The Yin and the Yang of Western Australia


The state of Western Australia is a behemoth, stretching close to one million square miles, equivalent to nearly one-third the size of the United States. To the north and center are red dirt and dramatic arid landscapes, where the summers can hit 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade. In contrast, the Southwest is at the mercy of the ocean and the storms whipping up from Antarctica. Most of Western Australia’s finest wines emerge from this small corner of the state, some of them from surprising and isolated places.

Margaret River is well known to fans of high-quality New World Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. It is a stunning seaside region with rare biodiversity that produces wines with both generosity of fruit and genuine complexity, including some of the nation’s best. Yet Margaret River is among the gems found in Western Australia, with the sprawling Great Southern and nearby Pemberton having steadily developed a reputation for quality over the last two decades. Great Southern alone covers 1.7 million hectares, of which there are just 2,900 hectares under vine. The small quantities and remote destinations ensure the wines remain little known or understood, although not for lack of quality.

Tom Cullity planted the original vineyard at Vasse Felix back in 1967.

Diversity in the West

Despite their relative proximity, a short 200-mile hop, there are dramatic differences in terroirs between Margaret River and Great Southern, with Pemberton somewhere in between. A diagonal line between Margaret River and Great Southern splits the southern corner of Western Australia according to oceanic influence. To the west, the warming Indian Ocean holds sway, giving natural fertility and generosity to the climate showcased by rich forestry and vegetation among a sea of rolling coastal hills. The warmer days and ample sunshine provide perfect conditions, particularly for Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon to flourish. Margaret River’s southern zones around Karridale offer a unique counterpoint, producing tense Chardonnays and sparkling wines.

A very different world emerges further to the southeast. The Great Southern region is home to a distinctive Australian wine expression thanks to the Southern Ocean. A significantly cooler climate, matched with surprisingly dry conditions, makes the growing seasons a little more challenging. This is a wild place, so dry that some properties have vast areas set aside only to harvest precious rainfall. The almost arid and cool conditions offer a very special terroir with low disease pressure, allowing the grapes to be generally gently coaxed and picked at ideal ripeness. It also sees a change in grape varieties, which move more towards Syrah and Riesling. The vast diversity in altitude, exposure to ocean influences, and continentality ensure this region is successful with a large assortment of grape varieties, from Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon to Riesling and Pinot Noir, as unlikely as that sounds.

Soil influences here are also incredibly significant, as it is one of the oldest places on earth at 2.7 billion years. A deep bed of granite is at the core, which occasionally bursts through, most notably in the Porongurup Mountain Range, with ironstone gravels and sandy duplex loams also widely found. If there were to be a common theme, it would be a distinct minerality to the finest wines. Vineyards are still relatively rare despite some history, with the first vines planted in the late 1960s. The region's frontier feel remains, no doubt, enhanced by its location. Yet, at the same time, the quality of the best wines is undeniable, particularly for Riesling. The Rieslings from Great Southern are among Australia’s finest, right up there with the best examples from the cooler regions of South Australia. They combine rare focus and raw power with well-integrated natural acidity. Fans of dry European Rieslings will find plenty to their liking in Great Southern. The Syrahs, particularly in Frankland River, are also a specialty, although they provide an unusual and savory expression by Australian standards, which will appeal more to Rhône palates.

Pemberton sits between Great Southern and Margaret River, offering a happy medium. Before moving south to Pemberton in search of a site to produce Burgundian-styled Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Bill and Sandra Pannell were some of the first vignerons in Margaret River as founders of local icon Moss Wood. The Pannells were once part-owners of the Domaine de la Pousse d'Or in Volnay. The experience instilled a desire to craft something similar and chase Pinot Noir nirvana. This was not possible in the maritime-influenced Margaret River. In the years since, they have broadened their horizons into Right-Bank Merlot dominant styles. The Pannells were not alone with international experience - Quebecan turned Burgundian micro-negociant Pascal Marchand is also involved in projects focusing on Great Southern Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The fact that these highly remote vineyards attract some serious talent is a testament to their perceived potential.

