Western Australia's Great Southern wine region is the most remote in Australia but it produces some of the best-value wines.
Close to the Southern and Indian oceans, the region has warm and sunny days during the growing season, but cool - sometimes cold - nights. The moderate temperatures slow the ripening of grapes and produce wines of excellent balance.
The Great Southern is the largest appellation in mainland Australia (second only to Tasmania overall) and it stretches unevenly over an area of 150km from north to south and 100km across east to west.
There are five very different sub-regions: Albany, Denmark, Frankland River, the Porongurups and Mount Barker.
Albany and Denmark are maritime sub-regions, close to the oceans, while the inland sub-regions comprise warmer Mount Barker, Porongurup and Frankland River. Wherever you are in this remote region, however, you are around 400 kilometres and a five-hour drive from the state capital of Perth.
“You can travel just 50 kilometres in this part of the world and you will find growing conditions that are completely different,” says Coby Ladwig, winemaker at Rockcliffe in Denmark (above).
Larry Cherubino, who sources fruit from several sites in the Great Southern, believes site selection is of prime importance to producing premium quality wines.
“Over the years I reckon I’ve got a pretty good handle on what works where,” Cherubino says. “Everything I do reflects my strong belief that when you get the right varieties in the right sites, you’re well on your way to making good wine.”
Great Southern riesling, usually citrusy with brisk acid, is exceptional and rivals that of Clare and Eden. Plantagenet winemaker Chris Murtha describes them as “intense and pure”.
Shiraz from the region is also on the upswing. You won't find Barossa-style blockbusters here; the styles tend to be more focused on juicy fruit and savoury/spice notes. Murtha says they have “lovely pepper and spice”. Expect fruit-driven, tight reds with some regional elegance.
Former Ferngrove winemaker Kim Horton, who departed after the 2015 vintage, characterises Great Southern fruit as “very clean; almost pristine”.
And the good news for consumers is that wines from the Great Southern are generally more affordable than those from Margaret River – although a lot of Great Southern fruit does head further west to be used in blends.
Frankland River, home to Frankland Estate (below), Alkoomi and Ferngrove is the Great Southern's riesling hot spot – thanks to its warmish days and cool nights.
“Frankland River is the coolest and most isolated wine-growing region in Western Australia,” says Hunter Smith from Frankland Estate, which is certified organic and uses sustainable agriculture.
“Like many winemakers we subscribe to the view that great wines are made in the vineyard, not the winery. We look to the soils in our vineyards to provide the foundation for healthy vines, intensely flavoured fruit and wines that articulate the distinctive features of the environment in which they are grown.”
Many of the wineries, including West Cape Howe at Mount Barker, source fruit from several different sub-regions and then blend.
Winemaker Gavin Berry uses fruit primarily from Mount Barker but also from Albany and Frankland, as well as from Margaret River – a four-hour drive away.
Berry has celebrated 25 vintages in the Great Southern and he and his wife Gill Graham also operate the Mount Trio vineyard in the elevated Porongurups sub-region, which was planted in 1989. Berry sees riesling and chardonnay as the regional standouts.
Given the high profile of wineries like Castle Rock, Galafrey, Forest Hill, Rockcliffe and others, it seems amazing the Great Southern wine industry is so young compared to much of the rest of Australia.
It was only in 1975 that Plantagenet Wines purchased an apple-packing shed in Mount Barker and converted the building into a winery that made the region's first commercial wines.
Plantagenet and Alkoomi (where they use no herbicides and pesticides in their vineyards), are two of the local pioneers enjoying success.
Today the wine industry is thriving and the Great Southern produces 37% of all the wine grapes in Western Australia.
The producers range from 200,000 case wineries like Ferngrove to tiny producers like La Violetta, Bunn Vineyard and Snake and Herring.
At small wineries like family-owned Galafrey in Mount Barker,(above), you can meet Henry, the winery dog, who will greet you at the car park and escort you to the cellar door, while at organic producer Oranje Tractor outside Albany, you can enjoy a home-made pizza on the deck with the winery workers.
Galafrey winemaker Kim Tyrer says she's a workaholic because “little things make the difference between good and great wine”. You'll often also find her behind the tasting bar.
Whichever cellar door you pop into in the Great Southern there's a pretty good chance you will get to meet the winemaker or owner - like Rob Wignall at Wignalls.
Denmark, cute with cafes and chocolate shops, is probably the tourist hubs of the Great Southern; the wines from the likes of newcomers Byron and Harold, as well as the Great Southern outpost of Margaret River's Howard Park/Madfish. Wines from Harewood Estate, Singlefile, Lake House and Forest Hill are worth seeking out.
Also head further afield to taste Rob Diletti's outstanding wines at Castle Rock, and to Xabregas on Porongurup Road. If time is short there is a huge range of local wines in the bottle shop adjacent to Due South restaurant in Albany.
Albany is a five-hours drive from Perth via Albany Highway. Virgin Australia operates daily flights to Albany from Perth International Airport Terminal 2. www.virginaustralia.com.au.
The next annual Taste Great Southern food and wine festival will be held from February 18-March 27, 2016 and offers a range of food and wine experiences. www.greatsoutherntastewa.com.
Australia’s Great South West has visitor centres in all major towns in the region. www.australiassouthwest.com. Or see www.amazingalbany.com.au.
# This is an edited version of a story that originally appeared in Selector Magazine.