Australia’s western frontier: Maverick vintners make sophisticated, well-priced wines on the other side of the Outback

Everyone knows about Australia’s inexpensive, fruit-driven, mass-produced wines — think Yellow Tail, the largest-selling wine brand in U.S. food stores by dollar volume, according to ACNielsen.

But there is a wine-producing part of the country that shatters just about every aspect of that image.

By far Australia’s largest state in terms of land — about 1 million square miles — Western Australia is like California before the railroads. It’s isolated from the rest of the country, and far from the more well-known wine regions of the Barossa and Yarra valleys. Perth, its capital, is closer to Singapore than to Sydney.

And it looks and feels like California, except, of course, for the kangaroos. The Margaret River area, Western Australia’s best-known wine-producing region, could pass for Sonoma. The climate and topography are similar: unspoiled rolling farmland dotted with manicured vineyards and the occasional splendiferous spa.

Although it may seem remote, the region produces wines that are sophisticated and cosmopolitan. It accounts for only 5 percent of the country’s wine, yet it produces 25 percent of Australia’s premium wine (more than $15 a bottle) and wins a disproportionate share of awards and trophies at Australian wine competitions.

Western Australian wines “have a lot more in common with the French style than they do with South Australia,” says Chuck Hayward, wine buyer for the Jug Shop in San Francisco. “They’re more food-friendly — not as oaky. The Shiraz is very spicy, gamy, meaty. The Cabernets are very sophisticated, very elegant. The most exciting area is Chardonnay. They’re dead ringers for white Burgundy, especially Puligny-Montrachet. There’s a chalky, white chocolate component in there. They’re lovely.”

Western Australia joined the rest of the country in 1901 only after “other siders” — as the Easterners were called — flooded the region with the discovery of gold and voted for federation. Fiercely independent, the state has had several waves of secessionist fervor since its 1829 founding. Its independent spirit remains in both the style of its wines and the character of its winemakers.

The proximity of Western Australia’s vineyards to the Indian and Southern oceans explains why its wines are so different compared with those from South Australia, the country’s major wine-producing state. The cooling maritime influences allow grapes more time to ripen and develop complex flavors, resulting in wines that are more refined and less alcoholic than those from the hotter Barossa Valley in South Australia.

Unlike the rest of the country, which has made Shiraz its signature grape, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are the most planted varieties in Margaret River, Western Australia’s most important appellation. Riesling captures everyone’s attention in Great Southern, Western Australia’s other major growing region.

Denis Horgan, the owner of one of Margaret River’s best-known wineries, Leeuwin Estate, and one of that region’s “founding fathers,” notes that the wine industry in Western Australia is the antithesis of the Australian wine business in general, 85 percent of which is controlled by 20 companies (60 percent is controlled by five companies: Foster’s Group Lt., Hardy Wine Co./Constellation, McGuigan Simeon and Pernod Ricard Pacific).

Horgan estimates that Leeuwin Estate produces 0.05 percent of Australian wine and notes wryly, “The big guys spill that much.”

Even Evans & Tate, the largest winery in Margaret River, produces only 500,000 cases annually, which represents about one-third of all Margaret River wine. (Yellow Tail exports 6 million cases annually to the United States.)

Industry takes root

Though grapes have been planted in the Swan District east of Perth since the 19th century, the modern history of Western Australia’s wine industry started in the 1950s, when the Western Australian government invited the late Harold Olmo, professor of viticulture at UC Davis, to explore the idea of “cool climate viticulture” south of Perth.

Olmo suggested that two subregions within the large Great Southern appellation — Frankland and Mount Barker — showed great promise for making elegant table wines in the European tradition. Later, he also wrote that the Margaret River region shared similar soil and climate to Bordeaux.

Though it is clear he was correct about the potential of both the Great Southern and the Margaret River regions, growing premium wine grapes was slow to catch on. Ironically, a recession allowed the potential for great wine to be realized.

Merv Lange, founder and owner of Alkoomi Wines, was considered either a visionary or a lunatic when, in 1971, he planted Cabernet Sauvignon vines in Frankland, southeast of Perth. Lange says he only planted a vineyard because he was “desperate.” The consummate independent farmer — he still refuses to use bank loans — grew up in the region and took over a large traditional farm that raised sheep and grew wheat.

In the late ’60s, prices for these products fell dramatically and he realized he needed to diversify. The local agricultural department recommended grapevines, but as Lange points out, “It could have just as easily been pumpkins or strawberries.”

Initially he followed his plan and grew grapes to sell, but by 1976 he was making wine under his own label, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. He currently has 285 acres under vine and is out of the farming business entirely. Lange is especially enthusiastic about his white wines, notably the Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blends, but his Shirazes are fabulously complex and suave.

The recession drove more than a few self-reliant people into the wine business. In the nearby Mount Barker area, south of Frankland, Tony Smith, a feisty Englishman who had become a sheep and cattle farmer, faced the same economic downturn. He says it was “dumb luck” for him to decide to grow grapes, which he sold to Houghton Winery, a large producer in the Swan District that is now part of the Hardy Wine Co.

