Wine: Finding a sense of place in WA

I have so much to tell you so far about my first few days in the Best Jobs competition: the other candidates (in short: they are all fantastic), the incredible itinerary that is in store for me this week, and how I’m feeling about being so close to my dream food job.

But first, I wanted to share a post I wrote a couple of weeks back about Western Australian wine.

I’ve taken some pretty intensive wine courses as part my curriculum at the CIA, but I am no expert; merely an appreciative amateur in all things grape.

I wanted to get a better handle on the terroir and the wines of WA before I am flown out to Perth this Saturday. I’m terribly lucky to already be living in Australia, because finding Australian wine is as easy as walking 5 minutes down the road to the bottle shop.

I enlisted the help of my partner and a few Australian friends we’ve made on our journey, because who better to talk about terroir with than people who live in the region?

Before I get into specifics of what I tried, here’s a quick peek into how wine got started down under, because I personally think it has a very, err, ‘colorful’ history. 

Australia’s short history of wine is married to the history of its penal colony in the late 18th and 19th centuries. In those 80 or so years, British ships dropped off more than 165,000 convicts (mostly doing time for petty crimes). And along with the prisoners, came old vine cuttings of vitas vinifera, the most common European grape varietal.

As the settlers got a feel for the Australian terroir, they were able to suss out which areas were best for certain crops, and moved mostly South and West to plant vines.

At first, they churned out monstrous amounts of fortified wine, which came to be known as plonk wines (aka cheap).

(Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, and it is said that back in the 19th century, Victoria was making wines so good that those fancy French wine tasters couldn’t tell the Aussie wines apart from Grand Cru Bordeaux’s.)

But for most wineries, it wasn’t until the 1950’s, a good 100 years after the first vines were planted, that winemakers started to put more focus and finesse into producing fine wines.

And where are they now? The AU wine industry is now the fourth largest producer of wine in the world, with wine produced in every state. It has also cornered 4% of the boutique wine market.

If only the convicts could be here to taste the fruits of their labor, right?

When I arrived at our tasting ‘venue’ (my friends much larger apartment), I was taken aback by all the wine in the entryway! Would we be drinking it all?


Turns out, his roommate is a sommelier who runs his own wine distribution company out of the house. (I swear I could hear my liver breathing a sigh of relief.)

The Tasting

I tasted mostly wines from the hilly Margaret River region. It is arguably the most well-known region in WA, with high quality wines being produced that can really pack a punch. You can thank the heat for that intensity; Margaret River gets blazing hot and has the ideal humidity for growing, which creates some spectacular Bordeaux varietals.

Winery Roundup:

Vasse Felix, Margaret River (Chardonnay), 2010

Mount Trio, Great Southern, Pinot Noir, 2011

Della Fay, Margaret River, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2009

Xanadu ‘Next of Kin’, Margaret River, Shiraz, 2008


I whipped up a little cheese plate to pair with our wines: a vintage Aussie cheddar, a Camembert from the Margaret River Dairy Co., and a Tasmanian bleu.


Photo by Paul Veiser


Photo by Paul Veiser

Prosciutto, olives, hummus, and soy/linseed bread from Sourdough Bakery completed the spread.


We started the tasting off with the one white of the night: A 2010 Chardonnay from Vasse Felix.

The Bouquet: Stone fruit, light-toasted oak, and a little almond on the nose.

The Palate:  The crisp acidity melted into the buttery oak, and reminded me of a white peach cobbler. The acid stayed strong long after the sip was swallowed, key for balancing its more buttery, medium-bodied qualities. Where chards are concerned, I like ‘an appropriate amount of oak’. For me, too much oak in a chardonnay reminds me of how I feel about fake butter on popcorn: that it is criminal.

Overall: I wanted a good idea of what a chardonnay from the Margaret River would be like, and I think that the Vasse was spot on. This was beautifully balanced, medium-bodied, with a finish so long and pleasant, it practically stayed the night.

This chardonnay would have a place next to my plate of roast chook any day. It is also worth noting that this went best with the aged Cheddar on our cheese plate.

Up next, the 2011 Pinot Noir from Mount Trio, a light-bodied red from the Great Southern region of WA.

mount trio

Photo by Paul Veiser

The Bouquet: Cedar, smoke, and dark fruits of black plums and cherries on the nose.

The Palate: Downright tangy with tart cherries and rhubarb at the front. The light oak used during the aging process imparted a very subtle spice like white pepper. It has medium structured tannins and a tart fruit finish. Fairly straight forward with no drama.

Overall Impressions: Like a tease, this pinot left me wanting a little more at the finish. I think when the complexity comes out in a few more years of bottle aging, it will show everyone why pinot noir is described as, ‘sex in a glass’.

My next pick is by way of Wine for Dudes, a tour company based in the Margaret River region. They show off the wineries and breweries to visitors looking to learn and taste in a fun, un-pretentious atmosphere. When I asked the owner, John O’Conner, what red varietal really defines the WA terroir, he cried, “Cab Sauv! Cabernet Sauvignon is the King of the WA, you gotta have it on there!”.

And that is how the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon by Della Fay made its way into the tasting.

della fay

Photo by Paul Veiser

The Bouquet: Just a sniff brought currants, herbs, and warm spices rushing to my senses. I quite specifically got lemon verbena and a little mint, and the group consensus was ‘cinder and smoke’, with notes of dark chocolate, tobacco, and mint.

The Palate: Full, rich, peppery. The tannins had purpose and persisted throughout the entire taste. Great balance to this wine.

Overall Impression: Long live the King, because this will only get better with age. It went really well with the grilled Keilbasa sausages we threw on the barbecue, and paired beautifully with the mild-flavored camembert.

Last to try was the 2008 Xanadu Shiraz.


I wanted to taste shiraz, a grape synonymous with Australian wine, from an iconic WA winery, like Xanadu.

The Bouquet: black currents, pepper, leather, plum.

The Palate: This was, “pulling’ punches”, as one of my tasters said; this will not disappoint if you are craving a full bodied Shiraz.

The quality of Australian shiraz’s blow me away, and this was no different. Before I arrived in Oz,  I expected most of the wine to taste hot, jammy, and have the viscosity of cough-syrup. I soon discovered that is an unfortunate and untrue stereotype for the majority of Australian wines. This shiraz was on the light side of full bodied and very sip-able. Shiraz’s go best with a big bloody steak, or slow roasted leg of lamb; basically anything that could get nice and smoky on the barbecue is pairing gold.

This mini-tasting really helped me to harness what WA wine is all about. Overall, the wines in my line-up were straightforward yet elegant, and cheeky in all the right ways–a bit like an Aussie if you ask me!


Photo by Paul Veiser

Do you have a favorite grape or wine region? Have you ever tried a WA wine? Tell me what you think in the comments.

Oh, and happy sipping!


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