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Geoffrey Dean latest Australian vintage report takes him to South Western Australia

Published:  11 December, 2012

The worst storm in the growing season to hit Margaret River for 16 years will lead to a major reduction in cropping levels for the 2013 vintage for a number of wineries, according to one of the region's top winemakers, Keith Mugford, owner of iconic winery, Moss Wood. He expects to lose between a third and two thirds of his fruit from his two prime vineyard sites.

"We've not had a storm like that since 1996," Mugford said of the severe weather front which struck much of south-western Australia at the end of November. "The preceding worst storm was in 1980, and before that in 1966. Late storms and heavy winds mean damage, and when you add in hail like we had, you get substantial damage, particularly to berries. I'm guessing it'll lead to a 30-50% loss in our Moss Wood vineyard and 40-70% in the Ribbon Vale one, which was hammered. I know of other vineyards round here that got hit but it was so localised."

Not everyone in the premium sub-region of Wilyabrup was affected. Top boutique winery, Woodlands, for example, whose vines are barely a kilometre away from Moss Wood, emerged unscathed. Stuart Watson, whose specialities include some excellent cabernet-led blends, reported minimal damage. So too 25km further south did Voyager Estate, whose outstanding wines are now rivalling those of near neighbour, Leeuwin Estate.

Voyager's cellar door - made memorable by founder Michael Wright's choice not just of Cape Dutch gable architecture but also of the second tallest flagpole in Australia after Government House - is one of the most eye-catching in the country. Throw in some gorgeous gardens, a superb restaurant and a wide range of wines - notably the chardonnay (grown from nine different clones) and the Shiraz - and you have a winery that is a must-visit.

Culinary excellence can also be found at nearby Vasse Felix, but a couple of lesser known wineries whose cuisine is equally 'haute' are Millbrook, in the Perth Hills, and Upper Reach, in the Swan Valley.

The former's winemaker, Damo Hutton is producing some of the best Chardonnay and Viognier in the state, while enterprising chef Guy Jeffreys last month earned Millbrook the coveted 'Gold Plate' from the Catering Institute of WA for the best winery restaurant in Perth's surrounds.

Upper Reach's winemaker, Derek Pearce, worked for various Oddbins stores in England for five years in the 1990s before returning home to become a talented winemaker in the hot climate region of Swan Valley, just east of Perth. The area produces a mere 3,000 tons of fruit, but some of Australia's best wine thanks to a posse of top-class producers.

John Griffiths, of Faber Vineyard, crafts some of the best Shiraz not just in WA but in the whole of the country from a low-cropping two-acre block planted in 1998. He makes two or three barrels of it per year, ageing it for 22-26 months in 100% new French oak. It is superlative New World Shiraz, and his single varietal Petit Verdot is almost as good.

Just down the road from Faber can be found the renowned octogenarian winemaker, John Kosovich, whose family came to Australia from Croatia in the 1920s. Son, Archie, has taken over at the helm, and between them, they make liqueur muscats that are as rich and concentrated as anything you will find in Rutherglen. Their single varietal Malbec, from ultra low-yielding vines planted in 1900, is amongst the very best in Australia.

A short drive from the venerable Kosovich cellars can be found the new kid on the Swan Valley's winemaking block. Alon Arbel, an Israeli who produces 2,500 cases a year, has made a big impact since his first vintage in 2004, attracting high praise from the influential Aussie critic, James Halliday. Apart from bulging with personality, his sought-after Bella Ridge wines are notable for the fact they are made with barely any sulphur (around 30ppm free and 70ppm total).

"I don't use any sulphur until after the wines have been in barrel for a year," declares Arbel, who always employs wild yeasts. "I only get stuck ferments occasionally, and rarely have an issue with microbial spoilage. Brett and volatile acidity don't bother me, but if there is a real problem, I chuck the barrel out."

Demand for Arbel's wines - in particular his barrel-fermented chenin blanc, his Grenache from 100-year old vines and his petit verdot-dominant red blend - is such that he will not take orders from retailers, only mail-order customers and top Australian restaurants. "I don't sell to bottle shops and I won't enter wine competitions here. These shows are ruining individuality."

Individuality is the hallmark of Picardy's Pinot Noir, without doubt the best example of the variety in WA. Named after a French region that ironically does not produce any wine, the winery in the cool climate region of Pemberton is the source of elegant, complex Burgundian style pinots that are the equal of leading Victorian and Tasmanian examples. Owner, Bill Pannell, who founded Moss Wood, sold out to Mugwood in his quest to make top-class Australian pinot. He has succeeded brilliantly.