Swan diversion – an unsung Australian wine valley

Swan diversion – an unsung Australian wine valley

Just a half-hour north of Perth is the Swan Valley, one of Australia’s earliest wine regions. It’s overshadowed by the much more famous Margaret River, but it’s well worth the detour, writes Andrew James

If you fly into Perth for a wine vacation, the plan might be to rent a car and head south for three hours to Margaret River. But wait. How about going north?

If you do, after a half-hour drive you’ll come to the Swan Valley. Australia’s hottest wine region consists of 40 wineries scattered along the Swan River. The vineyards here benefit from southwest winds blowing off the Indian Ocean; though day-time temperatures can be oppressive, the summer evenings are cool.

Ray Kosovich of Kosovich Winery

You might not have heard of Swan Valley because almost all of the wines are consumed locally by tourists, mostly thirsty day-trippers from Perth. What makes the Swan Valley special? I asked Ray Kosovich, whose family has been making wine in the area for 100 years. Its versatility, he said. While most regions focus on two or three different styles of wines, Swan Valley growers and winemakers can do it all, making excellent sparklers, reds, whites and fortified wines.

The valley’s first vineyard was planted in 1829, on land now owned by Olive Farm Wines. Large-scale viticulture didn’t start until 1840. That’s the year Western Australia’s first surveyor, John Septimus Roe, received a sizeable land grant from Queen Victoria and planted grapes along the Swan River. He called the settlement Sandalford; a winery of the same name is still in operation.

Rare Tawny from Nikola Estate

Soaring summer temperatures and a lack of refrigeration technology led the early settlers to use heat-resistant varieties like Verdelho and Brown Muscat for fortified wines. Today Swan Valley stickies (as sweet wines are known in Australia) are considered among the country’s best.

An example is Nikola Estate’s Rare Topaque Muscat, made in the solera fashion (as used for sherry) from base wines averaging 35 years old. It’s a rich, luscious concoction which still feels fresh. With notes of dates, toffee, treacle, chocolate, it took me as close to heaven as I’m likely to get. It’s made by Damian Hutton, who was named 2023 winemaker of the year by The Western Australia Wine Guide – he’s clearly doing a lot of things right.

A true Swan Valley legend is Jack Mann. Remembered for his contribution to the development of Margaret River in the 1970s, his career began in 1937; he oversaw 51 consecutive vintages of Houghton’s White Burgundy, widely considered one of the best wines ever made in Western Australia. Mann was farsighted, advocating drinking in moderation and questioning the dominance and overconsumption of fortified wines. He also called Cabernet Sauvignon the only grape that would be tolerated in heaven, though I’m sure he would have allowed a bottle or two of Rare Topaque inside the Pearly Gates.

Faber Vineyard

Cabernet Sauvignon excels in the Swan Valley, as do other Bordeaux varieties, which are marked by a soft rather than spicy finish. Harris Organic’s varietal Malbec and Faber Vineyards’ Petit Verdot are highly recommended. The reds are fruit forward but surprisingly well-structured, never jammy and, when the grapes come from old vines, mineral. You’ll also find many good examples of Grenache, Shiraz and Tempranillo.

When the discussion turns to sparkling wine, it inevitably leads back to the pioneering Mann family, with the principal player being Jack’s grandson, Dorham. After retiring as Sandalford’s winemaker in 1987, Dorham launched a solo sparkling project and today he continues to make the same two cuvées with his daughter Anthea.

As you might expect, one is a Cabernet Sauvignon (a rosé), while the other, a white, is made from a rare varietal known as Cygne Blanc. Back in 1989 Dorham’s wife discovered a white-berried seedling growing in her garden next to a vineyard planted to Cabernet Sauvignon. They decided to cultivate it, calling its offspring Cygne Blanc, or white swan, and it was recognized as an official grape variety in 1997. I wasn’t able to try it on my February visit because once Mann Winery sells all of their stock, it is their custom to close for the rest of the year, and the doors were firmly shut. But my thirst was slaked at Faber Vineyards by a traditional method Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs with a pear and melon profile and superb acidity, then again at Mandoon Estate by a Semillon vintage sparkler aged a year on the lees. Incidentally, Mandoon Estate was Western Australia's most awarded boutique winery from 2012 to 2017, claiming 88 trophies and 167 gold medals. They have stepped away from competitions, preferring to emphasize their promotion of local Aboriginal businesses and the preservation of Noongar culture and traditions.

Finally, if it’s still white wine you want, look no further than Chenin Blanc, rapidly becoming Australia’s hippest white grape. In the Swan Valley the wines typically offer notes of green apple, pear and kerosene that turns to nuts after a few years in the bottle. John Kosovich Wines uses Chenin vines planted in the 1960s to make a lightly-oaked version that is subtle and age-worthy. Their  wines are probably the most decorated in the region, as evidenced by their 2018 bottle-aged Chenin Blanc being selected as the ‘best other white wine or blend’ at the 2024 Halliday Wine Awards. Recently, dry table wines made from Verdelho are also becoming common, with Talijancich Wines making one of the best. A newer winery, Upper Reach, offers an intriguing blend of Chardonnay and Verdelho that is one of the best value wines in the region.

It's a shame that so few of these wines are available internationally, because Swan Valley is a genuine slice of Australian wine history and well worth the short drive north from Perth.

Andy James is a professor in the School of Commerce at Meiji University in Tokyo. His book Bandol Wine and the Magic of Mourvèdre was published in 2023. In addition to teaching English and wine business classes at Meiji he has established a summer study wine program at Curtin University in Perth. 

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