The area around the town of Albany was the first place inhabited by European settlers in Western Australia. The region is known as The Great Southern and it is a large, diverse bit of geography at the south-western tip of the Australian continent. Despite the early settlement here, the city of Perth ultimately became Western Australia’s economic center. And Albany remained a decidedly more sedate place. There is a series of wine and tourist regions that are dotted along together down the coast to the south and east from Perth. The Great Southern is at the far end of this chain. Partly as a result, the Great Southern has retained a certain far-flung feeling and more of a frontier vibe than its neighbours to the northwest. It really is geographically distinct.
As you drive along the coast and then pass through the Margaret River area you are transiting from the west coast to the south coast. As you round the coastline you are now along the great Southern Ocean. The coast is wilder, the communities are smaller and more spread out and you get the distinct (and accurate) impression that the highway onward is going to become very remote and dramatic indeed.
There’s Something Particular About The Climate
This being Australia there is, predictably, a rich and interesting wine industry here. Consistent with the Great Southern’s geographic separateness, the wine climate here has its own character. In fact there are 5 very discrete subregions and microclimates for wine. Mount Barker, Denmark, the Porongurups, Frankland River and Albany. All of the regions have an essentially Mediterranean climate with wet, cool winters and warm summers. Mount Barker is a little cooler and more continental and the Porongurups have a very particular climate based on the dramatic topography of the region. As a result the wines produced here range from warm climate to cool climate. Riesling, Pinot Noir and Shiraz create particularly interesting expressions in the cooler climates.
Why Great Southern For Wine?
Vine growing and wine making are fairly recent in the Great Southern wine region. In the 1950’s Harold Olmo from the University of California did a study here and recommended the Mount Barker and Frankland River areas for winemaking. It wasn’t until the mid-60s that trials vines were planted and not until the early 70’s that wine was made. The wines turned out to be extremely promising and winemaking has been very successful ever since. The great advantage of the Great Southern is that it is the coolest region in Western Australia and has lower rainfall amounts. The 5 subregions are also qualitatively different enough to have their own personality. Winemakers have seized on these advantages to distinguish their wines and produce an offering that is differentiated from the balance of Western Australia.
Where Is The Great Southern?
At the southwest tip of Australia, where the Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean meet is a point of land called Cape Leeuwin. This is roughly where the Margaret River area is located. On the map it looks like the tip of a bump that protrudes to the southwest between the city of Perth to the north and the town of Albany to the south east. The Great Southern is at the bottom of this productive winegrowing “bump”. From Perth southwards to Margaret River takes you through great wine country like Geographe. From Margaret River eastwards to Albany takes you through a series of inland parks and then the dramatic Southern Ocean coastline leading to Albany.
Who Are The Winemakers?
There are over 50 winemakers in the Great Southern and they are making wines from a very diverse set of vines including Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malber, Shiraz and Pinot Noir. This is cool climate winemaking, at least in Australian terms, and some of Western Australia’s best wines come from here. A few of the many names to look out for are linked below:
www.plantagenetwines.com – Mount Barker
www.franklandestate.com.au – Frankland River
www.gilbertwines.com.au – Mount Barker
www.howardparkwines.com.au – – Mount Barker and other
www.snakeandherring.com.au – Porongurup
www.laviolettawines.com.au – Mount Barker
www.estate807.com.au – Denmark
Travel To The Great Southern
The best time to visit the Great Southern is October thru April when temperatures are beautiful and rainfall is lower. Travel is best done as part of an epic road trip from Perth. Theoretically the trip can be done in a shorter period and Highway 30 cuts a fairly straight 5-hour inland route to Albany. But you would be missing the coastline road to Geographe, the wine routes along the way including the wonderful Margaret River area, the series of parks inland from Margaret River and, of course, the dramatic Southern Ocean coastline leading to Albany. Much better to set aside at least a week to tour the coastline and the wine regions properly!
Map and photo credits: www.wineaustralia.com; Gilbert Wines; Plantagenet Wines; Estate 807.