Mighty west punches above its weight

In 2009 Western Australia accounted for just eight per cent of Australia’s grapevine plantings and four per cent of our grape crush. But its wines, especially those from Margaret River, win a disproportionate share of accolades.

In this year’s Langton’s Classification of Australian Wines, for example, Margaret River won three of the 17 spots in the “Exceptional” category, alongside venerable wines such as Penfolds Grange and Henschke Hill of Grace (and Canberra’s Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier).
Across the four Langton categories, totalling 123 wines, Margaret River contributed eight wines – Cullen Diana Madeline Cabernet Merlot, Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon, Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay, Pierro Chardonnay, Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon, Vasse Felix Heytesbury Cabernet Merlot, Voyager Estate Cabernet Merlot and Woodland Family Series Cabernet Sauvignon – a huge strike rate for a comparatively small growing area.

Western Australia’s dominance at the top end of the cabernet market, and to a lesser extent with chardonnay, is one of the great stories of Australia’s amazingly varied wine industry. It’s development can be seen in our historic shift from fortified wine production to table wine production that sparked in the fifties, gathered momentum in the sixties and exploded through the seventies, eighties and nineties.

Western Australia’s fortified industry had been centred on the hot Swan Valley, near Perth. And although the state, notably Houghtons (founded 1836), produced table wine, the shift to more suitable, cooler regions began in the late sixties.

In 1965, Dr John Gladstones, articulated the potential of the south west for growing fine wine, especially in Margaret River.

Vasse Felix was founded at Margaret River in 1967 and continues as a major player today under Janet Holmes-a-Court. Just two years later, Dr Bill Pannell established Moss Wood, now owned by Keith and Clare Mugford. Pannell later established Picardy Wines at nearby Pemberton with his son Dan.

Evans and Tate (now owned by McWilliams) arrived in1971. David Hohnen established Cape Mentelle in 1970, established its lofty reputation, added Cloudy Bay at Marlborough, later selling out to Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton (and keeping the vineyards). In 2004, with other family members, Hohnen establish a new operation, McHenry Hohnen, now seen as one of the area’s great quality producers.

In 1971 Dr Kevin Cullen planted his first vines. After his death, his widow Diana further built Cullen’s reputation. The business now thrives in the hands of daughter Vanya Cullen.

Next of the now big names to arrive was Leeuwin Estate in 1973, the first in the region to bring glamour and luxury to the cellar door offering. The facilities, concerts and setting matched the stellar quality of its wines.

And so the new arrivals flowed in during the following decades – everything from hard working enthusiasts using off-farm income to become established, to mining magnates with buckets of cash, to scheme operators during the export boom years of the late nineties.

Houghtons, the state’s senior and biggest producer moved with the times. Under Hardy’s ownership it moved table wine production decisively to the south, sourcing fruit from around 1,000 hectares of vines by the turn of the century. It remains a leading producer in quality and quantity under ownership of US-based Constellation Brands.

While Margaret River wins the lion’s share of the glamour, the expansion south into cooler climates was much more widespread.

Today’s Western Australian wine map reveals a swathe of activity from around Perth and arcing south down the coast, before swinging east around to Albany.

The state now has four official wine zones – Central Western Australia; Eastern Plains, Inland and North of Western Australia; Greater Perth; and South West Australia.

The Greater Perth Zone includes the regions of Peel, Perth Hills, Swan District (and its sub-region Swan Valley). And the huge South West Australia zone includes all the pretty well all of the wine regions now winning the most applause: Blackwood Valley, Geographe, Manjimup, Margaret River, Pemberton and Great Southern, with its five sub-regions – Albany, Denmark, Frankland River, Mount Barker and Porongurup.

Across these regions everyone grows a bit of everything. That’s the Australian way and the only sure means of seeing what works where across hundreds of unique sites. But over the past forty years, we’ve seen the emergence of a few very strong regional specialties. These include cabernet and related varieties in Margaret River and shiraz and riesling in Great Southern. But the landscape’s changing rapidly and we’re now seeing very good shiraz from Margaret River and promising chardonnay, shiraz and merlot from Pemberton and even very good cabernet from down south.

We’ll be motoring around these areas and look forward to filing our next story from Western Australia’s deep south.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010