RiverBank Estate is a stunning location for functions.

Rob Mann leans against his ute and surveys the chenin block below, as the imposing Darling Scarp turns a moody shade of mauve in the late afternoon sun. Decades before he sowed his reputation in the wineries of Margaret River and the Napa, Mann helped his father Tony – the formidable Australian test cricketer otherwise known as Rocket – plant and nurture these vines in the generous alluvial soil, alongside tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon and malbec.

“Dad didn’t make wine but he certainly knew how to grow fruit from this place,” Mann says, strolling amidst the peas and oats thriving between the vines – part of his commitment to organic and dry-grown farming. The heft of that fruit since planting in the 1980s went to Houghton Wines, the historic label largely built on the eminence of Mann’s grandfather, Jack. Rob fondly recalls growing up under the legendary patriarch, but mostly the “special sauce” Jack liberally poured over the grandkids’ ice cream. “A 1936 fortified frontignac. It always had to be a 1936!”

Houghton, founded in 1836, is almost as old as the Swan River Colony created by three British army offices. Vines were first planted in the gravid valley flanking the Swan River (or Derbarl Yerrigan to the local Noongar nation) in the year of the colony’s foundation, 1829, making this Australia’s second oldest wine region after the Hunter by a whisker.

Jack Mann, son of Barossa vigneron George Mann, would oversee 51 vintages at Houghton through the mid 20th century.

His chenin – first produced in 1937 as White Burgundy and distinctive for its fruit vitality, full body and texture from skin contact – would certify his legend, becoming one of Australia’s most successful table wines. And Houghton would go on to name its premium cabernet sauvignon in Jack’s honour, albeit with fruit grown in Frankland River, having by now sold off or replanted its remaining red grape vineyards in the Valley.

Under Accolade’s stewardship, Houghton’s focus was increasingly turning to its higher tonnage operations in Margaret River and the Great Southern. Still, the company’s deep ancestral association with the Swan Valley seemed unbreakable. Then in 2019, Accolade sold the winery and vineyards, vacating Houghton’s home of nearly 200 years. While for Mann it was personal, for many others (including small and medium growers), it was existential, with Houghton the largest and most reliable customer in the Valley.

Corymbia’s Rob and Gen Mann create wines that ‘should never have gone out of fashion’.

Mann and his winemaker wife Genevieve (whose own storied career was forged in South Africa and France, before moving to Howard Park in Margaret River) took Houghton’s diminishing commitment to the Valley as a sign and took over management of the family vineyard in the purview of the house where Mann’s mother still lives to this day. So was born Corymbia (corymbiawine.com.au), whose first release from the 2017 vintage was a resolute statement of heritage as well a commitment to the future. The field blend of estate-grown tempranillo, malbec and cabernet sauvignon underwent carbonic maceration and single vat fermentation before moving to seasoned oak for 10 months.

“The wines are neo-classical,” Mann offers with his trademark grin. “We’re creating wine styles that should never have gone out of fashion. Wines that are bright, lively and crunchy. The vineyard determines what you can do out here, you can’t fight it. You need to work with it. It was like that for dad and it’s still that way.” The 2020 Chenin Blanc is true to the bold pedigree pioneered by Rob’s grandfather: dry-grown and hand-harvested from Swan Valley loam, and showing invigorating freshness and balance with luscious pear notes, and a faint and lively brackish finish.

The Swan Valley has never enjoyed the illustrious nor bucolic status of its cousin Margaret River or, in more recent years, the Great Southern. Despite its fecund pedigree, it has often been pejoratively cited as one of the hottest grape-growing regions on earth, and lazily derided as a place of scruffy market gardens and tin-shed wineries pumping out bulk-bargain plonk and table grapes. Unlike Margaret River, which was engineered as a premium wine destination from its inception, the Swan Valley’s foundational mandate was as honest as it was pragmatic: to supply the nascent city of Perth with quality wine.

