Friday, August 27, 2010

Margaret River: The über Bordeaux?

The jousting edge of the Australian landmass as it confronts the winds traveling across  the Indian Ocean from the African continent, and situated on almost the same latitude as the wine regions of Chile and South Africa, the Margaret River region of Western Australia has been hailed by Jancis Robinson as "... the closest thing to paradise of any wine region I have visited in my extensive search for knowledge."  Its Cabernet Sauvignons, the backbone of the region's production, and reputation, have been described as "wines of balance and subtlety" and as having "elegance and finesse" that is unparalleled in the island continent.  In this post we will trace the history and characteristics of the region as we attempt to identify the contributors to the high quality of its wines.

Located 172 miles south of Perth, the town of Margaret River sits midpoint of a 19-mile-wide stub peninsula that stretches for 75 miles from Cape Naturaliste in the north to Cape Leeuwin in the south and, in its entirety, comprises what is known as the Margaret River wine region.  The region is bounded to the north and west by the Indian Ocean and to the south by the Southern Ocean and is bisected longitudinally by the rolling hills of the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge which runs from cape to cape and has a maximum elevation of 295 feet.  The Margaret River flows east to west through the center of the region before debouching into the Indian Ocean.

The Margaret River climate is maritime, with a prevailing westerly and southwesterly air stream.  Winds can be strong at times and effective windbreaks for the vines are essential.  The region does not experience any extremes in summer or winter temperatures and humidity levels are optimal during the  grape-growing season.  The temperature is warmer in Margaret River during ripening than in the Medoc and is, in fact, more akin to the temperatures experienced in Pomerol and St. Emilion at that time.

The Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge consists of laterite (gravelly or gritty sandy loam) over granitic and gneissic rock.  Vineyard soils are primarily laterite or, at valley level, underlying country rock. The soils are highly permeable and moisture can be quickly shed  from sites located on slopes, thus driving a need for irrigation.

Western Australia has been the target of a number of governmental (both British and Australian) population-enhancement initiatives which sought to lure immigrants (Australian or European) to the area with the promise of land ownership.  The first wine grapes in the Margaret River area are attributed to Italian immigrants who planted vines to provide wine as a meal accompaniment.  The modern Margaret River wine history was launched by the agronomist Dr. John Gladstones who served as a bridge between the research theories of visiting UC Davis viticulturist Professor Harold Olmo and a group of eager Australian doctors who were interested in farming (particularly lupines) in the Margaret River area.  Applying Dr. Olmo's theories on climate to the area, Dr. Gladstones theorized that Margaret River had soil and climatic conditions similar to (and, in some cases, better than) Bordeaux:

  • Maritime-influenced weather
  • 43 inches of rainfall per year
  • No rainfall during harvest (unlike Bordeaux)
  • Slightly warmer and sunnier than Bordeaux, thus causing fruit to ripen a little faster and better than in Bordeaux.

Based on these considerations, he recommended that the doctors plant Cabernet Sauvignon in the area around Wilyabrup rather than the lupines they had in mind.  Acting on Gladstones recommendation, Dr. Bill Vasse, in 1965, planted 1/2 acre of Cabernet Sauvignon and Rhine Reisling while Dr. Tom Cullity planted 1/4 acre of vines on his property.  These trials yielded excellent results and led to Dr. Cullity launching the Vasse Felix winery. Other pioneering wineries included Cullen Wines, Moss Wood, and Chateau Xanadu.

Margaret River was officially registered as a wine region in 1996.  It is further (unofficially) divided into the sub-regions shown below.  Most of the wineries are located in the Wilyabrup and Wallcliffe sub-regions.

Today Margaret River produces 3% of Australia's wine grapes but has 20% of the premium wine market.  There are approximately 5500 hectares under vine in the region and 138 entities producing wines in the region.  Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely planted varietal, followed by Shiraz and Semillon.  Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc are also widely planted.  Margaret River wines are known for intensity of flavor, balance, and subtlety.  Whites are either Chardonnay or Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blends and the Leeuwin Art Series Chardonnay is considered one of the best Chardonnays in Australia, if not the world.  Reds are primarily Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blends.  Notable reds include Voyager Estate Cabernet Merlot, Howard Park Leston Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Moss Wood Ribbon Vale Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Sandalford Cabernet Merlot Prendeville Reserve, and Moss Wood Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.

Margaret River has a phenomenal wine tourism infrastructure but that will be the topic of  a future post.  In the meantime, if you do not have a wine to take to the #Cabernet Day ball, grab a bottle of Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend.  You will not be disappointed.


  1. I would also love to try the MR reds from Cullen and Woodlands wineries. Future wine dinner?

  2. Sounds like it. I just bought a trio ('05, '06, 07) of Cullens.