When one thinks of the wines of Australia it is natural to think first of the regions around the heavily populated, and long settled Southeastern corner of the country, Barossa, the Hunter Valley, the Yarra valley. Each are worthy of ones attention, and represent the historic centers of wine production in Australia, but there is more to Australian wine.
While these regions continue to produce world-class wines, there is an increasing appreciation around the globe for some of the co-called cool climate wines that come from Australia. The coastal regions of South Western Australia, and in particular the Margaret River area and the Frankland River region, which lies within the Great Southern Region, are responsible for some of the country’s most detailed, and finely balanced examples of both red and white wines.
Both regions enjoy temperate climates that put them roughly on par with the temperature swings and hours of sunshine typical of some of the worlds greatest wine regions, Bordeaux being the most famous example. The Margaret River enjoys a somewhat warmer growing season, but the conditions across both regions have proven ideal for the production of fresh, fragrant wines that are poised to convince even the most skeptical consumer that Australia is not only about big, jammy, opulent wines.
South West Australia, what to expect.With the cooling affects of the Indian Ocean having a direct influence on the coastal regions of South West Australia it's no surprise that the region enjoys a climate that sets it apart from the rest of this great big country. The main climatic features of this region are a cooler summer and the ocean induced rain and cloud cover that the area enjoys. All these effects join together to yield wonderfully fragrant, balanced wines that enjoy a long growing season and mature slowly as the fall temperatures take effect before all of the grape are harvested.
The Australian wine industry is suffering through somewhat of an identity crisis. As a whole, the industry has proven so good at producing their more typical full blown reds at affordable prices that they continue to run into increasing resistance for their premium priced products. Caught up in this affect are the wines of regions far from the epicenter of bulk production, giving the savvy consumer an opportunity to experience the finest wines of the country at some very attractive prices.
While I am a fan of some of the greatest wines of South Eastern Australia, in all their rich, powerful glory, I am increasingly being drawn to the wines emerging from the burgeoning SouthWestern region. Being blessed with such a temperate climate has proven a boon to production in the region as well. While there have been serious draught issues here, as have plagued all of the country, the proximity to the ocean provides for both relatively lower temperatures and heavier cloud cover, easing the effects of evaporation on the lands.
The past several vintages have all been excellent for the majority of Western Australia’s wine regions. Here is a brief rundown of the vintages you are most likely to encounter on your retailer’s shelves this year.
1999 - A very good year with a fine early growing season though the later part of the season was interrupted by several major storms. The whites were harvested while the fruit still exhibited some of the affects from the storm while the majority of reds enjoyed a fine late season allowing them to recover from the storms and emerge well ripened and balanced. ****
2000 - A year dominated by wet conditions that affected every phase of the vines production from flowering through harvest. There were some issues with rot and mildew and in general the wines were dilute and exhibited signs of uneven and incomplete ripening. ***
2001 - A decidedly drier vintage with fairly ideal growing conditions throughout the season. Harvest was a bit early but the fruit was brought in under near perfect conditions. A lovely vintage that produced balanced, well fruited wines that only lack the complexity of the the finest vintages. ****
2002 - A dry winter and uneven conditions during bud break resulted in a significant reduction in yields this year. The summer benefitted from well-timed rain and the harvest was conducted under ideal conditions with warm days and cool night. A great vintage that yielded a small crop of perfectly balanced and richly fruited wines. *****
2003 - A vintage that shared a similar start and end to the season with 2002 but that suffered from significantly higher temperatures during the middle of the growing season. The wines are more opulent than those of 2002 yet lack some of the detail and harmony that sets 2002 apart. ***
2004 - A pattern seems to have emerged with the 2004 vintage. While winter rains returned to normal the growing season experienced mild conditions with notably cool nights during harvest that allowed for extended hangtime resulting in finely perfumed and expressive wines with excellent balance. ****
2005 – A virtually copy of 2002 with lower than average rains and erratic weather during bloom resulting in lower than average yields. Mild summer conditions did not stress the vines and another fall with temperate days and cool night produced wines with excellent balance, ripe tannins and fresh character. *****
2006 - An unusual year that saw the return of ample rainfall during the winter only to see it followed by cool temperatures in spring and summer that severely reduced yields and slowed both the vegetative and fruit ripening stages of the vines. The resulting wines were light and delicate by typical standards with higher than averages acids but very precise and detailed flavors. A vintage that may need a year or two longer than normal to show it’s best but very distinctive and appealing with stronger whites than reds. ***
2007 – Hot and dry can characterize the season and the resultant wines show signs of these stresses. They are abnormally rich and concentrated wines though they retain the fine balance these regions are noted for. ****
2008 - The weather recovered well from the previous vintage with a return of adequate rainfall and a moderating in temperatures produced a beautiful crop of rich, balanced and particularly fragrant wines. Among the very best vintages. *****
This temperate climate produces wonderfully fresh and precise wines, both white and red.2004 Cape Mentelle Margaret River Shiraz
Wonderfully fragrant on the nose with notes of pepper, earth, leather and spice all complimented by a flush of floral tones over a base of ripe plum and black raspberry fruits.Delcious and wonderfully complex.