If anything came to characterise the Valley – beyond the White Burgundy (now White Classic) and its legendary fortifieds and liqueurs, rivalled only by Rutherglen – it was its eclecticism. It’s a place where chardonnay rubs roots with Pedro Ximénez and verdelho, and neighbouring estates are passionately divided on whether the region’s future is pitched in the old world or the new.

Pasta at Zecca Italian.

While for some this versatility has proved an obstacle to harnessing a definitive Swan Valley ‘brand’ with a clear-cut narrative, others have embraced its multifarious origins as the “wine bowl of WA”. None has done this as deftly as RiverBank Estate (riverbankestate.com.au). With plantings as diverse as vermentino, nero d’Avola, mataro and sangiovese, winemaker Troy Overstone is committed to demonstrating the region’s unique dexterity, particularly with red varietals, Mediterranean whites such as vermentino and the estate’s award-winning rosé, blended from malbec, shiraz, tempranillo and grenache.

Houghton’s departure from the Valley may have rattled the confidence of locals, but it would soon prove a harbinger for the region’s renaissance and rediscovery beyond WA state borders. With its century-old dry-grown grenache bush vines and equally storied chenin blocks, the Swan Valley was perfectly placed to satiate palates increasingly turning to warm-climate, small-batch wines with genuine provenance.

Swan Valley is the country’s second oldest wine region.

Once of Houghton ranks, winemaker Garth Cliff too often lamented the sight of premium Swan Valley fruit being trucked off to Houghton’s site in Nannup to be crushed into its White Classic  and other non-regionally designated wines. Vino Volta (vinovolta.com.au) was created in 2018 as an almost visceral reaction to this: a celebration of the Valley and what he sees as its totemic varieties, chenin and grenache.

As the president of the Swan Valley Winemakers Association, Cliff’s views have not been without controversy, as more established labels have publicly advocated in favour of positioning verdelho as the emblematic grape of the region. But while the latter boasts many head-turning examples, increasingly more winemakers are putting their faith in chenin and grenache as the true and logical regional icons, albeit some with a contemporary twist. Representing around one-third of Australia’s annual chenin crush, the Swan Valley is also home to the annual Australian Chenin Challenge, which endeavours to uncover the best in the nation.

While some wineries focus on demonstrating chenin’s potential in the region, Vino Volta is determined to push the variety’s reach and potential even further with no less than three chenins on offer.

The irreverently monikered 2020 Nothing Wrong With Old Skool Chenin Blanc is a nod to the Jack Mann tradition of freshness, structure and vitality, while the 2020 Funky and Fearless Chenin Blanc gets a Burgundian makeover, with whole-bunch natural barrel ferment in oak adding some apricot-like intrigue. Cliff’s chenin pét-nat is equally alluring with some punchy minerality and citrus notes – a favourite in contemporary wine bars in WA and beyond. Grenache also gets the pét-nat treatment as a luscious cream and raspberry-esque blanc, but it is the 2020 Pezzonovante Grenache that demonstrates how thrilling this heirloom variety can be. Sourced from 65-year-old coffee rock-grown bush vine, it is redolent with raspberry and cherry aromatics, and a luscious and ripe mouthfeel over savoury but supple tannins.

“Now, more than ever, people are interested in wines that are locally produced from family owned estates, and wines that speak of the region,” Cliff explains. “But the product has to back it up. It’s about having a story, but also the quality and realising the full potential of the fruit. And the Swan Valley genuinely ticks all of those boxes.”

Luxury Villas at the Whitton Malthouse.

From the old Houghton site has emerged a new champion in Nikola Estate (nikolaestate.com.au), founded by Swan Valley icons Graeme and Kim Yukich, with a winemaking team captained by Damian Hutton. Hutton describes his return to the historic estate as “serendipitous”, having worked in these very vineyards as a young boy, weeding and mending trellising, before going on to enjoy a highly awarded career at Millbrook in Jarrahdale, south of Perth. Although Covid-19 has somewhat stifled Nikola’s development plans, the team has been otherwise productive in reviving tired old chenin vines and planting other varieties with great potential, including nero d’Avola. “I could sell our chenin three times over,” Hutton states of the resurgent intrigue in the variety. “There is simply not enough to meet demand at the moment. We’re seeing a return to these heirloom varieties: it’s like a counter-counter culture. And it’s bloody exciting, as though the Valley has been reawakened.”

