The Big Chill in the Great Southern

Friday, 5 July, 2019
Graham Howe
Graham Howe heads south from Perth through seriously cool wine country – all the way to Denmark, Western Australia.

When it comes to cool-climate wine terroir, Denmark, Australia, is way, way down south. We came across it on a self-drive tour of the winelands of Western Australia from Margaret River, Pemberton and the Great Southern. Travelling four hundred kilometres south of Perth, the country road follows the rugged coastline through bushland, the big ancient forests and undulating farms of the South West. We arrived in Denmark after doing the astounding tree-top canopy walk on suspended steel stairways set among five hundred year-old tingle trees of the Valley of the Giants at nearby Walpole.

The hero varieties, temperature and terroir of the region changed as we went south, from the world-renowned Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and SSBs (Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc) of Margaret River though the Chardonnay and Pinot country of Pemberton to the Rieslings, Shiraz and Pinot Noirs of the Great Southern. Many WA cellars – eg Capel Vale, Howard Park of Margaret River or Sandalford of Swan Valley source grapes from the deep south or plant their own vineyards here to build complexity into blends, source base wines for sparkling wine or expand variety portfolios – and a few pioneers of Margaret River have drifted south over the years – winemakers like Bill Pannell of Moss Wood (to Picardy in Pemberton) and John Wade (formerly of Howard Park) to the Denmark area.

Pioneered in old farm country in the 1970s, the boutique boom in the Great Southern has seen the emergence of some thirty cellars on the Denmark wine trail today – and many iconic producers scattered over a vast area of five main appellations: Mount Barker, Frankland, Porongurup, Denmark and Albany, journey’s end on the coast  of the Southern Ocean. Remote cool-climate producers whose grapes and wines travel an awfully long way to get to Sydney or anywhere else in the world are making their mark with top-notch Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Cab and Shiraz – inter alia Howard Park, Alkoomi, Plantagenet, Castle Rock, Chatsfield, Goundrey, Frankland and Karriview.

Some of the twenty boutique wineries on the Denmark food and wine trail

A long way from home, I was delighted to spot magnificent proteas outside the cellar of Singlefile Wines of Denmark (Australia) – named after the resident gaggle of geese who do waddle a fine straight line. Set down a country lane among the blue gums, this boutique winery was founded in 2007 in virgin wine country by the Snowden and Corbett families, mining magnates from Zimbabwe. On a walkabout with cellar manager Tracey Whooley, we did a tasting of signature Chardonnay among the vines planted in a former paddock – while she explained that the world-renowned geologist owners were wizards at matching these ancient soils to the right varieties from the start.

Sourced from thirty year-old vines, the Singlefile Chardonnay  2018 we tasted in situ – served in a special Chardonnay glass at a perfect temperature of 14 degrees from a bottle stored in a hatch beneath the vines – was rated “Best Chardonnay in Australia” with 98 points in James Halliday’s authoritative 2019 Australian Wine Companion. Nine of the Singlefile wines scored 95 points and above – all sourced from select single vineyard growers throughout the Great Southern region: including Denmark Chardonnay, Mount Barker Riesling, Frankland River Cabernet and Shiraz. On the “sense of place” tour and tasting, Tracey welcomes us to “Chardonnay and Pinot Noir country”.

Inside “the dark horse winery of the year” (James Halliday) and “best cellar door” in the Great Southern (Gourmet Traveller), we sat down in a converted farm shed to a tasting of the single vineyard Singlefile Riesling, Cabernet and Shiraz on tap from the barrel. Tracey described the Great Southern, one of the largest wine regions in Australia in terms of its geography, as “the salad bowl” and “the envy of Margaret River”due to the diversity of its varieties, soils and climates. We looked at glass displays showing the ancient soils created on the break-up of Gondwanaland – learning how granite, slate, gravel and loam soils combined with sub-regional variations create ideal conditions for delicate Riesling from Mount Barker but big reds from Porongurup and Frankland. Diverse terroir and a linear thread of elegance, fine acidity and minerality is the house-style of Singlefile wines.

