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Take me to the River...

text and photographs © 2009 Tom Cannavan

See also: Part II - seven more estates profiled / Part III - visitors guide

The chortling of kookaburras or screech of parrots; the smell of eucalyptus as you drive through ancient forests; the taste of yabbies caught fresh that morning. Australia has a capacity to delight all of the senses. Even the landscape is painted with an extraordinary palette, as layers of deep terracotta and burnt umber merge into luxurious swathes of green forest, shockingly slashed through by groves of psychedelic blue gum trees.

Having been several times to the wine regions of the south and east, my first visit to Western Australia renewed this sense of wonder. This is a low, gentle landscape by and large, much of it covered in bush, or dotted with sheep farms, apple and cherry orchards. But the coast can be wild, a surfers' paradise as the Indian and Pacific oceans crash together to create a much more dramatic aspect.

Capital of Western Australia, Perth, is by some considerable margin its biggest city. Officially the world's second most remote city, the distances from here to other 'big' towns of Western Australia (usually of no more than 10,000 people) are nothing compared to the distances to the cities of South Australia and the east. Flying from Perth to Sydney is equivalent of flying from London to Moscow - and about half of the way back again.

   This remoteness influences the West, the relative scarcity of population and massive geographic area meaning its infrastructure is somewhat underdeveloped. Once out of Perth and its environs, roads are as likely to be gravel as tar and small towns have a rugged, frontier feel. Those looking to travel in top class luxury will certainly be able to do so - but only with some careful planning.

And yet Western Australia is utterly charming. Unspoiled, fresh and clean, the landscape is loved by the locals who are resolute types with a doughty nature. Their obvious pride in being Western Australians is balanced by an easy ability to see the funny side their isolation.

Western Australian wine

It is only in the past 30 years or so that Western Australia has developed a real reputation for quality wine. The warmer Swan Valley to the north of Perth is the oldest region, first planted in 1834. But it is far to the south in the much cooler Great Southern and Margaret River regions - now a byword for top flight Western Australian wines - that is the driving force of the industry today. To put that in perspective, whilst Margaret River grows only 3% of the country’s wine grapes, it commands over 20% of the premium wine market.

In October 2009 I travelled to Western Australia, to judge The Wine Show of Western Australia, and spent a few days visiting some of the region's wineries, mostly in Margaret River. Reports on a dozen estates and around 100 wines follow. The Wine Show itself was a fantastic experience, as three panels of judges gathered in a chilly Mount Barker in Great Southern to put over 800 wines from all over Western Australia to the test.

Classes I judged and which really impressed included 2007 and 2008 Chardonnays, the 2007 Cabernets and the 2007 and 2008 Rieslings, but as the 'international' judge at an Australian show, it is always the chance to spend a few days with your fellow judges - drawn from the countries brightest winemakers and wine journalists - that is incredibly informative about the state of play in the Australian wine scene.

Margaret River

Margaret River is one of the 'must see' destinations of Western Australia. Many international visitors to the State will see Perth, and make the relatively short trip down to Margaret River, even if they see little else. Perth itself buzzes with energy, clearly a city in full, confident stride with a beautiful waterfront and endless supply of attractions. A brand new extension to the Kwinana Freeway heading due south opened the weekend I drove down, cutting the journey time between Perth and Margaret River from three hours to two and half or less.


Margaret River is essentially a coastal area, that sits snugly between two Capes: Cape Naturaliste to the north, and Cape Leeuwin to the south. It is a region with a warm, maritime climate, adequate rainfall, and a well-established agricultural economy. At its heart lies the town of Margaret River, smaller than Busselton, the gateway to the Margaret River region to the northeast, but the jewel in the crown thanks to its beautiful setting amongst the prime vineyard sites. The town of Margaret River has a sophisticated shopping, dining and accommodation scene. Wine and travel writer Sarah Ahmed reports on it, and the scene in Perth, in part III of this feature, but it is easy to pass a few days in Margaret River enjoying visits to the vineyards and the town's attractions.


Margaret River has forged its reputation on Cabernet Sauvignon, still regarded by most as the region's best grape, though the other Bordeaux varieties are popular, as is Syrah. Pinot is happier further south in the cooler regions.

