From the tasting team

Another Round: Swan Valley

By Mike Bennie

29 Mar, 2023

A group of younger, more adventurous winemakers are transforming Western Australia’s Swan Valley wine region, writes Mike Bennie.

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The Swan Valley is much-maligned, often overlooked, but a renaissance is occurring through a sect of avant garde winemakers. This younger generation (in both age and ideas) has breathed life into the region and diversified an offering that readily produces wines of regional distinction. Swan’s longstanding focus is on key varieties chenin blanc, verdelho, shiraz and grenache, alongside extraordinary fortified wines. This new guard leans strongly into different schisms, with pet-nats; chillable, lighter bodied reds; skin-fermented white wines; and salty, crunchy whites as calling cards.

The traditional wines of Swan Valley seem to be off the radar for many, which perhaps comes from a confluence of an assumption about the quality of the regional staples alongside the region missing some of the glitz and glamour of other WA tourist locations. While tastings of Swan Valley wines would dispel the former, the lure of Margaret River’s pristine surf beaches and sundry activities around wine still manage to trump Swan’s broader appeal.

A visit to Swan Valley would oust the furphies. While not imbued with bucolic vistas, per se, there’s a rugged charm to the wine growing area and the proximate Perth Hills. There’s also virtue in the authenticity of multi-generational migrant family wineries like Talijancich and John Kosovich, finely crafted wines from boutique outfits like Harris Organic and Faber, and polished tourism experiences from Sittella, Nikola Estate and Sandalford

Mike BennieMike Bennie.

Proximity to the city is appealing too – a 30-minute drive from just about anywhere Perth metro and you’re standing in the Swan’s gnarled old vines. This is perhaps the catalyst that has helped sweep up the new guard of avant garde wine producers.

While several of these newer producers are rusted-on Swan Valley locals, many are Perth folk enticed into day tripping the region with the promise of old vine material, relatively low prices for purchasing fruit, and a newfound comradery in shared winemaking facilities, all buoyed by a parochial Perth drinking scene that is rewarding innovative local drinks.

Of the ‘locals’, those with wineries and vineyards under family guidance, such as Tom Daniels (Chouette), Bree Lavell and Paul Hoffman (Swan Valley Wines) and Rob and Gen Mann (Corymbia) have been seismic in drawing gaze to the region. Corymbia has grown from the Mann family’s return to the generational family property in Swan Valley and a commitment to minimal intervention wines that fit within the fine wine paradigm. Chouette and Swan Valley Wines have been trailblazers in esoteric and yet compelling expressions of regional staples, with pet-nats, orange wines and lively whites and reds as calling cards. 

Red wine glassWinemakers in the Swan Valley are making a range of chillable, lighter bodied reds.

More iconoclastic is the Swan Valley Garagistas collective, a banding of ‘minimal intervention and artisans’, as their manifesto decrees. While Chouette and Swan Valley form part of this, Chalari, Ohkela, Local Weirdos and Yume are adjacent projects that round out the collective. The group does eclectic interpretations of regional staples while working to a mission statement that values cultivation of sense of place, engagement with Indigenous culture and an encouragement of collaboration and creativity. It’s fresh, new and appealing, with wines that follow suit.

Wines from the collective range from ‘work in progress’ through to stellar releases that shift the dial on the region’s potential. Wild-edged orange wines, loose-knit red blends, esoteric rosé and varying shades of pet-nat abound, but likewise sensitive use of older vine material results in unadorned, refined and light-to-medium weight grenache, saline chenin blanc and mellow syrahs. It’s a boon for the region for capturing more gaze from shifting generations of drinkers, and for encouraging a diversity of thinking from other local growers and makers.

Wines to try

2022 Chouette Revival Grenache

2022 Chouette Revival Grenache

Fruit was picked at different times during a stretch of the harvest period. The wine is matured in a 1800-litre, Slavonian oak barrel. It’s a light, very fresh expression of grenache with scents and flavours of dark cherry juice, amaro and sweet spice. Lively, thirst-quenching style with silky tannins. Best drunk with a chill.

2021 Vino Volta Methode Ancestrale Chenin Blanc

2021 Vino Volta Methode Ancestrale Chenin Blanc

Garth Cliff is a vineyard guru who plied his trade at a big company in Swan Valley before turning to his family project. His knowledge of great sites and old vines is a huge asset. This is pristine, naturally sparkling wine, offering crisp texture, fine bubbles and zesty acidity. Think lime squeezed in tonic water with the crunch of green apple.

2021 Swan Valley Wines Heirloom Blanc

2021 Swan Valley Wines Heirloom Blanc

A quirky but well-judged blend of muscadelle, malvasia, navera and chenin blanc, which were macerated on their own skins. Texture is a big feature of the wine. Lots of ripe stone fruit, sweet citrus and clove spice characters here. Aromas and flavours in synch. It’s a bold mouthful and yet retains high refreshment factor.

2021 Ohkela Sophia’s Rosé

2021 Ohkela Sophia’s Rosé

A coffee expert by day with a side line in ‘weekend winemaking’, Gabe Tan is trailblazing with his scintillating first releases. Sophia’s Rosé shapeshifts each year (the previous release chenin blanc stained with shiraz skins) and in 2021 is direct pressed grenache with a tiny splash of cabernet franc for colour and weight. Aromatic, dry, savoury in style