The stunning Banna Lane Murals.

Sittella Winery (sittella.com.au) emerged in the 1990s as a pet project for Simon and Maaike Berns to indulge in their near spiritual love of sparkling wines. Today their sparklings are enjoyed and lauded nationwide. Winemakers Colby Quirk and Yuri Berns are renowned for demonstrating the premium potential of Swan Valley fruit (yet always at a competitive price point), from chardonnay through to shiraz. But both are deeply invested in the future of chenin and grenache, with Quirk calling the Swan Valley the “spiritual home” of both in Australia.

The label’s chenin/grenache pét-nat is emblematic of this belief, however, it is in the 2021 Avant Garde Golden Mile Grenache that the variety’s potential here is realised. It’s sourced from coffee rock-grown old vines and bursting with plush red cherry fruit, a gamey hint of wild yeast, canny acidity and structure. “The Swan Valley may be old, but it’s always been about producing wines with longevity,” Berns adds, offering a glass of the winery’s newly released NV Pedro Ximénez Solera, from 100-year-old vines.

Take time to sample outstanding fare, such as the crispy duck at Sittella.

The ‘re-discovery’ of the region’s historic grenache and chenin has, in part, been driven by its nascent natural wine fraternity, spearheaded by Paul Hoffman and his Swan Valley Wines label (swanvalleywines.com.au). All of Hoffman’s wines are produced from his own organic estate-grown fruit and created without the addition of sulphur. And while grenache and chenin are central to the narrative they are not exclusively so, with the 2021 Skins Chenin Blanc Semillon blend showing beguiling mango and cider characteristics, framed with the faint hint of oak. And the co-fermented malvasia and vermentino is an honorary nod to the unique Mediterranean pedigree of the region: vines that arrived independently of the Busby Collection of 1833 that otherwise underpins much of the viticulture elsewhere in Australia.

“The Swan Valley stands apart from other wine regions in Australia, and that is largely down to these rare old vines and the stories they tell,” Vino Volta’s Garth Cliff concludes. “The future is all about rediscovering these vines, protecting them and realising their full potential. But also not being a museum, and creating progressive, expressive wines. And this is currently where the Swan Valley finds itself.”

Swan Valley Wines.

A Weekend in the Swan Valley

Wineries To Visit

Corymbia: 30 Nolan Ave, Upper Swan; Email: [email protected]; Appointment only

RiverBank Estate: 126 Hamersley Rd, Caversham; Ph: ( 08) 9377 1805; Cellar Door, Restaurant and Events

Vino Volta: 184 Anzac Rd, Mount Hawthorn; Ph: 0414 430 173 or 0427 614 610; Appointment only

Nikola Estate: 148 Dale Rd, Middle Swan; Ph: (08) 9374 8050; Cellar Door, Museum, Restaurant

Sittella: 100 Barrett St, Herne Hill; Ph: (08) 9296 2600; Cellar Door, Restaurant, Functions

Swan Valley Wines: 261 Haddrill Rd, Baskerville; Phone: 0450 648 918; Appointment only

Where to Stay

The Colony at Mandoon Estate ( mandoonestate.com.au)

Essential Swan Valley Half-Dozen

2021 Sittella Avant Garde Golden Mile Grenache, A$40
2020 Corymbia Rocket’s Vineyard Chenin Blanc, A$60 (twin pack)
2018 Flor Marché Grenache Rosat, A$25
2020 Vino Volta Pezzonovante Grenache, A$48
2020 Swan Valley Wine Weip Country Chenin Blanc, A$40
2007 Talijancich Pedro Ximénez Liqueur, A$280