Reflections on Margaret River

Despite the fact that its fame as a wine region is less than 50 years old, Margaret River is among the highest profile in Australia. Most surveys say the Barossa Valley remains the best-known region, while the Hunter Valley, Coonawarra and Yarra Valley are also ‘up there’, and McLaren Vale also rates highly, but Margaret River is pretty much alone in this group because it’s a region where large-scale grapegrowing and winemaking did not exist before the second half of the 20th century.

Western Australian writers Peter Forrestal and Ray Jordan are working on a history of the region, to be published in 2017, the 50th anniversary year, and they point out that the region’s success is not down to any single person. Many people have made significant contributions, although the early driving force was Dr Tom Cullity. His Vasse Felix vineyard and winery (tastings) paved the way.

However, the region’s rapid rise to prominence is startling, and we could ask why this is so. The obvious contrast is with the Great Southern, which started a few years earlier but grew more slowly and has always been in Margaret River’s shadow. The differences in local government by-laws that enable landholders to subdivide property are one reason small vineyards proliferated rapidly in Margaret River. In the Great Southern, subdivision was restricted, so the early vineyards tended to be located on large grazing properties. Not only was it one or two hours by car further from Perth (the key source of potential investors), but it lacked growing population centres like Busselton and Bunbury, which were another source of pioneer investors.

Moss Wood’s (tastings) Bill Pannell, Cullen’s (tastings) Kevin Cullen and Pierro’s (tastings) Michael Peterkin were all general medical practitioners, working in Busselton, at the time they caught the wine bug. Indeed, they shared a medical practice. Vasse Felix founder Tom Cullity was a Perth cardiologist; John Lagan and Eithne Sheridan, founders of Xanadu (tastings), were both medical doctors.

These people were intelligent, well educated professionals with ambition and drive, earning good incomes. They had the motivation and the ability to be winemaking pioneers. It’s largely due to their energies that Margaret River got the great start that it did.

Margaret River also benefitted from the considerable interest of one Dr John Gladstones, a plant scientist employed by the state government.

The distinguished University of California viticultural researcher Professor Harold Olmo had visited Western Australia in 1955 and recommended the Great Southern for grapegrowing, dismissing Margaret River as too wet!

Gladstones’ investigations, no doubt more detailed and leisurely than Olmo’s, led him to think the winter-dominant rainfall of Margaret River was ideal, as it replenished the subsoil moisture levels in time for the growing season and left the growing and ripening seasons relatively dry and disease-free. He also believed the area was relatively frost-free, that the climate had many similarities to that of Bordeaux (although a touch warmer and drier – no disadvantage), and it was home to the Marri tree, a local eucalyptus species, which had long been used as an indicator of ideal grapegrowing environments. The Marri loves well-drained ironstone gravel soils, which also happen to be great for wine.

Gladstones wrote two papers in 1965 and ’66 recommending the Busselton-Margaret River area for grapegrowing, and the response, as we’ve seen, was swift.

The wines were impressive from the start. Cullen, Vasse Felix and Moss Wood all won major awards in wine shows in the early to mid-1970s. Cape Mentelle (tastings) won back-to-back Jimmy Watson Trophies with its 1982 and 1983 cabernet sauvignons. Margaret River wine arrived with a bang.

The biggest buzz in the region was for cabernet sauvignon, a grape which was enjoying strong popularity at the time (shiraz, in contrast, was down and out; consequently little was initially planted in the region). But it wasn’t long before chardonnay began to impress, and blends of semillon and sauvignon blanc were also established early. The reasoning was that where cabernet did well, other Bordeaux grapes might also.

The very first semillon sauvignon blanc blend, Cullen’s 1979 made by Mike Peterkin, promptly scooped a trophy at the Royal Perth Wine Show. The SSB, affectionately nick-named ‘sem-sav’, is now the region’s signature dry white.

In the early years, cabernet was often quite leafy — in hindsight, excessively so — but it did well because that style was fashionable at the time. Happily, those days are past and today’s cabernets and cabernet blends are riper-tasting, and this is being achieved without high alcohol. Indeed, several leading wineries are achieving excellent ripeness at moderate alcohols – as low as 12.5 per cent at Cullen.

The trend in chardonnay is also for less alcohol and less ripeness, which in some Australian regions has led to some rather hard, green wines – but not in Margaret River, where again good ripeness and intense flavour are consistently achieved at modest alcohols. Its chardonnays seldom lack that essential richness and generosity that is part of this grape’s nature.

Cabernet sauvignon is without doubt the region’s greatest strength. There are few places in Australia – nay, the world – where cabernet sauvignon makes a complete and alluring wine by itself, with consistency. Margaret River is one, although many of the leading producers blend one or two other Bordelais varieties in, to give a more complete and more complex result. Some declare it on the label; some don’t – which is fine if it’s less than 15 per cent.

The argument persists over cabernet’s herbal aromas and what constitutes a fully-ripe cabernet wine, what degree of herbaceousness is tolerable and whether indeed this argument matters at all. In this region, the degree of leafiness corresponds more or less to price: the more herbal, the cheaper the wine. This suggests that winemakers at least prefer less leafiness.

A peculiarity of Margaret River cabernet herbaceousness is a seaweed, iodine or peaty nuance. Again, opinions differ as to its desirability, but my observation is that winemakers and opinion-leaders generally don’t seek it.

One of Margaret River’s strengths is the high proportion of good wineries, and the low proportion of poor ones, according to the present Margaret River Wine Show chief judge, Philip Rich. This is reflected in the show results, he says: the 2014 show yielded a record percentage of gold-medal wines. “Part of the secret is that they’ve had a succession of good vintages. Even 2011 (a famously wet year in the eastern states) was a very good vintage in Margaret River.” Indeed, the last lesser-quality vintage was 2006, but even that made some excellent whites.

The show’s previous chair, Iain Riggs, is also a fan. He describes Margaret River as “a freakish region for the way it’s so consistent. They stick to their knitting with cabernet, chardonnay and semillon sauvignon blanc.”

Show success also comes on the bigger stage. Riggs, who stepped down recently as chair of the Sydney Royal Wine Show, said as a region Margaret River had consistently dominated the Sydney show in recent years, across all varieties that it produces. One might expect eastern-state regions such as the Hunter or Barossa Valleys to do better, but no: “The most gold medals and trophies across all varieties is always Margaret River.”

Ch’ng Poh Tiong, a columnist for this magazine who also writes The Margaret River Report, says: “I find the refreshing quality of Margaret River wines very reassuring. White or red, you can pick practically any bottle off the shelf or wine list and be rewarded with a glass in which fruit and vivacity are in uplifting competition. Only the odd proprietor or winemaker extracts too much and, thankfully, these are the rare exceptions.”

Like any wine region, Margaret River is not without its problems, and one of these is that Gladstones was arguably too generous when drawing the official geographic boundary, including some inferior terrain. But, as with every region, one cannot legislate quality, and Margaret River’s quality is legendary because of the people who make wine there. Long may that continue.

First published in Decanter Magazine – Jun 2015.

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