Tips from the Expert: Ray Jordan on WA's Wine History

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Written by Ray Jordan,

Wine and viticulture have been part of Western Australia almost from the time the first settlers established the Swan River colony in 1829. Initially, vines were planted on the edge of the Swan Valley at Olive Farm, but within a few years, vineyards started to creep further into the Valley’s rich alluvial soils on the banks of the Swan River.

The Swan Valley

The Swan Valley remained the heart and soul of the WA industry for nearly 150 years, although its history stretches back thousands of years earlier. The Swan Valley has a history rich in legend and lore and is steeped in tradition. It is believed indigenous Australian populations inhabited the region for about 40,000 years, and legend has it that a huge winged monster known as the Waugal, taking the form of a snake or crocodile, descended from the hills to the ocean. The path of its journey created the valley — the ancient bed of the Swan River. Even before the Swan River colony began in 1829, it was the fertile soils on the alluvial flats along the Swan River which attracted Captain James Stirling on an initial expedition in 1827.

Some of the names that are synonymous with the local wine industry today were established in the earliest years of our state's colonisation. Houghton was established in 1836, and is one of Australia’s oldest operating wineries. Although wine was produced largely for local domestic consumption around the Valley, the first commercial vintage wasn’t produced until 1859. The original Houghton property was bought by a syndicate of British servicemen stationed in India and the property took its name from the senior ranking officer, Lieut -Col Richmond Houghton, although he never actually came to Australia.

Houghton

It is believed the first vines were planted in the property sometime between 1830 and 1836, but it wasn’t until 1859, when the Colonial Surgeon, Dr John Ferguson, purchased Houghton that it became a serious producer. Apparently Dr Ferguson, like other medicos of the time, believed in the health-giving qualities of wine. It was Dr Ferguson’s son Charles who, over 50 years at Houghton, transformed it into the State’s premier vineyard.

In 1880, Houghton received its first wine award, the ‘Order of Merit’ at the Great Melbourne Exhibition. This was the first of many triumphs that have paved the way for Houghton to become Western Australia’s most awarded winery. In 1922, 16-year-old Jack Mann, under the guidance of his father, George, began his winemaking apprenticeship at Houghton. Jack was to become the driving force of Houghton for 51 consecutive vintages. He brought passion, creative genius and an influence that extended far beyond Houghton, to the whole West Australian and Australian wine industry.His best-known creation was Houghton White Burgundy, now ‘Houghton White Classic’, which he first made in 1937.

Sandalford

Another of the early names still part of the WA wine scene today is Sandalford. Western Australia’s first Surveyor General was given the 2000 acres at Caversham on the Swan River in 1840 in recognition of his contribution to the fledgeling colony by Queen Victoria. He named the Swan Valley property Sandalford and soon after, planted the first vines there. The property flourished and wines produced from the vines grown there satisfied the requirements of the local community for the decades following.

Southern European Influence

Early in the 20th century many of the large estates in the Swan Valley were subdivided into smaller holdings and taken up by Yugoslav immigrants and their families. They brought with them skills in grape production and winemaking and the Valley became a significant wine-producing region. These days the influence of the southern Europeans remains although the pressures of urban sprawl and attractive opportunities to subdivide for purposes other than viticulture have put pressure on the viability and continuation of many of these older vineyards. Much of the production at this time, like the rest of Australia, was in fortified wines such as rich liqueur muscats, tokays, and sherry. But change was coming as table wine became more popular thanks to the influence of many migrant groups, for whom wine was an important part of their culture and day to day lives. This shift coincided moves by the State Government to seek alternative crops to orchards, particular in the Great Southern, which were struggling.

The Great Southern

The pioneering spirit that helped establish the WA industry in the nineteenth century was just as important in the in the Great Southern back in the early days with people like Tony Smith at Plantagenet in 1968, Mike Goundrey in Denmark in 1971 and Merv Lange at Frankland River in 1971 playing vital roles in establishing the young industry.

Forest Hill & Mount Barker

The seeds — or perhaps cuttings is more appropriate — for the modern wine industry in WA were planted just out of Mount Barker in the mid-1960s. In 1964, the Grape Industry Committee, which included such notables as Government Viticulturist Bill Jamieson and Houghton’s Jack Mann, was formed by a WA Government keen to determine the viability of the grape growing industry in the region. After soil sampling and investigation in the Mount Barker area, a small experimental vineyard of Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling was established at Forest Hill. Although the original vines are gone the vineyard itself has remained and continues to be a key pillar in the foundations of the Forest Hill brand.

The Great Southern, which includes many distinctive subregional areas has thrived and is now recognised as one of Australia’s great and diverse wine-producing areas, with its wide range of climatic conditions, soils and topography giving rise to a huge range of styles.

Margaret River

The most significant development for the WA wine industry was the planting of vines at Margaret River. The birth of Margaret River as a wine region owes much to Dr John Gladstones, whose papers in the early 1960s pointed to this area as being suitable for viticulture. Within a couple of years, pioneers such as Tom Cullity at Vasse Felix, Bill Pannell at Moss Wood, Kevin and Di Cullen and Mark and David Hohnen at Cape Mentelle were planting vines.

Vasse Felix

Vines were planted throughout the South-West of the state from the earliest years of the 20th century, although a lot of these were small vineyards operated purely for domestic home consumption. A few bigger vineyards such as one at Boyanup existed and a winery was built in Bunbury. The first commercial vineyard in Margaret River was planted by Dr Tom Cullity at what is now Vasse Felix in 1967. Those original vines still exist today although the place itself is a far cry from the modest and very basic place that Cullity established. Cullity had been influenced by the Gladstones papers, although he had also been involved in a fledgeling vineyard just south of Bunbury earlier. Thankfully others were influenced by those papers and the result was the beginning of one of the most important viticultural regions in Australia.

Cape Mentelle

The early wines of Margaret River were generally well-received but the catalyst that really turned things around was the dual Jimmy Watson success by Cape Mentelle with their 1982 and 1983 Cabernet. The trophy was then awarded to the best one-year-old dry red table wine (since amended to include two-year-old reds) at the Melbourne Wine Show. From the perspective of marketing kudos it remains the most important trophy on the Australian Wine Show circuit and provided the lift that the Margaret River region needed to take it to the next level. It also heralded a renewed boom in planting that continued unabated until relatively recently when the industry stalled against tough economic conditions.

While the two main areas were being established, other regions gradually started to emerge. Manjimup, Pemberton, Peel, Geographe, the Perth Hills and Blackwood Valley all started to establish largely boutique wineries and vineyards adding depth and diversity to the WA industry.