The Swan Valley is famous for the quality wines produced in the oldest wine region in Western Australia, but as you journey around you may notice differences in the trellises on which the grapes are trained. Higher and wider V shaped trellises are used for table grapes which have long played a prominent role in agricultural production in the Valley. The shape allows for better protection from the sun to allow the grapes to grow to their full potential.
Table grape growing is as old as the wine industry in WA with vineyards planted almost from the start of European settlement – and over the years has continued to hold a special place in the life of the Valley. For many years dried grapes were also produced and sold, but returns for these have fallen and this sector of the industry no longer exists to any extent.
Around 100 growers of table grapes can be found in the Swan Valley, mostly on smaller allotments than those used for wine growing, and you will often see roadside shops selling the produce – although most of the grapes are sold through the wholesale markets and onto local supermarkets and green grocers.
The first growers were the British settlers who also established the large winery operations but as the years passed waves of European migrants came to prominence among the grape growers in the Swan Valley. This was particularly so of migrants from Dalmatia, a region of Croatia along the Adriatic coast. By the late 1930s probably 80% of grape growers in the Valley were from this small region and they replicated their lives from the old country here, with their own shops, sporting clubs and the like; and they grew grapes for both eating and for wine in what became known as Little Dalmatia. The names of these pioneering families are still foremost among the table grape growers today.
While a number of traditional varieties are grown – some of the best known are Flame Seedless, Dawn Seedless and Crimson Seedless – more and more the grapes are proprietary varieties developed by agricultural companies and only licenced growers are able to grow them. One of the best known of these is Autumn Crisp which is becoming more and more popular and requested not only by supermarkets, but also by visitors to the Valley. Long-time grower, Matt Katich, says that some Asian visitors plan their trips to WA around the availability of the Autumn Crisp grapes picked fresh off the vine.
Table grapes are a small but significant part of the Valley and add to the many attractions for visitors. From around January to March each year high quality grapes are available by the bunch from the numerous gate front shops along with other produce – melons, berries, vegetables – the growers produce to supplement their incomes.
So when you are out and about in the Valley don’t overlook the chance to taste and to buy some of the excellent produce on offer, especially these outstanding table grapes, and in doing so immerse yourself in part of the history of the Swan Valley.