MARGARET RIVER: HOME OF FIRST-CLASS CABERNET SAUVIGNON
Welcome to Margaret River – Australia’s home of fine wine and one of the most isolated wine regions in the world.
Margaret River or “Margs”, as the locals affectionately call it, is only at the beginning of its wine boom. In less than fifty years, the region and its troop of dedicated winemakers have built an international reputation on first-class cabernet sauvignon.
Situated on the rugged West Australian coast along the 100km strip between beautiful Cape Leeuwin and even more beautiful Cape Naturaliste, Margaret River is a three-hour drive from Perth and a bona fide wine haven. Just as popular with beachgoers as it is with oenophiles, this secluded slice of paradise allows you to sip on a glass of chardonnay while being treated to a blue-ribbon view.
Margaret River’s wine history began in the 1830s when the Bussell’s planted their first vines to make table wine for the family, but the region didn’t really take flight until two research scientists landed here in the 1950s.
Margaret River’s geographical isolation proved no problem for wine pioneers Professor Harry Olmo and Dr John Gladstone. Olmo especially is one of the unsung heroes of the Australian wine industry. Despite being much less known than the likes of Max Schubert or Robert Mondavi, Olmo’s work with chardonnay in Western Australia is what propelled the variety into the Aussie spotlight.
"Almost overnight Margaret River became the most fashionable address in Australia, its future assured, its potential unlimited." – James Halliday
As the Professor of Viticulture at the University of California, Olmo was invited to study the climatic limitations of viticulture in the Swan Valley. He quickly realised that the Swan Valley was not the only region in the state that would prove to grow grapes, nor would it be the best. His work in Margaret River acted as a catalyst for what was to come.
Since then, the region has gone from strength to strength, building upon its reputation for world-class wine.
Wine styles of Margaret River
Margaret River is all about premium wine and the expressions coming out of this region are consistently elegant, not to mention acclaimed. In the red wine category, Margs is best known for its cabernet sauvignon and shiraz.
Cabernet is the king of Margaret River and almost every producer has a vintage available at cellar door. This varietal single-handedly propelled the region into the world’s wine spotlight and today there are more than 160 wineries making cabernet, 70 of which are five-star rated by Halliday.
When compared with other regions, James Halliday describes Margaret River cabernet as “seldom green, the flavours running in the classic blackcurrant/cassis spectrum with a juicy mid-palate, then moderately firm tannins running through the notes of black olive and earth on the finish”.
"There was a clarity and delicacy to their red fruit flavours and an elegance in their structure which immediately set them apart." – James Halliday
By way of white wines, verdelho and pinot gris are up-and-comers, but the front runners in production are chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Margaret River is agreed to be one of Australia’s foremost regions for chardonnay, known for its incredible voluptuousness. Halliday describes this wine style as having “iron-clad structure, intensity with generosity, and sweet fruit with flowing natural acidity”.
While 100 per cent sauvignon blanc is made with success here, it’s common to find it blended with semillon. Margaret River semillon is distinctly herbaceous making it a seamless match to sauvignon blanc. As a stand-alone varietal, the maritime influence on the climate sees the sauvignon blanc take on an extra dimension of mid-palate flesh. Not quite so tropical as those coming out of Marlborough, but refreshing nonetheless.
Margaret River climate, weather and soil
Margaret River has a climate that is unique to Australian wine regions. Hemmed by water on three sides, it’s considered ‘Mediterranean maritime’. Often likened to Bordeaux during a dry season, but with the added benefit of the sea, Margaret River’s temperatures are buffered by the Indian Ocean, Southern Ocean and Geographe Bay, resulting in mild, wet winters and warm, dry summers.
In even better news for grapes, frosts here are a rarity and the humidity levels during the growing period are considered ideal. The region sees an average rainfall of 1190mm per year and has a lowest mean annual temperature of just 7.6°C. Vines in Margaret River are privileged to a diverse range of soils, from the foundations of Jarrah and Karri forests to the sandy Jindong soils and gravelly loams of Wilyabrup. The soils are highly permeable when moist, but sloping sites quickly shed moisture and overall water-holding capacities are low.
James Halliday on Margaret River
The landscape constantly varies, given character by the abundance of small creeks and gentle valleys, as well as by the profusion of native trees, shrubs and flowers. In physical terms a degree of protection from sea wind is the most important factor.
The plantings here more or less precisely reflect the styles which Margaret River is most famous for and suited to. That said, cabernet merlot blends are important, as are blends of sauvignon blanc and semillon. These two blends are those of Bordeaux, and it’s no accident that the wines are as good as they are.
The best wineries (in alphabetical order) are Ashbrook Estate, Brookland Valley, Cape Mentelle, Cullen, Devil’s Lair, Howard Park, Leeuwin Estate, Moss Wood, Stella Bella, Vasse Felix, Voyager Estate, Woodlands and Woodside Valley Estate, followed by Amberley Estate, Chalice Bridge Estate, Chapman Grove, Clairault, Driftwood Estate, Evans & Tate, Gralyn Estate, Hay Shed Hill, Lenton Brae, McHenry Hohnen Vintners, Pierro, Redgate, Rockfield Estate, Sandalford, Thompson Estate and Wise Wine; this is a roll of honour greater than that of any other region.
"Finally, there are the winemakers, a feisty lot if ever there was one, and the wines, as distinctive as they are good.”
THings to do in Margaret River
Besides tasting your way through every cellar door in the region, you can find a plethora of other activities to keep you busy. If you’re a beachgoer, head down to one of the famous coastlines and watch the surfers going for a paddle.
If you’d prefer to stay dry, you can wander Busselton Jetty, visit Australia’s tallest mainland lighthouse at Cape Leeuwin, picnic among the Karri trees in Boranup Forest, explore the Cape to Cape track, watch the sunset at Yallingup, or see the migrating humpback whales at the point where the Southern and Indian Oceans meet.
If all your wine tasting has stirred up an appetite, lunch at one of the region’s excellent restaurants before satisfying your sweet tooth at the Margaret River Chocolate Factory.
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MARGARET RIVER wines to try
Juniper Estate Juniper Crossing Margaret River Semillon Sauvignon BlancJuniper Estate
White | 2017
Domaine Naturaliste Floris Margaret River ChardonnayDomaine Naturaliste
Domaine Naturaliste Discovery Margaret River Sauvignon Blanc SemillonDomaine Naturaliste
White | 2017
Stella Bella Wines Suckfizzle Margaret River ChardonnayStella Bella Wines