2007 Frankland Estate Isolation Ridge Riesling
Classically taut and tight lemon, lime fruits, with incipient petrol and slightly vegetal forest undergrowth notes, rise from the glass. It's got cut and definition to spare on the palate, with excellent purity to the fruit and a lovely emergent mineral tone on the finale.
Additional wines tasted for this report.
2006 Leeuwin Estate Siblings Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon
The nose here was very complex with a deep, pith quality to the citrus fruit tones that were underlayed with classic notes of grass, jalapeno and gooseberry. In the mouth this starts out focused and rather crisp before filling out across the midplate with quince, grapefruit and passionfruit tones that lead to a tactile, almost slightly tannic finish with good mineral cut and fine, sneaky length. This has just lovely balance, complexity and mouthfeel and is a bargain at this price. 92pts
2006 Leeuwin Estate Riesling Art Series
The nose here gives the faulty impression that this might be a bit on the sweet side since it's full of honeysuckle and orange blossoms in addition to more typical lemon/lime citrus fruits. In the mouth though, this is dry yet rich and layered across the palate with more of the floral notes and an almost Seville orange marmalade tone that carries through to the long finish. A lovely, rich bottle of Riesling that will benefit from a year or three in the cellar. 90pts
2007 Capel Vale Unwooded Chardonnay
This is full or tropical flowers and fruits on the nose with a lovely lifted, almost spicy passionfruit tone. In the mouth it's moderately rich yet fairly lightweight with a huge rush of soft pineapple, guava and papaya toned fruit that is delicious if a little short. Perhaps tiring just a bit, this is still a crowd pleasing, very easy to appreciate style of wine that has very few detractors. 87pts
2007 Frankland Estate Shiraz Estate Isolation Ridge
The nose on this wine is a veritable spice box with notes of ginger, mace, and allspice over notes of pepper, earth, tobacco and blue fruits. All of this spice also translates to the mouth but here it is joined by a wall of rather aggressive and drying tannins. the finish gains a bit of sweetness from the wood with a mocha, almond note and shows a resurgence of the fruit promised on the nose but this is a wine that needs additional cellaring to allow the tannins to soften and recede. The balance appears to be here and this has a particularly dense feel to it but it;s best to let it rest for 2-3 years before trying again. 87pts
2005 Capel Vale Shiraz
A wonderfully intriguing nose sets this apart from many Shiraz. There are the typical notes of fruit and spice but underlying it all is a taut floral note and the whole thing is just so well focused and balanced that I keep coming back for another sniff. That focus translates wonderfully to the palate where this achieve a wonderful sense of harmony among the components and lets the very clear blackberry and boysenberry fruit really take center stage. This is just lovely, balanced and with the subtle evolving complexity of a great wine. 94pts
2004 Leeuwin Siblings Shiraz
This is bright and fruity on the nose with notes of blueberry and black currant lifted by subtle notes of smoke and spice. In the mouth it's fairly soft and resolved with a deep, round, smooth core of fruit but lacks a bit of complexity and detail. The finish is decidedly fun and fruity yet the wine shows good balance and is ultimately a restrained style of fruit bomb. 87pts
2004 Wilberry Estate Shiraz
This is full soft and juicy in the mouth with aromas of plum, blackberry jam, vanilla and oak induced spice all in balance. This mouthfeel remains nicely fresh though there's not a lot of structure here to support all this fruit so I would opt for drinking this sooner rather than later but it still is a big yet balanced example of Shiraz. 88pts