(This is a version of a print article on Western Australian wine published earlier in the year. The world has changed since, but there are some stories in here worth telling)
In production terms, Western Australia is a minnow.
According to the latest Wine Australia statistics, WA accounts for less than 5% of the national crush (2019 figures).
Yet while the volume is small, WA has an outsized reputation for quality, with Margaret River alone producing 20% of the country’s premium wine (which is a questionable figure but worth including). It’s not just production either, with 10 of the 50 Young Guns of Wine coming from our biggest state. And WA enjoyed the largest increase in export prices of any state or territory (MAT 2019 figures),
The reasons for this quality bias are complex but fascinating, with WA enjoying a privileged reputation for premium wine that is unusual for Australia. In fact, the only state to consistently enjoy higher average export prices per litre is Tasmania.
You can see the exclusive focus on premium wine most evidently in Margaret River and Great Southern, where prices continue to grow at a pace not seen in the larger winemaking states. Put simply, Western Australia equals premium wine.
New wines, new winemakers
But why? One theory about WA’s long term premium wine success is purely about a wilingness to evolve. Small changes, on a regular basis, and accompanied by a big push on sustainability.
Look at Ferngrove, for example, has evolved significantly in recent years, including the development one of the bigger solar power plants of any winery in Australia, with 696 panels now providing sustainable electricity for the business.
For this Frankland River producer, success has come thanks to some less conventional stand-alone styles, with the $22 RRP Black Label 2018 Malbec awarded trophies at the Royal Adelaide Wine Show, The Royal Perth Wine Show and the National Cool Climate Wine Show, along with eight gold medals.
You don’t have to go far in Great Southern to see the love for uncommon varieties either. At Mount Barker’s Galafrey, Kim Tyrer has been pleased to see the success of Muller Thurgau – a variety once seen as a boring, volume commodity.
‘I am very excited about our Muller Thurgau. It’s very aromatic especially with beautiful perfume white flowers which are so on-trend now’ she said.
While the 2019 Muller crop was smaller than usual, it pushed Tyrer to blend the grape with Riesling, creating a blend that she thinks ‘looks amazing – lovely and textural’. There’s no hiding her enthusiasm for this rare (in Australia) white grape though.
‘We are one of a handful of people growing the grape in WA. Due to its uniqueness and light aromatic style people love it. Can you believe my Dad pulled 9 rows out back in early 2000 as it wasn’t very popular?’
Further north in Margaret River, Brad Wehr from Amato Vino has been surprised by the success of several Italian grapes – and especially Nero d’Avola.
‘It’s amazing how only 8 years ago when we made our first Nero d’Avola it was a bit of a struggle to sell due to its relative obscurity. But now we sell out each year and can’t keep up’
Another hit for Wehr is much more obscure:
‘Teroldego is another of our fast-movers, despite the higher price tag’ he said.
‘This northern Italian grape is still very much obscurity here in Australia, but those who know the secret are on to it’.
Also in Margaret River, another obscure grape to find some appeal is Aligote. Ben Gould at Blind Corner has had a handful of crops from this French oddity and is a real fan.
‘(If I was planting winegrapes) I’d choose more Aligote. it works well in warm Burgundy years, is a great acid hit for Chardonnay’.
Gould also has ‘Brunello clone’ Sangiovese, Pinot Grigio and some ‘decent Merlot clones’ producing now too, alongside bee hives and a skateboard half pipe.
Not reinventing the wheel
But it’s not just about reviving old grapes, or indeed forging into new ones. Tyrer thinks WA’s success is really about marketing, and presenting a unified face.
‘I think regional branding is very strong considering our size’ she said.
‘Margaret River, Great Southern and Swan Valley are well-known regions nationally (which is remarkable)’.
Meanwhile, Jesse Lewis from Perth retailer Grand Cru Wineshop has spotted what could be driving the evolution of WA wine – a reinvention of tried and true styles.
