The Not So Wild West: Margaret River in the Groove 


The story of Margaret River is rooted in a combination of its ancient landscape and the early dreamers who settled there fifty years ago, drawn by its majestic beauty and extreme isolation. Located in the far south-western corner of the Australian continent, Margaret River historically was a place where counterculture thrived, and adventurers laid down new foundations in search of a better life. It is not difficult to see why, even today, thanks to the natural beauty that still hits the traveller at every bend in the road with old growth forests and their remnants, which are truly remarkable. Margaret River is where towering forests not unlike California’s Redwoods meet the turquoise waters of the vast Indian Ocean with vineyards snuggled in between. Those forests and their wood were Margaret River’s first lifeline to the world.

Today Margaret River is liquid gold, particularly thanks to vineyards planted with Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, with the region’s curious climate making it one of the few regions in the world that has proven itself to be highly suitable to both Bordelaise and Burgundian grape varieties. It is a chameleon that can, and has, successfully pivoted as styles have changed over the years. Margaret River stretches over 60 miles in length north to south and 17 miles wide with distinctive climactic differences on display. At the same time, it is also a place steeped in indigenous history, with evidence of Aboriginal inhabitants dating back 50,000 years. There is an energy and vibrancy to the land plus rich biodiversity that radiates out of its greatest wines.

Harvest time at Cullen wines.

What Margaret River has achieved in almost 50 years is quite remarkable. From small beginnings and the work of a handful of founding families, many of whom are still in the industry today, it has now laid claims as a world class cool climate region. With Coonawarra and the Yarra Valley, Margaret River was one of the first Australian zones to really explore more marginal climates yet still retains the country’s classic generosity of fruit. While it has grown in stature and reputation, Margaret River has also never lost its humble, down to earth feel. Small family businesses still dominate the landscape with most winemakers and equally CEOs spending their spare time swimming, surfing, fishing or diving for abalone, taking time out of their daily grind to revel in the region’s natural splendour. Unsurprisingly, once winemakers arrive, they seldom leave. The wine industry has over the years also welcomed many locals from all kinds of backgrounds to share the region’s success, including a handful of school teachers who developed successful wineries. This is backed by a small number of more serious players, such as Vasse Felix and Voyager Estate, with significant investment and global aspirations, which has only added to the region’s rich tapestry and spurred all on to reach for the stars. A long history of collaboration between local winemakers and viticulturists continues to this day. This started with the pioneers meeting for barbeques to share their latest creations, another hallmark of a wine region hungry to use all available resources in a quest for greatness. The close bond between Margaret River’s wine industry and the land is also illustrated in the widespread use of sustainable practices as well as organic and biodynamic viticulture, a trend no doubt likely to accelerate in the coming years.

Some of the first wines from Margaret River to gain wide attention were juicy, fruit forward blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon that wowed many with their pungent aromas and flavours. In the Australian market, they were a precursor to the wildly successful Sauvignon Blancs from Marlborough in New Zealand. Highly popular and cheap to produce, these fruity whites showcased regional purity and vibrant fruits which has become the region’s trademark, although in an early drinking package. There were certainly a handful of early premium quality focused wineries, but the real wine stars were few and far between. But slowly, the local vignerons grew in confidence as their neighbours started to gain widespread attention. The 1987 Leeuwin Estate Chardonnay Art Series in particular, crafted with fruit from vines planted in 1975, made the locals believe that this little wine region, at the end of the earth, could compete with the top end of town. The last 35 years have seen momentum build, and build, with constant refinement and improvement in styles and quality.

Not only is Margaret River a special place but viticultural serendipity has also been very kind with the early propagation of clones that have proven to be very well suited to the region, in fact one of the secrets to its success. The Houghton clone of Cabernet Sauvignon was imported to Western Australia from South Africa in the eighteen hundreds with its low yields and small berries helping to make concentrated wines.

The origins of the widely planted Gingin clone of Chardonnay have also been long discussed. The regular occurrence of hen and chicken, which seems to provide particularly flavoursome Chardonnay, gave many the impression that it was identical to the Mendoza clone. While both the Gingin and Mendoza clones come from UC Davis in California and have some similarities, they are in fact quite distinct. So, what was probably a random choice for importation back in 1957 has proved to be very fortunate and has had a profound impact on Margaret River and the quality of its Chardonnay - sometimes luck is on your side. The lack of Phylloxera in the region has allowed the vast majority of vines to be planted on their own rootstocks. In no doubt, this helps to explain the unique characters and quality of the wines.

