How long does it take for a wine region to become an overnight success? For WA’s stunning Great Southern region, it looks like just a little over 50 years. The recommendation for lovers of very fine wines? Stock up – while the region remains ‘undiscovered’!
It’s remote, windswept, miles from nowhere, incredibly beautiful and is home to some of Australia’s finest wines. Its vast landscape has been scientifically poked, prodded, studied, surveyed, explored, evaluated and examined – and it has been declared one of the most ideal winegrowing regions in the state. Its wines are applauded and adored by the wine experts – the very first wines from the region are still one of the most awarded Western Australian wines today. Yet despite the astonishing critical acclaim and the incredible value for the quality, WA’s Great Southern region is only now beginning to register on the radar of the general wine consciousness.
Too remote (approximately 360km from Perth) too large (approximately 100 x 150 kilometres square), the conditions too difficult, the region too big, the wineries too small, the subregions too varied, the wines too hard to categorise ... it’s no wonder the Great Southern has been put in the ‘too hard’ basket for so long. But the wines it is producing are too good to ignore, and the people of the Great Southern Region are a tenacious bunch and they know they’re not onto something just great. They’re onto something spectacular.
Government for the Greater good
It was the Western Australian Government who really got the ball rolling. For a long time, the Great Southern area had been a successful apple, wool and whaling area. However, in the 50s, the apple industry was in decline, and wool and whales weren’t doing so well either. Government viticulturist Bill Jamieson knew the area had promise, and it was decided that grapes were worth an inspection. The Government invited Professor Harold Olmo, a prestigious viticulturist from California, to visit the region to investigate. Olmo believed the industry was a viable one, and in a report entitled ‘A Survey of the Grape Industry of Western Australia’, he noted that the cool southern areas of Western Australia would be an ideal place to produce premium wines – much more so than the hot Swan Valley region that was currently in operation.
It took nearly 10 years for the report to be actioned, but in 1964, a site was finally selected in Mt Barker. A 5-acre experimental vineyard was planted by the Department of Agriculture with cuttings sourced from the Swan Valley Research Station. It comprised of 2.5 acres of Riesling, and 2.5 acres of Cabernet.
The Great Great Southern pioneers
A handful of intrepid Great Southern pioneers took up the winegrowing challenge. One of the most well-known and influential was Tony Smith, who planted a vineyard in the Mt Barker region and named it Bouverie (his mother’s surname) – the very first vineyard of the now famous Plantagenet Wines.
The nascent grapegrowing industry was very much a shoestring operation in the early days and a great deal of experimentation and improvisation was utilised. With MacGyver-like innovation, the farmers-turned-grapegrowers recycled or repurposed a range of other industrial gear, including old refrigerator equipment once used for whaling, and septic tanks from a concrete factory.
The first vintage from the initial Forest Hill plantings was harvested in 1972 and produced a “Mt Barker Rhine Riesling” that astonished with its intensity. The 1973 vintage took out just about every award possible, and further vintages were prolific award winners too. In 1977, Plantagenet (who had since established several more vineyards, including the aptly named Rocky Horror, originally strewn with boulders the size of small cars) and Alkoomi won three Gold each at the Perth wine show.
Inspired by the success, more vineyards were planted, and the wines continued to enjoy phenomenal show success. The wines from the region were enjoying great critical acclaim. The agricultural studies and scientific data were correct: the Great Southern Region was a great place to grow wine. Today, more than 50 years on, the pioneering wineries of Forest Hill, Plantagenet, Alkoomi and Galafrey are still on the scene, and other early farmers like Barrie Smith and Judi Cullam of the famous Frankland Estate are still going strong. Other Great Southern producers enjoying great acclaim include Castelli Estate, Castle Rock Estate, Harewood Estate, Larry Cherubino Wines, Rockcliffe, Singlefile, West Cape Howe and Willoughby Park ... just to name a few.
A Great new wine region is announced
The Great Southern is the official region, but it is made up of five distinct subregions. Inland, with a continental climate and moderate rainfalls are Mt Barker, where the first plantings were made at Forest Hill; the Frankland River, renowned for its very fine Rieslings; and granite-studded Porongurup, home to one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges. At the bottom, on the coast, with a maritime climate and higher rainfall are Albany – once home to the whaling industry, but now home to tiny vineyards like Willoughby Park’s Kalgan River Vineyard (Halliday calls it a “mighty mouse of a vineyard”) and Denmark, famous for its lush Karri forests and spectacular seaside scenery … now making a name for itself with its spectacular wine.
Classic Great varieties
Along with establishing what areas produced the best wines, the Great Southern has pretty much established what grape varieties it’s good at. It’s good at the classics. Rieslings are scintillatingly fresh, nervy, and linear, and astonish with their intensity and purity. Chardonnays are crisp, elegant, flinty and polished, with great flavour and texture. Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc shine here as well, vibrantly grassy and herbaceous, but with a tangy tropical fruit zing. Savoury cool climate Shiraz, rich in pepper and spice, fine-boned, deeply flavoured Cabernet, and supple, elegant, evocative Pinot Noir predominate in the reds. A few producers are experimenting with alternative varieties, but the classics enjoy such critical acclaim that there seems little inclination to try anything else.
Exciting Great new arrivals
Even the newest or alternative producers – the ones pushing natural and minimal intervention practices – are content to concentrate on these classic varieties. La Violetta, named after a Piedmontese song which celebrates intoxication, is quirky and non-conventionalist in its marketing. Yet it is pure and focused in its winemaking. Under the careful guidance of winemaker AJ Hoadley, the wines offer ‘not only power, but elegance and precision, capturing the essence of the Great Southern region’. In 2010, La Violetta’s first release, 2008 La Ciornia, featured in Matthew Jukes’ Top 100 and Sarah Ahmed’s Top Five Australian wines. Matthew Jukes also named La Violetta’s 2013 Up! Shiraz the world’s finest Aussie Shiraz: ‘heady, intense, pheromonal appeal … the black-cherry fruit is sleek and studded with raspy, iodine-pricked detail and the finish is crisp and angular … This wine is expressive and dramatic in every respect …’
For Great Southern, small is big …!
Wine experts and wine critics can award all the glitter that they like. But the fact that the Great Southern is so big, remote, rugged, wild, distant and not on any easy tourist trail has made the region a much harder sell to the ordinary wine drinker. Consumers are quick to take to the wines from regions that are small, easily accessed, and rich in historic or unusual or pretty cellar doors. However, things are changing and – not surprisingly – the future of the Great Southern’s success lies probably in what is small, rather than large. Wines that once used to be labelled ‘Western Australian’ or ‘Great Southern’ are now being labelled with their subregions. Even sub-regions of sub-regions, or specific vineyards are appearing on labels (like Albany’s Kalgan River for instance). The sub-regions are becoming known for their specialist varieties and small producers working with single vineyards are making large inroads. In the years to come, as more pockets of prized vineyard land reveal themselves, as more areas become renowned for particular varieties, as more new and innovative producers take up the small Great Southern Challenge, and as more people take the time to visit and discover wines that not only have immense flavour, but an immense sense of place as well, the wines of Great Southern will reach their proper places as ‘Great’ wines.
Until then, savvy wine lovers can enjoy the immense quality coming out of the region – at a truly great price.
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