Western Australia: Shiraz & Cabernet Sauvignon from Great Southern & Margaret River
The first of two webinars I’m moderating for Wines of Western Australia focused on Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. Exchanges with the six winemakers during my preparation underscored the cerebral, ambitious foundations of South Western Australia’s premium-focused wine regions, whose high quality potential was first identified by the academics Professor Harold Olmo (Great Southern) and Dr John Gladstones (Margaret River) in the mid-1960s.
Matching grapes to climate and soils from the off, Cabernet Sauvignon’s potential was plain enough early on in the piece. When I recently judged at a Decanter panel tasting of Australian Cabernets, Margaret River led the pack with refined wines that exuded confidence from every pore.
As for Shiraz, being Australia’s most planted red grape, there is much more competition from both classic warmer, drier regions and cooler climes. How to distinguish oneself? It’s not so easy to pin down a Margaret River or Great Southern style but, based on the three Shiraz/Syrah shown, you can go your own way!
Going your own way is something of a Western Australian trait given Perth, the state’s capital city, is closer to Jakarta than Sydney (and located over 1,600km from Adelaide, South Australia’s capital). Take Western Australia’s heritage clones; whilst not exclusively planted, Houghton Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz and Gin Gin Chardonnay clones predominate.
Beyond heritage clones, South Western Australian wines share another important trait, well communicated by this tasting. Fruit intensity with balancing freshness. This brightness – a juiciness/persistence – derives from being in the cooler southern part of Western Australia, with its tempering maritime influence for coastal areas and continentality (pronounced diurnal temperature variation) further inland.
In Margaret River (which is renowned for its Indian summers) and the Frankland River sub-region of Great Southern (its driest and warmest) – sweet spots, if you like – long hang times allow for fruit and tannin ripeness, with excellent flavour accumulation/intensity. Reflecting that, the wines on tasting ranged from 14-15% alcohol by volume, yet all remained balanced. Elegantly so, with the exception of Cape Mentelle Shiraz which is made in a sturdier, rustic style. Yet, as Cape Mentelle’s winemaker pointed out in our earlier discussions, it does not have the opulence, glycerol and lower acidity associated with traditional warmer, drier regions like the Barossa, Australia’s classic benchmark.
Gladstones’ comments from his first 1965 paper about South Western Australia’s premium focus are instructive. Published in The Journal of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science, he said “Any large scale development of the wine industry in Western Australia would have to be based on quality, because for cheapness it would almost certainly not be possible to compete with the Eastern States irrigation areas, which have the advantages of high yields, mass production methods, and proximity to the major market outlets.”
As you would expect, the webinar wines were premium to a bottle but, rather than show top tier and icon wines, the focus was on widely available, accessibly priced wines under £30. Incidentally, at £15 the least expensive – Alkoomi Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon – has been described as one of the best values in the country in the price-range by Erin Larkin, who reviews Western Australian wines for James Halliday’s Wine Companion.
You’ll find my notes on the wines below, together with insights shared by the winemakers when I discussed the wines with them prior to the webinar. Click here to watch a video of the webinar on Wine Australia’s Connect platform with the winemakers’ comments about what differentiates their regions and sites and what to expect from Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz from Margaret River and Great Southern respectively.
Incidentally, a Great Southern Shiraz features among the line up of nine Shiraz from across Australia shown at a webinar which you can watch here on Wine Australia’s Connect platform. True to its name, Howard Park ‘Flint Rock’ Great Southern Shiraz 2018 from the Mount Barker sub-region (sandy to gravel loam) was mineral and taut, with South Western Australia’s signature freshness.
Plan B! Frespañol Shiraz 2020 (Frankland River, Western Australia)
Plan B! Frespañol Shiraz 2020 bagged a gold medal at the Royal Perth Wine Awards 2021. First made in 2003 (and, until 2020 badged ST Shiraz), it has always had a splash of Tempranillo (6% in 2020). The Shiraz (Houghton clone) comes from the Wilkes vineyard in southern Frankland River on gravel over loam with a gentle northern aspect. The ‘español’ component comes from the warmer Ferguson Valley in Geographe region, just north of Margaret River (which, observed winemaker Vanessa Carson, is holding its hand up to be Western Australia’s alternative variety champion). Our focus, said owner Terry Chellappah is to makes wines “that are good drinks and have personality; and therefore not always singular varietals.”
