Crisp White Wines Uncovered in Australia's Southwest
Margaret River vineyard in early summer day
Even by Australian standards, the wine regions of this country’s southwest corner are remote. But if you prize pristine fruit, racy acidity and generous seafood platters then Western Australia is well worth the considerable detour.
Well over 2,000 kilometres from Adelaide, in this part of the world you’re famously closer to Jakarta than Sydney. Margaret River may be a mere three hours’ drive from Perth, but head on into the wilderness of Great Southern, which loosely congregates around the coastal town of Albany, and you’ve fully lost sight of the beaten track. This is a place for adventurous winemakers focused on distinctive, high quality wines, made for people who share that mindset.
While the cooling ocean influence means Great Southern is home to some particularly elegant expressions of Australian favourites Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, that invigorating climate also lends itself particularly well to Riesling. Forget the rich, limey examples of this variety from Clare or Eden Valley: Great Southern Riesling is as bracing as the sea breezes here.
“It’s all about texture, flavour and acid profile,” says Andrew Siddell of Cherubino, who makes wine in the Frankland River sub-region of Great Southern. “The South Australian regions are probably more directed in that riper style,” he suggests. “There’s a hotter climate over there so you’re probably not seeing as much pristine fruit and linear acid as you see in Great Southern.”
That firm backbone also helps give these wines the longevity that so many Riesling lovers prize. “The wines have an unbelievable ability to age, confirms Siddell. “At 10-15 years-plus there’s a lot freshness about them still.”
Even confirmed acid aficionados can find some of the most bone-dry styles made here rather uncompromising, although a plate of plump, briny local oysters might help. If that doesn’t do the trick then seek out some of Great Southern’s off-dry expressions, which bring a friendly brightness to the austere purity that Mosel Riesling fans will recognise.
With demand for Great Southern Riesling now firmly on the rise, Vanessa Carson of Plan B winery in Frankland River describes the region as “a very, very exciting place to be right now.” What’s more, she adds, “I feel that we’ve not been pigeon-holed with a style, so it means that we can play with a lot of different styles and a lot of different techniques.” At Plan B, that currently involves three Riesling expressions: dry, off-dry and even a new wine fermented in oak barriques.
The fruit purity that underpins Great Southern’s soaring reputation is also a hallmark of Margaret River. With climatic similarities to Bordeaux, but the added benefit of more reliably dry summers, this is a region that has built its reputation on Cabernet and Merlot-based red blends. But Bordeaux’s key white varieties, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, also shine prolifically here with a thirst-quenching vibrancy that is just made for a summertime fruits de mer spread.
They may slip down rather too easily, but there’s a substance, complexity and age-worthiness to Margaret River “SBS” that sets these wines apart from your typical supermarket Sauvignon Blanc. What’s more, styles can vary considerably between producers. Specific site and the balance of the blend play their part here, but the region is also particularly open-minded when it comes to decisions about oak maturation or perhaps even alternative vessels such as concrete eggs and clay amphorae.
At Lenton Brae, the approach is unoaked and, in 2021 at least, marginally Semillon-led. “We firmly identify with the length, generosity and texture that Semillon has to offer this blend,” remarks winemaker Russell Cocker. For all this wine’s vibrant appeal when young, Cocker insists: “It’s not just a tutti frutti, drink now style.” Indeed, he maintains: “We look at this wine as being certainly capable of aging well beyond a decade, maybe up to two.”
Over at fellow Margaret River producer Flametree, it is Sauvignon Blanc that takes a significant lead in the blend, while a proportion of the wine is fermented in oak. Winemaker Cliff Royle acknowledges the important role played by Semillon in the “texture and back palate” of the wine, but hails Sauvignon Blanc as “very much the purity and line in the wine, and the punch. You get great citrus and stone fruit, which I think is what we’re looking for,” he explains.
“It’s such an interesting, really dynamic category,” enthuses Australian wine writer and presenter Sarah Ahmed about the SBS scene in Margaret River. “There’s certainly nothing cookie-cutter about them.” Yes, there’s plenty of individuality here, but few regions of the world tick the box for crisp, palate-invigorating summer refreshment so consistently and stylishly as these remote vineyards of Western Australia.
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