Go West, Young Body Gendered Male!

(Originally published May/June 2006)

Australia is a big country and it can take awhile to get a handle on what the regions are and what differences, if any, exist among them. To Hanes, the biggest initial obstacle to achieving this knowledge remains how the basic wine regions are outlined. First of all, they are waaaaay too large to be useful in any meaningful way. Wine is said to come from the Australian states, i.e., South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria or Western Australia. And some from Tasmania too, why not. All of these regions encompass so many varied sub-regions that it is really impossible to speak of the character of “South Australian” wines as one would wines of Burgundy or Tuscany.

The underlying problem is that across wine producing nations there exists an unevenness in basic regional category levels (something which plagues Californian wines at times too). Many are just too overly broad. Basic inexpensive wines (think Rosemount or the like) get labeled as “South Australia” Shiraz or maybe a tad more specific “Southeastern Australia” Shiraz. But this really means very little because the ultimate sources which fall under this labeling umbrella are so varied that you don't truly get any more specific sense of what the character of the wine is than if the label just said “Australian” Shiraz. At all price points, inexpensive to expensive, you get much more useful specificity on European labels, even if they remain at general regional designations such as Nahe, Rioja, Dão, Bordeaux, etc.

To Hanes, these regional Australian labeling practices are kind of a cheese because on the inexpensive level it makes it easier to sell wine from lesser known, if large production, areas such as Riverland or Riverina which have zero wider name recognition. And ultimately, outside of Australia, it hurts the wine industry in the long run because consumers are not learning about the “true” Australian wine regions and what makes their wines distinct. Wine geeks or those imbibers with a higher degree of wine knowledge may recognize some of the more popular regional names such as Barossa Valley or McLaren Vale. But they can rarely identify the characteristics which separate them. The idea here being that in a blind tasting or something if an experienced taster can tell a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from a Cab from Paso Robles to the south, so too should a knowledgeable taster be able to pick out the Langhorne Creek Shiraz from the Yarra Valley Shiraz.

As Australian wines gain market share in the United States, wine lovers should make an attempt to learn what makes the regions different and develop a sense of why they may prefer some regions' wines over others. It doesn't help that many Australian producers slather their wines in so much creamy oak that the innate differences get obliterated. But still. In the spirit of helping people figure all this stuff out, Hanes will now delve into the lesser recognized wine regions of Western Australia.

Europeans started checking out Western Australia a little before 1700. But it wasn't until the 1830s that colonization started to ramp up, mainly around what is now the city of Perth. It is interesting to note that the initial colony was comprised of free people, a rarity in early Australian history, and not developed as a penal colony until the 1850s. By the early 1900s Perth only possessed about 30,000 citizens. And citizenship didn't break 300,000 until the 1950s. Today the city has almost 1.5 million denizens, making it Australia's fourth largest city.

Western Australia in terms of sheer land mass is the largest state in Australia but relatively little of it supports wine growing. These areas cluster in the southwestern part of Western Australia, where there are around 26,000 acres planted. Many of these regions possess cooler climates than their brethren in South Australia and as a result may produce more structured, less overtly fruity wines. This is due to a strong maritime influence, without which the place would be pretty damn hot. It also helps that there is a decent amount of rainfall while a fair percentage of the soils are not particularly fertile, creating the desired degree of vine stress to avoid over-production and/or over-ripeness in the grapes. The downside to all this is that the weather is less even and vintage variations in the final wines may be greater than in the other Australian regions.

As a result, tasting a Western Australian wine may surprise the average consumer who has been weaned on big jammy wines from other regions (of course, this is not to say that Australian wines outside Western Australia cannot possess finesse, balance and restraint in their own right, let's nip that one in the bud right here). This fact is made even more interesting as Western Australia was first known for producing sweet fortified wines such as Muscat, port or sherry, the turn to dry table wines not happening until the mid-20th century.

One of the more interesting things about Western Australian wines as a whole is that Shiraz is not as dominant a factor as in many other Australian wine regions, there being a good deal more diversity of cultivars cultivated (what else did you think they do with cultivars?). There's plenty of Chardonnay, Riesling, Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Verdelho, Traminer, Muscadelle and Marsanne grown to make white wines as well as red wine grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Grenache and even a touch of Zinfandel, Tempranillo and Malbec in addition to other grapes one would not immediately associate with Australia.

