After coming out from England, George ‘Farvie’ Swinney spent nearly 30 years travelling through South Australia and Western Australia’s south-west, learning all manner of agricultural pursuits – on orchards, dairies, mixed farms, vineyards, even a daffodil farm. Ninety-eight years ago, Farvie and his wife Mary established the family farm (of 3,200 hectares) at Frankland River. It has remained in the family since.
Nestled in the Frankland River Valley along the banks of the watercourse that bears its name, it remains a remote, sparsely settled area that has proved ideal for the family to continue to pursue its agricultural interests.
In the early days, this included grazing sheep and maintaining a diverse orchard (of apples, apricots, pears and plums) while the sale of marri, jarrah and wandoo provided useful income. The family moved into viticulture, cereals and plantation timber in the later years of the 20th century, with viticulture, in particular, opening up exciting possibilities.
With their parents stepping back a little, but still involved in directing special projects, siblings Matt and Janelle Swinney have taken over that responsibility. Matt manages the agricultural business, including viticulture, while Janelle supervises the wine side of the enterprise.
The widespread adoption of viticulture in the Great Southern, especially in the last 30 years, owes a great deal to Professor Harold Olmo of the University of California, Davis. In 1956, Olmo recommended that the south coastal area along the Frankland River be considered for production of high-quality light table wines.
Dr John Gladstones made more specific recommendations in 2002, suggesting that the well-drained gravelly loam soils of the middle and even the higher slopes of the Frankland River Valley were ideal for grape growing. He also asserted that the lengthy mild ripening periods into autumn encouraged reliable production of cool-climate wine styles.
In terms of soil type and climate, no property could be better placed than the Swinney’s to take advantage of the Olmo prediction.
Up until 2016, Matt Swinney had spent most of the previous 10 years working in London as a corporate executive raising capital for energy projects, including financing wind farms in Brazil and uranium mines in Hungary. During this time he travelled extensively and regularly, often monthly, back to Perth and Frankland River to oversee the development and management of the wine businesses.
Matt continues to work today as a corporate adviser in the private equity sector. This experience has been vitally important to the development of the vineyard business. He cites Mark Hohnen, the financial strategist behind the development of Cape Mentelle, as his single most significant influence.
The Horgan family of Leeuwin Estate were also part of the early discussions about possible developments at Swinney. Justin Horgan was a long-term friend of Matt Swinney and so when the idea of the viticulture business was being mooted, the two looked at ways they might work together.
Although they eventually decided that their venture wouldn’t go ahead, Matt acknowledges the importance of the Leeuwin input. In particular, he recognises Denis Horgan’s influence on his vision for the future and on the need to seize the opportunity.
Wilson’s Pool Vineyard was first planted to syrah and cabernet sauvignon in two tranches: 60 hectares (in 1998) and 22.5 hectares (in 1999) under the direction of Phil May and Michael Melsom. All of the fruit from these plantings was contracted to BRL Hardy (now Accolade) under a long-term supply agreement.
More than 20 years later, the relationship continues. Houghton have been particularly pleased with the quality of fruit they have been able to source and release under labels such as Crofters, the Bandit, the Reserve and Stripe ranges – which offer some of the country’s best value-for-money reds.
In many ways, this relationship was the masterstroke, the backbone that made possible Swinney’s growth as grape growers on the scale they have achieved.
In the early days, time was needed to establish the vineyard and to learn its possibilities while meeting the requirements of Bill Hardy and his team at BRL Hardy. The needs of customers such as Castelli and Amelia Park wanting specific varieties and clones pushed the viticultural knowledge at Swinney.
They came to realise that if they grew grapes to order (especially if this involved more labour-intensive viticulture), they could ask higher prices.
The quality of the old bush vine grenache in regions like Priorat and Châteauneuf-du-Pape was well known but they were not widely planted here. Their unsuitability to mechanisation and the fact they take longer to become established counted against them. However, they do have advantages: their roots go deeper than trellised vines, they self-regulate and they lend themselves to multiple pickings. As long as they produced better quality fruit, the Swinneys believed winemakers would pay more for that fruit.
The response to the bush vine grenache planted in 2004 was positive, and so mourvèdre, tempranillo and riesling bush vines were planted in 2008. A recent positive local review of the 2018 Castelli Empirica BV Tempranillo suggests that an asking price of A$44 is unlikely to restrict its sales.
Swinney is fortunate to have two members of its leadership team with a long-term involvement in the vineyard. Peter Dawson developed an intimate knowledge of the operation during his time as chief winemaker of BRL Hardy and has been consulting to Swinney since 2015. He is also a shareholder in their Powderbark Ridge vineyard. Meanwhile, Lee Haselgrove has been viticulturist since 2013, although his knowledge of the vineyard dates back to 2005 when he was a consultant to Swinney.
Another influence is Napa Valley grape grower Andy Beckstoffer, who in 2017 owned about 350 hectares of Napa vineyard land. He is named as the viticultural source of 37 Californian labels and receives prices as high as $US40,000 (A$60,595) a tonne for the fruit he supplies.
More than 20 years of grape growing at Frankland have given the Swinney family a knowledge of the vineyard’s possibilities. Ten years ago, Matt wasn’t sure that the market would pay for the investment involved in producing quality fruit. He feels that situation has changed now. One way to highlight the potential of the vineyard was to produce small quantities of Swinney wines. The application of precision viticulture: reducing yield from eight tonnes to three or four tonnes per hectare, using organic farming methods, choosing the best blocks on the tops of hills with deep, gravelly soil. Attention to detail.
The ideal winemaker was available. Rob Mann had returned to Margaret River to start the small family winery, Corymbia, with his wife, Genevieve.
He had given lengthy service of the highest quality to LVMH (at Newtown in the Napa Valley, and Cape Mentelle in Margaret River) and BRL Hardy in McLaren Vale. Rob had talked to Matt Swinney and liked what he heard: an emphasis on the importance of the vineyard; dry-grown vines; a focus on organic production; the use of natural yeasts with minimal additions and fining in winemaking; the restrained use of new oak; and, perhaps, above all a focus on texture and drinkability.
Wines to Try
The Swinney portfolio is exceptional; there are tiny volumes of six wines (200 to 300 dozen each, perhaps 1% of their production) designed to showcase the viticulture.
2019 Swinney Frankland River Riesling, A$33
Fresh lemon sherbet, lime juice flavours, restrained, impeccably balanced, dry with mouth-watering acidity to finish.
2018 Swinney Frankland River Syrah Mourvèdre Grenache, A$42
A tricky co-fermentation of grenache (20%) with (almost) equal portions of syrah and mourvèdre that is subtle and restrained, with succulent spice, fleshy texture and delicate opulence.
2018 Swinney Frankland River Grenache, A$42
This is a delicious medium-bodied varietal that has ripe, red cherry, and raspberry flavours with a hint of savoury pomegranate. It is delicately balanced with a fine, long finish that lingers.
2018 Swinney Frankland River Syrah, A$42
This red features two new Rhône clones of syrah (470 & 174) and the Waldron clone, which appear to suit Frankland’s chill. This is dense and powerful, with intense spice and black pepper flavours, yet is fresh and vibrant.
2018 Swinney Farvie Grenache, A$150
Up a notch, as it needs to be, with understated winemaking a key. Complex, alluring aromatics underpinned by a touch (5%) of mourvèdre, tongue-coating, seamless redcurrant and juicy black cherry, finishing soft and persistent.
2019 Swinney Farvie Syrah, A$150
This is denser, more potent, with spicy blackberry flavours and a hint of pepper; it has weight, power, and an awesome tannin structure that delights.