The Tempranillo brings savoury nuance to counterpoint “the bright, cool climate Shiraz flavours” and, Chellappah adds, is predominantly sold on-trade in the UK. Vivid crimson in hue, it is medium-bodied with a sappy, fresh nose. The Tempranillo and French oak (10% new) brings spice to the juicy red and sappier blackberry and apple fruit, with liquorice and clove accents, malt and sarsaparilla. There’s a touch of soft plum jelly and charry oak to the finish. Frespañol Shiraz aged for 15 months in new and used French oak. 14.5% abv. RRP £19.99
Frankland Estate Isolation Ridge Syrah 2018 (Frankland River, Western Australia)
I suspect that the Riesling from the same vineyard – Isolation Ridge – is better known than the Shiraz. But the Shiraz is making up ground. The 2017 vintage of Frankland Estate Isolation Ridge won the Trevor Mast award at the Royal Melbourne Wine Show for best Australian Shiraz. This vintage comes from a year described as one of the best in last decade or so. High hopes then. And realised. It is the first to be labelled ‘Syrah’ as opposed to Shiraz, reflecting a direction of travel which has seen producers and consumers alike embrace medium bodied Australian Shiraz. Ageing the wine in 3,500l foudre (25% new) for the first time in 2018 “was the icing on the cake that really helped refine the wine,” says Hunter Smith, whose parents Barrie Smith and Judi Cullam founded the estate.
Knowing that the fruit quality would impart the intensity and quality to dispense with oak for support “other than to achieve textural influence,” the shift to foudre reflects vineyard tweaks over the years that, said Smith, have allowed Frankland Estate to “wind back the tannin and colour, as we believe the quality of fruit can speak for itself.” Australia-wide, he remarked, producers are “being more respectful of their individual sites and regional expressions, with greater experimentation in the vineyard and better viticulture to suit Syrah…this fresher brighter lighter style of Syrah.” Since the first Isolation Ridge Shiraz vintage in 1992, Frankland Estate has refined its approach to each block and variety. Different trellis systems (Scott Henry, Vertical Shoot & Geneva Double Curtain) add complexity and diversity. “Some trellising systems work better in cooler years and vice versa,” he adds. Certified organic since 2009, Smith says, “today we realise hillside location and row orientation is super important. We seek to keep fruit of all varietals shaded, and vine roots, which is why we have no bare earth on any of our vineyard sites.” New plantings are much higher density too (4,000+ vines per ha). Plus, there are nods to the Rhone. This wine is a blend of Houghton clone and the more recently planted Rhone clone 470. It features 4% Viognier. Now lignification (stem ripeness) is attainable, a component (7%) was fermented whole bunch. (Smith is “adamant” that the lignification derives from “the balance that has come from our certified organic regime and eye for detail in the vineyard.)”
From the undulating northern and eastern facing slopes of Isolation Ridge vineyard on duplex soils of ironstone gravel and loam over a clay sub soil, the resulting medium-bodied wine has lovely detail and insinuating, spicy lift, with cardamom, white pepper and clove. A mineral (ironstone) backbone of tannin trims the sails of the silky, buoyant red black and blue berry fruit, gently tapering the persistent, precise, fresh finish. Lovely restraint, structure and minerality. 14.5% RRP £25.99
Cape Mentelle Shiraz 2018 (Margaret River, Western Australia)
Shiraz is Great Southern’s hero red variety. In Margaret River, it lives in the shadow of Cabernet Sauvignon, although I notice it is currying more favour with each visit. Cape Mentelle’s winemaker Ben Cane believes it is under-estimated. David Hohnen, Cape Mentelle’s original winemaker and co-founder was a fan and, said Cane, it is the only red grape planted at all four estate vineyards. “We believe in the variety so much,” he adds, “we developed an Icon Shiraz [Two Vineyards Shiraz] we place at a similar price point to our Cabernet.”
