Thursday, September 1, 2022

Australia Series: Western Australia

Western Australia, the huge state that makes up one-third of the entire country-continent, has one of the most remote wine regions on the planet. The closest wine country to WA is in South Australia, a distance of about 1600 miles.

In Western Australia, the culture of wine-growing is sustained close to the Indian Ocean. Vineyards are scattered along a narrow strip that runs close to the water, from the Swan Valley, north of Perth, to the isolated Great Southern, where the Indian and Great Southern oceans merge. 

When you are in Western Australia, you don't appreciate how remote you are; how far away you are from the rest of populated Australia.  It only sinks in when you look back from afar.  And in all those hundreds of miles, except for the occasional sheep ranch, there are few settlements.

Straight ahead through the outback

Aside:  On my first visit to Australia, in 1985, I flew from Adelaide to Perth, chasing a setting sun.  On a similar route in the United States, say Dallas to San Francisco, the sight out the airplane window would be cities, towns and settlements, beneath glowing lights.  Flying over the vast central part of Australia, all I could see was darkness, with the rare sighting of a small cluster of lights.  It was like there was no one home!

Mining is the major industry in the northern part of Western Australia, as well as the vast barren inland parts of the continent-country. Another resource are the giant karri forests.  A type of eucalypus, karri trees can grow to 200 feet, making them among the tallest trees in the world.

WA Wine Regions

There are three wine areas around Perth: historic Swan District, new and promising Perth Hills east of the city and the Southwest Coast district, including the sailing-center city of Freemantle, south of Perth. 

Geographie is further south, then the famous Margaret River sitting on a hook-shaped peninsula, followed by Pemberton and finally, completely bordering the stormy Great Southern Ocean, is the Great Southern wine district.  Inland from Margaret River is Blackwood Valley, a wine district not well known in the United States. 

What follows then is a brief summary of the major wine districts, with particular emphasis on Margaret River, Geographe, Pemberton and Great Southern.  

Margaret River quickly built a reputation for elegant Cabernet Sauvignon, once the wines first appeared in the 1970s.  Today, Cullen, Leeuwin Estate and Moss Wood continue to produce some of Australia's finest Cabernets and Merlots.  Margaret River is also noted for excellent fruit packed, crisp Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. Vanya Cullen, daughter of the founders of Cullen Wines makes stylized Sauvignon Blanc and a juicy seamless Cabernet-Merlot blend.

Other noteable Margaret River wines: Devil's Lair, Vasse Felix, Cape Mentelle, Evans & Tate.

Boranup Karri Forest, Margaret River, Western Australia
Karri forest near Leewin Estate

Great Southern is aptly named as the area is influenced by the Great Southern ocean.  And the Great Southern has a California connection.  In 1955, UC-Davis professor Harold Olmo was hired by the Western Australia government to assess the potential of the Great Southern as a viable wine region. The venture gave rise to vineyard and wine operations including Franklin Wine Estate, Plantagenet and Goundrey, all producing wine today. A smaller venture producing quality table wines, is Howard Park, outside the scenic coastal town of Denmark. Today, there are nine wineries near  Denmark, with such poetic names as Mariner's Rest. 

Great Southern does best with Riesling, Shiraz, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon.  Other worthy Great Southern wines: Chatsfield, Alkoomi, Harewood Estate.

Geographe is south of Perth, just before you get to Margaret River, a positioning that will help the growing number of wineries in Geographe, as tourists head toward Margaret River.  Limestone soils and a coastal climate are good for white grapes like Chardonnay and Semillon. The regions five rivers form micro-climate valleys, as they flow to the sea. 

Principal wine styles of Geographe include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Riesling and Shiraz.  Capel Vale is the major winery in the region.

Pemberton is a relatively new wine region in Western Australia, with a name that almost wasn't its name.  The Australian equivalent of the French AOC or United States AVA wine place naming systems is GI or Geographic Indications. Local officials couldn't decide if the region should be called Manjimup, Warren Valley or Pemberton, but they ultimately decided on the latter.  A sub region, also called Pemberton has the right climate for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Manjimup is warmer, with more rain and humidity, just the right conditions for Bordeaux varieties.

Pemberton is best known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Wines to look for include: Salitage, Mountford, Smithbrook.

A few miles north of Perth lies the historic Swan Valley wine region, a popular destination for day-trippers looking for Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay at major wineries like Houghton and Sandalwood.  Two other areas - Perth Hills and Southwest Coast - round out Australia's west coast wine regions.  

The market for Australian wines in the United States has been up and down.  Over the past few years, Australia's major export market was China. But the two countries are having a trade war, so the Aussies may be looking again at the United States.  Which could mean that more Western Australia wines may soon be on the shelves of your local wine shop.

Next blog: Livermore Valley

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