Exploring the Margaret River

I’ve been most impressed with the Margaret River region in Western Australia. The region has a pleasant climate – much cooler than most of the rest of Australia at this time of year. There is beautiful scenery to be seen with tracts of native forest, dramatic coastline, and the emergence of vineyards through patches of native bush. Go for a drive in the late afternoon and you’ll be sure to see kangaroos hopping through the fields.

Kangaroo in the vines.

Winemaking is big business here. Estates are very large – compared to those in Europe – and in the most part geared up very well to the tourist trail. You won’t lack for scenic places to eat, relax, walk the dog, or explore while sampling some fine wine. Despite the scale of many operations, I was very impressed by the care the viticulturalists and the winemakers show in growing their grapes and making their wines. Many estates are still family- or independently-owned, and they take enormous pride in making the best wine they possibly can. There is a notable difference in sentiment to other parts of Australia away from mechanised, mass-produced wine to wine with a sentiment of the hand-crafted, boutique. Western Australians are also fond of noting that while their state accounts for only a tiny proportion of Australia’s total wine production, they receive far more than the lion’s share of the awards! In a world where wine is big business and dominated by a few huge players on a global scale, I found all of this pleasantly surprising and encouraging.

The Leeuwin lighthouse (south of Margaret River) stands at the point where the Southern and Indian Oceans meet.

Western Australia was the last of Australia’s states to start producing wine. In the 1960s a government-sponsored study headed by Dr John Gladstones determined that the Margaret River region was the ideal place to start producing wine in W.A. Based on studies of the climate and soil, Dr Gladstones concluded that Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay would be the ideal vines to plant. Thus the Margaret River became the world’s first “scientifically approved” wine region. A medical doctor, Dr Tom Cullity, founded Vasse Felix, the first vineyard and winery, in 1967 and the region has never looked back.

While Cabernet Sauvignon (and blends thereof) and Chardonnay still dominate production, the region is becoming known for its Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blends (or ‘SBS’) – akin to a white Bordeaux – and other reds, notably Shiraz (which has a unique character here), and some Pinot Noir.

I had a look around a few producers during a short trip and was impressed with much of what I saw. On the whole, the Cabernets were excellent by Australian standards – restrained, not jammy, with firm, precise tannins, sensible use of oak, and crisp acidity. Not yet up there with top European Cabernet blends, but still very good.

Vineyards through the bush.

In a similar vein, I tasted some stunning Chardonnays. Gone are the days of over-oaked, mango and passionfruit notes in Aussie Chardonnay. The examples I tasted all made sensible use of only French oak barriques, were long across the palate and had restrained, cool-fruit aromas. Malolactic fermentation was generally avoided to preserve freshness of acidity.

While undoubtedly not to everyone’s taste, I really enjoyed the style of Shiraz being produced here. Light on the peppery spice, with cooler fruit characteristics (even redcurrant in some) and a notably tart, plum finish. Nothing at all like other benchmarks of Aussie Shiraz – the spicy fruitbombs of Barossa or the deep intensity of the Hunter Valley. On the other hand, these wines were still poles apart from the Syrah found in the Northern Rhône, which generally show greater concentration of black fruit character, deep black-peppery notes and a (pleasingly) rustic animally, or stoney edge, yet with similar acidity on the palate to those found in Margaret River.

Finally, the Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blends were very good for those who like this style. The region doesn’t grow the best Sauvignon in the country, and the Semillon is eclipsed by the unique style of the Hunter Valley. Yet in the classic Bordeaux blend, this region has really found its niche. There is also a broad range of approaches with winemakers experimenting with oaked/unoaked styles and different percentages of the blending grapes.

Lookout over native forest.

So is every wine out of the Margaret River similarly praiseworthy? No, I wouldn’t go that far. I did taste some fairly indifferent wines, and I’m sure the region still churns out its fair amount of mass-produced drivel. Additionally, the high cost of living in W.A. thanks to the region’s isolation, its tiny population and the inflationary pressures of the “resource boom” – minerals, oil and gas – means that these wines are not cheap. Thus they don’t compete favourably on price point across the world.

However, some excellent wines are coming out of Margaret River, and if you have the opportunity I’d encourage you taste some. And if you’re planning a visit to Australia – it really is a beautiful part of the country!

In my next post, I’ll highlight some of the stand-out wines for me from the producers I visited.

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About James

James Flewellen is a biophysicist at the University of Oxford. He has competed for the University in international blind tasting competitions and won several awards. In addition, James is a wine educator and wine writer, most recently co-authoring "The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting". He also writes for the international gastronome site "The Rambling Epicure", and can be contacted for wine consultancy and educational courses through the "Oxford Wine Academy".
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3 Responses to Exploring the Margaret River

  1. Pingback: Oxford are the University Wine Champions! | The Oxford Wine Blog

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