I’m going to skip straight to the quality conclusion. While not everything from Western Australia is always outstanding, the wines generally enjoy a relatively high tick-mark rate towards getting over that challenging 90 point Wine Advocate hurdle. The region’s soils, climate, vine site selection and the obsessively diligent hands of knowledgeable viticulturalists and winemakers all see to that. Not to mention that the growing season weather has been turning up trumps, recent vintage after recent vintage (2007 – 2013). So I don’t repeat myself, readers can refer to my previous reports on the region for all the specifics. Truth is that the region has become so darn predictably reliable that I found myself laying out my first tasting of Bordeaux blend reds with a suppressed yawn. But as I began tasting I noticed a barely perceptible but important change in a number of the labels. That is to say, some of the wines were breaking even more discernibly from the herd to reveal that holy grail of differentiation: individual signatures. These wines are not just uniformly great, well-made cookie cutter versions of similar varietals from around the rest of the region or indeed the world. The most exciting Western Australian wines are getting downright edgy.
There’s an emerging wine term: edgy. Did I just make that up? Not entirely. In fashion circles it’s often a positive word that can be used to describe something provocative, daring or bold as opposed to playing it safe…or going completely off the deep end. How does this translate to wine? I’ll start by explaining that it is not, for me, a euphemism for flawed, undrinkable, microbial unstable, burbling and/or orange-brown “natural” wines. (Not to say that all wines that call themselves “natural” are thus, but for sure some are.) I won’t allow this very useful and apt word to be usurped like that. Mistakes, botched experiments and even works-in-progress should not be bound for sale by any winery that respects its customer loyalty, let alone feign edginess as an excuse. I’m reclaiming the word edgy in the name of well-considered innovation and beyond-the-call-of-duty techniques as enhancement tools, not as replacements for terroir and best practices.
On the cutting edge of edginess, toward the north of Western Australia’s Margaret River and hugging the coast, Wilyabrup has emerged as a definable and geologically / organoleptically delineated sub-region of Western Australia’s most famous and well established region. This is thanks largely to the efforts of locals such as Vanya Cullen (Cullen) and Keith Mugford (Moss Wood) in my view two of Australia’s edgiest winemakers who have been and are determined to highlight the uniqueness of their terroirs and wines. And it’s here in Wilyabrup that the edgy heart of this state’s wines tends to beat, feeding energy to the entire area. Makes sense. This was after all the very area where the pioneering doctors who first established vineyards in Western Australia on a commercial scale decided to set up camp. Today, many of the finest Western Australia wineries continue to be among the Wilyabrup settlers: Cullen, Vasse Felix, Moss Wood, Pierro, Hay Shed Hill and Woodlands, along with emerging newcomers such as Fraser Gallop. Of course not all the fruit for all these wineries is sourced from the Wilyabrup sub-region, but all bottle at least some wines that are 100% Wilyabrup fruit and are increasingly labeling them as such.
Vanya Cullen, Cullen Winery
Focused around the quirky little village of Cowaramup, otherwise known as ‘Cow Town’ because of all the artsy cow statues scattered about, Wilyabrup was initially highlighted by Dr John Gladsones in 1965 for its river drainage basins that empty into the Indian Ocean immediately to the West of the region. So, like other delineated sub-regions of the world, though the boundaries of Wilyabrup may be defined largely by geography, it is also significantly separated from the rest of the region by ethos. Wilyabrup is populated by strong-minded yet sensitive, determined and highly creative individuals e.g. aforementioned Vanya Cullen and the Mugfords (Keith and wife Clare) along with the likes of the Watsons (Woodlands), Michael Peterkin (Pierro) and Virginia Wilcox (Vasse Felix), just to name a few with clear visions of the wines they want to make and an unrelenting will to make them happen. This sets them not just apart, but at the forefront. No, they are not burying their wines in amphorae or using red wine production techniques to make orange colored, tannic white wines. Nor have they done anything so drastic such as throwing out their SO2 canisters. Their approaches are as much holistic as they are daring. When Mike Peterkin realized that his vision of Pierro Chardonnay could only be achieved with full, natural malolactic, he had to import the right kind of lactic bacteria, as it was not previously indigenous to his area. Vanya Cullen decided that biodynamic route was the right one for her and when the Cheeky Monkey brewery decided to move-in next door, she vehemently protested against the introduction of brewer’s yeast to compete with her local wild wine yeast population. (A battle she unfortunately lost.) Virginia Wilcox recanted during my last visit how she recently went on a pilgrimage to France to experiment with and discover the best barriques for her whites and reds. Just a few small examples of the meticulousness of these winemakers, such bold efforts take already great wines to the edge and impart provocative signatures that leave, I promise you, uniquely exciting impressions, which I confess cannot be conveyed by quantitative scores alone. It’s not entirely scientific or wine by the numbers, but that’s edgy for you. And I’d like to drink more of it please.
It seemed all the Margaret River growers could talk about when I visited in 2012 was the abundant blossoming of the marri trees, “the best since 1994,” Stella Bella said. This blossoming is not only beautiful to experience; it is nature’s gift to grape growers. Birds – a relentless and devastating regional pest frequently attacking vineyards from veraison through harvest – love this flower’s nectar and will feed exclusively on this, leaving vineyards at peace in rarely graced vintages such as 2012. And for the sixth year running, the weather was also kind in 2012, with the warm sunny conditions really heating up a bit towards the end of the white wine ripening, though moderated thereafter to allow longer hang-time for the reds. The result was a slightly earlier than average harvest (2-3 weeks ahead of normal and similar to 2011). It was also a relatively large harvest with yields that were generally up on recent years across all varieties. The Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons (and blends thereof) that I’ve tasted are very fine indeed, outstanding in the best examples. The Cabernets are particularly noteworthy, with many achieving full physiological ripeness and a level of generosity that appears wonderfully effortless and harmonious. Further to the south in Great Southern, the wet winter and spring brought about some disease pressure in the early part of the season, though this was easily managed. With the warmer/drier conditions that came later in the growing season, the vintage produced good crops of high-quality fruit for both red and white varieties.