Swan Valley – What is it Good For?
The Swan Valley is one of Australia’s oldest wine growing regions. It has a strong tradition of fortified winemaking, with the star attractions being its liqueur style wines using muscat, verdelho, and pedro ximenes. These wines bear a lot of resemblance to the wonderful muscats and tokays of Rutherglen. We still have quite a few very old vineyards in the Swan – many with these traditional varieties plus shiraz and grenache as well. We have planted brown muscat at Faber Vineyard and are developing a liqueur muscat blend for a few years down the track.
The climate is shaped by the hot dry summer – it is the hottest grape growing region in Australia. Despite this many vineyards are unirrigated, especially the older ones. There is little disease as a result of the lack of humidity, and most vineyards would qualify as organic if herbicides weren’t used to control weeds. There are three main soil types. On the western side of the Swan River is swampy sandy country. Along the river are deep alluvial loams – the most productive soils. To the east, between the river flats and the Darling Range are the tough laterite soils – gravelly clay loams over coffee rock. This is where Faber Vineyard is, and it is where the best flavour and ripeness is achieved.
The warm climate also allows us to make a special style of sparkling wine – picked early our fruit has only moderate acidity compared to traditional cold area sparkling fruit – and hence we make lovely crisp wines that don’t require the traditional liqueuring to balance them. The resulting wines are bone dry and have a remarkable lightness and freshness.
Surprisingly the Swan Valley has a strong record of producing whites that are simple, fresh and crisp as young wines and then age for a remarkable period of time – up to 20 years – gaining intense toasty flavours. The best varieties are verdelho and chenin blanc. The best known white wine from the Swan Valley is Houghton’s White Burgundy.
The reds can be equally long lived. We recently tried some Swan Valley Cabernet Sauvignons from 1970 and 1974 that were still showing delicious fresh sweet fruit flavours. The most amazing feature of our red wines is their incredible softness and drinkability at an early age. They are generally picked quite ripe accounting for the sweet fruit, and have lower tannins than wines from other regions. Both shiraz and cabernet sauvignon have been successful. Legendary Swan Valley winemaker Jack Mann described cabernet as the only grape ‘they would allow in heaven’. At Faber we believe shiraz is king. The ripe flavours of shiraz – plum and prune, chocolate, licorice, and spice – with the typical shiraz richness, softness and length, married with toasty sweet oak, allow us to craft the wines we like.
All winemaking regions present their own challenges. The Swan Valley certainly doesn’t match what some experts would call a ‘perfect viticulture site’ but it does offer the winemaker the chance to make distinctive, flavoursome, and superbly drinkable wines.