As a wine region Margaret River has long been compared to Bordeaux because of its location close to the ocean and the high quality of its Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as white wines made with Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. Academics had originally hypothesised a strong similarity, although this is a dramatic over-simplification. The vineyards of Margaret River are planted on a coastal plain which juts out into the sea fed by cooler air from the Southern Indian Ocean and surrounded on three sides by water. It’s exposed to the brutal force of the vast Indian Ocean, the result being that Margaret River is generally spared from the baking seasons occasionally seen further east with fresh afternoon sea breezes as its saviour.

Compared to Bordeaux, the vineyards are relatively exposed to the elements although with a slightly warmer average temperature. For the driest continent on earth, one of the most salient aspects is how unusually even the climate is with few heat spikes, which explains much of the wine style with its mix of bright, sweet fruits matched by marked subtlety. The result is elegant and wonderfully pure Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays.

Morning storms at Gnarabup beach.

Overseas Intervention

Small plots of vines had been in Western Australia since the 1830s, but there was likely little aspiration to reach for quality. Actually, it was an American Viticultural Professor, Harold Olmo, who visited the state on a Fullbright Research Scholarship in 1955, that in many ways lit the fire for serious Western Australian wines. Olmo visited a number of regions and in fact favoured the more Southerly Great Southern region over Margaret River. However, he was soon followed by a local agronomist, Dr. John Gladstones, who believed that Margaret River may be superior, as long as vines were planted in free draining soils.

Gladstone’s work saw a handful of pioneers take up the challenge with Vasse Felix, Moss Wood, Cape Mentelle, Cullen, Sandalford and Leeuwin Estate planting between 1967 and 1974. It is hard to imagine how difficult this would have been in that they were in effect establishing a completely new industry in one of the world’s most isolated corners without a ready supply of key hardware and know-how. Everyone was involved in the process, even the young children of the founders, roped in to do the back-breaking job of removing stones from the rocky vineyards and planting vines. The nearest supply store was a two-hour drive each way making for a half a day round trip on poor roads. It was a tough, unforgiving life, but self-belief and passion for wine kept these pioneers on track.

Olmo was not the only American to make a splash. Leeuwin Estate was always set up with the highest aspirations and enlisted Robert Mondavi to consult after a chance meeting. His experience and skills with Chardonnay were no doubt an important factor in the early Chardonnays Art Series, gaining early international accolades, particularly the 1981 and 1987. With Mondavi’s assistance, unsurprisingly these wines were fairly typical of Australia’s first forays into Chardonnay with powerful, sweet fruits, yet with elegance and focus which would become future hallmarks of the Margaret River style.

Modern Australia

The last decade has seen a profound change in wines across Australia. While there are still plenty of decadent, sunshine in the glass styles to be found, particularly in the Barossa and McLaren Vale, the industry has taken giant leaps towards wines with greater balance and refinement. Margaret River has been a leader in this change, particularly for Chardonnay, moving away from wines with ripe fruit, full malolactic fermentations and generous oak towards classically proportioned wines with more prominent acidity and everything dialled back to good effect. This has also been mirrored by a greater use of solids with wild ferments and more lees content to craft wines with greater sophistication making modern Margaret River Chardonnay a reference style for the country and the new world. There are also occasionally top-class oak fermented and aged blends of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. These are not always an easy sell in the local and international markets which has seen a lack of focus on this style. It is a pity as the wines can be truly outstanding.

This change in national wine style has been driven by several factors including a desire by winemakers to make wines with better aging potential as well as a reaction against the big, sweet, oak-driven wines of the past. The youthful desire of the Australian wine industry to be noticed, often through heavy handed winemaking, has been slowly replaced by a quiet confidence that the country’s underlying terroir is better served by a gentle hand in the winery. There has also been a growing national self-belief that the country could craft wines that deliver far more than simply forceful flavours. This has dovetailed nicely with a growing local consumer taste for more subtle wines with lower alcohol. It all played perfectly into Margaret River’s hands thanks to its cooler climate that was well suited to more medium weight red wines and modern, finely balanced Chardonnay. While Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are the stars, there is plenty more going on behind the scenes, particularly with Merlot and Shiraz. There is a good case that, if given the same focus as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot from Margaret River may also gain a reputation as the country’s finest. Shiraz is a different story and Margaret River Shiraz is unlikely to compete with the best from further East. However, the region can create deliciously savoury examples with a distinctly Southern Rhône accent to enjoy over the short to medium term.

Leeuwin Estate Vineyard.

