On blustery days, the sound of crashing waves can be heard in the distance, which always seems incongruous at a wine tasting. It’s a powerful reminder that the ruggedly beautiful, often dangerous Indian Ocean coastline hugs Margaret River – although the constant stream of vans laden with surfboards is a dead giveaway, too.
There’s also the Southern Ocean with its particular currents and sea breezes. Together, these bodies of water and their maritime influence hold sway in the vineyards, ensuring it’s never too hot in summer or too cold in winter. Instead this temperate, Mediterranean wine region mostly enjoys a long, consistent and warm ripening season. Cabernet sauvignon loves such an environment. Of course, there are other important factors, such as topography, soils, the marri trees, where and how the vines are grown, the meso-climate in the vineyard, clonal material and the thumbprint of the producer. However, it was barely 50 years ago when this ancient landscape began morphing into a new shape. In 1967, Perth cardiologist Dr Tom Cullity planted about three hectares of vines. He named his property and subsequent winery Vasse Felix.
Today, Vasse Felix has morphed into one of the country’s finest producers, thanks largely to the tutelage of winemaker Virginia Willcock, who arrived at the end of 2006. It was time to shake things up. Virginia was horrified that lovely parcels of cabernet, some of the oldest in the district, were picked and tipped into a rotor fermenter and mashed up with other fruit to make a more homogeneous blend. A perfectly good wine resulted, but it lacked detail, precision and depth.
Site and sub-regions
A fascinating tasting of her cabernet sauvignon from the 2007 to ’13 vintages revealed the evolution and the clear stylistic differences that have come about due to better handling of the fruit, keeping batches separate, identifying subtleties, extended skin maturation and, since 2012, wild yeast fermentation.
“We’re cabernet country, let’s just focus on cabernet,” she says. “But Margaret River is not a uniform terroir; there are differences and I want to find them.”
The tasting revealed not merely a Margaret River character – loosely defined as floral with leafy freshness, pippy with blackcurrants and raspberries, yet savoury with super-fine tannins, poised acidity and a long finish – but a sub-regional one. Vasse Felix reflects Wilyabrup, one of the six unofficial sub-regions, and the heart of Margaret River.
Some of the top producers are in Wilyabrup – Cullen Wines, Moss Wood, Woodlands Estate and Fraser Gallop Estate – and they are proactive in highlighting their special patch, holding regular tastings and putting Wilyabrup on their labels. Notably, the first three are Margaret River pioneers.
“The sub-regional issue in Margaret River is contentious; do they exist or not?” asks Stuart Watson from Woodlands. “As far as we’re concerned, we are smack-bang in the middle of Wilyabrup, which is characterised by that undulation and a ridge. If you go past the ridge where Wilyabrup ends, the country goes flat.”
While the Margaret River brand will remain strong, Stuart appreciates the extra layer of subtlety and difference emanating from Wilyabrup and, more acutely, his family’s unique site, established by his parents, David and Heather, in 1973. Vanya Cullen knew her cabernet sauvignon was different from Cape Mentelle’s or Leeuwin Estate’s, but why? She and Keith Mugford from Moss Wood turned to the man who knew more about the area than any, Dr John Gladstones. Thirty years earlier, as an agronomist with the University of Western Australia, John had identified Margaret River as suitable for growing grapes. He was instrumental in getting people to plant, including Dr Kevin and Di Cullen, Vanya’s parents
In 1999, at the behest of Vanya and Keith, Dr Gladstones prepared a conceptual plan of the sub-regions, coinciding with an extraordinary regional tasting of cabernet sauvignon or blends. Guess what? The tasting of 39 producers’ wines proved there were indeed differences between the sub-regions (except Treeton, as there were no entries).
From the warmest in the north to the coolest in the south, Dr Gladstones identified Carbunup, Yallingup, Wilyabrup, Treeton, Wallcliffe and Karridale as the “potential sub-regions”.
Thanks to that tasting, Vanya says site is paramount.
“Today, it’s a continuation of the story of the land and it’s more powerful than the winemaker,” she says. “Rather than having a house-style defining a Woodlands, a Cullen, or a Cape Mentelle, it’s about trying to represent, in the purest sense, place. That has been under-represented in Australia and yet it makes a wine more interesting.”
While some are not in favour of sub-regions or not ready to go down that route, nonetheless it has framed how people talk about Margaret River. Dr Gladstones’ mapping of those areas acts as a foundation, but it’s not the final plan. Besides, the vinous landscape today is more about attention to detail and fine-tuning in the vineyard and winery. And it would be remiss not to mention the other regional darling, chardonnay.
While cabernet sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties were identified from the outset as suitable, chardonnay came later, losing no time making up ground. Today it joins cabernet sauvignon as the hero wine of Margaret River.
Winemaker Cliff Royle moved to Margaret River from Victoria in 1997. Since 2009, he’s been at the helm of Flametree, a producer that owns no vineyards. As a result he has a rather detailed picture of the landscape – a wine region stretching 100 km down from Cape Naturaliste in the north to Cape Leeuwin in the south, and about 27 km wide. He makes some perceptive observations.
“We’ve been blessed with an amazing run of vintages – 2010, ’11, ’12, ’13, ’14 and now, by the looks of it, 2015. Honestly, in the time I’ve been here, bar 2006 when the cabernet didn’t ripen but the chardonnays were stunning, every vintage has been very good.”
What has been most notable, aside from teasing out differences in the landscape and the raft of good vintages, is that the winemaking has improved dramatically. There’s better technology, too, from sorting tables and precise destemmers to larger oak barrels, wild yeasts, and adding texture in chardonnay through more solids in the ferment. For cabernet sauvignon, they’re eschewing adding tannins and instead allowing for ripeness on the vines, softer extraction, judicious use of oak and much more. It’s why Margaret River arguably produces the country’s finest cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay.
Before the century is out, Cliff predicts sub-regions will form the backbone but, more importantly, great vineyard sites will come to the fore. They are starting to emerge now.
“I honestly believe we’ll be talking about grand cru, premier cru and village vineyards in 50 years,” he says. “That’s why we have to play to our strengths, which are cabernet and chardonnay, and we have to make them better. Don’t get distracted. Let’s keep the focus on those wines as they’re our future.”
Get a taste for the region with Jane Faulkner's Margaret River mixed dozen.