Western Australia makes less than 10% of Australia's wine but is responsible for a disproportionate amount of the gold medals and trophies in national wine shows, particularly for Cabernet (and blends), Chardonnay, Riesling and Semillon-Sauvignon blends. Wine has been produced in Western Australia since the founding of the first penal colony in the 1820s. The first recorded attempt at viticulture in the West was by Charles McFaull in 1829 near the present day Hamilton Hill. The attempt failed due to unsuitable soils and lack of water.
Western Australian Wine Industry Association:www.winewa.asn.au
Commercial wines was being made in the 1830s and 1840s around South Guilford from vine cuttings imported from South Africa by botanist Thomas Waters. These early cuttings perhaps explain the unusual persistence of the white wine variety, Chenin Blanc, the mainstay of the South African wine industry, in Western Australia.
Also the original Olive Farm cellars - the oldest still operational wine cellars in Australia - date back to this period (although now called the Water Side Winery).
Some wine-making activities spread north of Perth to Avon Valley, and also in the south-west around Bunbury, Bussleton and Albany. However, the most important wine region in Western Australia until the last 30 years was around the baking but well-watered soils around the Swan Valley.
Houghton for many years was dominant wine-maker and produced the only WA wine readily available in the eastern states - Houghton's White Burgundy. Fortified wine was the mainstay of the industry although table wine making traditions were kept alive by Italian and Yugoslav immigrants who settled in the Valley and also north of Perth around Wanneroo. A visiting Californian oenologist, Harold Olmo, in 1956 had identified the southern Bordeaux-like virtues of the southern Mt. Barker region.
The Western Australian wine industry was transformed by Dr. John Gladstone's 1965 study "The Climate and Soils of South Western Australia in Relation to Vine Growing". It sparked a new generation of wine pioneers who established themselves in the late 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s in new cool-climate wine regions suitable for the production of world class Cabernets, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling and Semillon-Sauvignon blends (Vasse Felix, Cullen, Moss Wood, Cape Mentelle, Alkoomi, Plantagenet, Goundrey and Forest Hill).
The new generation of winemakers also benefited from the evolution of refrigerated transport which made it possible to get the wine to the bigger but distant eastern state markets without spoilage (Sydney is 4,000 km from Perth). Also similar to the Hunter Valley, many of the old established Swan Valley wineries such as Houghtons began buying up vineyards in the new areas.
The success, prestige and often high prices commanded by the Margaret River and some Great Southern wineries has seen the wine-making efforts dotted along virtually the whole coastal strip and adjoining ranges of South-Western Australia.
Wine lovers in the eastern states are now becoming acquainted with the newer regions that have recently gained formal GI status as official wine appellations: Peel, Pemberton, Manjimup, and Geographe. The Perth Hills region, south of the Swan Valley, has some long standing wineries, and is enjoying a micro-boutique weekend tourism revival, was given formal GI status in 1999.
Unfortunately the small population of WA is not sufficient to maintain all this new viticulture activity. The famous Margaret River brands are available in most good wine shops across Australia, and some of the new players in the new regions are trying to break into the interstate market through offering their wine a very low margins to the retail chains. Others are looking to Asia and Europe for new markets.
However, most wineries are unknown outside of the state. Fortunately inside the Perth there seems to be a great deal of pride and knowledge about the local wineries. We have found the wine bars and cafes of Northbridge and Fremantle have wine lists that are refreshingly dominated with WA wines rather than the bulk SA and NSW commercial brands. So there is no excuse not to give them a try next time you are in Perth. top