Christine Austin discovers a region that’s oceans apart from its established neighbours down under.
It was while I was tasting a whole range of Western Australian wines, just a couple of weeks ago in the grandeur of Australia House, in London, that I really started to understand this region.
There was a freshness and finesse running through all the wines. From the bright, clean, leafy Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blends through Rieslings, Chardonnays and on to the Cabernets and even some Shiraz wines there was a lightness of touch, without losing depth of flavour.
I shouldn’t be at all surprised that the wines of Western Australia are totally different from those from the more established vineyards of South Eastern Australia. It is around 2,000 miles from one to the other and if you find that difficult to imagine, that’s about the same distance as from Skipton to Moscow.
But it isn’t just distance that makes the difference. Western Australia has a different weather pattern, with the Indian Ocean lapping its coastline and strong sea breezes bringing a Mediterranean-style climate. There is winter rain, in sufficient quantities to keep the vines supplied although most vineyards sport miles of black plastic pipes so that water can be delivered to each vine at critical times.
This is also a stunningly beautiful part of Australia. The drive from Perth to Margaret River should take around three hours, depending on the time of day, but the scenery is so breathtaking it is worth planning several stops just to take in the views of the rolling ocean and wild scrubland. Building development has been kept under control, so the coastline is uncluttered and stark – apart from the surfers who flock here in their thousands to enjoy some of the best surf in the world.
Grape growing is not new here, but the real boost came around 45 years ago when a government agronomist, Dr Gladstones, surveyed the Margaret River and decided that the climate here was pretty much like Bordeaux in a warm vintage. He inspired a few local professionals – mainly well-heeled doctors, to turn a few acres of their land to vines and while it took time to establish the right grapes and the right styles, these original families were the pioneers of the region. Many of their vineyards have remained within family ownership and gradually expanded but there has been big investment in the region too. Now Western Australia overall and Margaret River in particular seem to be stepping into the mainstream. There are still small producers making tiny amounts of very expensive wine but there are bigger brands, more affordable prices and still those clear-as-a-bell flavours that are well worth a try.
Here are some of my favourite producers:
• McHenry Hohnen: What do you do when you have spent your life creating one of the world’s most famous wine brands, and then you sell it to a large corporation? David Hohnen, originally from Margaret River, was the man behind Cloudy Bay in New Zealand and Cape Mentelle in Western Australia, but then he sold up and returned to his family farm a few years ago. Now, with his brother-in-law Murray McHenry, he has 300 acres planted to 14 different grapes and he is experimenting once again, this time with Mediterranean varieties, packing clear, pure fruit and complexity into his wines. The wines are known as the Three Amigos because they are blends of three varieties and the white, a blend of Marsanne, Chardonnay and Roussanne (£12.99, Bon Coeur, 01765 688200) has nutty, silky, exotic notes and is a great food wine, good to partner with chicken and fish. The red (£12.99, Bon Coeur) is a blend of Shiraz, Grenache and Mataro and is lively with berry fruit and sheer personality.
Cullen: Planted in 1966 by Dr Kevin Cullen, this biodynamic estate is now run by his daughter Vanya and in the last couple of years her daughter, Emma has joined the team and even visited Yorkshire to talk about these fabulous wines. Start with the Margaret River White 2011 (£14.95, Field and Fawcett, 01904 489073) for its fresh, bright, lime-edged, tropical fruit flavours. A splash of Chardonnay in the blend gives this wine rather more mid-palate depth than many other Sauvignon/Semillons.
Move up to the simply delicious but very expensive Kevin John Chardonnay 2011 (£64.80, Field and Fawcett) for tight, silky, Burgundian style fruit, perfectly balanced and still with several years to go.
Also well worth a taste is the Mangan Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec blend 2011 (£18.95, Field and Fawcett). This challenging mix of grapes actually works providing intense, chewy, black cherry and plum fruit, with firm harmonious tannins.
Vasse Felix: Virginia Willcock, winemaker at Vasse Felix, loved Yorkshire when she was here for the York Food and Drink Festival and we all loved her wines and her straightforward, enthusiastic approach to winemaking. Check out the clear melon and white peach flavours of Vasse Felix Chardonnay 2012, with the oak perfectly balanced below the fruit (£15.99, Majestic) and then move on to the classic Margaret River blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot 2011 (£15.99, Majestic) for its light, leafy notes and ripe, red berry fruit.
Leeuwin Estate: I love these wines but they are just so difficult to find. I have recently enjoyed a bottle of the Art Series Riesling 2005 which had been tantalising me from the far end of the wine rack. It was stunning for its vibrant, lively, apple and lime-streaked flavours, with just a whiff of developing petrol. This wine could have been kept for another five years, gaining complexity. The current vintage of this wine is 2011 at around £16 but this will need to be tucked away and forgotten about for a while. Yorkshire Vintners (01765 601701) have the simply lovely Prelude Vineyards Chardonnay 2007 at £23.51 and the substantial black cherry and spice-dusted flavours of Arts Series Shiraz 2008 (£25.80). Both wines are fabulous examples of Margaret River at its best. Perhaps Yorkshire Vintners could stock the Riesling too?
Supermarket wines to try: Marks and Spencer has a terrific zesty, lemon and lime Riesling 2013 (Snake and Herring, £15.99) and Tesco has the light, perfumed fruit of Madbay Pinot Noir 2012 at the bargain price of £6.99.