For whites, it is pretty much a straight shootout between Chardonnay and Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc - the latter two bracketed together because they are almost always blended together here. Viognier in encroaching a little, as is Pinot Gris, but the big three hold sway for now.

Wine styles

Margaret River has forged a reputation for making wines of balance and subtlety. Whether it's down entirely to the climate and soils here, or whether it is down to the region's isolation and determinedness to 'do its own thing' I do not know, but the full-throttle, super-ripe styles that can still be found in Barossa and Coonawarra rarely occur here. As in much else, when it comes to winemaking, Margaret River and Western Australia march to a slightly different beat.

Dry blends, both red and white, are the mainstays of the region, similar to Bordeaux - a region that is comparable in terms of climate and, to some extent, wine style. A little sparkling wine is made, and some sweet wines - there are some good liquor muscats and tawnies to be found in Western Australia too.

Vintages are rarely straightforward in any wine region, but a general summing up of recent vintages in Margaret River would be:

2009 very good - long, dry autumn when winemakers could choose their picking date
2008 a really good vintage
2007 a warm, big and ripe vintage
2006 coolest vintage in the history of Margaret River
2005 an excellent vintage with great weather conditions

the estates and wines

     The Margaret River wine industry owes a great debt of gratitude to Dr John Gladstones. Gladstones, an agronomist and professor at the University of Western Australia, was the first person to research the soils and climate of the region before declaring them perfect for grape growing - only in the late 1960s.

Gladstone's work inspired local men Tom Cullity and Kevin Cullen, who became the first to plant vines in the area in 1967 at Vasse Felix and Cullen Wines. Also in that first wave of five 'founding fathers' were Cape Mentelle, Leeuwin Wines and Moss Wood. Four of these five are the subject of my first set of Margaret River profiles below.

the founding fathers

Vasse Felix

Virginia Willcock is the firebrand winemaker here, and not short on conviction or opinion. Her full-throttle chat continued through a tour of her wines and onto a terrific lunch in the winery's restaurant.

"Vasse Felix are big believers in Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc (always shortened to 'SSB' in conversation throughout the region), Chardonnay and Cabernet," says Virginia. "We do grow Shiraz," she says with a shrug, "but we want to be the best in the world at something - and the best here means SBS, Cab and Chardonnay, not Syrah."

Though the first to plant vineyards here, it is fair to say Vasse Felix slightly lost its way in the 1990s under the direction of a conglomerate called Heytesbury Ltd. Eventually Paul Holmes à Court bought his family out of Heytesbury Ltd, and became sole owner of Vasse Felix. Virginia came here late in 2006, from Australian Wine Holdings, and says that today she and Paul are totally focused on re-establishing the brand at the highest quality level. Their two big-brand, big sellers 'Classic White' and 'Classic Blend' where not even on the tasting table. "They are big sellers," she tells me, "but we don't talk about them."

Our conversation turned to the 'SSB', and how wines here could have a pungency not unlike Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. "Margaret River Semillon produces grass and thistle notes," according to Virginia, but she insists it is not a 'green' character of under-ripeness, but part of the Margaret River terroir. "We don't have green vegetable characters, we have soft, leafy herb characters of the region like thyme and marjoram - the two are nothing like each other." The wines are distributed in the UK by Negociants UK.

for tasting notes on 9 wines from Vasse Felix

Cullen Wines

Unfortunately Vanya Cullen couldn't be here to meet me as I'd left her a couple of hundred miles away in Mount Barker that morning, where she was finishing up some duties as Chair of the Wine Show of Western Australia. As I'd spent the previous few days judging the show I'd had plenty of opportunity to get to know this very serious, dedicated but jolly winemaker, who'd spent as much time giggling as deliberating earnestly over tough judging decisions.

One of the best known and most respected names of Margaret River's estates, Cullen is famously organic and biodynamic too, the vineyards looking unlike any others I have seen, each row interspersed with other crops (right). The vineyards are also 'dry farmed', with no irrigation. They have been Biodynamic certified for five years, having been organic for a decade - and the entire operation is carbon neutral. The on-site restaurant serves vegetarian and organic meals to packed houses each lunch-time, much of the produced sourced from the vineyard's market garden.

