Tips from the Expert: Ray Jordan on WA Wine Regions

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Written by Ray Jordan, 

 

The Swan Valley

The Swan Valley is Western Australia’s oldest wine producing region. Its history dates back the earliest years of the settlement of the Swan River colony at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Although the early settlers got to the region by horse and cart or boat up the Swan River, it now takes just 25 minutes to reach the Valley, which is east of Perth in the foothills of the Darling Ranges.

Much of the focus and geographic centre of the West Australian wine industry shifted to the south of the State in the second half of the 20th century, yet the tradition of small boutique wineries in the Swan Valley remains an important part of the State’s wine industry.

Two of Australia’s oldest wine producers had their beginnings in the Swan Valley with Houghton established in 1836 and Sandalford in 1840.

But the first Cellar – which still exists today – was dug a few years earlier at Olive Farm even closer into Perth by botanist Thomas Waters, who originally planted olive trees to barter for goods before plantings vines. Olive Farm was sold to Yugoslav family the Yurisichs in 1933, who ran it until establishing a new home further into the heart of the Swan Valley.

It was Waters who recognised that the region’s climate would produce wines of the quality developed in France, Italy and Spain and as a result, he planted rootstock from South Africa at Olive Farm.

Houghton meanwhile was the main wine producer in the nineteenth century after it was bought by Dr John Ferguson in 1859. It was Ferguson who subsequently produced the first commercial vintage from the Swan Valley.

A significant change took place in the Valley immediately after World War I and again after World War II with the influx of Croatian farmers who largely transformed the Valley from traditional agricultural lands to vineyards. Many of the descendants still work the vineyards and produce wines today.

During this period the Swan Valley wine industry thrived and at one stage the Valley had more wineries than the wine regions of NSW and Victoria.

Much of the wines being produced were fortified – not unlike many other Australian wine areas and in keeping with the drinking trends at the time – but gradually table wines that these cultures were used to in their homelands became more popular.

Despite being a warm to very hot viticultural region, the Swan Valley produces excellent fruit quality with distinct varieties such as Chenin blanc and Verdelho ideal for this climate. In good years Chardonnay can be very good, while Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache are also excellent in the cooler years.

Thankfully a handful of producers still make the wonderful fortified wines on which the region built its reputation in the early days. At their best, these wines rival the finest liqueur fortified wines of Australia’s greatest fortified producing region Rutherglen in North-Eastern Victoria.

While the Swan Valley continues to produce excellent wines from the fruit available to it, a number of producers, most notably Houghton and Sandalford, now take most of their fruit from vineyards in the south of the state.

Other smaller producers such as Jane Brook, Paul Conti and Sittella have also augmented their range of wines with excellent wines from the south.

Others such as Faber and Mandoon have chosen to capitalise on the rich source of very old vine fruit from some of the State’s oldest vineyards and produce a wonderful range of rich and complex red wines.

For the wine tourist, there is plenty to do in the Valley in addition to wine tasting, with more than 150 attractions including wineries, breweries, restaurants, cafes, distilleries, shops, accommodation and fresh local produce.

Perth Hills

As the city skyline disappears into the distance and the eastern suburbs sprawl gives way to undulating hills dotted with fruit orchards, boutique wineries and charming towns, it’s hard not to be captivated by the simple beauty of the Perth Hills.

Although there was some wine production in the Perth Hills in the early 1880s, the area remained largely an orchard area for most of its history. It wasn’t until the late 70s and early 80s that renewed interest in viticulture in line with a general interest throughout the State that a number of boutique vineyards and wineries were established.

The Perth Hills is one of Australia’s smallest wine regions. It stretches 120km across the Darling Scarp from Chittering in the north to Serpentine in the south, with its laterite soils ideal for growing grapes.  There is a range of soils from sandy over gravel loams to rich clays to gravely and rocky, with the valley slopes generally ironstone and gravely loams, and the northern parts brown loam over clay.

Most vineyards in the Perth Hills are situated between 150 to 410 metres above sea level and as a result are considerably cooler than the neighbouring Swan Valley region. Warm to hot evenings and dry summer heat encourage ripening, while chilly winter nights ensure ideal fruit setting.

There are five major valleys, Bindoon and Chittering in the north, Mundaring in the centre and Bickley and Carmel to the south, while the Swan, Avon and Helena Rivers snake their way through the region.

