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A week of Western Australian wine travels: exciting changes afoot

Taking a view

Taking a view

Last week’s visit to Western Australia’s Margaret River and Great Southern regions threw up lots of interesting new developments since my trips of 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2004.  You might say embracing a few more colours of the rainbow or a traffic light trio – red (wines) amber (“orange” wines) and green (grapes/white wines).  Covering almost 2000km, it was all green is for go for me!  I’m on equally intensive travels in South Australia this week so, for now, here’s my overview of the Western Australia visit with vinous and pictorial highlights.


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Cullen Wines in Wilyabrup were a pioneer of the Margaret River region and the pioneering spirit continues with organic, biodynamic and now the exploration of preservative free and “orange” wines (low sulphur, skin contact whites) in addition to the classic wines.

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Wines which might be fermented in tank, concrete or wooden “eggs”, clay amphorae and barrel.

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The latter of which might be biodynamic fruit or flower day felled oak.

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At Southern Margaret River’s Devil’s Lair, winemaker Ollie Crawford has literally pushed the boundaries for Devil’s Lair Cabernet Sauvignon and new flagship 9th Chamber Cabernet Sauvignon whose fruit is sourced from Wilyabrup, further north.

devils lair 024The ex-Penfold’s white winemaker’s top tier white, 9th Chamber Chardonnay is, like all the Chardonnay’s estate grown.  But this cuvee dives into on trend early picked territory without, asserts Crawford, compromising Margaret River’s traditionally fruit intensity – as he puts it “steely acid without loss of flavour.”

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Meanwhile at Vasse Felix, Virginia Willcock and her team have, in Heytesbury Chardonnay,  produced probably Margaret River’s funkiest expression of the variety.  A new middle tier Chardonnay plays the Margaret River fruit intensity card whilst offering greater complexity than the entry level Chardonnay which is now called Filius.

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And continuing the singular focus on the region’s top trio of styles, I tasted a couple of prototype vintages of the wooded Semillon/Sauvigon Blanc (the varietal Semillon RIP), a good match for this exquisite barramundi dish.

Multi-awarded Settlers Tavern remains Margaret River’s, indeed one of the country’s, funkiest spot to drink the most eclectic, exciting wines.  And do they have their finger on the pulse, introducing me to funky young guns Si Vintners, Dormilona, Tripe-Iscariot and Los Vinos who, for Margaret River, are mixing it up both varietally and stylistically.

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Also new is the tavern’s own “micro-garagiste” brew, now exclusively available on tap.  “Day tripa” flights offer the chance to taste all four, then take your pick!  I’m no ale afficionado so over to you on that!

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Back down south of Margaret River a stone’s throw from Devil’s Lair lurks a new label from one of the Devil’s former winemakers, Stuart Pym.  His Flowstone label has bagged This Year’s Best New Winery of the Year Award in the just released 2015 Wine Companion by James Halliday.

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I loved the oaked Sauvignon Blanc (always a Pym strength, but one which just got even stronger) and “make-their-own –shape textural Chardonnays.”

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Another Wine Companion Chardonnay winner even further south is Great Southern’s Singlefile in Denmark which scooped a Dark Horse Winery Award from Halliday last year and garnered 97 points in this year’s edition for new flagship Chardy The Vivienne, which is named after one of its owners, proudly pictured.

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You need only taste the distinctively subtly creamy, vanillin-edged (think crème patissiere) Chardonnays and talk to the region’s locals to understand that this vineyard has a great affinity for the Burgundian one, so why not play to their strengths as far as the estate fruit goes.  An approach which is gathering strength over the fruit salad vineyards of old.  And why not when Great Southern offers such a breadth of fruit sources with diverse terroir.

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Some of Singlefile’s wines are made at Castelli who equally show the strength of this variety in the sub-region of Denmark.

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In line with a trend I’ve spotted out east the shift towards bigger format oak is alive and well here too.  This Mount Barker Shiraz from these handsome foudres looked stunning.

castelli willoughby violetta 018At Willoughby Park where I caught up with winemaker Luke Ekersley (the wines are now made at Rockcliffe), the increased focus on terroir among the region’s winemakers was perfectly showcased by the Kalgan Ironrock vineyard in Albany, especially the Shiraz with its bloody, iron tang.

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Damn fine wood fired pizzas at the cellar door restaurant too!

Here I also caught up with winemaker Andrew Hoadley of La Violetta.  I’d quite forgotten how tall he was, but not the towering strength of his way with Shiraz and, it transpires, quite a few other varieties which he treats (and blends) every which way.

