Its remote, pristine environment is the calling card of Frankland River, a sub-region of the vast, sprawling Great Southern region of Western Australia. It is, as you might imagine, bloody miles from anywhere. No noise, no fumes, no industrial eyesores – in fact very little to distract the senses from the pure air and even purer Riesling. Serenity, you say? Sip a beer in a kayak on the Frankland River and you’ll get it.
Just to give you a sense of it, we’re here: a little more than four hours from Perth – itself a city whose main claim to fame is being bloody miles away from anywhere else. It’s not the most scenic drive you’ll ever take but a pie at the Riverside Roadhouse in Bannister will keep you going – and the thought of arriving in this divine spot will do the rest. The CellarHand team spent a weekend of glorious sunshine and wine with the Smith Cullam family in late June. Some of us were first-timers but in fact the two have been linked since before day one. Frankland Estate planted the seed of CellarHand when founder Patrick Walsh won the inaugural Frankland Estate Riesling Scholarship in the late 90s. This sent Patrick on a trip to the great Riesling regions of Europe and ignited an undimmed desire to share those great wines – and others – with Australian diners. Frankland Estate was established in 1988 by Barrie Smith and Judi Cullam. They planted their Isolation Ridge vineyard, which is also home to the newly constructed cellar door, on part of a farm where the family has run a wool-growing enterprise since 1974. The decision to take the wine plunge was inspired by their tour of French vineyards in 1985, and also by two vintages they worked at Chateau Senejac in Bordeaux. Olmo’s Reward, a single-vineyard homage to Bordeaux, remains a key wine, as well as varietal Shiraz, Cabernet and Chardonnay from the same organically farmed Isolation Ridge vineyard. The hugely popular Rocky Gully range shows just what you can do with fruit grown in such immaculate conditions. And then there’s the Riesling – but we’ll get to that later. Judi and Barrie were unfortunately overseas during our sojourn, so the hospitality duties were left to the next generation. This meant Hunter Smith, seen here on the winery verandah with welcome drink in hand… …and his brother-in-law Brian Kent, who’s married to Hunter’s sister, Elizabeth. Brian made wine down the road at Ferngrove for six years before joining the family fold as full-time winemaker at Frankland Estate from the 2010 vintage onwards. The afternoon we arrived, Hunter and Brian gave us a detailed look at everything in barrel – the Chardonnays, the Shiraz and all the components of Olmo’s Reward, including some particularly bright, fragrant Cabernet Franc. We also had a look at the 2015 Rieslings in tank. The year gave a stingy crop but the wines are looking superb – exceptionally vibrant and with trademark texture. Then came a couple of Rieslings spending a bit of time in barrel, including some exciting trials inspired by discussions at February’s Riesling Downunder event. Meanwhile a portion of all the single-vineyard Rieslings see some time in neutral oak, too… …as does the entirety of this wine, Frankland Estate’s flagship Smith Cullam Riesling. It’s a just-off-dry style, again sourced from Isolation Ridge but this time made exclusively from the Geisenheim clone vines planted in 1988. The clone, named after the Rheingau town that’s home to Germany’s world-famous grape-breeding institute, is renowned for retaining particularly high acidity, which provides a counterpoint to the wine’s natural residual sweetness. It also played a vital role in our unwinding after all that hard work. Saturday started with a monumental tasting of back-vintage and current-release wines, including Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and a nine-vintage vertical each of Olmo’s Reward and Isolation Ridge Shiraz. The Olmo’s Reward showed something of a transition from a very restrained, super-traditional Right-Bank Bordeaux style in the late 90s/early 2000s to a more perfumed and fleshy expression – still with the same finesse – of recent years. The hallmarks of the Shiraz, meanwhile, were the transparent fruit, fine natural acidity, ironstone mineral character and a kind of a creeping complexity. A word on those single-vineyard dry Rieslings, then, before we return to the leisure aspect of the trip. The cellar door has the soils on display to sniff or sift through your fingers. Isolation Ridge sits on undulating north- and east-facing slopes with duplex soils of ironstone gravel over a clay sub-soil. Cool nights and long slow ripening periods allow gradual flavour development while maintaining the distinctive vibrant acidity. The wine tends to be floral and wound with powerful citrus, and with a texture that wine writer Philip White likens to “cool, molten gold”. Then there’s Netley Road, planted on an ironstone ridge that runs north to south, parallel with the Frankland River about 1.5 km north of the Frankland Estate winery. The old vines and loamy soils result in deceptively rich wines with remarkable structure and intensity. And then there’s this one: Poison Hill. Planted in 1988, this three-hectare vineyard lies just on the northern edge of the Frankland River town site. The vineyard is located on a hill where the Heartleaf Bush, poisonous to all but indigenous animals, is found. The wines are perhaps the most seductive of the trio, with beguiling aromas of kaffir lime and bath salts, plus bracing, ultra-fine acidity. It’s always important, wherever you taste wine, to go behind the scenes and see what really makes the place tick. In Australia, that means a visit to the local boozer. The Rocky Gully pub, which shares its name with Frankland Estate’s second label, is a case in point. A few frames of pool, some AC/DC and a round of the landlord’s proudly presented wine-of-the-month – rum-laced Port – set the scene for an afternoon away from the vines and winery, out among the unique nature of this place. It was time for a relaxing spot of kayaking on Frankland River, with CellarHand’s newest recruit Tom Brushfield gliding through the water with all the elegance and arrow-like precision of…. …this very fine magnum of 2006 Isolation Ridge Riesling. A beautiful spot this – just 10 minutes or so from the winery – and a real reminder of the calming beauty of country Australia. No need to slum it though. These marrons, cooked to perfection on Hunter and Brian’s makeshift barbie, went down a treat. And the weather! This was almost the middle of winter, remember. That night, ensconced on the Frankland Estate property, there were plenty more great stories and wines swapped, including this pretty smart blind bracket of Shiraz. The weekend was a memorable taste of this marvellous place and the deep roots the Smith Cullam family have put down here. Their conviction is palpable; we were honoured to have them share it so generously.
