No longer the backwater it once was, JAMES LAWTHER MW hopes Margaret River won't lose sight of its quality roots.
You can’t help but be bewitched by Margaret River. It’s the mood and feel of the place. The native karri forests are spellbinding; the Indian Ocean with its frothing breakers is enticing; the kangaroos are authentic; and there’s that whiff of 1970s counterculture that still pervades the air. The ‘surfies’ came for the waves and the first wine producers arrived with a passion for making great wine. Both gained Margaret River an international reputation and in so doing created a booming local economy.
The first commercial vineyards in Margaret River were planted just over 30 years ago, following the recommendations of Dr John Gladstones, an agronomist at the University of Western Australia. In a research paper published in 1965, Gladstones concluded that the climate and soils in the region offered the potential for the ‘production of wine grapes of the highest quality’. The renowned Davis viticulturist, Professor Harold Olmo, had alluded to this possibility during a visit in the 1950s and the growing weight of scientific evidence finally set the ball rolling in this quiet farming community.
The early pioneers – Cullity (Vasse Felix), Cullen (Cullen) and Pannell (Moss Wood) – were mainly enthusiastic amateurs, with California-trained David Hohnen (Cape Mentelle) the only wine professional of the group. The first vineyards were planted between 1967 and 1971 and the results were instantaneous. Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon rapidly made a mark, highlighted by Cape Mentelle’s success in winning the coveted Jimmy Watson Trophy at the Melbourne Wine Show for two years running with the 1982 and 1983 vintages.Leeuwin Estate, established in 1975 and the brainchild of chartered accountant Denis Horgan and his mentor Robert Mondavi, then set the spotlight on Chardonnay, the 1980 Art Series topping a Decanter tasting of Chardonnays from around the world. The profile of Margaret River had been cast: low-volume, premium wines for the top end of the market.Margaret River is 270km south of Perth at latitude 34° south in the southwestern corner of Western Australia. It is considered a ‘cool climate’ zone due to the moderating influence of the sea breezes, but in a European context it is warm hence the categorisation ‘west coast Mediterranean’.Winters are generally mild and wet and summers warm to hot and dry, with an average 48mm of rain in December, January and February. There is some regional variation (Margaret River stretches 30km east to west and 100km north to south), and despite the notion of consistency there is also a hierarchy of vintage, particularly for Cabernet Sauvignon. Over the past decade, 1991, 1995 and 1999 have been the top vintages, with 2001 also shaping up nicely.Until recently most of the vineyards were established about 3–7km from the coast, on the rolling hills of the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge. The soils at the best sites, around Willyabrup Brook and just south of the town of Margaret River, are granite-rich, gravelly loams over water-retentive clay which, due to age and constant leaching, are low in organic matter. Yields are consequently restrained, particularly in unirrigated vineyards, and wines are imbued with a certain grip and elegance to balance the full fruit flavours.
The latest developments, though, have seen the planting of vineyards further south, near cooler Karridale, and in the north of the region at Jindong. The climate here is warmer and the soils of this former potato-growing area are more fertile, so there are fears in some quarters of overcropping and a loss of quality in the wines. Only time will tell if this is the case. Margaret River’s appeal and success has inevitably led to galloping expansion. The vineyard area has moved from 1,000ha (hectares) planted in 1990 to an estimated 3,000ha in 2001. Admittedly Margaret River accounts for just under 2% of Australian production, but the industry is expanding and moving away from its core sites where the land has taken a leap in price.
The profile of producers is also changing. Southcorp purchased Devil’s Lair in 1997, while BRL Hardy took a share in Brookland Valley the same year. Evans & Tate, which is responsible for 35% of the crush in Margaret River, has moved its headquarters down from Perth, building a new 10,000-tonne facility en route. Howard Park, previously important in the Great Southern, has built a second winery in the Willyabrup sector.
A number of investor-led projects are also under way, including Palandri and Watershed, and several of the older, established wineries have either changed structure or expanded, or both. Xanadu is now listed on the stock exchange, Moss Wood acquired Ribbon Vale in 2000 and Vasse Felix has gone from a crush of 400 tonnes to 2,700 in the space of five years. Cape Mentelle, wholly owned by French Champagne house Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, has diversified within the region and beyond, purchasing Mountadam in South Australia to add to a portfolio that also includes Cloudy Bay in New Zealand.The consequences of this movement have been twofold: an increase in the volume of wine (predominantly from young vineyards) and a proliferation of new labels to accommodate graded fruit and staggered price points. Quality has been ruffled but it does mean that there are a number of ‘good value’ wines flowing from Margaret River, quite often as Western Australia regional blends.Given the age of the vineyards, the wines of most interest in this category are the whites, both Chardonnay and Margaret River’s other white speciality, the Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blend, as well as straight Semillon. Names to look out for here include Evans & Tate, Fifth Leg from Devil’s Lair and Howard Park’s Madfish, Ironstone, Juniper (Crossing) Estate and Xanadu. While its wine industry experiences slight growing pains, Margaret River still accounts for 20% of the volume in this sector of the market. Margaret River Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon at this level are highly sought-after, with at least half a dozen wineries that would appear on any list of Australia’s top 20.
