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Chenin Blanc in Western Australia

How do you describe a collection of Chenin Blanc lovers! Historically we were a cluster or disorganised rabble. Working our way now from a stubborn or an obstinacy and slowly growing to a thunder. If we keep spreading the word hopefully this thunder will soon be a party or a festival!!

Tracing back the lineage and evolution of the wine industry creates amazing stories around where we are today. This is often done through word of mouth with anecdotal and incomplete evidence. Here is a contribution towards Western Australia’s wine story.

Vine Beginnings...

Australia’s first grape vines were planted in Sydney around 1790 and like the Perth Colonies initial plantings in 1827 were largely unsuccessful. Vines were imported subsequently and grown in what was to become the Hunter Valley. Verdelho was a popular early variety.

A collection of 651 cuttings taken from Spain through to Champagne were planted in NSW in 1833. James Busby - widely regarded as the Father of Australian Wine - was tasked by the government to source wine grapes from Europe. They were donated to the Sydney botanic gardens where most perished. Fortunately he planted 385 of them at his property in the Hunter Valley. This collection is largely responsible for the development of viticulture and wine within New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia, as well as New Zealand.

Many of Australia’s old vines and classic wines can be traced back to the original Busby collection. It is unlikely that chenin was in this. The focus was on Spain where climate seemed like Australia and then through Rhone and Rousillon, Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne.

Almost concurrently Thomas Waters – a plant collector and botanist - was tasked by the British Government to find plant species that would flourish in the new Perth colony. Helping to supply the population and helping to solve the issue of malnourished and poisoned livestock on the native vegetation. Amongst these were grape vines that were planted in the Swan Valley in 1829. The following year digging the cellar of Austalia’s 2nd Oldest Winery - Olive Farm.

Waters had spent 1823 to 1829 in South Africa as a plant collector and in this time had learnt how to make wine from the Boers. Noting the similarity in climate and a resource that was familiar to him - There are invoice records for Waters for 1823-1829 while based in South Africa and while a gardener in WA from 1832-1848. It is thought that many of the original vinifera species would have been brought over during this period. Early wine grape varieties were termed Sweet Water, Muscatel and White cluster. Based on current grape vine prevalence in Swan Valley these early wine grapes likely included Chenin, Verdelho, Semillon and possibly Palomino which was a distillation grape variety in South Africa and could well be the variety that was called Sweet Water in the early days.

Tyranny and Blessing of Distance

The Perth colony was a long way from the other colonies of Australia - it took until 1840 for the first land based crossing and most of the crew that attempted this turned back. It was a long way and conditions were harsh. This isolation meant that it was easier to get external supplies from Europe or South Africa then to trade with the rest of Australia. This along with a low and slow growing population base allowed a very different wine industry to evolve. It is this that has led to Chenin Blanc being an early dominant grape of Western Australia and to its unique position within Australia stemming from this.

Later strict East to West quarantine procedures while no doubt keeping some disease out of WA means that we have a unique vine make up across many of our varieties stemming from these initial imports and vine material arriving with post world war european immigrants. We have unique wines in part because of our climate and soils and in part because our early source material is different to the rest of Australia.

By 1832 Waters was selling wine by the Gallon. By 1843 he had an extensive vineyard of around 12000 vines on the Middle Swan and the samples of wine presented to the Agricultural society were described as very good. Table grapes and currants were an industry of major importance to the Swan Valley and the bigger industry of the time. Over the next decade a number of businesses formed that contributed to our early wine industry and amongst them were Houghton and Sandalford Australia’s 3rd and 5th Oldest wine businesses.

Setting the Stage

Chenin blanc was prevalent and was being made into the fortified styles of the era mostly going towards oloroso and amontilado style sherry’s. It was also used for distillation. Seemingly it was propoagated as it grew well, was largely disease free in the climate and retained good acidity making it a natural choice.

Jack Mann a winemaker at Houghton helped put WA wines on the map when he won back to back trophy’s for best white table wine in 1936 and 1937 at the Royal Melbourne Wine Show. This was with a table wine that the judges likened to white burgundy. This wine was made from what was then called Swan Valley Semillon - this would later become known to be Chenin Blanc.

