Among the Vines: Discovering Perth’s Wineries in a Weekend
From big to boutique, Perth wineries are full of secrets.
With great drinking, stories and characters, all just a short drive from the city centre, Perth’s wineries are a must-visit on a trip to WA.
The Swan Valley
“It’s a lexicon of flavours,” says John Kosovich Wines winemaker Arch Kosovich as he siphons a splash of 60-year-old muscat from its weathered barrel. He’s right. The colour and texture of treacle, this dark, wildly complex liquid that has been gracefully ageing in the family’s hand-dug underground cellar since the 1950s is a wonderland of chocolate, coffee, spice and history. Normally this wine is blended away as part of the John Kosovich Rare Muscat: to be able to taste it on its own is a privilege. In many ways, it tells the story of Western Australia’s oldest winemaking region as much as it does one of its pioneering wine families.
While Margaret River might enjoy global praise and attention, as far as age goes, it’s a teenager compared to the Swan Valley, a fertile region north of Perth that includes the northern banks of the Swan River. This year, Margaret River celebrates 50 years since it began commercial wine production. The Swan Valley, meanwhile, is sitting on 183 vintages, not out. Even better, all this history, good cheer and great drinking is less than a half an hour by car from the city centre, putting the valley’s vinous riches well within striking distance for a day trip.
Stories like the Kosovich’s ancient muscat are dotted throughout the Swan Valley. The Talijancich family, for instance, are custodians of equally impressive fortified wine stocks that they bottle and release as a diverse range of styles and price points. Cool climate might be all the rage in wine circles, but it takes warm, Mediterranean-style summers to shrivel and intensify the grapes needed for the wondrous, deeply concentrated dessert wines the Swan Valley is famous for.
That’s not to say that the region isn’t capable of producing sterling table wines, though. The late Jack Mann, founder of the family-owned Lamont’s is renowned as one of the most influential winemakers in West Australian history and his legacy remains today. Lamont’s winemaker Digby Leddin oversees a range that includes regional strengths such as plush shiraz and fruity verdelho as well as wines made from grapes grown outside of the Swan Valley’s borders (riesling from the Great Southern, for instance, and Margaret River cabernet). The on-site café at the Millendon winery, meanwhile, serves robust, generously flavoured share plates: a trademark of Mann’s granddaughter, noted chef Kate Lamont.
Faber Vineyards is another local boutique winemaker punching above its weight. Opened by John Griffiths and Jane Micallef, this cosy cellar door – its owners prefer the label “wine studio” – is another example of small being beautiful. Local strengths such as shiraz, grenache and verdelho are, again, supplemented by wines made from grapes grown from around Western Australia.
Not all of the Swan Valley’s family-run ventures are small-scale though. You’ve likely heard of Sandalford Winery, the Prendiville family’s sprawling Caversham winery and restaurant. One of the area’s newer big players is Mandoon Estate, an ambitious multi-function venue opened in 2014 after years of planning and building by the Erceg family. In addition to a cellar door showcasing the handiwork of winemaker Ryan Sudano (not least the mighty wines he fashions from old-vine plantings), the estate is also home to a polished, modern Australian restaurant, a family-friendly playground, and on-site craft brewery, Homestead.
Speaking of beer, it’s worth acknowledging the area’s growing number of craft brewers, starting with Feral Brewing and its much loved Hop Hog IPA. Arguably the most successful of all the Swan Valley beer stories, Feral’s original Baskerville brewhouse has been converted into a dedicated sour beer production facility for brewer Brendan Varis to indulge his love of Belgian farmhouse-style beers. Between Feral and the region’s other specialist brewers – Duckstein and its playbook of Germanic beers, for instance, or Mash Brewing and its pertly dubbed product range – ale heads have much to get excited about. Now sweeten the pot with a craft distillery like Old Young’s daring to be different (smoked gin, anyone?) and the Swan Valley’s appeal to adventurous drinkers becomes all too clear.
A similar sense of potential is afoot in the Perth Hills, a picturesque region of lush landscapes, rolling hills and farming scenes that feels like it should be much further from Perth than just half an hour by car.
“The Hills are like a sleeping giant,” says Fairbrossen winemaker Matthew Bowness. “It feels like it’s on the cusp of blowing up. One of the big differences is the majority of businesses are family-owned so you really get that sense of boutique and artisan. Invariably you’re talking to the owner at the cellar door.”
Bowness, a winemaker that’s worked in France and America, is but one reason the Perth Hills is such an exciting prospect. While he’s focusing on organic, minimal-intervention winemaking (the cellar door sells both the family’s wines as well as Bowness’ limited “Side Project” bottlings), the Radice family of La Fattoria work exclusively with Italian grapes, while the Davenports at MyattsField continue to champion Spanish wine varieties and styles.
At Millbrook, Damian Hutton works with a diverse range of grapes, but chef Guy Jeffreys’ grow-it-yourself approach to cooking and tending the estate gardens feels distinctly European. It’s not just one of the best regional eating experiences in the area, but in the state.
In short, the drinking options in the Hills are as varied and diverse as the region’s landscapes and climactic nuances.