Forest Hill Wines as the Pioneers of Pedigree
As the wine pioneer of Australia’s Great Southern region, Forest Hill has achieved much in its short 50 vintages. But a special Selector tasting reveals the best is yet to come.
When it comes to beauty and open space, the southern tip of WA is as stunning as it is remote. The coast that runs from Augusta on the southern tip of Cape Leeuwin, through Albany and on to the capes of Bremer Bay is some of the most exposed in Australia. It’s where the ancient Karri forests meet the ocean and where the Indian Ocean is funnelled past the Arctic Circle by the Roaring Forties.
Just behind that coastline is Great Southern, Australia’s largest wine region covering an expansive 15,000 square kilometres. As wine regions go, Great Southern is cool – literally and figuratively – and despite its youth, its wines, particularly Riesling, Cabernet and Shiraz, are quietly building a reputation for some of our most distinctive, sophisticated and age worthy cool climate drops.
Great Southern’s wine history began in 1965, when five acres of trial vines were planted by Betty and Tony Pearse on the west facing slopes of their Mount Barker property known as Forest Hill. The vineyard was planted with Riesling and Cabernet cuttings that had come from Houghton’s Swan Valley property, and in 1972, the first grapes were picked. A Riesling and a Cabernet were vinified and bottled at Sandalford and Houghton’s respectively, with the Riesling winning a Gold medal at Royal Perth wine show.
Left: The wine that started it all, the Forest Hill Vineyard Riesling; Right: Winery Workings
The next year, that same wine was crowned ‘Best Western Australia White Wine.’ Forest Hill’s reputation as a Riesling powerhouse was cemented when its 1975 Rhine Riesling won nine Trophies and 12 Gold medals, making it the highest awarded white wine in WA, a record that still stands today.
A Pioneering Path
As the 1970s progressed into the 80s, plantings at Forest Hill grew, along with broader interest in the area as a commercial wine region.
Its cool climate expressions of Cabernet and Shiraz fruit became sought after by established wineries in other regions and the Great Southern’s area under vine expanded into five districts within a 20,000 square kilometre area. Frankland River, Albany, Denmark and Porongurup soon joined Mount Barker as desirable cool-climate regions with innovation leading to the evolution of stylish and distinctive Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.
In 1996, the formal Geographical Indication of Great Southern and its sub-regions was established. As interest in the vinous possibilities grew, viticulture and winemaking talent followed, leading to a growth in the reputation of, and desire for, the wines of Great Southern.
The Pearses sold Forest Hill to the late Robert Holmes à Court and in 1996, it was bought by the Lyon Family. “We bought the vineyard in 1995, but my family have always farmed here,” explains Guy Lyon, Forest Hill GM and winemaker.
“Whilst Dad had no wine experience prior to buying Forest Hill,” Guy continues, “he saw a unique old site and he saw pedigree. At the time it was providing fruit to some of the icons of Australian wine, the Riesling was going to Leo Buring and the Cabernet was going to Vasse Felix. He liked that history and the fact that it was a pioneering vineyard.”
Left: Guy Lyons and the team hand-sorting grapes; Right: The iconic, retro styled Forest Hill Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Wines of Forest Hill
Today, the wines of Forest Hill are made at the Forest Hill winery and cellar door just outside the town of Denmark. Guy works closely with senior winemaker Liam Carmody to craft the wines that keep the status of Forest Hill moving and evolving.
Both Guy and Liam have national and international winemaking experience that provides insight and perspective when it comes to exploring the potential possibilities for their wines.
This year represents 50 vintages for Forest Hill and to celebrate the milestone, Guy and Liam treated Selector to a tasting of their best work.
Starting with the variety that put them and the region on the map 50 years ago, it’s clear Riesling and the slopes of Mount Barker are meant to be together.
“Riesling is a special variety for us and Great Southern,” explains Guy. “The thing that defines our Riesling is power, as young wines they have a lot of intensity and power, but as they age, they release and open up and they stay so fresh, maintaining their complexity and drive.”
The pedigree is evident across the range of 2021s with the Forest Hill Vineyard showing delicious, fleshy, sweet green apples and limes, while the Block 2 had a spice-licked focus and elegance to its sweet and savoury palate. The Block 1 was fantastic with complexity and power defining its lime juice and green apple layers.
Looking back in time through the Block 1 range was a special treat and reinforced Guy’s statement about power, time and definition.
All the way back to 2005, the wines have an undercurrent of freshness, and despite the intensity, all remain detailed, balanced and delicious. Standouts were the 2020 for its focus and long-term potential, the 2018 for its elegant length, the 2011 for its zesty freshness, the 2008 for its creamy baked apple characters and the 2005 for its interplay of primary and secondary development.
Forest Hill’s Chardonnay could easily get lost in the shadow of their Rieslings, but the small bracket we tasted showed that these wines also have detail and drive and are distinctive in flavour and style. The 2018 Forest Hill was lovely and had a juicy, creamy mouthfeel and a tight apple and peach range of fruit washing through the palate. Stepping up to Block 8, Forest Hill’s top Chardonnay tier, it’s clear that these wines also share DNA with their Riesling cousins in that they are energetic and maintain their youth neatly for a long while.
Left: One for the cellar, the Forest Block 8 Chardonnay; Right: Guy and Liam at the Tasting; Forest Hill Fouders.
Evidence of this was the 2009 Block 8 showing incredible freshness, primary fruit and a delicious, complex balance of pears and apples that are likely to stay fresh for some time. It’s rare to see Chardonnay at 12 years of age looking so fresh.
As the Australian palate is starting to lean towards a more savoury, European, style Shiraz, those from the cool slopes of Mount Barker are perfectly situated to capitalise on the march toward elegance and style. “Shiraz for us in the Great Southern is really exciting,” Liam describes. “We are using less oak and we are defining a style that is really special. The wines are quite Rhône-like; medium bodied, perfumed, spicy, elegant and pure.”
From the 2020 Forest Hill Shiraz, back to the 2005 Block 9, it’s clear that Liam’s excitement is justified. The wines are savoury, medium bodied and fine grained with the 2020 Forest Hill Shiraz at $30 showing amazing value for money, a trend that was becoming clear across the whole varietal range. Standouts were the 2017 for its complexity, elegance and mouthfeel, and the 2005 for its juicy balance between fruit and development.
Left: Forest Hill Winery; Right: Guy and Liam on an Autumn wine check.
Lastly came Cabernet and as Forest Hill’s flagship red variety, it was a classy way to round out this special tasting. The highly awarded 2018 Forest Hill Cabernet reaffirms the exceptional value of this vineyard series and its bang-for-buck, power-to-weight output across all varieties. Block 5, part of the original plantings, is revered for its quality and tasting back to 1997 showed why.
The wines are highly detailed, delicate, and they have a lovely power-to-mouthfeel ratio that lifts them up above the high tide mark. They have an earthy, honest character definition that persists through all of them, even as far back as 1997. Standouts were the 2018 for earthy, aromatic layers of blackberries, chocolate, herbs and violets, the 2004 for its soft fresh core and the 1997 for its refined core of delicate black and red fruits.
So much has been achieved in Forest Hill’s 50 vintages. From pioneering a region, to the development of a unique varietal definition and expression through to the maintenance of quality, there is much to be impressed about, and that’s what makes the future of Forest Hill exciting.