The first wines were made from the free run juice of freshly crushed grapes with a barrel or two run off for ferment. Interesting to see that these first few vintages of White Burgundy would have similarity with many premium chenin of today. The remaining juice from these grapes were made into oloroso and amontilado sherry styles that were the wines of choice at the time. Over the next decades the Houghton property grew to 100Ha of wine grapes and a second property set up in 1967 to in the most part supply this wine. At this stage the wine was at least 50% Chenin Blanc along with Verdelho, Muscadelle and Chardonnay in lower proportions.

1968 to 1970 saw the correct Ampelographic identification of the variety known as Swan Valley Semillon to Chenin Blanc. Chenin blanc had been sent among other vine cuttings to Swan Research Station in the mid 60s via Mildura from Davis University. As the characteristic dark green leaves with white furry underside emerged in1968 Dorham Mann realised that this grape was already well established throughout Swan Valley. Dr Max Rive from France confirmed this when he visited in 1970. From here in the early 70s we saw the first wines named as Chenin Blanc with Sandalford in 1973 and Kosovich by 1975 and Moondah Brook by the late 70s. Kosovich has continuosly produced Chenin since this date and remains in its style a bench mark chenin for Australia. Kosovich releases this wine after 5 years of bottle aging.

A fondness for fortified wines, establishment of cool climate viticulture and a preoccupation with the traditional noble french varieties ensured Chenin did not gain a large following. Chenin across most regions in Australia as was the case in much of the world - was seen as a variety that yielded well and retained good acidity making it a good wine for commercial production.

Enter Amberley Wines of Margaret River - in 1986 a dentist an accountant and a vineyard consultant Albert Haak. And here is where South Africa’s influence on Western Australia’s Chenin story enters again. Albert grew up in South Africa and worked through the 70s at the Oenological & Viticultural Research Institute in Stellenbosch as an engineer. In the Early 80s he made plans to immigrate with his family to WA. Haak was astonished to discover that there was no equivalent to the off dry Steen’s that were popular in South Africa. There was a niche in the market for them to strive to.

After 3 months of exhaustive travelling and digging countless soil samples, they found and started to set up the site that was to become Amberley. They planted 20ha in 1986, 8 ha chenin. The aim was an estate grown multi-tiered brand - $12 entry Chenin and Merlot, $15/16 SSB, and top range Chardonnay and Bordeaux blend. Who could predict how successful the Chenin would be. Pricing it so that bottle shops got behind it – they were minimally pruning, irrigating, and yielding around 25t/ha and they couldn’t make enough.

So that was the start of a chenin revolution. Running out of stock, then grapes, and abandoning “estate” principles by blending 15% Sauvignon Blanc and buying fruit wherever they could. Importantly starting a program of signing up contract growers with 7-year contracts to plant and grow Chenin Blanc at whatever yield they could manage and $1500-$2000 per tonne.

Commercial Success

Houghton White Burgundy and Amberley Chenin Blanc are tremendously important to where Chenin is today as they were the wines that inspired large plantings of Chenin firstly through the Early to Mid 20th Century and then again in the 1990s. It is for this reason that the current generation of winemakers have access to sizeable plantings of Chenin Blanc.

WA produces around half of Australia’s Chenin Blanc with 1600t from Swan District (Includes Swan Valley) and Margaret River with around 900t of production. This is around 50% of Australia’s total production, the majority of the remainder coming from the Riverland a bulk wine producing region of Australia. There are premium Chenin vineyards scattered throughout many of Australia’s wine growing regions.

Coming of Age

Chenin blanc vines produce their best grapes with age. Swan Valley and Margaret River have many vineyards that are 30 years old or greater. It is a versatile variety that suits a number of climates it is well fruited with good acidity. When handled right it has texture, salinity and savoury characters to interplay. The best producers are letting Chenin express all of these characters and making wines that are good young wines and mature into more complex wines as they mature. Vino Volta is aiming to be in this mix!!

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