Western Australian wine's place is at the table

Even though its total population is about 15 million less than California’s, Australia is roughly the size of the United States.

We don’t really refer to “American wines” per se but discuss the wines individually of different states, such as “California wines” or “Washington state wines.”

Why, then,do Americans seem to have so much trouble differentiating the wines from Australia? We have no problem distinguishing Burgundy from Bordeaux or Tuscany from Piedmont, but regions thousands of miles away from one another are often grouped as “Australian wines.”

My mission is to highlight wines from a few different regions of Australia, starting with the wines from the western coast, the state known as WA, Western Australia.

There are several subregions in WA, the Margaret River being the best known and Pemberton and Mount Barker becoming important players. Winemaking was close to nonexistent here until the late ’60s and early ’70s, when Vasse Felix, Moss Wood, Cape Mentelle, Cullen and Leeuwin were established in the Margaret River. Dozens of others have since set up shop.

Western Australia has a maritime and Mediterranean climate. Although it has the lowest average temperature of the Australian wine regions, the winters stay mild and the summers don’t get as hot as other areas. The Bordeaux varieties, both red and white, do extremely well here, cabernet sauvignon in particular, but pinot noir, riesling and shiraz make for tasty wines.

In the last few decades, winemaking has expanded in the Margaret River and elsewhere, and even though the volume of wine is small in comparison with South Australia’s output, Western Australian wines are carving out a their own distinct place at the table.

Arlewood Chardonnay, 2004

This is a single vineyard estate in the Margaret River that was founded in 1988. The chardonnay vines are just 10 years old but the quality of this wine does not reveal its relative youth. It actually reminded me of Burgundy, something akin to a village-level Puligny-Montrachet, with chamomile flowers, almonds, firm acidity and minerality, and green apple fruit.

Suggested retail: $30

Salitage Pinot Noir, 2003

Salitage was founded almost 30 years ago by John and Jenny Horgan in Pemberton. Today, along with their children, they make the most prestigious wines from this small appellation. With fresh cherry, wild strawberry and smoky, gamey, earthy mushroomlike qualities, this is a pinot noir for those who like the fruitier, New World style or Burgundy fans.

Suggested retail: $33

Leeuwin Cabernet Sauvignon, ‘Art Series,’ 2001

The “Art Series” wines are Leeuwin’s signatures, in part because of labels that are designed by different artists each year but more importantly because of their age ability. This 2001 cabernet sauvignon is still quite young but offers cocoa-dusted blackberry, raspberry, plum fruit with some noticeable but not overpowering oak. Medium-bodied and moderately tannic, it is easy to drink now but can also be cellared for more than a decade.

Suggested retail: $45

Pamela Busch is the proprietor of CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen in San Francisco.

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