Over the years Western Australia has earned a reputation as being a producer of fine wine that’s equal to any other region in the world. With its range of varietal wines from noble varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from producers as esteemed as Cape Mentelle, Vasse Felix and Cullen Wines, it’s a reputation that is well-deserved.
Western Australia also has something of an identity problem in that to many – even in the wine trade – Western Australia wine is Margaret River and Margaret River is Western Australian wine. Margaret River’s importance to Western Australian wine is hard to overestimate – the region boasts 60 five star wineries from James Halliday – but there’s even more to the Western Australia wine story.
Let’s look at some of the lesser-known, but also fantastically exciting Western Australia regions and show why Australia’s west is an even greater wine treasure than you may think…
Swan Valley is a 25 minute drive from Perth, the state’s capital. The region, which is home to some of the oldest vineyards in Australia – planted by early British settlers in the 1830s –, offers the perfect environment for vine growing. With its warm, dry climate, and mixture of alluvial, sandy and granite soils, it has a wide range of growing environments that can support the successful propagation of a number of varieties.
Historically, like so many other Australian regions, Swan Valley produced fortified wines, creating Muscats and other ‘stickies’ of premium quality. While these wines are still produced, the focus today is very much on table wines. The benign growing conditions means that Swan Valley can produce everything from a light, dry sparkling wine from early-harvested grapes through to deliciously vibrant whites made from the likes of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdelho.
Although 70 per cent of Swan Valley plantings are white varieties, it is its red varieties that are generating the most excitement with Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz vying for the title of the region’s finest variety. Swan River Cabernet Sauvignons tend to be well-structured, powerful, complex and have notes of dried black cherries. Swan Valley Shiraz tends to be more approachable when young while the finest examples are equally capable of decades of ageing. Other red varieties in the region include Grenache, naturally enough given the climate, Malbec which is producing interesting results at wineries such as Faber Vineyards and Tempranillo.
Manjimup lies 190km south of Perth and is one of the newest and most exciting wine regions in all of Australia. The Department of Agriculture looked into its suitability as site for growing vines in the 1970s, and although they deemed it to be the most suitable region in Western Australia, it wasn’t until 1988 that any vines were planted there. This delay was in part owing to whether it should be a standalone region or part of the slightly cooler Pemberton region which it abuts.
Manjimup has the potential to be a world-leading fine wine region. Its climate is ideally suited to the production of traditional varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, having warm, dry summers and cool, wet winters that give vines time to rest. The soil in Manjimup is equally outstanding. Sandy, gravelly loam underpinned by a layer of ironstone laterite gravel that, through erosion, has been mixed with red soil formed from the underlying granite produces a red, gravelly loam. The soil is free-draining, mineral rich and perfect for creating wines of exceptional quality.
Manjimup’s young history means there aren’t too many wineries in the region – around 10 thus far – but the quality of wines being produced at the likes of Chestnut Grove and Peos Estate demonstrates the phenomenal potential of this region.
As the name suggests, the Perth Hills region occupies the escarpment of the Darling Range that rises from the coastal plains 22km east of Perth. This is another young region – it was only gazetted in March 1999 – that’s winning fans with the quality of its wines. Its history as a wine producing region dates back to the 1880s, but that was always as something of a cottage industry. The opening of the Western Range winery changed all that and today its future as a fine wine region looks bright.
With dry and wet river courses dissecting the hillsides, Perth Hills offers winemakers pretty much every aspect they could wish for. The soils, largely sandy, gravelly loams and gravelly loams overlaying clay and underpinned by limestone, combine with sea-borne breezes and altitude to naturally slow down the ripening process and yields which results in wines of high quality over quantity. In terms of vines the current success stories include Shiraz, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. Other varieties may well join them – it would be fascinating to see some Touriga Nacional planted in the Perth Hills – as the region matures and more wineries are founded.
The Peel region lays to the south of Perth and at its western end is bordered by the Indian Ocean while its eastern boundary lies at the Darling Plateau. This is another region with a long, if quiet, history of viniculture, having been established by Italian immigrants in the 1850s. It wasn’t until the 1970s, with the establishment of Peel Estate, that the region began to grow. Today it boasts around 200 hectares of vines, an area that is surely set to increase given the quality of the wines coming out of the region.
Climatically, Peel is mixed. Toward the west it enjoys a Mediterranean climate and the Indian Ocean’s cooling influence, while further inland and at higher altitudes, temperatures are lower and rainfall more plentiful. The soils too are a mixed bag; they range from ancient granite-based sands to limestone sands and fluvial sediments. Pretty much all are free-draining and well-suited to vines that currently include Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Verdelho with Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon the principle red varieties.
Peel is a region to watch. That there is potential for more fine wine to come out of this region is certain, it will just take more wineries to join Peel Estate in order for the region’s potential to be fully realised.
Geographe, named for Geographe Bay on which it sits, is the only region to border Margaret River, laying north east along the coast. Gazetted in 1999, this small region is broken into four parts:
- Harvey – a hilly, coastal plain with a mix of gravelly loam, sandy and alluvial soils. A warm area, ocean breezes keep the temperature down and allow for the propagation of vines including Arneis, Nebbiolo and Moscato.
- Ferguson Valley – despite the name, this is actually a hilly part of Geographe which offers sandy loams and granite hill soils. The temperatures here can be quite warm – in January the mean temperature is 22˚C – but these are tempered by the oceanic influence. Typical vines here include Shiraz, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Semillon.
- Donnybrook – this is the warmest region of Geographe and as such lends itself to heat-loving vines such as Zinfandel, Shiraz, Malbec and Grenache.
- Capel and Busselton – situated at the western end of Geographe on the shores of the bay, this is a relatively low-lying area with gravelly ironstone, free-draining loamy soils and sand on the coastal plain. A sunny location, the cooling sea breezes – especially at night – prolong the season and allow for a wide range of wines to be produced, everything from fortifieds to Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc table wines in the higher reaches.
Western Australia: emerging brilliance
Like other Australian wine regions garnering attention on the world stage – one immediately thinks of Mornington Peninsula and the Canberra District – these Western Australian regions’ stories are works in progress. What unites their narrative now is their fantastic value and their potential to be esteemed with the world’s best. It will be fascinating to watch as the regions grow and develop. We’ll be sure to keep you posted...
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