Singlefile wines, Denmark, Great Southern, Australia

We moved onto The Lake House, a landmark destination for fine food and wine in Denmark. This Australian Italian family restaurant and cellar (rated five red stars by Halliday) in the country is renowned for its vintner platters which showcase the produce of the Great Southern region – from artisanal cheeses, charcuterie, local smoked hams, sausage and salmon, pates, breads to homemade preserves and handmade chocolates. Hosts Garry Capelli and Leanne create what they call “vinofood” – winning a coveted “Hall of Fame” award for WA Excellence in Food Tourism – making Chardonnay chutney, Merlot mustard, Riesling pickled vegetables, Semillon pickled pears and balsamic Shiraz glazes – as well as their fabulous He said She Said lifestyle and reserve wine range. 

When you have six seasons –according to the ancient Noongar aboriginal people of the Great Southern – you pay fine attention to terroir and a calendar of planting, harvesting and living off the land. At Dark Side chocolates in Denmark I came across John Wade, chocolatier, oenologist and winemaker, one of the most experienced pioneers of Western Australia who put Plantagenet and Howard Park on the map. When he’s not consulting as a winemaker, the former chief winemaker for Wynns Coonawarra makes artisanal chocolates using Australian bush flavours like wattle seed, lemon myrtle, strawberry gum and native pepper. He told me that the art of making chocolates and wine is similar from the balance of fruit, acidity, aroma, flavour, tannin, the grain and structure.

Joey Williams, owner guide of Poornarti Aboriginal tours points out the six seasons

One of the highlights of my self-drive through the South West of Australia was a daylong Pemberton Discovery Tour of the Pemberton food, wine (20 cellars) and forest trail. We tasted our way from strawberry and marron (freshwater crayfish) farms to Jarrah Jack’s Crack a Jack Brewery – one of many good craft beer, gin and rum producers in the region. A vintner’s table, lunch and wine tasting at Pemberley Wines (1995) with second-generation winemaker David Radomiljac conveyed the passion of these pioneer farmers. While tasting Pemberley’s award-winning Lustre Blanc de Blancs, Chardonnay, SSB, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, the former WA small wine producer of the year, enthused about his big family farm (mixed marron, angus beef, truffles, potatoes and wine grapes).

I chatted to David over a cellar-door lunch of Pemberley’s own wine, marron, Holy Smoke salmon, farm chicken, own Royal Blue potatoes and truffled butter. (Neighbouring Manjimup is the truffle capital of the southern hemisphere, host of the annual great truffle kerfuffle). While they bottle only 10% of their 800-ton grape crop made by winemaker Rob Bowen under their Pemberley label, major brands in Margaret River like Howard Park and Devil’s Lair buy the rest of their crop – a fruit salad of many varieties from five different clones of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay to new Galea wines for prosecco. “When I started out planting grapes in 1995, I was a spud farmer. I didn’t know what to plant or where to plant. I went on gut instinct. My dad said ‘Stick to what you know’”!

After eighteen years of learning how to grow grapes, the ebullient Radomiljac was named viticulturist of the year in 2011 by the Wine Industry Association of Western Australia. There’s been no turning back. On a drive around the vineyards, the ebullient farmer points out great Angus bulls and big kangaroos hopping down long contoured rows of vines – larger than life like everything else in the Great Southern. Our tour ended on a high note with his latest brainchild - a grove planted to 1000 oak and hazelnut trees inoculated with truffle fungi – and the detection dogs he’s bred to harvest the cash crop. We headed off to find Picardy, Salitage and Donnelly cellars, two pioneers of Pemberton terroir. Like they say around here, it was “just another day in WA” (Western Australia).

Graham Howe attended the Australian Tourism Exchange 2019 in Perth as a guest of Tourism Australia. Visit www.australiassouthwest.com, www.westernaustralia.com and www.pembertondiscoverytours.com.au

Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is possibly the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for the Intrepid Explorer and www.blog.getaway.co.za - and for the weekly travel show on SAFM radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over fifty countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra ."

Kangaroos in the vineyard at Pemberley Wines
Kangaroos in the vineyard at Pemberley Wines

Shiraz on tap at Singlefile Wines
Shiraz on tap at Singlefile Wines

Treetop canopy walk in the Valley of the Giants, Walpole, WA
Treetop canopy walk in the Valley of the Giants, Walpole, WA

Chardonnay tasting in the vineyard at Singlefile Wines
Chardonnay tasting in the vineyard at Singlefile Wines

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