A range of varieties are grown in the region with excellent reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz and distinctive whites that include some exceptional Viognier.

In the main, these are small-scale producers whose distribution is mainly through the cellar door so it’s well worth the trip up there to check some of them out.

For such a small region there is a diversity of wine styles, largely as a result of the area's topography resulting in distinct microclimates which impact on specific grape varieties.

Peel

The Peel region is just a short drive from Perth. Head down the Kwinana Freeway and you can be in the middle of this area in about 40 minutes.

Peel was one of the first areas to be settled at the time the Swan River colony was established in the early 19th century. The wine industry didn’t find its way into Peel until the 1930s under the influence of Italian migrants, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that the modern era of WA winemaking started in the region.

As with other winemaking areas in Perth, the region can be scorching hot in summer, but for Peel, the proximity to the Indian Ocean provides welcome relief thanks to the customary summer sea breeze. The distinctive Tuart over limestone soils might not look the best for viticulture but they result in wines of excellent flavour and longevity. The limestone, in particular, is important for its influence on the style of the wines.

The region includes the Peel Inlet a large body of water just south of Mandurah. The town of Williams lies on its eastern boundary. The Mediterranean climate varies the further inland you travel, as the cooling, moderating effects of the ocean diminish. The soils vary across the region from sandy soil on the coast to loams and gravelly soils further inland.

Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz are the varieties most suited to the region, although Chardonnay, Verdelho and Chenin blanc are also very good. The high acid content of the soils, which in some ways mirror those limestone soils of Coonawarra, result in wines that have good longevity.

The best-known producer in the region is Peel Estate, with its Shiraz and distinctive wood-aged Chenin blanc, two excellent examples of wines that age over many years.

A newcomer to the region is Drakesbrook, which has released a number of distinctive and individual wines from varieties relatively new to Australia.

Towns of interest include history-rich Pinjarra, Dwellingup, Jarrahdale and of course Mandurah. Once frequented for quiet beach holidays or retirement, this relaxed seaside town is a popular tourist hub with much to offer in the form of alfresco dining and strolling along the foreshore.

Geographe

This relatively recent region in terms of modern viticulture and winemaking extends from Harvey to Busselton and inland to Donnybrook and Collie.

It was named after Le Geographe, a French ship under the command of Nicolas Baudin, who explored the locale as part of a scientific expedition in 1802.

It is an area of considerable beauty and striking landscape predominantly marked by the undulating hills of the Darling Scarp. The Geographe region is only a short drive from Perth and Mandurah and forms part of the popular tourism route to the state’s South West.

Despite the fact that a large percentage of the fruit is sold to larger producers, it has been encouraging to see a large number of wines be released under new labels.

The region took off as a grape growing area after the First World War when an influx of Italian immigrants set about producing wine. Sadly many of these people were interned during the Second World War resulting in labour shortages and consequent neglect of the vineyards.

The beginning of the modern era for Geographe was the 1970s when two medicos, Dr Barry Killerby, at Killerby wines, and Dr Peter Pratten at Capel Vale, established wineries. Killerbys has since relocated and changed ownership into Margaret River, but Capel Vale still exists, although much of its wine is sourced from other vineyard regions.

Since then, many other producers of different size have joined in and have contributed to the growing reputation of Geographe as a premium wine region.

The region is well suited to many varieties including Semillon, Sauvignon blanc, Shiraz, Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Maturing vines and improved winemaking have lifted the quality in recent years. 

Geographe extends from Busselton in the south to Preston Beach on its north coast boundary and inland to Collie a distance of 53km from the coast, with three distinct wine regions, Capel, Donnybrook and the Ferguson Valley.

There are a number of sub-regions within Geographe.

Capel

The first is Capel close to the coast between Bunbury and Busselton where the influence of the famous tuart soils is most striking. The soils look pretty ordinary yet the deep sandy soil over limestone can produce some very good fruit of great elegance. The climate is Mediterranean with the maritime influence of cooling winds reducing summertime temperatures.

Donnybrook

Donnybrook is another distinct area where the higher elevation and distance from the coast produce a more continental climate. The reds from this area are very good. It is a cooler area and has already proved itself for fruit production with its extensive orchard plantings.