For an area of its size, it is no surprise that various distinctive sub-regions range from maritime to more continental climatic conditions, with vineyards from close to sea level to over 1,000 meters in altitude. The inland Frankland River has the largest plantings and, with its significant proportion of gravel soils, produces some of the region’s most characterful wines, including the most robust and structured reds, particularly Syrah and powerful Rieslings. To the west is the Porongurup sub-region and mountain range, a very different proposition with weathered granite soils and a gentler climate, well suited to precise and detailed Rieslings. In between, the more coastal and exposed Denmark and Albany sub-regions give wines with elegance and subtlety from a number of varieties. At the center is Mount Barker, one of the larger sub-regions, which provides wines with generous levels of flavor without quite the upfront impact seen in Frankland River. Overall, Great Southern as a region helps to reimagine Western Australia as more than a capital of New World Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. It offers more nuanced, savory and understated wine styles that will gain greater appreciation over time.

Italian-born winemaker Jacopo Dalli Cani in McHenry Hohnen’s Hazel’s Vineyard.

Margaret River Magic

While Great Southern is undoubtedly a star on the rise, Margaret River remains the state leader. A level of polish and sophistication combined with self-belief drives ambition, which radiates from the most outstanding wines. My last trip focused on the 2019, 2020 and 2021 vintages, so it was good to experience how these vintages have matured and to taste the quality of reserve bottlings. But most exciting at the moment was to deep dive into 2022, both in bottle and barrel, a vintage hailed as a recent highlight, plus a first glimpse into 2023, which may trump them all. Stunning Chardonnays at comparatively and almost unbelievably low prices remain a feature. This region must now be on the radar for fans of Burgundy and California. Similarly, finesse-filled Cabernet Sauvignons are also a local hallmark and offer rare value that is almost too good to be true.

But it is worth first taking a snapshot of the regional drivers of quality. Overall, Margaret River has a mild climate and consistency, resulting in few challenging vintages. We need to go back almost twenty years to find a bad year, 2006, which was very cold, although, as always, the odd winemaker handled the conditions with aplomb. Climate change plays a part, with rainfall down 20% in the last 60 years and temperatures up by half a degree. That rainfall also naturally falls largely out of the growing season, keeping disease risk minimal. It is helped by sea breezes replicating a Mediterranean climate, albeit cooler than its European namesake. But that is not always the case. Tropical storms regularly form in the northern portion of West Australia and generally move to the southeast. However, their remnants occasionally move south and cast a shadow over the vintage, as occurred in 2021.

There is a single feature that defines the region - the Indian Ocean. This vast mass of water surrounds Margaret River to the north, west and south, so this region is a peninsula. (Its nearest landmass is Madagascar, which is 7,000 kilometers to the west.) These surrounding bodies of water have a calming effect on the climate, partly based on the 3pm sea breeze coming in from all directions at the hottest part of the day. A latitude below the primary effects of El Niño and La Niña, Margaret River also experiences associated weather patterns with seemingly reduced impact than in other parts of Australia. The climate, though, is in some ways almost too good, with an abundance of birdlife sometimes causing challenges with fruit retention. But not so in 2024, with a ‘mega blossom’ from the marri trees keeping the birds away. Of course, vintage variation exists, but the range in Margaret River is pretty tight, making this a truly unicorn slice of earth. A miraculous year, 2023, is a beautiful case in point that will go down as one of the region’s best.

Generational change at Moss Wood, from left to right Keith, Clare and Hugh Mugford.

The Attitude

While the climates vary across Great Southern, Pemberton and Margaret River, there’s a shared spirit of adventure and rare dynamism among winemakers in the West, originating from their operation in some of the world’s most isolated wine regions. Despite over 50 years of winemaking history, the West retains a youthful, can-do attitude that began with the pioneering producers and dreamers half a century ago. This vision remains in constant flow because of the new mavericks across the West who are forging their own story. While some established wine regions can rest on their laurels, the small local market in Western Australia almost forces winemakers to keep pushing the envelope and reaching high quality and constant stylistic evolution. In addition to Margaret River’s iconic wineries, plenty of others across the West compete for recognition.

One such under-the-radar producer is McHenry Hohnen, who focuses on low-intervention winemaking and sustainable viticulture. Founded in part by David Hohnen of Cape Mentelle and Cloudy Bay fame, McHenry Hohnen has a significant pedigree. In recent years, it has seen new peaks driven by Soave-born winemaker Jacopo Dalli Cani and a focus on organic and biodynamic viticulture by Simon Keall, all under the leadership of co-founder Murray McHenry. Superb purity of fruit is a hallmark in the wines from three immaculate sites - Hazel’s Vineyard, Calgardup Brook and Burnside Vineyard. The best wines under this label are truly world-class.