Not a great deal of wine from Western Australia gets exported to the United States, which makes it difficult to reach more of a definitive, empirical set of conclusions regarding their wine. The United Kingdom gets about one-third of Western Australia's wine exports with the United States at about 20%, New Zealand at about 10%, followed by Singapore, Switzerland, Japan and Canada as the next biggest customers. One of the prominent barriers to larger export is that most of the wineries are small and family-owned, making economies of scale difficult to achieve for profitable export. Fly Hanes free to Western Australia for a couple of months and he'll be happy to return with more in-depth results on the wine scene there. In any event, here's what we have right now.

The Swan District, or Swan Valley, near Perth historically produced the largest quantity of wine, this region being where the first Western Australian wine was made in 1834. The Swan District is probably the hottest (in terms of temperature) wine region in Western Australia, if not all of Australia, and creates the type of wines American consumers would normally associate with Aussie wines (there's also still some dessert-level wines made there). That said, it seems that only very rarely do we Americans see wines designated as being from the Swan District. One suspects that the majority of the wine created goes into more homogenous, large production bottlings. If high quality is a concern, one may find solace in the fact that since the 1970s the overall percentage of Western Australian wine represented by the Swan District has fallen from around 90% to about 20% today. Ouch.

At the present time, the largest and most recognizable region is Margaret River. With over 10,000 acres of vines planted it's almost double the size of any other Western Australia wine region (yet, say, half the size of the Barossa in South Australia). Given its size, there's a good deal of diversity among the wineries and the types of grapes they prefer to focus on. There's definitely some Shiraz made, mostly in a lighter, more refreshingly acidic manner. However, one could persuasively argue that Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have so far made the most distinctive and prestigious red wines from Margaret River. The white wines tend to be made from Chardonnay or Rhône cultivars, producing more uneven results than the red wines. At least from what Hanes has seen here in the U.S.

Beyond Margaret River, it seems that the most exciting region in Western Australia may be Great Southern. Hey, even the name is great. It's the second largest wine region too, with over 5,000 acres planted and five distinct sub-regions. There are some top notch wineries doing work here, primarily with Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. The white wines of Great Southern can be considered to be the best made in Western Australia, especially Riesling wines from the areas of Frankland River and Mount Barker. On the whole, the ones you see in the States are not cheap but are comparable in quality to Rieslings from around the world (as well as the renowned Rieslings of Clare Valley in South Australia). One of the problems with Great Southern may be that the sub-regional wines don't mention clearly on the label that they are part of Great Southern, diminishing its potential recognition among wine buyers. Like Pauillac mentions in big letters that it is part of Bordeaux, so too should these designations work together. Again, part of the general labeling problem.

Beyond these three regions Hanes is basically feeding you research. He has had some wines from the Geographe region, most of which were tasty, and the “e” at the end of the name lends it an aristocratic air. But the region is only about 1,800 acres, which ain't a lot. The really cool name in Western Australia belongs to Manjimup, Hanes would pay big bucks just to be able to butcher its pronunciation out loud on a regular basis. Alas, wines from there as well as Pemberton, Blackwood Valley, Peel and Perth Hills may not even make it out of Western Australia, never mind to the U.S. None are really more than 2,000 acres in size and some as small as 300 acres. Hell, some Californian wineries may have more than 300 acres themselves.

Whichever region is being discussed, one common thread persists inside the winery facilities. And this is the aforementioned more judicious utilization of oak barrels in the both the fermenting and aging of Western Australian wines. By using stainless steel for fermentation as well as often avoiding malolactic fermentation (which converts harsher malic acid into softer lactic acid) there's a generally crisper profile to the wines. As with anything there are exceptions to the rule, but what's the fun in life if you can't overgeneralize?

It's hard to figure but, as with South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria, Western Australia has suffered from a wine production glut in recent years. So few acres yet so much wine! It's mostly red wine which has been overproduced and expensive wine since although Western Australia produces less than 10% of all Australian wine, it produces about 20% of the wine in the super-premium and ultra-premium categories. Statistics are not yet in for the hyper-mega-premium category.

If you run across any wines from Western Australia in your local shop, take a chance and give 'em a rip. With luck you'll find something different enough to please while your purchase will help convince the powers that be that there is a market in the U.S. for a variety of styles of Australian wine. Think globally, act locally!