Barossa Valley. Coonawarra. Margaret River. These are all household names in Australian wine, you will likely have an image in your head of the style of wine that comes from these regions and even the principal grape varieties grown; most likely Shiraz, Cabernet and Chardonnay or Cabernet will come to mind respectively. How did this image come about though?
It can take a long time to build this widespread familiarity with a region, it takes the identification of an area suitable for viticulture, selecting the right varieties and then having trailblazing producers who can produce wines that are representative of the area. What is representative of that area though? Is it a unique character of that area or can you find it in wines from other areas made with the same grapes? Is it a consistent character from year to year? There are plenty of questions that take a long time to answer, to then promote to consumers and those who sell to consumers and it has to be done clearly and consistently enough to build the trust and confidence in the ‘brand’ of that region. No mean feat with the variance in vintages and the style of each individual producer.
It also takes some support from the law. The regions mentioned above, as with any region put on a wine label, are registered GIs (Geographical Indications) which designate the boundaries within which the grapes grown to produce the wine must come from, at least 85% of them anyway. The intent being to give wine consumers’ confidence that when they pick up a bottle of Barossa Valley Shiraz, they are in fact getting a wine produced from grapes grown in the Barossa Valley. It also helps to protect the growers within the region from growers labelling their wines as Barossa without actually growing grapes in that area and potentially damaging the reputation of the Barossa Valley, for example sake.
The most famous examples of this kind of protection being areas such as Champagne, which are synonymous with a style of wine as much as the place, and yet you cannot call a wine grown outside of Champagne, Champagne.
To break out from the safety of a well-known GI such as Margaret River is a double-edged sword. You no longer have the brand of Margaret River to give consumers confidence in buying your wine, or understanding the style of wine they are likely to get, if they are unfamiliar with your specific wines as a producer. On the other hand, it can be taken as a strong sign of confidence that the area you grow grapes in has something unique and distinctive enough to say that you feel it needs to be recognised separately.
This is exactly what a small group of growers in the Wilyabrup sub-region of Margaret River are currently working to achieve. You could argue that this is the area that put Margaret River on the world map for premium Cabernet, the iron rich soils have a special effect on Cabernet and the quality is pretty clear to see, the growers have identified cassis, currant and red rose as typical in the area. Cullen, Fraser Gallop, Woodlands, Lenton Brae and Moss Wood believe that this special little area deserves and needs protection to ensure that anyone claiming to make a wine from the area, actually are using grapes grown there. The proposal has seen strong opposition and it will take some time to determine whether it gets over the line or not.
A good way to see Wilyabrup at its best without having to buy the icon wines is the Lenton Brae ‘Lady Douglas’ Cabernet Sauvignon. It has a great depth and intensity of black berry fruits and cassis; subtle florals pop up and a cooling herbaceous edge is perfectly pitched to contrast the fruit. Fine, but assertive pencil shaving tannins form the structure supporting the wine and persist through the finish. A worthy exemplar of Wilyabrup.