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Swinney Wines: elevating Great Southern with a Rhône focus

Rob Mann (l) with Matt Swinney of Swinney Wines

In September, I met Matt Swinney and caught up with his winemaker, Rob Mann, who is making some rather swish Great Southern wines under Swinney’s eponymous Frankland River label.   Super-selection is the name of the game.  Like the uber-ambitious Dão label I’ll shortly be writing up, pin-pointing by bunch, not just parcel – meticulous attention to detail – comes at a price.  Swinney makes no bones about it.  “The region is trying very hard to go for value, but there is an opportunity to elevate,” he says.   

Mann’s pedigree goes without saying in Western Australian wine circles.  The sixth-generation winemaker’s grandfather was none other than Jack Mann, of Houghton Wines’ fame.  And he knows a thing or two about premium, indeed luxury positioning, having headed up winemaking at Hardy’s Tintara in McLaren Vale, before returning to Western Australia to Cape Mentelle in Margaret River, then making wine at its LVMH sister-label, Newton Vineyard, in the Napa.   Mann returned to Western Australia in November 2017 to establish the Corymbia label with his wife, Genevieve, who is also a winemaker (which I have yet to taste).  Drawn to the Swinney’s ‘wine growing’ philosophy and Matt Swinney’s “dream to redefine premium Western Australian wines,” Mann has made wine for family since 2018, joining shortly before harvest.

As for the Swinney label, it is quite recent.  The first wines to be released were made in 2011.  However, the Swinney family has farmed the land upon which their sizeable 220 hectare vineyard is located since 1922, when Matt Swinney’s great-grandfather, George ‘Farvie’ Swinney, settled on the banks of the Frankland River.  Having planted their first vines in 1997, the Swinneys originally sold all the grapes, counting Houghton, BRL Hardy and latterly Penfold’s amongst their customer-base (Swinney proudly mentioned Penfolds have bought grapes for Bin 389 and Bin 707).  The family still sell 99% of their grapes, keeping just 1% for Swinney wines.

So what distinguishes these grapes?  Like a gardener knows the best patches of a garden and what grows best where, Swinney says the family knew where to look when they decided to focus on Rhône reds in addition to Riesling, for which the Frankland River sub-region is already famous. Great Southern also has something of a reputation for Shiraz, but not so much for Grenache or Mourvedre.  Strikingly, the Swinney’s vines are dry grown and cultivated as individually staked bush vines, as opposed to the usual VSP trellising (another draw for Mann, who enjoyed working with old bush vines in McLaren Vale, during his time at Hardys).  It’s an expensive business, because it results in lower yields and, double whammy, means the vines must be tended and picked by hand.  So you’d want to be sure to plant on a patch of quality dirt….In this case, deep ironstone gravel soils (3/4 to 1 metre deep) at a relatively elevated 150-200m on hills atop the Frankland River.  Soils which, said Swinney, can be found along the red gum (marri) studded first three kilometres of the river valley, before it flattens out and, with heavier soils (more clay), smaller white gum trees flourish.

The climate here is key too.  Breezes from the chilly Southern Ocean funnel upstream, moderating the summer heat and extending the growing season.  Being inland, the nights are cold.  It would certainly account for the clarity, intensity and structure of the wines.  The profile is on the dry side, which bodes well for ageing.  On which note, under Mann’s watch (he succeeds Larry Cherubino and Tony Davis), a new top tier Grenache and Shiraz was introduced in 2018 under the ‘Farvie’ moniker.   Swinney told me he is really happy with these envelope-pushing wines and has been excited by their reception in Australia.  Explaining the vision, he told me that, having lived in London, he had travelled to Spain and France and become a big fan of especially Priorat Grenache and also Rhône reds. Watching the Cornas producer Thierry Allemand at work in the vineyard inspired him to “re-think the level of detail of what we do…the precision that we have brought to our vines.”   

