When the crew at World Wine Travel decided to venture to Western Australia, I was excited. I have explored wines of New South Wales and a few other regions, but sadly I had not tasted wines from this region.
I headed straight to my favorite wine bar/shop’s website (GaragisteLV on Instagram ) to see what they might have from the region. They had two wines available, both from Margaret River, which is the most well-known region in Western Australia. That’s where we will focus, but while we are in the area, let’s look at the region overall.
You can join us on this exploration for a Live Twitter Chat on Saturday January 22nd at 8 am Pacific time or 11 am Eastern Time. Just follow and use the hashtag #WorldWineTravel to join the conversation.
And scroll to the bottom of this post to find links to my colleagues pieces on the subject!
With this being our first foray into Australia this year with the #WorldWineTravel group. Let’s start with a bit of an overview.
Australia’s wine regions are in the southern part of the country between 25 and 50 degrees South Latitude. (30 to 50 deg are considered to be prime winegrowing areas.
Australia has 6 states: Western Australia, Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria, and Tasmania. These are large government states within the country. Of these, only the Northern Territory is at this point vineyard free. But when you look at the map, you will see that most of the regions are clustered in the very southern part of the country with many of these areas near the coast.
We had the opportunity to explore the New South Wales Region in 2019 in person and we look forward to exploring the other regions this year with the crew at #WorldWineTravel.
This is the largest State in Australia covering the western third of the continent. The area for wine production and grape growing sits the southern part of the state. It contains 9 regions:
- Blackwood Valley
- Great Southern
- Margaret River
- Perth Hills
- Swan District
The little bit of knowledge I have of this region, comes from following Casey at Travelling Corkscrew .
She lived in this region and covered many of the wineries, and was an integral part of this wine community, regularly being a part of the Wine Show of Western Australia and in 2018 was names the “Spirit of the Swan” at the 2018 Singapore Airlines Swan Valley Wine Show.
Casey has since moved to Victoria, so now I get to learn more about that region! But…Casey samples wines from around Australia, and…she’s really fun!
But back to the region…
The first recorded wine production in Western Australia was in 1840 in the Swan Valley Region. It wasn’t until 1967 when the Margaret River region was established that people saw the possibility for fine wines from this region. (Source)
On to Margaret River where our wine comes from…
This part of Australia was known for surfing, but Dr. John Gladstone discovered that it was a prime spot for growing world class wine grapes.
“one of the most geographically isolated wine regions in the world” (https://www.wineaustralia.com/market-insights/regions-and-varieties/western-australia-wines/margaret-river)
This region sticks out to the West of the rest of Australia with the Indian Ocean to the North and west and the Southern Ocean to the south. We said this region was isolated, right? It is said that 80% of the plants here are found nowhere else on the planet.
It is the most maritime in terms of climate of any of the Australian wine regions. In their 2020-2021 Report, Australian Wine sites Margaret River as having 5,725 hectares of planted vineyards 50% of which are planted to red grape varieties.
During the 20-21 season they averaged 43 inches of rain. Mind you only around 8 inches of that falls during the growing season.
(Want more of these details? Check out the report from Wine Australia)
Credits for the two photos below go to Wine Australia.
With vineyard elevations sitting under 800 feet, and being near the coast in this maritime climate, the diurnal shifts (difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures) are low. This allows for even heat for ripening, which is very helpful for the Cabernet Sauvignon (a notoriously late ripening variety)
Soils are mostly red gravelly loam with a bedrock of granite and gneiss. This gives low water holding capacity and keeps the canopy vigor down in the vineyard so the vines focus on fruit production.
That granite bedrock? It is ancient. The ridge is 150-600 million years old, with spots of 2 million year old limestone. These low nutrient soils are some of the oldest in the world.
All in all you get a Mediterranean climate, perfect for grape growing with lots of rain in the winter and cool sea breezes that give the wines vibrancy.
Varieties in Margaret River
The region is known for Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Semillon, Chardonnay and Shiraz (called Syrah elsewhere in the world). You also find many red blends coming from the region.
If you want to compare this region’s climate to a more well known region, you can think of it like Bordeaux in a dry year. So…the varieties they are growing (Cab, Sav Blanc & Semillon) should seem right at home.
Back to finding our wine
GaragisteLV had two wines from the region. One was a Cabernet from Cape Mentelle, an old and well respected winery that was instrumental in the founding of this region.