Similarly, Frankland Estate, founded in 1988, was also a trailblazer, arguably the first winery to focus on quality in the far-flung Frankland River region. While initially following the pristine rules of technically proficient new-world winemaking, second-generation vignerons Hunter and Elizabeth Smith are now making their own history, looking more to the old world as a guide for crafting better wines. They are particularly interested in pursuing a more textural Riesling style with wild yeast ferments in old oak with extended lees aging.

Many other wineries are taking early tentative steps with the same zeal and intent, resulting in impressive early results. Trait Wines is a small family operation run by Lesotho native Theo Truyts and his Japanese-born partner Clare Trythall. Truyts divides his time between working as the viticulturist of the well-regarded Wildberry Springs vineyard, where he sources fruit while managing a small vineyard for Trait Wines. Almost surrounded by forest, the picturesque home vineyard, planted in 1988 with a mix of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, appeals to Truyts Southern African roots and old-world experience that Truyts developed through working for the likes of Yves Cuilleron and the Hartford Family before Pierro and Vasse Felix in Margaret River. With a young family, he spends all his spare time working the vineyard and soil of his small plot. It is not a small project, but Truyt’s natural aesthetic feel for winemaking is clear with momentum building.

Western Australia is now a place of new horizons. Established leaders in Margaret River, with their refined and classically styled wines, joined by new wineries and regions, are starting to challenge the established order. In a world where significant climate change is a reality, this isolated corner of the world is on a solid upward trajectory. It will continue to punch well above its weight in the foreseeable future.

Theo Truyts in the Trait Wines vine garden.

Vintage Roundup

Readers will find original vintage reviews of 2020 and 2021 in my article "The Not So Wild West: Margaret River in the Groove.” Revisiting the 2020 Cabernet Sauvignons from Margaret River for this report showcased what an outstanding vintage it has turned out to be. It is the best of recent years. For fans of classically styled, dense, yet refined Cabernet Sauvignons and robust but detailed Chardonnays, 2020 is a vintage you can take to the bank and enjoy over the next decade and more.

Thanks to significant rainfall over the growing season, 2021 continues to be a more complex story. Although Cabernet Sauvignons and other red wines lacked some customary generosity, the whites, particularly Chardonnays, continue to shine. They are a highlight for the year, with tight frames and excellent flavor concentration, showing broad appeal. It will be interesting to see how the 2021 Chardonnays age and may triumph over the more highly fancied 2020s over time. Pemberton also endured a wet vintage, but conditions were significantly better in Great Southern with more fortuitous timing of rain. The region enjoyed a successful, albeit cool, late-ripening vintage.

Two thousand twenty-two was warm and dry, with a number of significant heat events in December and January. This pattern may become the norm in the coming years, although in 2022, it did not define the year. Thankfully, 2022 started with one of the wettest winters in recent memory, which set the vines up very well for the summer by building significant soil moisture. Poor weather during flowering led to low yields for white wines, particularly Chardonnay. Cabernet Sauvignon came in also below average due to high temperatures and dry conditions. Summer nights remained relatively warm for the region, which is a bit unusual. This is a big, balanced vintage for Margaret River Chardonnay with waves of decadent, textured fruit, resulting in immediately approachable wines with good staying power and examples from the cooler Karridale zone having an edge over warmer sites. While many top-ranked Cabernet Sauvignons still need to be released, barrel samples and recently bottled wines already show all the marks of a bold yet balanced vintage. Great Southern experienced a similar end of the growing season, giving a high-quality vintage, particularly for red wines from Frankland River.

It is still early days for 2023. However, all the signs suggest this will be a classic vintage and potentially one of the greatest. A wet spring set the vines up beautifully, followed by a mild and practically perfect season when pickers could take their time and harvest at ideal ripeness. The warmer days and nights of 2022 were replaced by cool evenings and warm days without any significant periods of heat. The Cabernet Sauvignons show exceptional color and robust yet refined tannins, while the Chardonnays are precise and pure. I am very much looking forward to these wines over the coming decades. Great Southern also enjoyed an excellent, albeit cool and dry year, with Rieslings a highlight at this early stage.

I tasted the wines in this report starting in Margaret River in November 2023, with follow-up tastings completed in Sydney in early 2024.

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