Let’s take a look at the range which, I thought, does what Mann intended.  With gentle handling by gravity, natural ferments and minimal oak and racking, the aim is to show less the hand of the winemaker, more a sense of place (which is perhaps connected with Swinney’s aside that he’d rather invest capital in the vineyard, not building a winery – the wines are made at Stella Bella).  I thought the reds shared a freshness/clarity of fruit expression, gravelly minerality (for Swinney, a ferrous quality, which Mann describes as “rusty nail”) and structured tannins.  Tightly wound, indeed a touch reductive, I’d expect these slightly stern, bony but hardly ferocious wines to open up over time, revealing more of this ‘ferrousity,’ spice and fruit.

Swinney Wines are imported into the UK by Enotria, who sell them through their retail arm – Great Western Wine.

Swinney Frankland River Riesling 2019 (Frankland River, Great Southern)

An aromatic, very floral, but incisive, well-focused bone dry Riesling with a hint of incipient honey – a touch of texture, a ‘roundness’ (the natural ferment/lees-ageing?) – to its mouth-watering citrus and subtle, succulent lychee fruit.  Lovely line and persistence.  This Riesling (classic VSP trellising) was hand-picked on 6th March, “picking the patch to farm our wines and picking the bunches we want,” said Swinney.  In this case, bunches exclusively from the shady (morning sun only) side of rows to avoid tropical notes, because Mann doesn’t want kerosene notes to develop. The fruit was whole-bunch pressed, lightly settled, then naturally fermented in stainless steel tanks, prior to ageing in tank on lees for four months.   12% £22.50

Swinney Frankland River Grenache 2018 (Frankland River, Great Southern)

Hand-harvested on 23rd & 29th March 2018, this blend of 87% Grenache, 12% Mourvèdre, 1% Syrah from 18-year old bush vines was co-fermented.  I can understand why Mann said the approach was closer to a Spanish Garnacha than the (contemporary) Australian model.  Though mid-weight, with its discreetly juicy core of dark berry and plum fruit, structured, gravelly, dusty, chalky tannins and dark liquorice spice, it has a firmness and sense of containment about it.  Although it has a touch of musk stick, they set it apart from the prettier, more perfumed, largely red-fruited Pinot-esque McLaren Vale and Barossa line-up that I tasted in the James Halliday Grenache Challenge in October (where this wine scooped a Silver Medal).  Great to see this distinctive minerality and tannin structure feature in all Swinney’s reds.  It is a signature strength and fits with South Western Australia’s reputation for structure and restraint.  With barely there oak, the fruit is defined, rather than buffed; the tannins and spice feel vineyard/grape, not oak-driven.  Hand-sorted, this Grenache was crushed into small open top fermenters, with 20% whole bunches and wild fermented.  It spent two weeks on skins prior to pressing directly to fine-grained large-format seasoned French oak, where it spent 11 months.  Un-fined and only minimally filtered.    14%  £28.00

Swinney Frankland River Syrah Mourvèdre Grenache 2018 (Frankland River, Great Southern)

I recall being impressed by Mann’s Cape Mentelle Marmaduke at an Australian and French Rhône blend tasting organised by David Hohnen at McHenry Hohnen in 2009.  Hohnen memorably described how the Mediterranean varieties “walked to ripeness” in Margaret River, avoiding the sucrosity which comes with over-leaping sugar-ripeness.   This blend of 43% Syrah, 38% Mourvèdre, 19% Grenache was hand-harvested on 19th, 23rd, 29th March & 5 April 2018 and fermented and aged in individual lots.  The Mourvedre, always the last of the trio to be picked, is immediately apparent on a meaty, white pepper laced nose and palate.  A pick of well spicy tannins smacks of Mourvedre too, bringing nice energy – grip and lift – to the juicy but well-defined black and red berry and red cherry fruit, with no give, as in if we were talking avocados, you’d wouldn’t pick it to eat now!  Again, both fruit and oak are restrained, lending a firmness to the well-structured palate.  Those ironstone dusty gravel notes underscore the finish, seemingly sluicing the fruit and acidity, such is the integration.  Very good; lovely structure and minerality and savouriness with clarity of fruit.  This GSM was wild fermented with 15% whole bunches.  The wine spent up to two weeks on skins prior to pressing directly to fine grained large format 600l French oak (25% new).  It was aged on lees for 11 months in barrel and bottled un-fined and minimally filtered.  14% £28.00