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Playing fast and loose, Das Sakrileg – a barrel/puncheon wild fermented Riesling has a dash Geuwrtz while Yé- Yé Blanc blends Gewurtz with Riesling and Viognier, like you do.  Lots more to report on here, well worthy of its own post.  Indeed, the only way for this talented winemaker is up – the name of perhaps my favourite wine from his range, a particularly lifted Shiraz.

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Denmark-based Rockcliffe’s Single Site range is bang on trend in a region where even estate owners are casting around to find tip top fruit to buy from vineyard pockets of excellence.  Pockets of excellence which are not now being blended away and are helping to uncover the true pedigree of Great Southern.    What’s more producers are selling fruit from top vineyards too.  Take Rockcliffe’s Single Site Riesling from Forest Hill’s Block 1 – the region’s oldest vineyard.  Or Rockcliffe Single Site Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 from Plantagenet’s aged Wyjup vineyard in Mount Barker.

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Also in Denmark but at its most westerly and one of its highest points (at c 180m) Silverstream’s aged vineyard produces one of the best New World Cabernet Francs I’ve tasted and a very good sparkling wine too.

I’ve visited Harewood Estate a couple of times before but, this time, the maturity of their Burgundy clones (among the region’s oldest at 15 years old) has catapulted their Pinot Noir – or I should say Pinot Noirs – into a new, very impressive orbit.  F Block Pinot Noir and the Reserve both possessed a lovely well defined core of red fruits with pronounced but balanced mushroom and forest grove/forest grove soil mineral-sluiced acidity. Great delicacy and intensity.

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At Plantagenet in Mount Barker, Great Southern’s oldest winery the latest entrant through the revolving winemaker doors is Cath Oates.  As they say a new broom sweeps clean and it’s interesting to see Oates’ tweaks and changes to the wines.  I reckon she has done wonders with Plantagenet Chardonnay and, of the new, Juxtapose range the Syrah was right up my street – in general on this visit Mount Barker’s famed peppery style of Shiraz/Syrah seems to have taken flight – less extraction and less wood in cool climate wines is good in my book.

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Drawing very much on his approach at Lakes Folly in the Hunter, thoughtful winemaker Michael Staniford’s eponymous label is home to muscular yet elegant, very refined Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon – really un-worked and yet in some ways, one might say quite traditional given their fruit power.  Like the man himself, it’s take me as I am.

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At the opposite end of the spectrum, Ryan O’Meara of Express Wineries is at the outset of his winemaking career after a couple of year’s making beer and working for some of the region’s bigger wine producers.  One suspects the beer influenced his fun (but take it easy at 13%!) take on Chenin Blanc. Cheninade’s dinky bottles are sealed under crown cap.  And the approachability he aims for is just as evident in 2013 The Great South Syrah – very much in the vin de soif style which, for me means it has a very direct expression of fruit (the best a joyous youthfulness) with interest (peppery lift/gently rustic tannins) and dryness.  It’s a wine lover’s quaffer.

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Paul Nelson spent several years as a flying winemaker the UK’s Bottle Green which included making wine (table wine) in Cyprus.  But Denmark is home and, last year, the ambitious thirty-something acquired the sub-region’s oldest (28 year old Karriview) vineyard which is planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  He is looking forward to making his first estate wines next year and, no wonder given what he unearthed from the cellar.  A 1991 Pinot Noir (a Mount Barker Gold Medal winner no less) still retained a remarkable primacy of sweet red fruits with the wash of forest grove mineral and mushroom notes I found in Harewood’s wines (where Nelson is assistant winemaker).

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Of his eponymous label which is currently sourced from grower fruit, Nelson’s Fumé Blanc oaked Sauvignon riposte to the Kiwi Savalanche had lovely depth and concentration – I tasted more oaked Sauvignons on this visit than I can ever recall having tasted before.  And more than a few Iberian blends too of which Nelson’s Ferguson Valley Grenache Mourvedre Tempranillo from the Geographe region was my stand out.

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And finally, as you can see from my photo of their range, my last tasting was perhaps with the beadiest of the silvereyes picking the eyes out of the region and expressing it in single site/sub-regional wines, Tony David and Redmond Sweeney of Snake & Herring (though Larry Cherubino, not visited,  who blazed this trail might take issue with that!)

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Take The Distance Cabernet range which encompasses two Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignons from Yallingup in the north and Karridale in the south and yep, how very different they are.  And then different again is The Distance Porongurup Cabernet, Porongurup being a sub-region which has particularly risen to prominence since I last visited.

So there we have it.  An overview of a week’s travels focused around dynamic developments in a state which is generally regarded as pretty conservative!


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