The other was a Syrah (yes I said Syrah, not Shiraz) from Walsh and Sons.
While I wanted to learn the history behind Cape Mentelle , you know I am always looking to the smaller wineries, so I went with the Walsh and Sons Wine.
Walsh & Sons
The History and Background of Walsh & Sons
This winery was created by Ryan Walsh and Freya Hohnen. Both come from families who have been growing grapes in the region for decades.
I reached out to Walsh & Sons and Ryan was gracious enough to give me some background on their history and philosophy.
Freya was born and raised in Margaret River. Her father David Hohnen was the founder of Cape Mentelle Vineyards in the late 70’s and later Cloudy Bay in New Zealand. One of these original vineyards is considered our Burnside Vineyard.
I was born in the wheatbelt of WA on a broadacre sheep and wheat farm. My family shifted to the MR region in 1994 and planted Syrah in 1995-96. This is known as our Osmington Vineyard.
Both Freya and I have winemaking degrees from Australian Universities.
We have spent time abroad in the USA, France and Switzerland.
So I guess we’ve always been in agriculture and on the land and are now the second generation picking up the reins
In addition to their family history, they take the time to acknowledge the history of the people of the land on which they farm. On the bottom of their website, on every page is the inscription…
“Walsh & Sons respectfully acknowledge the Wadandi people, the past and present traditional owners and custodians of this land, and respect their culture and identity which has been bound up with the land and sea for generations.”
This is one of the wonderful things about Australia, they are working to become a place that recognizes the indigenous peoples who are such a part of this country. (I only wish that the US could do the same with its native peoples).
Wine and growing Philosophy at Walsh & Sons
When I asked about their philosophy Ryan was generous with his answer. They adopted the biodynamic philosophy in 2007 and applied for their Demeter Certification in 2019. They are currently in conversion. They were inspired by Graham Lloyd a local viticulturalist.
Ryan cites a few reasons for adopting these practices:
It’s a family brand therefore a generational business as such all decisions are made with a long term life focus.
Biodynamics is guided by the philosophy of Anthroposphy. Through anthroposophy, an individual grows spiritually by applying uniquely human abilities to develop clear thinking and a truthful perception of the world. It therefore encourages individuality in the site and resulting wines. These are wines that make a drinker think more about what they are consuming.
We total the use of eight senses. In addition to the basic five tangible senses (taste, touch etc) we also consider the intangible senses being intuition, innovation and inspiration. By improving these senses we make more proactive decisions in the vineyard as they relate to its health. We believe it is this human element of the French term “terrior” which is perhaps misunderstood or underrated. It is as much about the uniqueness of the terre (land) as it is about the choices the farmer makes as an individual (guided by these senses) to promote (or inhibit) this uniqueness.
2020 Walsh & Sons “Felix” Syrah
Let me be honest. While my reasoning for choosing this wine was to support a smaller winery, I was taken by the name. I have a friend “Felix” who lives near Perth. So, I couldn’t resist a little celebration of my “Miss Felix”.
Unfined and Unfiltered, this Syrah from Australia surprised me when I turned the bottle around and found it listed at 13% abv. (the tech sheet from the winery actually lists it at 12.3%). That’s a far cry from the 14%+ Shiraz that you normally see from Australia.
This wine comes from Osmington in Margaret River. The area is in the eastern part of Margaret River and is inland with cool nights.
From the winery…
“It borders the coal seam that runs from Dunsborough to Augusta making the soils slighter in structure but higher in aromatics, particularly sulphides. The rows run north-south on a slight northeast facing slope. We treat it like a vege patch & top it up with heavy compost in the autumn with the sheep snapping the odd wire as they browse through in the winter.”
Ryan tells me that Syrah was the first wine that they made under the Walsh & Sons label, back in 2013. These vines are now mature and dry farmed. They show great quality and personality.
The “Felix” is both hand and machine harvested. They do a first pick of 20% whole cluster by hand then follow with a machine (which shakes the individual berries free). The whole clusters go on top without being crushed or destemmed. They use natural yeast and use macro-oxygenation preferment. This ferments on skins until it is dry (all the sugar eaten by the yeast). It goes into 20% French oak and is racked just once (on the spring equinox). It sits on the rest of its lees (dead yeast cells) until January being topped up every 2 weeks.