Smith sold grapes for several years before he started making his own Riesling in 1974 and struggled for another decade before turning a profit. According to Smith, the hurdle was convincing people that winemaking in the Mount Barker area was a viable option. The locals insisted that Mount Barker was apple, not grape, country.

Smith laments, “When I grew grapes successfully, my neighbors said, ‘You can’t make wine in Mount Barker.’ When I did, they responded, ‘You can’t sell it.’ Finally they tasted the wine and remarked, ‘Well, maybe you can.’ ”

Currently, Smith’s Plantagenet Wines, known for its stunning Rieslings, produces 120,000 cases annually.

Riesling country

The soil in Mount Barker is ordinary gravelly loam, not the schist or slate that usually nourishes great Riesling. The cooling influences from the Indian and Southern oceans explain the uniqueness of the Riesling grown here.

Unlike the flowery, fruity style from Germany’s Mosel River, or the drier, higher-alcohol ones from Alsace, Mount Barker Rieslings are infused with minerality combined with an attractive citrus rind, almost grapefruit-like character, intermingled with flavors of pears and apples. These racy Rieslings are waiting to be discovered by wine drinkers outside of Australia.

Although recession may have jump-started the wine industry in the Great Southern region, newcomers are now diving in because of the success of Alkoomi’s and Plantagenet’s endeavors. Ferngrove was founded in 2000 and has grown rapidly to become the third-largest producer in Western Australia, but still with only about 250,000 cases annually. Ferngrove has vineyards in Mount Barker — from which it also makes stellar Riesling — and Frankland but has expanded outside of the Great Southern and owns vineyards in the Margaret River region, from which it makes great Cabernet and Shiraz.

Despite the same maritime influences, the Margaret River region is very different from the Great Southern. While the Great Southern is largely uninhabited — there are more kangaroos than cars on the road — and its wineries are scattered — the Margaret River is home to many top-notch producers whose picturesque properties are practically side by side. Lange says Margaret River wineries receive 3,000 to 4,000 visitors a week, whereas wineries in the Frankland River area of the Great Southern will have 30 to 40 visitors a week — “most of whom are lost.”

Margaret River’s popularity is aided by its location, an easy three-hour drive south from Perth, and by its reputation as a major surfing destination.

Although Olmo’s report was the first time a scientific study identified the Margaret River as a place to grow a specific grape variety — Cabernet Sauvignon — it was tax shelters that launched the wine industry in this unlikely region, which juts out into the Indian Ocean. It was originally called the “medical belt” because physicians, largely from Perth, founded the wineries, in part for tax reasons. Now with their success, they’ll need to find other tax shelters.

The first wineries in Margaret River — Vasse Felix, Cullen, Moss Wood, Juniper Estate, Leeuwin, Woodland, Xanadu and Cape Mentelle — shared ideas and equipment as they found their way in this unexplored area. The wineries are still small and the atmosphere among winemakers and owners remains collegial.

Currently there are about 150 wineries in Margaret River, and about 10,000 acres of vines. Compare this with more than 500 wineries and 170,000 acres of vineyards in South Australia, according to Australia’s

Room to expand

Roger Hill, owner of Juniper Estate, an excellent small producer whose wines are unfortunately not available in the United States, estimates that another 10,000 acres in this 60-mile-long-by-18-mile-wide region could be planted.

Although Margaret River is best known for Cabernet Sauvignon — it accounts for more than 50 percent of the red vines planted — and Chardonnay, Horgan thinks most varieties will work well in the area. There’s about half as much Shiraz planted as Cabernet because substantial amounts were pulled out or grafted to other varieties in the 1970s. Nonetheless, Margaret River Shiraz is alluring because it has less alcohol and ripeness, which gives it complexity and finesse.

Howard Park Wines, a family company celebrating its 20th anniversary, exemplifies the style of wine coming out of Western Australia, with its focus on the excellent Riesling from the Great Southern and superb Cabernet Sauvignon from Margaret River.

Michael Kerrigan, the winemaker, had what he describes as a personal epiphany: “When I tasted my own wines and didn’t like them, I changed the style to ones that are less alcoholic, less oaky, and generally less overt,” he says. The obvious implication is that the winemaker adjusts the style to what is appropriate for the region, in this case lighter and less alcoholic wine.

Save Margaret River, few of the regions of Western Australia have name recognition in the United States. Pemberton and Geographe are obscure, even by Western Australian standards. Nonetheless, these areas are poised to put great wines on the world’s stage.

Pinot from Pemberton

Pemberton, west of the Great Southern and only about 20 miles from the coast, is cooler than Margaret River and well suited for Pinot Noir.