Ferguson Valley

The Ferguson Valley is one of the most beautiful and most exciting for viticulture. The soils are granite quartz clay soil with loamy alluvial topsoil deposited by the Ferguson and Collie rivers which run through the area.

Chief grape varieties are Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon blanc, Chardonnay, and Semillon. Other varieties making a name in the region are Merlot, Tempranillo, Viognier and Zinfandel.

The steep slopes and undulations of the region are ideal for creating specific microclimates suited for different varieties.

A high number of bigger producers from other regions source fruit from this area, although there are a number of excellent small producers releasing wines under their own labels.

The most impressive is Willow Bridge, with its Shiraz being very good and white varieties such as Sauvignon blanc and Semillon promising.

Margaret River

In just a little more than 40 years, Margaret River has developed into one of the world’s great wine regions. When Perth cardiologist Tom Cullity, whose interest was sparked with the famous research papers of Dr John Gladstones, established the first commercial vineyard in the region at Vasse Felix in 1967, Margaret River was a largely an impoverished farming region mainly popular with the surfing fraternity.

It is often overlooked however that wine was being made in this region well before Gladstones identified it and Cullity proved it. Italian migrants grew grapes and made wine to satisfy their need for wine which they sorely missed from their home country. These were on a small scale to satisfy home consumption and there is no certainty, about which grapes were planted.

After a cautious but optimistic start, the area expanded rapidly. The climate which Gladstones identified as similar to Bordeaux but with great consistency has proved ideal for varieties such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. In addition, Semillon and Sauvignon blanc have proved exceptional, creating a distinctive blend that has become hugely popular. Most recently Shiraz has been rediscovered as an alternative to the more opulent versions from the Great Southern.

Stretching from Busselton to Dunsborough and south to Augusta, Margaret River is more or less a three-hour drive from Perth. Having said that, the recent extension of the Kwinana Freeway and Forrest Highway make it easier than ever to visit.

The region runs along the coast from Cape Naturaliste to Cape Leeuwin in the south. The Margaret River flows east to west through its centre and the Blackwood River flows southwest to Augusta. The region features a ridge running from cape to cape. The land is undulating with a maximum elevation at 90m. The soils are gravelly, sandy loams.

Although it hasn’t been officially promulgated yet, some work has been done to divide the region into six subregions. Most of the vineyards are in the prestige dress circle of Wilyabrup just north of Cowaramup and at Wallcliffe, south of the town of Margaret River. Other suggested subregions are Yallingup in the north, Karridale in the south and Treeton and Carbunup in the north-west.

After Cullity had planted grapes at what would become Vasse Felix other intrepid medicos with an interest in wine and who understood the significance of the Gladstones research papers started to planted vineyards as well.

Di and Dr Kevin Cullen, Cullen Wines, Dr Bill and Sandra Parnell, Moss Wood and Drs Eithne and John Lagan, Chateau Xanadu were some of the first along with Sandalford, Cape Mentelle and Evans & Tate.

Although there was early show success to provide great encouragement to the pioneering vignerons, it was really the dual Jimmy Watson wins for Cape Mentelle in 1983 and 1984 which focused international attention on the region and moved it into the new era.

In recent years the wines of Margaret River have scaled new heights in consistency and standard.

Cabernet and Cabernet Merlot blends are distinctive with a strong regional identity typified by a combination of power and elegance. More mature vineyards and continuing evolution of winemaking have resulted in wines of extraordinary complexity and quality being made from this area.

Although there have been some recent efforts to restrain the Chardonnay from the region, they remain powerful and distinctive and an important alternative to the leaner tighter styles being made in many areas. Great producers such as Leeuwin Estate, Cullen, Pierro and Vasse Felix are making some of the greatest Chardonnays in the world.

The other wine style that has become synonymous with Margaret River is the Bordeaux blend of Semillon and Sauvignon blanc. Initially, this was an unwooded style but increasingly winemakers are using oak to introduce complexity and interest and elevate the blend to a new level of sophistication.

Pemberton

Pemberton is a region of enormous winemaking potential that in many respects is still largely untapped.

Although recent problems in the industry overall have put pressure on many of the small producers in the region, it remains a very promising and important area.

The region is 50km inland from the rugged D'Entrecasteaux coast lending the region a warm maritime climate with the cooling influence generated by a gentle rise in elevation from the coast of between 100 and 200 metres. Rain, created over the Southern Ocean, falls mainly in winter.