The berries here are larger, and the whole bunch inclusion adds layers. They also like green stem inclusion to preserve this lower acid wine. It did go through Malolactic fermentation.
They call this Syrah, rather than the traditional “Shiraz” that most Australian Syrah is known by because they feel it is more delicate than typical Margaret River Shiraz.
And the name? It was named for their nephew Felix is inquisitive, always asking questions. (My friend Felix, has the same inquisitive mind, always asking “Why?”)
They produced just 100 Cases of this wine. I spent $45.50 on this bottle from Garagiste.
The wine was a deep ruby with a magenta rim and was much deeper in color than I had expected. As I dipped my nose into the glass I found notes of blackberry, eucalyptus, cedar, nutmeg, and allspice. As it opened I got a bit of barnyard (which I love on a Syrah).
Taking a sip, the wine is dry with noticeable tannins that smooth quickly and with just the right acidity to pair well with the food. On the palate, this relatively young wine was fruit-forward with notes of blackberry and black plum.
What to Pair?
For this style of Syrah, the perfect pairing is lamb. I however do not eat lamb (it’s a thing I have about not eating cute baby animals). So what else to pair? Charcuterie is always a good bet, goat cheese, blue cheese, grilled vegetables. A pasta with puttanesca sauce would work too with it’s capers and olives.
We broke these ingredients down and did a board with toasty ancient grain bread, grilled eggplant and red and yellow peppers, greek olives stuffed with almonds, kalamata olives, capers, prosciutto, goat cheese, pepper jam, blue cheese, red grapes, rosemary marcona almonds, walnuts, basil, blue cheese and peppered salami.
This wine is a great food wine and paired beautifully with all the foods on the board. I wondered for a minute about the fact that I didn’t include any fresh fruit, but I really think this wine, which is fruit forward, worked best offsetting the savory notes in the food.
Finding Walsh & Sons
At this time of closings everywhere, this little winery has opened its first cellar door! They have teamed up with “The Farm House” in Margaret River, a family owned butchery and smokehouse. They opened at the top of the year and are doing weekend food trucks for pairings! We wish them all the success!
If you find yourself in Margaret River, you should definitely stop by!
Visit their website for more details. https://www.walshandsons.com.au/
I did promise you more on wines from Western Australian by my colleagues at World Wine Travel and here you go!
- Cape Mentelle Two Vineyards Margaret River Shiraz and a Taste of Cast Iron Steak by Our Good Life
- Cool climate Happs Semillon from Margaret River by Avvinare
- Getting to Know Margaret River through Vasse Felix by Food Wine Click!
- Hooroo! Aussie Burgers with the Lot + Hope Estate 2015 The Ripper Shiraz by Culinary Adventures with Camilla
- Lamb and Lupini Kafta with Vasse Felix by A Day in the Life on the Farm
- Make Your Own Pizza Night & Robert Oatley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon by Somm’s Table
- Margaret River Shiraz Kicks Off Virtual Trip Down Under by My Full Wine Glass
- Margaret River’s Vinaceous Voodoo Moon Malbec Makes You Howl for Blue Cheese BBQ by Wine Predator…Gwendolyn Alley
More to read!
I found other great resources when researching this piece. If you are interested in Cape Mentelle and the beginnings of the Margaret River region, there is a great interview with David Hohnen on Wineanorak https://www.wineanorak.com/davidhohneninterview.htm
If you are interested in more on Australian Wine, we visited New South Wales in 2019. Here are some links to those articles.
- Swift – Delicious Traditional Method Sparkling Wines from Printhie and the High Altitude Vineyards in Orange Australia
- 2 days in Orange? Too little time for this beautiful Australian wine region!
- An Australian Semillon and Malaysian Noodles
- The Scenic Route Hunter Valley, Australia NSW Wine Country
- Dean – CGC Wine reporter at Large – from McLaren Vale Australia
- Mudgee Region with Cara George
- Digging into Biodynamic Farming with Rod Windrim of Krinklewood
- Lowe Wine; Drought, Biodynamics and Soil
- Angullong in Millthorpe; Wine, Welcome to Country, Indigenous Dances and bush Tucka in Orange NSW
Robin Renken is a wine writer and Certified Specialist of Wine. She and her husband Michael travel to wine regions interviewing vineyard owners and winemakers and learning the stories behind the glass.
When not traveling they indulge in cooking and pairing wines with food at home in Las Vegas.