RED SELECTION: A FEW TASTING NOTES 1997
Frankland Estate Isolation Ridge Shiraz Beetroot, radish, truffle with mulberry and morello cherry on the nose. Very earthy, quite savoury. Good mouthfeel with lovely acid. Black cherry cheesecake, blood sausage and black pepper. Juicy and persistent across the palate, with crunch.
2004 Frankland Estate Isolation Ridge Shiraz Lifted, florals, lots of plume and weight to the nose. Oak not a factor. Medium bodied with moreish acid. Tannins balanced and in a good place. At its peak? Very good vintage.
2009 Frankland Estate Isolation Ridge Shiraz Rhône-like nose, very complex and alluring. Radish, ironstone then florals. Funky notes too. Mouthfeel is rich and layered. Lots going on; like the structure and brilliant texture. Bright, moreish acid and tannins well judged.
2010 Frankland Estate Isolation Ridge Shiraz Vibrant ruby. Violets, cherry and nutmeg on the nose, enticing. Heady perfume. Palate is juicy and fresh, tannins noticeable. Really fresh acid, lovely tang to finish. Good wine, long and balanced. Classical Frankland Estate style.
2012 Frankland Estate Isolation Ridge Shiraz Very aromatic. Raspberries, black fruits, sherbet, cardomom; so pure and delicious. Oak not a feature of the transparent palate; has that trademark Isolation Ridge trait of slow-revealed nuances. Tight, medium-weight and packing punch.
2013 Frankland Estate Isolation Ridge Shiraz Tight, youthful, fuschia rim. Raspberry lift on nose. Palate is fine-boned and delicate, with ironstone mineral note and liquorice added to the palette of red fruits. Will need time but promises a great deal.
1995 Frankland Estate Olmo’s Reward 40% Cabernet Franc, 40% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Malbec, 4% Petit Verdot. Medium garnet, tawny rim. Lovely nose of leather, red fruits, tannins firm, silty and grippy. More leather on palate, with black- and redcurrant fruit. Powerful wine, with acidity – brisk and bright.
2001 Frankland Estate Olmo’s Reward 52% Cabernet Franc, 37% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Petit Verdot, 2% Malbec. Floral, perfumed, attractive and unwinding nose. Smoke, spice, leather, green peppercorns, menthol, eucalypt. Complex. Mouth filling tannins, terracotta and earth. Softer acidity, graphite. Very different wine.
2012 Frankland Estate Olmo’s Reward 70% Cabernet Franc, 19% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Petit Verdot. Lots of fruit on the nose; cherries, berries, blackcurrant pastilles plus pepper (black). Autumn leaves, varietal pyrazines. Firm tannins. Lovely sweet fruits. Long and delicious.
2013 Frankland Estate Olmo’s Reward 66% Cabernet Franc, 27% Malbec, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon. Oak more obvious on the nose, with violets and red/black fruits. Fruit has more amplitude on palate. Fruit pastilles, red plums and mulberries; very good fruit, pencil shavings, leaf character adding support and complexity. More linear with balanced acidity. Good length.
2012 Frankland Estate Isolation Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Fragrant. Sweeter direct purple fruit. Bit of Bordeaux floral stuff too. Nice Cabernet leafiness and a touch of ironstone. Crunchy in the mouth – high acid. Juicy fruit too. Pronounced minerality.
2013 Frankland Estate Isolation Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Bright purple; vibrant and lifted on the nose. Turned earth and iron. Then juicy and supple but serious. Fine powdery tannin. Mouthwatering on the finish. Much to come. Good.