Pemberton is one of Western Australia's youngest wine regions, having been gazetted in 2006. John Gladstones' first recommended Pemberton as a potential wine grape area in 1977.

Vineyards were established in the 1980s with another growth spurt occurred in the 1990s.

The Pemberton region was formerly devoted to dairy, hops and vegetables and most importantly timber, having been a major supplier of sleepers for the Trans-Australia Railway built in the early 1900s.

The vineyards are ringed by rivers and forests. Most of the vineyards lie between the Donnelly River in the north and the Warren River which runs through the region's centre. The South Western Highway marks its eastern border. Other waterways include Big Brook Dam, Lefroy Brook and Waterfall Dam with many smaller brooks and streams taking their own routes to the main rivers.

The region is commonly called 'Karri Country' after its magnificent Karri forests. Supporting these magnificent trees is karri loam, a deep, red, fertile soil. The soil is too good resulting in the problem of excessive vigour in the vines which vignerons have had to overcome by stressing the plants using techniques such as lowering irrigation rates and hard pruning.

Chardonnay is the most successful variety planted in the Pemberton region. However certain producers have recently demonstrated the heights that can be reached with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Its early days for the vineyards in determining which varieties will emerge as the best for the region. To date Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Verdelho represent the white varieties and for the reds Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot noir and Shiraz.

Manjimup

Manjimup is the gateway to the State’s magnificent timber country, and in winter can be one of the coldest places in Western Australia.

Home of the imposing Diamond Tree, the heart of the Manjimup region is inextricably linked to the majestic jarrah and karri forests that surround it.

It is one of the State’s smaller regions with still largely untapped potential. Varieties such as Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc are well suited in result in high-class wines.

Manjimup’s climate is somewhere between Margaret River and Mount Barker and is very similar to that of Bordeaux in France. The long and relatively cool summers are ideal for ripening grapes and producing flavours that are intense and strong with good varietal definition.

While there are still only a small number of producers in the Manjimup region, it is an area that continues to show great promise.

Despite the obvious advantages for grape growing, production is still quite small.

Manjimup is 70km inland from the coast. Ocean breezes influence the climate along with the region's elevation, which at more than 340 metres, ensures cold winters. Summer and autumn are fairly dry with the bulk of the rain falling in spring.

The Warren River flows from the north-east across the region and the Donnelly River flows across its eastern corner. The region is heavily forested with magnificent Jarrah, Karri and Red Gum (Marri) trees.

Manjimup's marri soil is a red, gravelly loam - a mix of sand and gravel deposited over ions by the rivers overlaying ironstone gravel.

The region produces a range of wine styles including Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Verdelho, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot noir. The region's main activity is growing fruit to supply other wineries in the state, however, a number of wineries do allocate parcels of grapes for their own labels.

Winter is truffle season in Manjimup and visitors can go out with the dogs sniffing out truffles from under the chestnut trees.

Blackwood

With lush green pastures, quaint little towns, towering eucalypts and an inviting river which flows through the historic towns of Boyup Brook, Bridgetown, Greenbushes, Balingup and Nannup, the Blackwood area is without a doubt of the State’s most attractive regions.

Situated on the same latitude as Margaret River, but further inland, the valley has cooler winters, warmer summers and frostier springs. The first vines were planted in the valley 30 years ago at Blackwood Crest and the area is now home to 16 wine producers and 50 vineyards turning out excellent quality wines.

The region is well suited to red varieties in particular with some very classy rich cabernets and shiraz produced, and some promising merlots.

While it may be one of the youngest wine regions in the State, the history dates back 100 years when a couple of horses were exchanged for a vine sapling to be planted in Bridgetown. It was left to grow into what is now a single enormous grapevine, believed to be the biggest vine in the world. Just ask the locals.

This region is well worth a visit during the annual Blues at Bridgetown festival, held over three days at various venues around the town.

The climate is Mediterranean with dry summers and wet winters. Soils are varied reflecting its topography. Alluvial soils deposited on the floors of steep-sided valleys and more gravelly thinner soil on the slopes. The elevation varies from 100 to 340 metres.

Grape varieties represented in the region include Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz.

Great Southern

More than 200 kilometres wide and 100km long, the Great Southern is Australia’s largest wine region and one of the largest in the world.