Swinney Frankland River Syrah 2018 (Frankland River, Great Southern)

This blend of 89% Syrah, 11% Mourvèdre was harvested on 19th & 29th March, hand-sorted and crushed into small open top fermenters. Wild fermented in upturned, open barrels with 5% whole bunches, it spent two weeks on skins prior to pressing directly to fine grained large format French oak (40% new). It was aged for 14 months prior to bottling with minimal filtration.  Mourvedre (which imparts a hint of leather/charcuterie) is not the only complexing varietal character.  The Syrah is multi-clonal, featuring Rhône and New Zealand (Craggy Range) clones) which Mann likes for their back-palate spiciness (as well as the more typical local Houghton clone).  This is certainly a spicy, textural (think linen) red, but not at all rustic.  Rather, it has ‘nip and tuck’ precision – again, good energy.  The spiciness steals over the polished palate, which has intensity and restraint to its plum and berry fruit.  Accomplished.  14.0% £28.00

Swinney ‘Farvie’ Frankland River Grenache 2018 (Frankland River, Great Southern)

Swinney Wines new top tier Farvie range

Bush vine Grenache with a (5%) splash of Mourvedre is sourced from the Swinney’s Wilson’s Pool vineyard and was harvested on 23rd March.  The Farvie Grenache reveals a spicy nose and palate with a fretwork of fine, pithy tannins to anchor and embed its predominantly red (with some black) fruits.  Because the fruit is not so much fleshy, as close to the skin and stone or seeds, the profile is drier, a touch aromatised bitters even, in a good way.  Creamy oak picks up the baton and smoozes the fruit going through before tapering tannins (which I very much associate with ironstone gravel) assert themselves, making for a fine, focused, mineral-sluiced finish.  Tannins which, Mann is quick to point out, are “not fighting, nothing aggressive.”  With clarity and freshness, this Grenache draws you back to the glass, keen to mine its depths – flavour layers which it has yet to give up.  This is a young, very structured Grenache with time on its side.  Indeed, it will benefit from a few years in bottle and, I’d imagine continue developing – unfurling – for at least a decade. Berry sorted fruit was gravity fed to a French oak vat and wild fermented with 15% whole bunche.  The wine spent 10 days on skins prior to basket pressing directly to fine grained large format seasoned French oak followed by aging for 11 months prior to bottling un-fined and minimally filtered.  14.0%, 143 cases made, release date March 2020, RRP £90

Swinney ‘Farvie’ Frankland River Syrah 2018 (Frankland River, Great Southern)

The fiche mentions that this wine is exclusively sourced from Powderbark Ridge vineyard’s bush vines and, elaborated Swinney, hails from a single block which is only exposed to the morning sun.  Planted in 1998 on a deep, ironstone gravel ridge, the Swinneys acquired this vineyard in 2015 with Peter Dawson, another ex-Hardys winemaker.  The Farvie comprises 100% Syrah, which was hand-harvested on 15th & 19th March.  It is an intense, bright purple hue (think Ribena), with creamy oak and, as yet, tightly clasped black berry and cherry fruit – fleshy, but fresh, with a firm al dente core, with cherry close to the stone and skin.  The gravelly, mineral undertow is quite pronounced on a long, persistent, well-structured finish, which has a touch of spice and grip.  When I went back to it at the end of the meeting, I picked up some (attractive) earthiness as it started to open up.  Needing time to knit together, it is scheduled for release in March 2020 and will benefit from cellar-ageing.  This is an ambitious, very refined wine, closer to the Northern Rhone ‘continental’ Syrah mold than its classic South Australian (Shiraz) peers, as befits the climate down in Great Southern.  It reminds me of first tasting Eben Sadie’s Columella 2000 – the first vintage of this game-changing Cape Syrah from Swartland.  So that’s a good sign!  Berry sorted fruit was gravity fed to a French oak vat and two demi-muids and wild fermented with 55% whole bunches.  It spent 11 days on skins prior to basket pressing directly to fine grained large format French oak (35% new), followed by aging for 11 months prior to bottling un-fined and minimally filtered.  14.0%, 177 cases made. RRP £90

 

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