are slightly more structured and full-bodied. Cabernet Sauvignon can ripen here in vintages where it might struggle in Mount Barker.
Great Southern Standards
In Denmark, seek out producers like Singlefile Wines, Rockcliffe and Castelli Estate (its noteworthy Empirica range consists of experimental wines, like Funk L’Orange and a skin-contact Gewürztraminer). In Porongurup, classic producers include Castle Rock Estate and Zarephath. The former’s Pinot Noir and Riesling are both wonderful expressions of Porongurup terroir.
Mount Barker boasts plenty of classic wineries like West Cape Howe Wines, Galafrey Wines, Plantagenet and Forest Hill Vineyard, all with their own unique and fascinating history.
And in Frankland River, Alkoomi Wines and Frankland Estate are two names to seek out, the latter of which produces some of Australia’s most long-lived, terroir-expressive Rieslings.
“In Frankland, it is easy most years to achieve full ripeness and richness of fruit,” says Hunter Smith, whose family winery, Frankland Estate, makes some of Australia’s best Rieslings. “The art is picking when everything is in balance, giving the wines delicacy and lightness of touch. These wines, in my mind, are the benchmark of the region.”
A report from 2000 by Dr. John Gladstones, the viticultural research scientist credited with identifying much of Western Australia’s potential, stated that Frankland River was capable of producing cool-climate wine styles and Shiraz comparable to those from the upper Rhône.
Frankland’s Shiraz tends toward blue and black fruit, as well as violet and black pepper characters. Its best Rieslings are often precise, limy and highly age-worthy, with a stony minerality.
Frankland River is also warm enough to ripen red varieties like Tempranillo, Grenache and Mourvèdre.
“You really get a character of fruit that is very different from the Australian stereotypes in Barossa and McLaren Vale [regions],” says Swinney, whose bush vines produce all three varieties.
The Rule Breakers
Swinney’s fruit goes not just into his own wines, but also those of a growing number of small-batch labels around the region. Young producers rarely own vineyards, so they source fruit from throughout the Great Southern. They’re usually eager
to encourage diversity, drinkability and experimentation.
One of Australia’s most highly lauded wine rebels is Andrew Hoadley, whose irreverent yet strangely cerebral La Violetta brand includes everything from a wild, oxidative Riesling with a splash of Gewürztraminer called Das Sakrileg, to a nouveau-style red blend called Nova Syrovà and two pét-nats.
Another renegade brand is Brave New Wine, made by the husband-and-wife team of Yoko Luscher-Mostert and Andries Mostert. Its range of idiosyncratic natural wines bear names like Sunshine & Hercules, Klusterphünk and Wonderland.
The New Great Southern Breed
Andrew Hoadley is at the forefront of experimentalism and creativity with his La Violetta label. He is preceded by Xabregas (try its sunset-hued skin contact Mad Men of Riesling Devolution). Organic, biodynamic and natural winemaking are championed by Brave New Wines, Freehand Wines and Albany’s Oranje Tractor Wine, while producers like Flor Marchè, Swinney Vineyards and, most recently, Lonely Shore and L’Enclos du Tertre, focus on expressing single-site terroirs.
Also consider one of the region’s longstanding cheerleaders, Larry Cherubino, who highlights Great Southern’s diversity in his many labels, including Apostrophe.
“There’s a buzz in the air,” says Luscher-Mostert. “Growers and producers alike are thinking outside the box, exploring new ideas. There is a real coming together of like-minded creatives who are thriving on trying new things.”
This network of producers represents all shapes and sizes, focused on quality, site expression and experimentation.
It may take a little effort for most wine lovers to get to the Great Southern region, or even to find all of these exciting wines stateside. But whatever it takes, once they do find their way to your palate, you’ll find it hard to dispute that the region’s future is as bright as the brilliant Aussie sun.