Sub-Regionality - Friend or Foe

Inevitably, in such a large region, there has been a long history of discussion about sub-regions. From north to south, the key areas are Yallingup, Wilyabrup, Wallcliffe and Karidale. They represent significant differences in soil, which is important in a region that receives around 1,000mm of rain per year. The region has invested significantly in understanding the soil and climatic differences. It appears the soil makeup is particularly complex showing marked differences not only between regions north to south but also within regions east to west with coastal soils quite different from those further inland. These differences sometimes extend even to within vineyards. There are ten distinct soil types and include ironstone, quartz, gravels and alluvial sands on a base of gneiss, schist, limestone and granite - the bedrock having been put down between one hundred fifty and six hundred million years ago.

Climate also differs with the vineyards in Wilybrup, where it is significantly warmer from those further south. But the question that remains for the governing authorities, is whether those differences are significant enough to warrant the identification of a sub-region? The sub-regional discussion peaked recently when five winemakers from Wilyabrup applied for a Geographical Indication; although, that application has recently stalled with no clear timeline for when a final decision will be made. There is little doubt that this is the first salvo in what will be a long fight for recognised sub-regions in Margaret River.

The sub-regional conversation around quality is also in flux. For decades it has been widely considered that the Wilyabrup and Wallcliffe sub-regions were the most advantageous for wine quality. Thanks to gentle global warming and greater interest in more elegant styles, one of the recent trends in Margaret River has been a strong move South towards the vineyards of Karridale, particularly for Chardonnay and sparkling wines, where there is increased cloud cover, humidity and cooler southerly winds. There is no better illustration of this than the Idée Fixe winery, Vasse Felix new premium sparkling wine house, which draws fruit only from Karridale. Very recent soil sampling has also potentially uncovered some surprising soils in Karridale including quartz breccia - shattered quartz often cemented together in small blocks. This is very different from the gravelly ironstone soils that are currently featured in many of the region’s top vineyards. Long ignored, it is only now that the vineyards of Karridale are enjoying the attention of their northern neighbours.

2019 - Cool and Focused

The low climate variability in Margaret River is the envy of many winemakers around Australia. While it is exposed to the elements, particularly weather systems coming in from the Indian Ocean, and the occasional remnants of a sub-tropical storm or cyclone coming south from the tropics, there are relatively few challenging seasons. Two thousand-nineteen is a great example of a cooler year with harvest two to three weeks behind recent means, but close to long-term averages. A cool Spring and Summer brought with it the risk of poor weather at harvest which never eventuated thanks to a long Indian Summer. White grapes were harvested in exceptional condition with bright acidity providing wines with impact and focus that will age well. It is a more reserved and understated vintage for Cabernet Sauvignon with most wines to enjoy over the mid-term, although the best have good cellaring potential thanks to exceptional balance rather than deep wells of fruit and structure. There is one very usual local danger that did affect the 2019 Margaret River vintage, birds. Margaret River has long been a home of a forestry industry and still today there is an abundant supply of mature trees, particularly the Marri tree. Poor flowering of Marri trees in 2019 did bring severe bird and bee pressure, although the best producers ensured minimal damage thanks to netting.

Sunset at Voyager Estate.

2020 - Warm and Generous

Two thousand twenty was a dream vintage for Margaret River viticulturists and winemakers with challenges kept to a bare minimum. Plenty of winter rain set the vintage up beautifully providing good water supplies for the year ahead which would be needed. Some challenges at flowering including hail, rain and the ever-present wind served to reduce bunch weights which lowered yields while giving a boost to fruit intensity. From there, it really was plain sailing, although on the warm side with temperatures above average for both Spring and Summer with little rain to speak of. Marri trees flowered just as grape sugars were getting into the danger zone keeping birds out of the canopies. Two thousand twenty is an exceptional vintage with fruit soaking up the warm sunshine to create powerful and complex Chardonnays that have retained good focus. Cabernet Sauvignons are equally impressive and show the balance and structural integrity for excellent cellaring potential.

2021 - La Niña and COVID in Full Swing

One of the most challenging of recent vintages for Margaret River started innocuously enough with mild weather before a tropical cyclone made landfall in the north of Western Australia, before heading south and dumping twice the usual rainfall on Margaret River in November. Warm and dry conditions returned until February when a significant dump of rain occurred as harvest kicked off putting the brakes on vintage. Warm, humid conditions followed which were also matched by COVID-induced labour shortages. Overall, this will be an earlier drinking vintage for red wines characterised by plush fruits and supple tannins while the whites are defined by their energetic fruits and tangy acidity making for a solid vintage.

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