Geographe — the name of the area comes from the French, who explored the west coast of Australia even before the English — is located near the coast between the Margaret River and Perth. The leading winery in the region — and judging by its wines, one of the best in all of Western Australia — is Capel Vale, founded by a shy physician, Peter Pratten, who was willing to think outside of the box. Even when he planted his first vines in 1974, Pratten felt there was potential for making great wine outside of the Margaret River and Great Southern. Capel Vale’s Merlot and Chardonnay from Geographe indicate he is correct.

The Jug Shop’s Hayward says many Bay Area residents who buy Western Australia wines discovered them when visiting there.

“Because they’re not big, obvious, in-your-face wines, people who are well-traveled, a little more sophisticated, tend to be into them,” Hayward says.

Hayward says that until recently, the Western Australia wines that made it to San Francisco were both obscure and expensive, usually costing $30 to $60, but at least one of those qualities is changing.

“We’re starting to see a lot less expensive Western Australia wines now, in the $10 to $20 range,” Hayward says. “That’s helped the category.”

Western Australia will always remain isolated given its location, but with its quirky winemakers willing to try new ideas, its wines will not remain obscure for long.

Western Australia wine regions
1. Swan District: Quite warm; oldest wine growing region in Australia.

2. Perth Hills: Warmer region, not many wineries.

3. Geographe: Warm sun with cool bay breezes; richer, riper wines.

4. Margaret River: Source of some of Australia’s best Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays.

5. Pemberton: Very cool climate. Ripe, intense, yet elegant Chardonnays.

6. Great Southern: Large area; many wines are blends of subregion grapes.

7. Frankland River: Within the Great Southern. Cool area produces ripe Rieslings and spicy Shiraz.

8. Mount Barker: Within the Great Southern. Quite cool climate; peppery Shiraz and fine, tightly wound Rieslings.

A taste of Western Australia’s wines


2005 Evans & Tate Margaret River Classic White ($15) Australians refer to this style of wine as a “veranda wine” because it’s fresh and lively. A blend of two-thirds Semillon and one-third Sauvignon Blanc, it’s the perfect beach or poolside white because the limey bite of Sauvignon Blanc balances the lushness of Semillon.

2005 Ferngrove Cossack Frankland River Riesling ($20) Made entirely from Ferngrove’s fruit, the Cossack Riesling — named after a wildflower — is just delicious. Edgy and filled with enamel-cleansing citric notes, it is lighter than Alsace Riesling and less floral than German Riesling. It’s a great wine to pair with Asian food.

2005 Howard Park Western Australia Riesling ($20) Although labeled with the Western Australia appellation, the grapes come exclusively from the Great Southern region. The wine transmits the distinctiveness of the region and beautifully balances lemony flavors and minerality.

2005 Plantagenet Mount Barker Riesling ($20) A clean grapefruit-like edginess combined with minerality gives life and substance to this delightful wine.


2002 Alkoomi Jarrah Frankland River Shiraz ($33) Alkoomi uses the name of a local hardwood tree, Jarrah, for its flagship Shiraz. A great combination of gamy and black fruit flavors packaged with supple tannins and an incredible finish makes this a stunning Shiraz.

2002 Capel Vale Howecroft Geographe Merlot ($45) A wonderfully complex single-vineyard Merlot, Capel Vale’s Howecroft has an attractive herbal — slightly minty — character intertwined with lush black fruit and chocolate notes.

2003 Cullen Diana Madeline Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot ($75) An intense wine, with lots going on — fruit, spice and floral elements — Cullen’s top-of-the-line bottling is a study in balance and harmony. Each sip reveals more flavors of fruit, spice and floral elements.

2003 Evans & Tate Margaret River Classic Red ($15) Layers of spice and plum-like flavors arise from the blend of Shiraz (65 percent) with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Supple and seductive, it’s an excellent buy.

2003 Evans & Tate Margaret River Shiraz ($18) More savory than the winery’s Classic Red, this, a more serious wine, has a captivating meaty, peppery component and is impeccably balanced — you won’t even notice its 14.5 percent alcohol.

2004 Howard Park Leston Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon ($24) Juicy cassis flavors laced with chocolate and buttressed by fine tannins grab your attention. Like so many wines from Western Australia, it’s classy and refined, not heavy or alcoholic.

2002 Leeuwin Estate Art Series Margaret River Shiraz ($30) It’s rare to use “elegance” and “Australian Shiraz” in the same sentence, but that’s exactly what this lovely black pepper and plum combination delivers. It’s a big complex wine, yet balanced — not over the top — that makes you realize Margaret River is unique.

2004 Salitage Treehouse Pemberton Pinot Noir ($25) With real complexity, this Pinot Noir combines fresh cherry-like fruit flavors with the delicate, slightly earthy elements usually found in Burgundy — and it weighs in at only 13 percent alcohol.

2002 Voyager Estate Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot ($25) This elegant blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (85 percent) and Merlot delivers ripe flavors with attractive herbal elements supported by fine tannins. Here is another example of a sophisticated wine coming from Margaret River.

— Michael Apstein

This article appeared on page F – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle on Thursday, July 13, 2006