There are five subregions within this huge area - Denmark, Frankland River, Mount Barker, Porongurup and Albany. As a result of its size the area also has vastly different soil types and climatic conditions, resulting in distinctive character in many of the wines.

A number of specific varieties thrive within these sub-regions. For instance, Riesling, which is very good across the region, is particularly exciting in the very cool Porongurups, which is also showing great promise for Pinot noir.

Cabernet is an underrated variety and in good years is exceptional. Shiraz from the Frankland River region is among the best in Australia.

It is a spectacular region to visit with pristine white beaches, an appealing countryside full of native flora, fauna and a fascinating history. As with many of the southern regions, the local produce is of excellent quality and well worth trying.

The Great Southern is a large and diverse region, home to many of Western Australia's most successful and individual wineries.

The Region runs along the south coast of Western Australia. Lake Muir marks its western boundary and the Pallanup River marks the east. There are two other rivers the Frankland to the west and the Kalgan which enters the ocean near Albany.

WA's Department of Agriculture under Bill Jamison established trial plantings at Forest Hill in 1965. Further trials ensued and by 1972 the first harvest was sent to Houghton and Sandalford for winemaking by Jack Mann and his son Dorham. What transpired was a development that gained momentum in the 70's and accelerated in the 80's.

The climate is maritime influenced Mediterranean, with significant differences reflected between the sub-regions.

Albany

Albany is a small wine region with a growing reputation. Pinot Noir is proving to be surprisingly successful.

One industry dies and another is born. So it was with Albany the centre of whaling in Western Australia that closed operations in 1978. Fortunately for the region viticulture took root in 1974 producing very fine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Suitable soil is somewhat patchy in this sub-region and sites have to be chosen with care. The climate is Mediterranean with maritime influences from winds locally called the "Albany Doctor" and humidity levels.

Denmark

Denmark lies west along the coast 59km from Albany. This established winemaking area is the latest to join the family of Great Southern sub-regions. The area's reputation is forming around its distinct Chardonnay and Pinot noir.

The climate is Mediterranean with wet winters and warm to hot summers. The sea tempers the heat and dryness in summer. The soils are a mix of marri loam and karri loam. There is a focus in the area on Chardonnay and Pinot noir, however, red varieties such as Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz and white varieties Sauvignon blanc and Semillon are also grown.

Frankland River

Wines of defined varietal character are the hallmark of this small region. Crisp intense Riesling and deeply coloured Cabernet Sauvignon are particularly appealing styles. Its Shiraz is rich and powerful with remarkable elegance making it one of the finest areas for this variety anywhere in Australia.

Wineries such as Alkoomi established in 1971 and Frankland Estate established in 1988 have given rise to this sub-region's reputation as a fine producer of Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz.

Four rivers the Frankland, Gordon, Kent and Tone converge in this sub-region. The soils are of the 'marri' type derived from granite. The climate is Mediterranean and unlike the other sub-regions has virtually no maritime influences.

Mount Barker

Home to many fine and stylish wines, the Mount Barker region is well worth discovering. Distinctive styles of Riesling and Shiraz can be found, along with world class Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Mount Barker area was the birthplace of the Great Southern wine region. It was this area that was first recommended for table grapes by the American viticulturalist Professor Harold Olmo.

Most wineries and vineyards in the Mount Barker Sub-region are to be found west of the Albany Highway on gently undulating ground. This region is distinguished by its gravelly loams called "marri" that have good drainage qualities and low fertility. The climate is Mediterranean with lower levels of humidity and more sunshine than the coast.

Mount Barker is winning awards for Riesling, Pinot noir and Shiraz. Other varieties grown include Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon blanc, Semillon, Malbec and Merlot.

Porongurup

With sweeping views of the Porongurup Ranges, this picturesque region is well worth a visit.

The Kalgan River forms the eastern boundary of the Porongurup Sub-region.

The regions' vineyards are grown on "karri" soil, loams which are formed from granite. Principle varieties are Chardonnay, Riesling, Semillon, Verdelho, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot noir, Merlot and Shiraz. The climate is Mediterranean. Events include the Porongurup Wine Festival in March.

This region is distinctly cooler given its elevation and as a result is proving exciting for Riesling. More recently plantings of Pinot and the resulting wines are pointing the way to this variety having a home in this region of great potential.