There has also been a sufficient interval to know that these wines can survive the test of time and gain in complexity. Leeuwin Estate can now hold retrospective tastings of 18-odd vintages of the Art Series Chardonnay and Perth-based wine writer Peter Forrestal proved to me that the Cabernet can hold its own with a tasting of wines from the early 1980s, including the Jimmy Watson winning Cape Mentelle 1983.
If anything, the old established wineries have gone from strength to strength. The vineyards are now at a decent age, yields are low and experience has come to the fore. Cullen, under the skill of Vanya Cullen, is now arguably one of the best boutique wineries in Australia. The Cabernet-Merlot is firm, dense and refined, and the Chardonnay and Semillon-Sauvignon beautifully crafted. Much attention is given to the 28ha vineyard, including a recent conversion to organic cultivation. ‘I want the fruit to express the vineyard,’ Vanya Cullen explains.
Moss Wood and Cape Mentelle have also turned towards sustainable viticulture, but they make very different styles of Cabernet. Moss Wood is rich, fleshy and approachable when young, whereas Cape Mentelle is powerful and austere. Both produce a top-class Chardonnay and Cape Mentelle regularly turns out excellent Semillon-Sauvignon and Shiraz. Keith Mugford, owner of Moss Wood since 1985, is now working on his new acquisition, Ribbon Vale, which should be interesting to follow.
Vasse Felix has expanded rapidly, taking a bet on Jindong, where 160ha have just been planted. It is hoped that Shiraz in particular will do well on this site. The regional blend Heytesbury Cabernet is a classic, if not always consistent, while the Semillon and Noble Riesling are specialities of this estate. Chardonnay is still the forte at Leeuwin, although the Cabernet is being gradually improved. The other reference for Chardonnay in Margaret River is Pierro.Perhaps more disconcerting has been the limited number of estates to arrive at the premium level of the early pioneers. Devil’s Lair Chardonnay can be added to the list and could well be a future star, while Xanadu’s Lagan Estate Cabernet Reserve is getting better and better.
Others that are in the frame for their Cabernet blends include Gralyn, Lenton Brae and Voyager. Another for the future if the owners make the right decisions could be Juniper Estate (formerly Wrights). The original vineyard block was planted in 1973 and the winemaking is in the talented hands of Mark Messenger, previously at Cape Mentelle.Margaret River has evidently reached something of a crossroads. The level of expansion means that the idealism of the early days is gradually giving way to a more hard-headed commercialism. But before too many decisions are taken, producers should perhaps bear one thing in mind: that Margaret River’s reputation was built on quality and this should not be abused by the wilful use of the name.
MARGARET RIVER top 10
Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 100% Cabernet Sauvignon.
Firm, full and restrained with a long, minerally finish. Ready 2008–2012.
£20; Ave, GGr, HvN, Tan, Wmb
Cullen Cabernet Merlot 1999 Beautiful layered fruit bound in a firm but fine tannic structure. Great balance and length. Ready 2009–2012.
Devil’s Lair Chardonnay 1998 Rich, full and buttery. Quite intense. Better in another two or three years.
Juniper Estate Semillon 2000 Fresh, lemony, a hint of pear. Good weight and length. Some ageing potential.
Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 1998 An elegant and complex wine with length, depth and fruit concentration. Very fine.
£35; DDi, LRe, Wso
Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 Dark hue. Blackcurrant/blueberry aromas. Soft, sweet and velvety with a firm finish. Ready 2005–2010.
£32; Jer, Lay
Pierro Chardonnay 1998 Buttery vanilla nose, lovely citrus/tropical fruit flavour. Full, with a long, clean finish.
Vasse Felix Semillon 2000 Fresh, crisp and zesty with a grassy-citrus note and ample palate. Needs a couple of years.
Voyager Estate Shiraz 1999 Ripe and chunky with dark fruits and a hint of spice. Medium to full with a tannic twist.
Xanadu Lagan Estate Cabernet Reserve 1998 Cassis cordial and
eucalyptus nose. Sweet attack. Full and firm on the palate. Ready 2005–2007.