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Leah Clearwater
 
6 December 2013 | Awards and Recognition, Red Wines, White Wines | Leah Clearwater

Plantagenet is Southern Royalty - THE AUSTRALIAN

Necessity is the father of invention.

And for many of the pioneers of Australian wine, ingenuity was not only a key to success but also survival, especially in remote places such as Western Australia's Great Southern region.

For young Englishman Tony Smith, his first trip to the sparse town of Mount Barker must have seemed like a journey to the end of the earth.

With Perth a mere half-day's travel away, stock and wool seemed to be industries worth investing in. Grapes and winemaking were mere afterthoughts to keep the property viable - the first winery that Smith had spent time in being his own. Yet despite his lack of winemaking experience, there is no doubt that Mount Barker was a good choice and worthy spot to plant wines.

While Margaret River's climate is driven by warm winds off the Indian Ocean, Mount Barker and the Great Southern are dominated by southerly winds drawn up from Antarctica. The best advice for all visitors, no matter when they visit, is bring a jumper. And with Australian wines moving to more elegant and restrained styles, Mount Barker and surrounding regions - such as Pemberton, the Great Southern, Albany, Denmark, Frankland River and Porongurup - are growing in stature and increasingly considered regions of distinction.

For the local indigenous people, this part of WA was a place of special historic significance, with the nearby Porongurup mountains both the meeting place of the spirits and, legend has it, where all life began. The same could be said for Tony Smith.

Once the grape bug had bit, it took a deep hold on the young Englishman's life. Unfortunately, the local government agencies were not so keen to assist; they refused to help the few grape growers who were springing up, deeming their ventures too experimental. But that didn't stop Smith clearing the land of rocks and planting the first 2ha by hand in 1968. Local jarrah trees were cut down and used as posts to support the vines, which survived the first 12 years of their lives without any irrigation.

Inevitably with vines in the ground, the search for a winery name arose. Smith reached far back into his family history to a distant relative in the Plantagenet royal house, which ruled England from 1154 to 1485. The name Plantagenet Wines was chosen with its suitably English three lion logo. While the name is sentimental, it no doubt has gravitas in the powerful English market.

In the early years, Plantagenet Wines had no real home with wines made off site and winemaking far from textbook. Well-heeled visitors from England had no sooner stepped off the plane than they were thrown into grape picking. Old banana boxes were packed with fruit and trucked off to the winery some distance away. But with growing production, the need for a winery could no longer be ignored.

Apple growing had long been a staple in the area and, as fate would have it, a large apple packing shed on the main Albany Highway came up for sale. The partners bought it, and the same site still is used for winemaking and a cellar door. Leftover apple-sorting equipment and elevators were sold off for much-needed cash and a new winery was commissioned. Its first winemaker, David McNamara, received a gold medal with his second Plantagenet vintage. Today a 1977 Shiraz from those early days still drinks beautifully, despite being crafted from fruit grown on vines that were less than 10 years old, and without the suite of modern winemaking tools.

Despite some success on the wine show circuit, the going remained slow and cash tight. Across Australia, an understanding of the advantages of refrigeration for the crafting of white wines was becoming better understood, but at Plantagenet Wines there simply was not the budget to spare.

But at the same time, the last vestiges of WA's once-vital whaling industry were closing down at the nearby Albany Whaling Station. Smith and his new winemaker, Rob Bowen, scored the Whaling Station's refrigeration unit for a song plus a 11,300-litre tank previously used for whale oil. Smith's unenviable task was to scrub the pungent whale oil off every surface as just a hint would undoubtedly ruin any wine it touched.

All the toil and hard yards, though, reaped their rewards with Plantagenet this year celebrating its 40th-anniversary vintage. In what can be a marginal climate in cool years, the best vintages, of shiraz and riesling in particular, show that all the effort was worthwhile.

2005 Shiraz

A brilliant wine - the pick of recent vintages - and still immensely youthful. It shows powerful dark cherry fruit lifted with eucalypt, floral and spice. Mid-weight and elegant yet dense, it shows concentrated fruit that is seamlessly interwoven with mouth-coating tannins and will drink well for another decade or so.

2013 Riesling

Pale in colour with bright and pristine green apple, bath salt and citrus fruits. Lovely restrained, youthful fruit in the mouth yet with a tropical, textural edge, finishing long and pure.

2012 Shiraz

Quite a voluptuous style for Plantagenet with attractive, fleshy mulberry and blackberry fruit with characteristic white pepper spice. Open-knit, supple and already drinking well with fine-grained tannins, it finishes long and generous.

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