If wine regions throughout Australia were ranked by a ‘bigger is better’ mentality, then Great Southern in Western Australia would come out trumps. Going by area size, it is the largest region in Australia and is the second largest producer of grapes in Western Australia. It is a landscape of forested cliffs and resplendent mountain ranges, grazing pastures and towns steeped in history, although its prominence as a wine region has often been in the shadows of its famous neighbour, Margaret River.
Those unfamiliar with the geography of Great Southern should imagine it as a large rectangle; one that sits along the south-eastern coast of Western Australia. It stretches 150 kilometres in length and 100 kilometres across, and is made up of five subregions: Albany, Denmark, Frankland River, Mount Barker and Porongurup. Much of Great Southern isn’t classified into a subregion at all, however, opening up the opportunity for additional subregion creation in the future.
As a wine region, Great Southern is a relative newcomer. It had its kick-start courtesy of the Western Australian State Viticulturist, when a trial vineyard was established near Mount Barker in the mid 1960s. The vines were riesling and cabernet sauvignon – two varietals still beloved by the region today – and the wines from these plantings went on to receive high acclaim in 1975.
Two of the Great Southern’s original supporters were Jack Mann (chief winemaker at Houghton Wines in Swan Valley between 1930 to 1972) and Maurice O’Shea (Mount Pleasant); the latter being an unlikely champion as he never actually set foot in the area, preferring rather to wax lyrical about its potential from afar. Dr Howard Olmo also noted the region’s promise for producing light table wines of excellent quality. In a coup for the region, it was efforts by Great Southern viticulturists that helped usher in modern winemaking practices in Western Australia.
Today, Great Southern is making ground towards taking the lion’s share of the limelight away from Margaret River. There are now about 70 wineries in the area and although it has been on the radar of critics for a couple of decades, Great Southern is slowly starting to creep its way into the general wine drinker's consciousness, too.
This was the first western location that was claimed as part of the Australian continent for Great Britain in 1826. While the Sippe family first planted riesling cuttings supplied by Forest Hills Vineyard in 1975, the growing emphasis now tends to lean towards chardonnay as Great Southern’s main white varietal. Another white wine that excels in the area is sauvignon blanc. Generally speaking, however, the Great Southern grape crush typically favours red wine. In Albany, that preference is given to pinot noir and shiraz, with the latter being the youngest addition to the area.
Moving slightly away from the coast to Denmark, this is the last subregion to be registered as a geographical indication (GI) of Great Southern. White table wines are the dominant variety grown and produced here, led by chardonnay, then sauvignon blanc and riesling, but the cooler climate also lends itself well to delicate reds such as pinot noir.
The first vine plantings in Frankland River happened in 1968, on a property owned by the Roche family. Houghton now owns that property. This inland subregion provides a catchment zone for the Frankland, Gordon, Kent and Tone Rivers. In keeping with its sibling subregions, the favoured grapes in Frankland River are premium shiraz and riesling.
The oldest subregion in not only Great Southern, but also all of Australia. At 50 kilometres away from the Southern Ocean, Mount Barker is the coolest of Great Southern’s five subregions. Acclaimed varietals from Mount Barker cover riesling, shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir.
It may be the most compact of Great Southern's subregions, but Porongurup’s power of producing world-class wines means this area shouldn’t be glossed over. Over time, Porongurup has earned acclaimed for its distinctive, cool-climate styles including riesling, pinot noir and chardonnay.
While most wine regions have their star varieties (think the Barossa and shiraz), due to the sheer size of Great Southern and its varied terrain, it has the capacity to produce world-class wines from a range of classic varieties. Discover its diversity with the breakdown ahead.
Chardonnay excels in Great Southern, featuring an aromatic bouquet and a palate that is intense without being too heavy. There are examples of unwooded styles, plus those that are barrel-fermented. Great Southern chardonnay does well when aged.
There is a good spread of sauvignon blanc grown in Great Southern. It is a white wine varietal that is well suited to the conditions of the region, and wine produced from these grapes is scented with gooseberry and herbs.
Riesling is one of Great Southern’s favourite varietals. For good reason too: rieslings produced here have earned acclaim for their crisp flavour profiles and age-worthiness. James Halliday's 2019 Wine of the Year is a riesling from Great Southern.
Until recently, pinot noir was considered the territory of Great Southern’s southerly subregions (Denmark and Albany). The quality of pinot noir, as ever, is largely dependent on vintage conditions, but when right, the result is a wine that is light-bodied, restrained and pleasantly perfumed.
Somewhat of a new kid on the block in Great Southern, the cool-grown style here shows complexity, spicy blackberry and plum fruits, and good texture.
Soil and climate
Across the Great Southern, soil types are generally named after the dominant eucalypt species of that location. In Porongurup, this means the soils are deep karri loams, while in Mount Barker, the vines are planted in marri loams. The centre point of Mount Barker is the Plantagenet Plateau, where in addition to its aforementioned marri loams, there are also gravelly and sandy loams to be found – a result of granite rock protrusions. Lateritic (soil strong in iron and aluminium and usually of a rusty red colour) and gravelly soil loams are expected in Albany and Denmark. The soils in Frankland River also tend to be a rich, red hue and are primarily derived from granite or gneiss outcrops.
Much like its Margaret River neighbour, Great Southern enjoys a climate similar to the Mediterranean. This enables the area to excel at producing a range of cool-climate varietal wines. The mighty Southern Ocean has a strong hand in moderating temperatures, although there are variations as you travel throughout the subregions. Albany has cool winters and warm, dry summers that are complemented by moderate humidity; reducing ripening stress on the vines. Denmark is slightly wetter and cooler than Albany, and Frankland River also benefits from a Mediterranean-style climate. The latter also enjoys a pleasant sea breeze in the afternoons. Over in Mount Barker, rainfall is winter-spring dominant, and spring frosts are also seen occasionally. Nevertheless, its conditions are well suited to riesling and shiraz. Lastly, Porongurup has a nighttime thermal zone. This is created when a layer of warm air rises above colder air and then slides down the hillside and settles on the floor of the lower valley. It is for this reason that many of the area’s vineyards are planted on the slopes.
Things to do
The drive from Perth to Great Southern can be done as a direct route, or diverted to pass through other areas of the south-west. The drive from Perth to Frankland River (the closest subregion to the Western Australian capital city) comes in at less than four hours.
While wine lovers may be drawn to Great Southern for its cellar doors and vineyards, the power of the region’s dramatic coastline, towering forests and majestic national parks prove a scenic distraction. For a touch of civilisation, there are idyllic seaside towns and inland hamlets.
Break up the scenes of grape-strewn vines by exploring the stunning coast. Brush up on your history at King George Sound in Albany, the first European settlement in Western Australia. For more watery thrills, venture to Greens Pool or Elephant Rocks. The Stirling Range National Park is slightly north of Mount Barker and Porongurup, and is brimming with scenic drives, mountain bushwalks and gorgeous wildflowers.
Accommodation in great southern
When choosing accommodation in Great Southern, a question travellers must ask themselves is if they prefer to be close to the beach, or close to the vines? You might prefer to be in the middle of both: within driving distance of sandy stretches of pristine coastline, but also within striking distance of some of the region’s top cellar doors. Book a classic weatherboard home if venturing to Great Southern with other friends or family, or wine lovers travelling in pairs can hole up in a charming cottage, studio apartment or villa. There are plenty of options close to the main towns – Albany and Denmark – or you might like Great Southern accommodation that is more on the secluded side, leaving you to enjoy the beauty of this region in peace and quiet.
34°57'S to 33°33'S
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16 Feb - 25 Apr