‘I think the main trend I’ve noticed is that a few of the bigger producers are experimenting with different techniques on their ‘classic’ wines’’ he said.
‘(Margaret River’s) Vasse Felix are a good example – with their SSB, they are blending heaps of differently treated parcels – skin contact, barrel ferment etc’.
Tyrer has also witnessed the style evolution, with the newish Galafrey Whole Bunch Shiraz enjoying considerable success.
‘It works on the concept of making Shiraz in the Beaujolais style’ she said.
‘This moves away from the style of red which is blocky, oaked, aged, and overworked to a more savoury, textural, complex, light but ‘lots going on’ style’.
‘I feel like this is the future of red wine styles in Australia as we get away from a ‘bigger is better’ mentality.
Although a little bigger might be better in the case of Chardonnay, as Lewis explains:
‘I think Chardonnay styles might have a shift back towards slightly richer styles’.
‘I’m surprised this isn’t happening already since that’s what customers are asking for’
‘I reckon only 1/10 Chardonnay drinkers ask for a low-oak or lighter style. The rest all say ‘buttery, big’’.
Further, Lewis sees some serious intrigue if you venture beyond the usual suspects too.
‘Some cool stuff is happening in the Perth Hills’ he notes.
‘Myattsfield and Fairbrossen are playing around with leftfield varieties and techniques. Side Project is definitely one to watch – Saperavi, skin contact Vermentino, pet nats. Tonon produces the region’s only Prosecco and have a smart Sangiovese. La Fattoria do Brachetto, Barbera, Sagrantino & a Sparkling Pignoletto’.
‘I think the region is grossly overlooked’.
Sustainable and low intervention for the youth
While it’s easy to focus on varieties and style, the other key element driving the popularity of Western Australian wine is the shift in national drinking habits.
According to Wine Intelligence figures, the Australian wine drinking population is shrinking. This trend is most obvious in younger drinkers, with millennials and generation Z drinking less often and drinking less wine. The under 42 age category had a 2% drop in regular wine drinkers between 2017 and 2019 alone.
The bright star amongst the figures is that these younger consumers are drinking more in the off-trade per occasion, than previously mirroring the trend of all age groups to drink less often but better. Those willing to spend $25+ per bottle each drinking occasion, for example, has risen 5% between 2016 and 2019 as well (Wine Intelligence figures).
A further consideration is that younger consumers are increasingly environmentally conscious, with an Australian Organic report by the Modium group in 2018 concluded that millennials are much more likely to choose organic products.
Lewis has noticed the full manifestations of these trends at retail too:
‘Younger people are drinking lots of natural and minimal intervention stuff – I think they’d drink even more if the economy was better / the wines were lest costly’ he said.
‘But they’re usually happy to pay $30-40 on a nice bottle which was fairly uncommon 10 years ago’.
The connection for Western Australian wine comes from the proliferation of sustainably produced and natural wines now crafted in WA. Great Southern, in particular, has become a hotbed for natural wines headlined by makers like Brave New Wine and Express Winemakers, with Margaret River increasingly known for organic wine production too.
It’s not just small, niche producers going organic either, as Gould explains.
‘We’re now the second biggest certified organic and biodynamic vineyard in WA, but the interesting trend is that people ARE going organic including Voyager, Vasse Felix and Woodlands too apparently’.
The 2020 vintage
Finally, while vintage is still underway in Western Australia, there is considerable promise for this harvest, which is very welcome given the challenges faced in some eastern states regions.
Tyrer gives the early scoop:
‘2020 will be one of the earliest vintages on record’ she said.
‘Our earliest was 2007 which started on 16th Feb. and this year we started on the same date. Everything is ripening up together so a short fast vintage’
It’s always a pleasure to hear vintage enthusiasm from a wine producer, and Tyrer is one of many who is quietly optimistic, albeit with a caveat.
‘Yields are down but flavours, however, look really good. Much better than the 2007 vintage which in turn had some average wines’.
‘This year expect excellent wines’.