A century after their ancestor settled in the south-west, the Swinneys have produced something extraordinary.
By NICK RYAN
From The Weekend Australian Magazine
November 19, 2022
If medical studies at the Leeds Infirmary had gripped him tighter, George “Farvie” Swinney may have lived a life attending to the ailments of others rather than succumbing to the wanderlust that burnt like a fever in his soul. He boarded a boat bound for Australia in 1891 at 20, leaving behind a clergyman father, a heartbroken mother, five sisters and countless sickly West Yorkshiremen. He would never live in England again. But that departure, like so many of the time, changed the course of a family’s history. It threaded the Swinney name through a corner of the world so distant and different from his origins that it may well have been another planet. And it uncovered a capacity for growing things that would shape future generations and see, more than a century later, the name that labelled the luggage he loaded onto the boat adorning some of the most exciting wines his adopted country can produce.
The earliest days of George Swinney’s new life were spent on the property of a retired English army officer, a Colonel Mophet, in Renmark on the South Australian stretch of the Murray River, learning the fundamentals of growing fruit trees. The skills learnt there world serve George well. But before long the wanderlust kicked back in and he was off swagging his way along the great river. His memoirs of this time – published decades later by his descendants – tell of shanty pubs and bush camps, of rabbit trappers and horse rustlers, meals of fat cod pulled from the river and shared with taciturn fellow travellers who sometimes said even less than the fish. He fell in with a wandering Frenchman, Lionel Meyer, and they made their way along the river in search of work while forging a friendship that would endure all their lives.
George eventually made it as far as Whitecliffs in north-western NSW before taking a job at Mount Benson Station back in South Australia. It was his last job as a single man. He made the station manager’s daughter Mary his wife, and headed west in search of greater opportunity.
George’s horticultural skills proved highly prized and he worked across a vast stretch of Western Australia’s south west, from Nannup to Mundaring, Katanning to Donnybrook, Kojonup to Kirrup and on to Boyup Brook. He’d seen more of the south-western corner of his adopted country that most ever would, but in 1922 his wandering feet touched down on the property in Frankland River that would remain in his family to this day. George Swinney had found the place he was always meant to be. He was now home, at Franklands.
“I remember watching that first trailer-load of sheep driving out of the gate and feeling pretty sick, worrying that I might have stuffed things up. I looked over at Dad, who doesn’t give much away, but trying to imagine how he was feeling. It must have been breaking his heart.”
Matt Swinney will never forget the day in 1997 when tough decisions about the future of Franklands meant selling off the prized merino flock that had been its core business. The property George Swinney established had been grown by subsequent generations to more than 2000ha, but by the mid-1990s wool had been in long-term decline and hard decisions had to be made about just what Franklands might be for future generations. Matt was working as a business analyst in Perth, his father Graham running the farm. They worked on a business plan that would reimagine how the land would be farmed by those down the line.
Forestry was a short-term solution. Demand was high and a deal with a high-end Japanese paper company provided much-needed security. But Matt had other plans for the special sites of the property, the hillsides and ridges shot through with ironstone gravel, the places where loamy red soil sat above granite and gneiss. On these sites, he saw vineyards. Neighbours such as Merv and Judy Lange at Alkoomi and Barrie Smith and Judi Cullam at Frankland Estate had shown Frankland River’s capacity for producing outstanding wine grapes that helped establish a reputation for the region’s riesling and shiraz. But Swinney wanted to see what else this place where he’d grown up fishing in the river and riding motorbikes was capable of.
Continuing his business career in London, Swinney had taken a liking to the fragrant Southern Rhône wines built on grenache, and despite most people telling him the variety wouldn’t work in Frankland River he went ahead and planted it anyway.
To complicate things further, he planted the best sections as bush vines, rather than the more easily managed conventional wire trellis. The old grenache vineyards of the Rhône, the Barossa and McLaren Vale were all planted as bush vines, and many insist the variety demands it, but in the early years of the vineyard Swinney had to bring in consultants from the Barossa to show his team how to manage the unwieldy bush vines. It was a good indication of how determined Swinney was to do this vineyard thing properly.
By 2015, the Swinneys were ready to kick it up a gear. The vineyard business had grown, as had the list of winemakers queuing to get their hands on Swinney grapes. The family had developed its own label and the wines were well received.
But Matt wanted the world to see what he already knew – that this place was capable of something really special. He and his sister Janelle started making plans for a new label. A label that would encapsulate exactly what this generation of Swinneys wanted to achieve at Franklands. It would be called Farvie, the name their father and his generation had bestowed on his grandfather George. “The vineyards had performed well even in the early harvests, but we always knew it was going to take time for the vines to really start expressing the character of this place,” Matt says. “We knew we couldn’t rush it.”
Then, in 2017, when winemaker Robb Mann came on board, the Swinneys knew they were ready. Mann’s winemaking sensibilities meshed neatly with the Swinney approach to viticulture. They shared an almost obsessive focus on the little details, continually fine-tuning until the picture became crystal clear. And the wines they made from the 2018 harvest, a Farvie Syrah and a Farvie Grenache, were a sensation.
English wine writer Matthew Jukes gave the wines the highest scores he’d ever given a debut release, saying: “Matt Swinney’s epic vineyards in Frankland River coupled with Rob Mann’s celestial winemaking mean these two wines taste densely red and labyrinthinely earthy and therefore like nothing else on earth.”
Multiple critics heralded the syrah to be the best ever made in Western Australia, but it was the grenache, the variety everyone said Swinney was mad to even think about planting, that really blew everyone away. With three vintages released, it is already considered one of the finest examples of the variety on the planet. George Swinney, the master horticulturalist, the man who could coax sweet fruit from trees others thought lost, would be proud.
The Swinneys are not the type of people content to let things just cruise along. The vineyards are celebrated and the wines eagerly sought around the world, but Matt Swinney is already thinking decades ahead. He has plans for vineyard plantings that will redefine Australian viticulture, small vineyards on exceptional sites, each with a specific character reflecting its distinctive geology.
Matt knows instinctively where these sites are, having spent a lifetime exploring the family farm and drawing a map in his mind that he calls on to find locational answers to the questions his bold winemaking ambitions pose. All the technical testing, the soil analysis, water studies and the like will eventually confirm what gets planted where, but a lifetime on this stretch of land already shapes future decisions in a way raw data never really could.
A century after George Swinney arrived at Franklands and put down his roots, how things grow in this place is what still drives his descendants. You have to think he’d like that.