Whilst Two Vineyards Shiraz is a relatively conventional 99%/1% co-fermented Viognier blend, Cape Mentelle Shiraz 2018 pushes the varietal boundaries and the parameters of a ripe year, resulting in a fuller-bodied, savoury blend – more rustic – comprising 88% Shiraz, Alicante Bouschet 7%, Viognier 4%, Grenache 1%. “Shiraz is the playful grape winemakers love to muck around with,” says Cane – it’s the upside of making Shiraz in a region renowned for Cabernet. And play Cape Mentelle has, sourcing the varieties from Cape Mentelle’s Wallcliffe (planted 1970), Trinders (1988), Chapman Brook (2001) & Crossroads (2003) vineyards in southern Margaret River, with additional fruit coming from several premium grower partners. Mixing it up oak-wise, the wine was aged for 17 months in a mix of French (65%) and American (35%) oak barriques (18% new).
Cane describes the Cape Mentelle components thus:
- Wallcliffe/Trinders – the warmest site; ironstone soils, deep gravels over clay, good drainage; incorporates the older Wallcliffe blocks (1971) and the younger Trinders blocks (1988); more power, structure from higher clay content in Trinders, more delicacy and detail in Wallcliffe, lighter more refined tannins, dense yet elegant; most maritime influence, cooling afternoon breezes, slow down ripening at end of day.
- Chapman Brook: sandier clay loam with ironstone gravels, softer, silkier texture; more blue fruited here, white and black pepper elements, fill in the mid-palate, can have Viognier added to these lots for spice, apricot blossom lift; most continental climate, 3C cooler, retains most acidity here, juiciest fruit profile with dark licorice; Planted 1993/4, 20 minutes South East of the winery.
- Crossroads: directly south of winery 15 minutes away; maritime influence here, cool breezes, soils sandy grey clay loam, lots of red ironstone gravels; de-vigorating soils giving great concentrations; black/white pepper, dark black forest berry fruit, firm fine round tannins, dark chocolate, salty licorice notes, tiny berries; planted 2003/04.
A markedly denser, darker hue than the other two wines shown, the nose is sweeter, generous and ripe, with some exotic apricot (Viognier) lift; with vanilla and coconut, American oak is part of that equation. Fresh mint too in the webinar (small) sample bottle (I tasted the wines from full 75cl bottle samples in advance). In the mouth, the tannin structure makes for a brooding, drier-tasting, spicy, savoury wine (it was fermented with several lots of whole bunch inclusion and underwent 29-53 days of extended post-fermentation maceration). The tannins, (ripe but present, dense but smudgy, so not aggressive) support and balance the spicy (smoky clove, liquorice) fruitcake flavours. Concentrated but mineral, with balanced acidity, this full-bodied Shiraz wears its 15% alcohol well. A bold statement Western Australian Shiraz that most definitely forges its own path. RRP £19.99
Alkoomi Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 (Frankland River, Western Australia)
First planted to vines in 1971 by Merv and Judy Lange, Alkoomi is one of Great Southern’s pioneering estates. All the grapes are estate grown and the producer does everything onsite from harvest to bottle. Since the beginning, said winemaker Andrew Cherry, “the necessity of being self-sufficient and sustainable has been a core value of Alkoomi,” referencing its remote location some 250km south of Margaret River, which is about 250km south of Perth. The sizeable estate (150ha) is divided by a creek that runs west to east though the middle. This Cabernet is a blend of nine blocks from the original site (all Houghton clone) on ironstone gravelly loam. With different vine age (1971-2000), aspects and slight differences of elevation, the Cabernet is harvested over a period of two weeks. Each Cabernet block brings distinct characteristics to the final blend – some tightly wound, others more opulent or savoury. The blend also includes 10% Cabernet Franc, 2% Malbec and 2% Merlot. There’s no recipe says Cherry. It depends on the year but, being in northern Frankland River, he observes means, “with less rainfall and hence less disease pressure, our hand is rarely forced by the oncoming season change and our Cabernet tends to be allowed to express a riper flavour profile than Cabernet sites further south of us.” Cold nights hang onto acid, granting the ripe fruit the all important balance.
