Margaret River is a wine region located on a peninsula in the southwestern corner of Australia, 200 kilometres south of Perth.
The personality of this very young wine region reflects the peculiarity of its climate and soils, as well as a winemaking approach that has, in its foundation, a strong sense of identity and uniqueness.
With just over 50 years of history as a wine region, Margaret River could be considered one of the youngest in the world. In fact, very small vineyards had already popped up in northern and central areas between 1830 and 1950, but a proper wine industry didn’t take root in Margaret River until 1967.
The way in which viticulture established itself was highly unique, as it used scientific observation and debate of two research scientists, Professor Harry Olmo and Dr John Gladstones, as its foundation.
Olmo was carrying out research into climatic limitations in Western Australia for Californian university, Davis. Although his focus was initially further north in Swan Valley, he discovered and pointed out the suitable conditions for viticulture in Margaret River. Concerned about rain during winter in the region, Professor Olmo received decisive support from Dr John Gladstones.
Gladstones was an agronomist and in 1965 he constructively challenged Olmo’s concerns, welcoming rain as long as vines were planted on well-drained soil. Much of Margaret River consisted of very fertile grey loam on a subsoil of clay, excellent for viticulture.
Those studies led to the first vineyards and wineries to be established in the region. Vasse Felix first (1967), then Moss Wood(1969), Cape Mentelle (1970) and Cullen (1971).
At that stage, the lack of infrastructure in a region that never played a role in the wine industry previously, as well as the pioneers being soemwhat inexperienced, were strong challenges. In fact, with the exception of Cape Mentelle, the first wineries were opened by doctors and cardiologists and not those with a background in viticulture.
The final seal of approval came in 1973, when Robert Mondavi, a celebrity wine producer from California, showed interest in the region and started consulting for Leeuwin. his advice led to the planting of the Chardonnay grape, which later became the most iconic grape of the estate.
Today there are around 300 grape growers in the region and, although contributing only to about 3% of the country’s wine grapes, Margaret Rivers represents over 20% of Australia’s fine wine market.
The peninsula shape of the region influences the climate greatly and Margaret River has strong similarities to the Mediterranean climate. It is generally warm with mild winters, granting an unusual, yet convenient and even, accumulation of warmth.
Less than 20% of precipitations are concentrated between October and April, which corresponds to the spring and summer seasons of Australia. A dense presence of native trees also provides the vines with some sort valuable from the oceanic winds.
In Margaret River there are slightly less than 6,000 hectares under vine, with almost 300 grape growers and around 150 wine producers.
The total production is around 40 million litres per year, roughly 3% of Australia’s total. Production is evenly split between whites and reds and is represented on 25% of all wine lists in Australian restaurants. This is a reflection of the domestic prominence of this region, accounting for 90% of the sales.
In terms of fine wines, Margaret River represents an impressive 20% of the premium wines in the whole Australia, a mark of the region’s uniqueness.
A distinctive feature of Margaret River is a smooth spread of grape varieties and an even split between the red and white vineyards.
For whites, Sauvignon Blanc is the most prevalent (19%), closely followed by Sémillon (18%) and Chardonnay (17%). The other white grapes represent about 6% of the total.
For reds, Cabernet Sauvignon leads quite solidly with 18% of planted vineyards, followed by Shiraz (13%). The remaining red varieties account for 9%, with Merlot deserving a special mention.
It is said that the balanced and subtle wines from Margaret River have a more “European” style compared to the rest of Australia.
This is almost certainly due to the climate, which is significantly cooler compared to other areas in Western Australia, not to mention its peculiar soil. But the isolation of the region and its winemakers approach to determinedly “do their own thing” is also a factor.
Similarly to Bordeaux, a comparable region for climate and wine style to a degree, dry blends are the cornerstone of the region. For reds, a famous blend is Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot. Among whites, it’s SSB deserves special mention, which is a mixture of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc.
Vasse Felix, Cape Mentelle and Cullen were among the first four producers in establishing the industry during the early 1970s.
Moss Wood was the second producer, opening in the region in 1969. The first grape planted that year was the Cabernet Sauvignon, arguably the flagship of the estate. 1973 saw the first planting of a white grapevine and the production of Moss Wood Sémillon.