STOP AND ask anyone in any Asian CBD what they know about Western Australia and you’ll get one answer: Margaret River, the reason being that the south-west wine region markets itself extraordinarily well. But ask a punter in New York and you’ll get a different answer: Western Australia’s Great Southern. So says the Australian Wine & Brandy Corporation (AWBC) which conducted market research to better understand Australian regional visibility. Indeed, the AWBC classifies riesling from the Great Southern as a “regional hero” or trailblazer wine that “sustains interest for consumers by fostering a clear association between region and variety/style.”
Left: Oranje Tractor winery
One such hero-maker is John Sprigg. Affable and laconic, Sprigg is a market leader in the Great Southern wine region, producing multi award-winning, signature riesling and merlot, alongside chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz from his family-owned property in Cranbrook, just south of Kojonup, Western Australia. Sprigg also happens to be the chairman of the Great Southern Wine Producers Association and is thus content to wax lyrical about the region’s future, something he seems confident about, without being complacent.
According to Sprigg, Western Australia’s Great Southern region “sticks to what it does well,” that being riesling, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz, however, recent injections of capital into the region have seen new wineries and labels spring up where previously only long-established vintners survived.
Established in the late 1950s, the fledgling Great Southern wine industry was given confidence by pioneering Californian viticulturist, Harold Olmo, a world-class viticulturist from California who visited the region, professing it “showed promise for making table wines in the light traditional European style.”
But where consumers now see stars in the way of outstanding table wines being produced in the region, Sprigg sees flesh and blood stars in the form of young winemakers flooding in, pumping the region full of new ideas and possibilities. “In 2002 when the first flood of new wine came on and there was a spurt of new labels from nowhere, brilliant new winemakers came to the region and they have unequivocally lifted the standard.”
Left: Oranje Tractor winery
Names roll off his tongue: John Durham; James Kellie; Kim Horton; Rob Diletti; Martin Cooper. “They are making the best wine they can with the varieties we do best in this region,” he says. “We cannot afford to be second class. You’ll find Great Southern wines at the top of all the competitions, doing extremely well and punching well above our weight.”
Varieties first planted are still the varieties that predominate in the region, although pinot is now doing well in the Porongurup region, says Sprigg. “Italian wine varieties were presented to us but we were limited as to which of those varieties we could put in here. Some tried. Some had to educate the market. But the demand wasn’t there. That’s why we concentrate on what we do best: riesling, shiraz and cabernet.”
Sprigg’s wisdom is the backdrop against which much of the region’s success is measured. Of the introduction of ‘new’ varieties, he says, “You’ve got to prove you can do it: establish the variety, then find a market for it. Instead, we are trying to make the best shiraz we can make, the best cabernet we can make and, increasingly, sauvignon blanc. Pinot grows in certain spots here and not in others. There are only a few wineries that do it really well, due to their individual locations. We are all-rounders here, but what we do really well is riesling.”
When Sprigg talks about the market position of the region’s wineries, he speaks with authority about being in pole position and maintaining that position through clever marketing. “We go on scarcity value and quality,” he says. “If you find yourself with a good chardonnay that is not going to be discounted elsewhere, it is not difficult to get it into premium restaurants.”
If history predominates in the Great Southern’s varieties of choice, it’s the present and the future which will determine its success. Nominating the global economic downturn as a significant force in shaping the industry at present, Sprigg sees challenges as well as possibilities in the future.
Threats to the industry include the pulling out of vines for economic reasons when people overreacted to the downturn, as well as a practice that was seen across the region in 2009: hedging. “A lot of people put vines on maintenance in 2009: hedged them because they couldn’t sell their fruit,” explains Sprigg. “You can only do that for one year, or you lose them. After hedging, the fruit grows on the ends of the hedge, and it just doesn’t work.”
The same year saw a few large companies go into receivership or collapse. Says Sprigg: “Some vineyards struggled near pruning time in 2009. One company would not prune. Those issues continue, but businesses that are established have got their connections and are very positive about the future. My clients are hurrying me to make more wine because they are running out. And we are getting a lot of enquiry from Asia: Macau; Japan; China; The Philippines. These markets are becoming more affluent and demonstrating solid demand.”
Other pressures identified by the GSRWPA include the glut of super-cheap wine being sold into Asia, a practice Sprigg calls “self-defeating, but no threat to this region.”
“We have a niche, and it isn’t in the karaoke clubs,” he says. “It’s not an easy time, but a lot of growers in the Great Southern are very confident. Growth comes on the back of the markets we develop. I’m bullish about making wine to a price and making it well. And from what I see, there’s no one dumbing down the market. The whole region is based on excellence in winemaking. Excellence of preparation is about building on our strengths without re-inventing the wheel. It’s about being pragmatic.”