Region Insight: Margaret River

From Run-Down Dairy Country to International Limelight in just 50 years…

The universal awareness of the Margaret River Wine Region is such that it’s hard to believe that winegrowing on this pristine coastline began just over 50 years ago. Dr Tom Cullity planted experimental vines at Vasse Felix in 1967, making his first (disastrous) vintage in 1971. The pioneering stories of Tom and his medical mates, Dr Kevin Cullen (Cullen Wines) and Dr Bill Pannell (Moss Wood) is well told in ‘The Way It Was’ — a history of the early days of the Margaret River wine industry.

The Margaret River surfing beaches are legendary; indeed it was pull of the surf that brought the first tourists to (what was then) poor, run-down dairy country with dirt roads and little infrastructure. One young bleached-blonde, beer drinking surfer was Denis Horgan, who with the help of his brother John and the encouragement of Napa Valley guru Robert Mondavi, planted Leeuwin Estate near the township of Margaret River. Another dedicated surfer, David Hohnen (again with family support) founded Cape Mentelle — now part of the French prestige brand LVMH Group.

While wine is the now main drawcard, Margaret River has evolved into a wonderful tourist destination. The drive from Perth (shortened to 3 hours by recent road-upgrades) brings floods of  weekenders to the region, as well as copious numbers of trans-Nullarbor pilgrims. But other attractions aside, it’s certainly the quality of the wine that defines Margaret River. So pour a glass and taste for yourself.

Understanding the coastal terroir…

The Margaret River coastline stretches south of Busselton on Geographe Bay to Augusta, Australia‘s most south-westerly point. The best vineyards sit between the Bussell Highway and Caves Road, which meanders along in parallel with the Indian Ocean coastline. It’s the Indian Ocean that defines the maritime climate of the region, its warm currents making for mild winters while the cool on-shore breeze moderate summertime temperatures.

Vineyards to the north, around Wilyabrup and Yallingup (Woodlands, Domaine Naturaliste, Arimia and Windance), are a tad warmer producing fleshier reds while those near Margaret River township (Voyager, Leeuwin, Cape Mentelle and Xanadu) are cooler and better suited to white grapes and subtle, savoury reds. Vineyards to the east of the Bussell Highway are planted on heavier soils with the cool onshore breezes petering out, so it’s significantly hotter and the wines brawny and bold.

Speaking of soils, the coastline is marked by limestone caves with this porous sub-terrain topped with variety of soils—from ironstone gravels to sandy loams. These free-draining soils naturally limit yields with the persistent on-shore winds further reducing the crop by blowing flowers off the infant clusters. Low yields lead to high quality—a given with Margaret River wines.