It seems fitting that the steep hike up to Western Australia’s famed Castle Rock Granite Skywalk is considered one of the state’s best day walks.
That’s because, as you stand atop the giant rock domes, with the rugged Stirling Ranges on one side and the sparkling Albany Coast on the other, just 300m below lies one of the country’s top riesling icons, Castle Rock Estate.
Angelo and Wendy Diletti were first lured to this stunning corner of Great Southern back in 1981. Attracted by a friendly combination of altitude, cooling south-east sea breezes and well-drained soils, they picked a gently sloping 55ha property on the east end of the Porongurup Range. Plantings of riesling and cabernet sauvignon followed in 1983.
By 1992, the family called the Castle Rock Estate property home, and for Angelo and Wendy’s son Rob Diletti, some of his earliest memories revolve around life in the vineyard. He ended up in the world of wine and added a missing piece to the family puzzle when he went to Charles Sturt University to study winemaking.
After a stint at Mountadam and an instructive vintage in Alsace, he returned to WA and arrived at Alkoomi, which had been making the Castle Rock Estate wines since the beginning. By 2001, with Diletti at the winemaking helm, Castle Rock had committed to an on-site winery, investing in a sizeable 200-tonne facility (completed just four days before vintage).
It didn’t take long for Diletti’s star to rise. Len Evans scholar in 2005, Wine Society Young Winemaker of the Year in 2006, and finalist in these pages for Winemaker of the Year in both 2012 and 2019, he has become one of WA’s most decorated vignerons.
When you talk with him, the first surprise is that he’s disarmingly humble.
“In winemaking terms, I don’t believe what I do is any different to anyone else,” he says candidly. “We can process a very good amount of fruit in a good manner.’
Yet, he is no ordinary winemaker, and he’s doing more than just flipping switches on an airbag press.
Porongurup is splendidly remote (390km from Perth, 40km from Albany), and while blessed with stunning vineyards, has almost no sizeable wineries. As a result, Diletti has become both the frontman for Castle Rock Estate and the de facto Porongurup region winemaker, crafting wines under contract for various local vineyards, including Dukes, 3 Drops, Oranje Tractor, Zarephath and more.
To say the contracting side has been a success is underselling it. The 2017 Dukes Vineyard Riesling, for example, was James Halliday’s 99 point White Wine of the Year in 2018. Or the Zarephath wines, which picked up six trophies in four vintages, while Castle Rock won Best Exhibitor Trophy at the 2019 & 2020 Wine Show of WA (plus four trophies in 2018).
There’s another side to wine shows for Diletti that’s not just about winning silverware.
“I think I had my first associate judging gig about 20 years ago,” he says. “Living in such a remote region and working by myself, judging is the best personal development possible.
“It’s great for networking but also working out where my wine sits nationally. I can’t underestimate how important it is to me and the brand.”
Diletti judges in Sydney, Perth, Canberra and Cowra, and he also sits on the Wine Show of WA committee – although no longer as a judge because, as he says, it’s “too close to home”.
Despite his reputation around the country, you get a distinct impression that he prefers vineyard life, focusing on ‘a special site’ rather than buying fruit from other regions. The rest of the Diletti family are still tightly held by Castle Rock Estate, as well.
“Dad (Angelo) is 85 years old this year, yet he’s still involved in the business,” Diletti explains. “He packs up boxes, he still spends time in the vineyard, and he makes suggestions, although he isn’t a winemaker, which is why it works.”
Last year during one of the (gloriously brief) WA lockdowns, Angelo restlessly spent the time when the cellar door was closed building a stone wall, just to prove the work ethic never wanes.
Of course, no discussion of Castle Rock Estate and the Diletti family is complete without talking about riesling.
The riesling here has an extra layer of purity that seems almost unmatched outside of the winery walls. You can see that vitality in all four different 2021 Castle Rock Estate Riesling releases, and it’s that difference that defines Diletti as a top winemaker.
When asked about the secret, he takes little credit for it. “We have very good equipment, and we can process riesling grapes quickly,” he says, casually.
“People would probably look at our size and look at what we’ve got and think we wouldn’t have that if an accountant were watching,” says Diletti.
“We’ve even got our own harvester – which for 12ha is ridiculous. But it means I can go and get little bits when we want, and it’s not sitting in bins. It’s small things like that which make the difference,” he says.
The multi-level, gravity-fed winery is indeed perfectly set up. But that also discounts Diletti’s approach to riesling, which is all about emphasising freshness and delicacy.
While riesling is the king of Porongurup, it’s not the only highlight here.
“I’m confident in my site to say that we’re always going to make better riesling and pinot noir, rather than the regional heroes of cabernet sauvignon and shiraz,” Diletti says. “There aren’t many sites in the Great Southern where you can say that. We get the early morning, not afternoon sun, we get these easterlies, and I think our aspect lends itself to pinot.
“I know the perceptions, but I get people to try my wines, and they say ‘oh yeah, that’s a nice pinot’.
“[But] if someone asks me what wine I’m most proud of, it would be the Diletti Chardonnay,” he says.
“It will never be the biggest seller, but I’m proud of where I’ve taken it in 15 years, and it’s a wine I love to drink.”
Diletti says he’s “never been one to make big plans”, and instead he comes across as being focused on family and vineyard. But if you dig deep enough, there are plans afoot.
This year he made two barrels of grüner veltliner, plus he has replanted gewürztraminer, which is almost unheard of in Australia when most people are grafting it over. There are bigger horizons for Castle Rock, too.
“I probably shouldn’t put this on the record, but I’m actively seeking land at the eastern end of Porungurup with an eastern aspect. That’s very specific, I know. I don’t want oversupply ... but I’d really like to have a bit more wine.”
Wines to try
2021 Castle Rock Estate Skywalk Riesling, A$21
Named after the lookout and tourist attraction attached to Castle Rock, Diletti uses more pressings in this wine for breadth. As a result, you end up with a combination of ultra pristine fruit, but with an extra twist of florals, the acidity taut yet not harsh.
2019 Castle Rock Estate Diletti Chardonnay, A$32
The unsung hero of the range, this barrel-fermented (28% new oak) chardonnay has the vitality of a lower alcohol (it’s just 12%), Chablis style yet with layers of mealy richness over the top. Delicacy is the name here, and don’t be afraid to cellar it for a few years to watch it get richer.
2021 Castle Rock Estate Porongurup Riesling, A$26
The original and still the best, this riesling delivers the lime and grapefruit of the house style, but with extra intensity of fruit, delivering a svelte and mouthwatering white wine that couldn’t be any more pure and long. Sublimely fresh and delicious.