Australia is filled with vineyards that lie unnoticed until a change in fashion casts them into the spotlight. The old chenin blanc vines grown at the John Kosovich winery in Western Australia’s Swan Valley is one such vineyard, illuminated by a current interest in chenin blanc from a new generation of wine lovers. Planted in 1962, it produces distinctive, age-worthy wines with intensity and freshness, lighter than a chardonnay, with the acid line of a riesling, and when aged, they are hauntingly reminiscent of Hunter semillon.
Ivan Kosovich, also known as Jack, arrived in WA in 1911 from the Dalmatian coast in the former Yugoslavia (now Croatia). Although Western Australia offered many opportunities, life was tough. Grunt was required to earn a living, and he worked on the Kurrawang Woodline, and at the mines at Kalgoorlie and Leonora. Furthermore, the Australian War Precautions Act of 1914 had him interned on Rottnest Island during World War I. But the hard work paid off. Ivan, and brothers Mate and Nikola, who had also immigrated to Australia, bought land at Baskerville, Swan Valley, in 1922. They called the property Kosovich Brothers Velebit Vineyard, indicating that grapes were planted from the start. The trio also grew fruits and vegetables, and to protect their wine and produce from the hot weather, the brothers dug an underground cellar. They felled a 7m tree for the support beam and shaped it using a handmade axe.
After a lengthy trip to his homeland, Ivan returned to Australia in 1932 with his new wife Ane, and they went on to have four children. Life was tough, and everyone was required to pitch in. The fresh produce, dried fruit and fortified wine produced from the land barely sustained the family.
In 1952, it was decided that Ivan and Ane’s son, John, would leave school at the age of 15 and take over the vineyard and winery. Ivan, aged 65, could no longer manage the manual work, and both his brothers had since died. John was a natural in the vineyard and believed that table wine, rather than fortified, was the future. Not only did this type of wine suit the climate, but being a European family, it was the style they preferred to drink. John married in 1961, and his wife Mary’s wage helped support the winery, known as Westfield.
The first table wine variety John planted was riesling, followed by verdelho, semillon, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz in 1962. Semillon was admired for its ability to produce Chablis-like table wine, as well as sweet wine, which they called Sauternes. He made his first semillon around 1964. However, ‘semillon’ was correctly identified as chenin blanc by a visiting Frenchman around 1970. So, the first varietal chenin was actually produced in the mid-1960s.
John modernised the winery, and was an early adopter of refrigeration and cold fermentation. He took advice from Houghton winemaker Jack Mann and his son Dorham. In time, the Swan Valley Vintners Club was formed, allowing for a forum to exchange ideas.
“Dad had a natural knack for working with his hands,” recalls son, Arch. His viticultural philosophy involved low cropping, shoot and bunch thinning, and fruit sorting at harvest. He was also a wine judge and highly respected for the quality of his wines.
In 1994, Arch began working in the cellar, and in 2003 the senior winemaker baton was passed to him, with the winery renamed ‘John Kosovich’ to honour John’s 50 vintages at the property. The following year, John was awarded the Jack Mann Medal for his contribution to the Western Australian wine industry. He also holds a medal of the Order of Australia. While John continues to have input into the vineyard, his son, Ray, is now involved in the viticulture.
The low-cropping, six-row vineyard, now almost 60 years old, is around 0.8ha and produces about three tonnes of fruit. Harvest date, commonly in early February, is crucial to obtain the right flavour profile. Today there are also two rows of younger chenin vines. The block exhibits graded ripeness, being riper at the bottom and greener at the top.
The clonal material is a mix of the looser set Noak clone, sourced from the Swanville winery, believed to have been planted in the early 1900s, and the Houghton clone, sourced from the Houghton winery. South Africa is believed to be the origin of the initial planting stock.
The mix of the different planting material, age of the vines and variation of ripeness gives the block an inherent complexity.
Chenin’s high acidity makes it ideal for the Swan Valley’s Mediterranean climate, giving the wine freshness and brightness. It is also tough in the vineyard.
“It doesn’t mind getting belted by the wind and Perth’s a windy place,” says Arch. “It grows well and doesn’t lose all of its shoots”. The handpicked fruit undergoes a cool fermentation in stainless steel. After racking, it sits on fine yeast lees until bottling in December.
“The aim is to make a wine of refinement, without saturated fruit or artefact,” says Arch. “I really attack it like you would a riesling”.
John Kosovich Chenin Blanc is a dry, unoaked wine made with longevity in mind, and the oldest wines show mere traces of age. When young, it is tight and vibrant, with crunchy acidity adding a structural element. In a good year, the wine can live more than two decades. It is released with age to showcase its complexity, though current market interest may see the release of a younger wine. In the 2020 Chenin Blanc Challenge, with 60 Australian entries, John Kosovich chenin blanc picked up three of the four table wine golds, with the 2014, 2015 and 2018 vintages. The 2015 was crowned Best Chenin Blanc of Australia.
Wine production is a long game, and here we have another example of a vineyard that lay patiently in the shadows, waiting for its time to shine. The fortitude of the Kosovich pioneers, the dedication of John and Mary, and the passion of Arch and Ray have allowed the vines to stay in the ground and reach their potential. Varieties such as chenin blanc provide necessary diversity in the Australian wine industry.
“It’s an exciting variety,” says Arch, “and the wines are beautiful to drink.” Of course, this has long been known by their loyal customers. But lucky for us, the secret is now out.
2020 Future release
Cleansing, bright and punchy with fabulous framing phenolics. Excellent weight on the mid-palate. Apple, beeswax and spice. Mouth-watering and delicious.
2019 Future release
Classical chenin nose with incredible intensity and finesse. Pristine white fruit with hints of apple. A wine of presence and strength of character.
2018 Future release
Scented fresh fruit, lanolin, and beeswax. The mid-palate is full and satisfying with faint warming spice. The flavours build as the palate progresses, with a limey kick on the finish.
2015 Available from October
A stunning wine, impressive in its weight and texture. Gentle smoky notes add complexity to the nose and palate.
2014 Current release
Incredibly youthful and fresh with a refreshing vein of acidity. The palate is long and concentrated yet energised, with hints of lime zest and cultured butter. Excellent depth.
Incredibly bright with lovely juiciness, rounded edges and hints of honey. Delicious.