After landing in Perth (and recovering for a few days from jetlag), I repeatedly listened to Nick Cave's song "More News from Nowhere." That's no concidence, as Perth is one of the most isolated cities in the world, two thousand kilometres from its nearest major Australian city, Adelaide. Adding to that tangible sense of isolation, the main wine region, Margaret River, is another three hours south of Perth, and the other quality area, Great Southern, is five hours away. Despite its far-away location, not only is some great wine made, there are some very good microbreweries and Margaret River is the centre of a vibrant tourist industry.
In 1965, Australia’s leading agronomist Dr. John Gladstones published a report commissioned by Western Australia's government into which areas of the state might be best suited to grape-growing. He pinpointed Margaret River, due to its Mediterranean climate (very wet winters and dry, hot summers) and its gravelly soils, which he rightly felt made it ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon. Two years later, another doctor, Tom Cullity of Perth, planted vines, laying the foundation for Vasse Felix, still one of Margaret River's premier wineries. Others followed: Cullen planted vines in 1972 and Leeuwin Estate in 1974. The elegant wines, quite different from the bold, fruity wines often made elsewhere in Australia, caught the attention of the industry on the other side of the vast island, and now there are over 150 wineries in Margaret River, receiving acclaim around the world.
Margaret River’s location is certainly ideal. The best vineyards are located not far from the Indian Ocean, which moderates the climate. The proximity to the ocean means that there are lots of trees planted around the vineyards, to protect the vines from strong winds. The ocean also bring in lots of rain - Margaret River receives nearly 1,200mm of rain a year, 1,000 of which fall in the winter. These heavy rains provide the vineyards with water for the growing season; some wineries irrigate rarely and there’s plenty of water in reserve if it’s needed. Despite the summer heat, Margaret River has a long growing season, ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon while also adding complexity to the white grapes.
styles of wine
Margaret River, particularly in the northern part, is textbook Cabernet country. It's usually blended with a bit of Merlot, but the latter grape is falling out of favour. It's being replaced by Malbec, which was originally planted by Tom Cullity in 1967 when the grape was much less fashionable than now and which adds a spicy, tannic structure to the wines. The Cabernet blends are full-bodied but not too tannic or fruity or overripe.
Shiraz, despite the best efforts of local winemakers, doesn't really work here, being too thin and dilute. Instead, it was the white grapes I found most interesting. The Bordeaux influence is again important, as Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon work together very well. Semillon is too unfashionable these days to make it commercially on its own, but its waxy, full-bodied texture complements perfectly the herbaceousness and acidity of Sauvignon Blanc. These blends are fresh and lively; those without any oak ageing are quite fruity, while those with oak ageing have complex, engaging aromas of vanilla, spices, and nuts. The latter are particularly ageworthy, with enough body and acidity to last five to ten years, if not more.
Some of the greatest wines being made in Margaret River, however, have nothing to do with Bordeaux. Chardonnay here is simply superb. Clones planted in the area take a long time to ripen, gradually building up aromatic complexity (I also heard that the grapes are susceptible to leaf roll, which slows the ripening). At the same time, acidity is preserved from the cooling breezes coming in from the ocean. Just as importantly, what I most liked about Margaret River in general is that winemakers don't interfere with the wines too much. The Chardonnays are by no means overoaked: oak is used to give the wines a spicy texture and body but the fruits and acidity are still very pure.
Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay 2015 (A$115; $90)
Named after the founder of one of Margaret River’s first and still most distinctive wineries (they are certified biodynamic), this is an expensive Chardonnay but as good as it gets. This a smoothy, subtly textured wine: smoke, cream, and vanilla come from the oak, and there’s a dry, stone, mineral mouthfeel, given weight from the oak and aromas of stone fruits and cinnamon and all-spice. This is a white wine I would love to taste in another ten years, or even more. ✪✪✪✪✪✪✪
Stella Bella Suckfizzle Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon 2012 (A$45; $35)
Stella Bella have some great labels and some great names: Suckfizzle is their vineyard to the south of Margaret River named after a character from Rabelais. This is a terrific example of a Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend with a little bit of maturity: a creamy vanilla texture from the oak, waxy, green, herbaceous aromas from the grapes, refreshing acidity, and a rich, round mouthfeel. Such wines are particularly food friendly - with white fish or white meat, and spicy dishes that are popular here given the proximity to south-east Asia. ✪✪✪✪✪
Leeuwin Estate Art Series Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (A$31; $24)
Margaret River Sauvignon Blanc on its own has a crisp, refreshing acidity one would expect from the grape, but there’s also a richer texture to it than from, say, Marlborough in New Zealand. This Sauvignon Blanc is part of Leeuwin Estate’s “Art Series,” the labels of which feature a different work of art by an Australian artist each year. The most famous of the series is the Chardonnay (A$99; $75; ✪✪✪✪✪✪), one of the first wines back in the 1970s to show the potential for Chardonnay in Margaret River. The series also features Riesling, Shiraz, and Cabernet Sauvignon. I particularly liked this distinctive Sauvignon Blanc for its rich, dry, mineral texture, its stone and tropical fruits, and its interesting, spiky aromas of lemongrass and nettle. ✪✪✪✪✪
McHenry Hohnen Amigos White 2012 (A$28; $22)
Due to the warm Mediterranean climate of Margaret River, there is some interest in planting Rhône and Spanish grape varieties. In theory, this should work but the old-fashioned winemaking techniques of the Rhône and Spain don’t always translate well to the New World - I tasted a few Tempranillos which were simply too clean and straightforwardly fruity. White blends are more successful, perhaps because they don’t need the long ageing. The Amigos, from the founder of New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay, is a blend of Marsanne, Chardonnay, and Roussanne and despite the presence of Chardonnay is a characteristic white Rhône blend: stone and tropical fruits, nuts, white pepper, and ginger aromas in a rich but balanced wine. ✪✪✪✪
Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 (A$37; $28)
The original Margaret River winery produces a range of three Cabernet Sauvignons, including the high-end Heytesbury ($A90; $74; ✪✪✪✪✪). I also liked the mid-tier Cabernet (with 7% Malbec and 1% Petit Verdot in the blend), a range which the winery introduced in 2013 as part of an expansion programme. This has a smoky texture, with intense, concentrated black fruit aromas and chocolate, coffee beans, and a spicy peppercorn finish. A very good example of the full yet balanced Cabernet blends of the region. ✪✪✪✪✪
Si Halcyon Merlot 2015 (A$40; $31)
Si (named after owners and winemakers Sarah and Iwo) are an eclectic winery: they are based in the south part of Margaret River, away from the renowned vineyards of the north. They make wine from their small vineyard from vines planted in 1978 and also own 5ha of land in north-east Spain, making wine from Garnacha grapes (I can’t imagine the amount of travel that must involve). They’ve also got Shiraz in Great Southern, showing the good sense to ignore the Shiraz planted in Margaret River and concentrate on the best area in Western Australia for the grape. The philosophy is minimal intervention, with little sulphur added, and lots of experimentation. This makes their wines quite distinctive, and making a quality Merlot in a region where others feel it’s too green and astringent demonstrates the couple’s obstinate but quality-orientated temperament. This is a tight, wound, tannic wine, with red plums and black cherries giving it a juicy texture, with a dry, herbal, spicy finish. ✪✪✪✪✪
Established producers such as Vasse Felix show the long-term quality of Margaret River; more experimental producers such as Si point to the potential for the region to go in different directions. It’s quite a conservative region (as is Perth itself), so don’t expect much change just yet: just be assured of consistent quality.
A region with more surprises, however, is Great Southern, which unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to visit. While in Perth I got to taste a few wines from the region. Its climate is more varied than Margaret River's, becoming gradually more continental as it goes inland. Shiraz has a rich, voluptuous elegance to the wines, characteristically Australian but with a spicy, game undertone. The subregion of Mt. Barker, which has a combination of Mediterranean and continental climates, is especially good for Shiraz. Another subregion, Frankland River, inland and more continental, specialises in Riesling, the cool nights keeping the acidity high. The wines I tasted had some sweetness to them, unusual for Australia - more of a German style, but still with a lime fruitiness. Great Southern is definitely a region to keep an eye out for.