Diana and Kevin Cullen were dairy farmers here in the 60s when John Gladstones suggested the area might be interesting for vineyards. Vanya took over winemaking shortly after graduating from Roseworthy college with a Graduate Diploma in Wine in 1986. She has also worked stints at Robert Mondavi in Napa and Drouhin in Burgundy, and it is her personal philosophy that very clearly drives Cullen's ecological and sustainable business ethic. The wines prove the formula works, with the top Bordeaux blend, Diana Madeline, regularly awarded as one of Australia's finest wines. The philosophy here extends from the vineyard to the winemaking, with a policy of minimum interference "essentially we let the wines make themselves." Liberty Wines is Cullen's UK agent.

for tasting notes on 6 wines from Cullen

Cape Mentelle

Unfortunately I also had to leave senior winemaker Rob Mann behind in Mount Barker where we'd judged together, but winemaker Tim Lovett (right) did a fantastic job of showing me around.

Since 1977 Cape Mentelle has become one of Margaret River's best known names, thanks to its founder and erstwhile winemaker David Hohnen having also founded Cloudy Bay in New Zealand (Hohnen now makes terrific wins with his brother in law at nearby McHenry Hohnen). Around 60% of Cape Mentelle's production is white. "SSB is the volume driver," Tim tells me, "but we try to over deliver on quality." There is also a focus on small batch Chardonnay. A 2008, tasted from barrel, showed the complexity and experimentation here: 80% fermented with ambient yeasts, 40% of it in new oak. Viognier is also an increasingly important part of the mix, including a new Botrytis cuvée - one vineyard will be dedicated to making the Botrytis wine from now on, the grapes left to naturally develop Botrytis in the dry, windless conditions.

Cape Mentelle and Cloudy Bay are now owned by French luxury house Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey. Tim tells me that LVMH allows the winery to operate autonomously, though buying barrels and supplies for Cape Mentelle, Cloudy Bay and Domaine Chandon does bring benefits for the Antipodean operations. Around 85% of the oak in the cellars is French, the rest US, but I saw lots of oak trials as the team is constantly evaluating coopers and woods.

Cape Mentelle's Cabernet Sauvignon helped put the youthful Margaret River region on the map in 1984 and 1985, with two consecutive wins of Australia's most prestigious wine trophy, the Jimmy Watson Trophy.

for tasting notes on 9 wines from the Cape Mentelle

Leeuwin Estate

It was an absolute pleasure to meet up with Denis and Patricia Horgan again, whom I'd last met in the UK almost a decade ago. The Horgans established Leeuwin in 1974, and whilst their children are also involved in the business today, the couple remain firmly at the helm. In fact, it was the late Robert Mondavi who first spotted the site for the Leeuwin vineyards, and the Horgans developed the estate under his mentorship.

The isolation of the vineyards allows minimal use of synthetic chemicals, and natural remedies are used to deal with vineyard problems: large plots of sunflowers around the perimeter of the vineyards attract grape-munching parrots away from the grapes, whilst other flowers and trees are there to attract Silvereyes, pretty but pesky little birds that take delight in piercing thousands of grapes with their needle-like beaks if left to their own devices.

Winemaking follows "broadly European techniques," and Denis says their aim is to make "complex, balanced wines with longevity."

Leeuwin has carved an enviable name for its extremely fine varietal wines. Top of the range is the 'Art Series', with an outstanding Chardonnay and superb Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz. The 'Prelude' range is lower priced but still offers handmade wines of very high quality and capable of cellaring, whilst the 'Siblings' range is intended to be ready to drink.

Today Leeuwin's operation is a huge tourist attraction in its own right, with a fine restaurant and series of international concerts staged in the grounds each summer that has featured everyone from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, to Diana Ross, to Sting in its 25 years.

for tasting notes on 12 wines from the Leeuwin Estate

Part II - profiles of more top estates and over 80 wines.
Part III - visitor food and hotel guide to Western Australia