This wine is a deep, velvety hue. With ferrous, touch bloody undertones to the ripe, perfumed cassis and blueberry fruit, the origins of this Cabernet – ironstone gravel – are evident from the get go. Beautiful varietal character, with a lick of dried herbs and balsamic to the palate, dark chocolate and fine-grained, immersive tannins. Medium-bodied, despite its sense of velvety plushness and fruit purity/intensity, the palate has lovely persistence, with an almost lip-smacking quality to its freshness. This immensely drinkable wine slips down all too well solo, but you will salivate if you watch the video, listening to the winemaker’s locovore food recommendations. Cherry’s is delivered with particular relish! Aged in twenty percent new French oak for 12 months, the oak is lightly worn. 14% RRP £15
Domaine Naturaliste Rebus Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River)
Since 2003, when he established Naturaliste Vintners – a custom crush facility for contract winemaking – agronomist Bruce Dukes has explored many Margaret River climats. “It was this learning curve which I used as the foundation for my own label, Domaine Naturaliste,” he told me. Founded in 2012, this wine comes from the Wilyabrup vineyard which he went on to acquire in 2018 having first purchased the fruit for many years. He continues to source widely, “selecting the sites in the area which best suited my style aspirations.” Whilst his Cabernet based wines are typically Wilyabrup, he makes four Chardonnays, each reflective of the fruit from different Margaret River sub-regions. The other Margaret River Cabernet shown – from Vasse Felix – was also sourced from Wilyabrup fruit, grown closer (4km versus Dukes’ 7km) to the ocean.
So what are Dukes’ stylistic aspirations? Domaine Naturaliste’s website highlights the importance of texture, so I asked him how this informs his extraction/maturation regime. Form him, “texture to me goes back to the farming, the soil health and making sure the composition of the fruit is sympathetic to parenting wines of texture. Talking Cabernet, the fruit in my climate loves solarization of the fruit during the farming, enough to get a great and gentle tan; not sunburnt.” In contrast to Willcock at Vasse Felix, he does not like whole berries in his Cabernet, preferring to split berries before fermentation, getting wines to ferment to complete dryness before very gentle pressing. I’m not sure there is any connection, but I really enjoyed the dusty gravel minerality/’dry extract’ texture of Rebus 2018.
It reveals fragrant blueberry and cassis with suggestions of dried herbs to the sweet, but vibrant nose. In the mouth, it is initially more restrained and savoury/mineral than I expected, with tapenade and pronounced kelp/nori – an iodine edge – gravel and ironstone. Motoring quietly behind, the fruit opens up on day two. Buoyant, polished and intense, again this is a classy wine for just under £20, with fine grained ripe but present tannins and dusty minerality (gravel) to the persistent, precise finish. A touch more concentrated than the Alkoomi, but medium-bodied nonetheless. Lovely. It is a blend of the Houghton, M337, SA126 Cabernet clones (to 94% Cabernet) with 3 % Merlot (M181) and 3 % Malbec. “I love the ‘salt and pepper’ adds to the steak!” says Dukes, who has also planted the next level super-selection Roche Houghton-derived clone. Aged for 12 months in 40% new French oak barriques, then blended. 14% RRP £19.50
Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River)
I recently interviewed Vasse Felix’s winemaker, Virginia Willcock, for a Decanter producer profile and report of a vertical of Tom Cullity, the flagship Cabernet Sauvignon Malbec. She made an interesting observation about weather station readings which, unlike weather forecasts these days, don’t factor in the wind chill ‘feels cooler’ factor. A point she was keen to reinforce when it comes to comparing Frankland River (whose average temperature is a touch cooler) and Margaret River (the ‘other river,’ as Alkoomi’s Andrew Cherry put it!) “I personally have always thought our reds in Margaret River look more cool climate, fragrant and structural and Frankland darker and plush,” she said. I’m sure Willcock would agree that it also depends on which sub-region/site (and winemaking) but, on this tasting, the Vasse Felix is the more elegant wine of the two.
It reveals silky raspberry and mulberry as well as fresh blackcurrant and pronounced florals – dried roses and violets – with bitter chocolate nuances (a Houghton clone signature), incipient kelp, and delicious embedded spice (anise, clove). With 99% whole berry ferment and a veritable one percenter of Petit Verdot (1% of the 8% of Petit Verdot in the blend) that underwent carbonic maceration for more lift, less tannin, plenty of thought has gone into this wine. It shines in the detail. Long, with a cedar-kissed finish with fine grained graphite tannins. The Cabernet Sauvignon comprises 83% Houghton clone with 17% SA125/SA126 (South Australian clones). Aged for 18 months in French oak, 44% new, the blend features 8% Petit Verdot, 2% Malbec. 14.5% RRP £29.99