Photo: Darren McCagh

Ocean to Vine: 50 Years of Surf Culture and Wine Making in Margaret River

Margaret River has cemented its reputation over the last 50 years as a wine region that is premium to the core; producing just 2% of Australia’s wine, but around 20% of its premium wine. You’d think that with a reputation of such quality this would be reason alone for winemakers, viticulturists and chefs to be drawn to the region. But there’s another truth. Speak to them all and they’ll tell you that they were drawn by the lifestyle, the land and for many the ocean.

My own story is similar, drawn by a desire to be closer to nature, and the food and wine that makes up my working life, it is a rare place that I feel a privilege to call home. I haven’t graduated to wearing a wetsuit part-time quite yet, but could that only be a matter of time?

For surfers, the Indian Ocean coast from Cape Naturaliste in the north to Cape Leeuwin in the south is one of the world’s must-surfs; where you’ll find 130km of pristine coast, deserted beaches and 75 surf breaks. Having a beach or a break pretty much to yourself isn’t a dream here, it’s a reality. As Damon Eastaugh of Flying Fish Cove Wines says, “That’s just the beauty of this area. It offers so many different opportunities to experience an ocean lifestyle.” There’s no wonder why it’s become a fixture on the World Surf League tour each year; the Margaret River Pro shining a spotlight on this unique corner of Australia. Surfers and winemakers naturally gravitate towards each other.

The origins of surfing in the region and the half century of wine is entwined. A chat with Lara McCall, the co-owner of Burnside Organic Farm, sheds some light on a story that’s not so uncommon in these parts. On the farm that she established with husband Jamie, they grow avocados, capers, raise animals and have one of the smallest commercial vineyards in Australia. Organic and in tune with nature, it’s the rural dream of many realised here in Margaret River by the couple with their sons. The grapes from their two acres of vines go into their well-regarded Zinfandel and Vermentino, made metres from the vines Lara jokes that, “It’s something for us to do when we’re not surfing.”

Her ties to the region are from memories of a surfing childhood and the beaches around Gracetown, “Dad started surfing in the 1950s when not many people surfed and it became a lifelong obsession. He stills surfs today in his 70s. As a uni student he bought a block with some mates at Gracetown. We spent every spare moment down here as kids, and were brought up surfing and on the beach.” The dye was cast and when Lara and Jamie made the decision to move out of the city, the Margaret River region – so familiar to them, and their love of the ocean – was an obvious choice to raise their three young boys. “We wanted to be near the ocean and the surf and we also wanted to combine this with some kind of farming, Margaret River was always going to offer that.”

Lara is in no doubt that the region’s wine community is closely aligned to its surfers and the pristine environment. “There are not many wine regions that are so close to incredible coastlines with amazing surf… it’s pretty unique. We live five minutes from the surf, we have a vineyard, it’s all connected really.” That proximity of ocean to vine is one factor that makes Margaret River wine so exceptional, with long warm days and a maritime climate that provides cool nights; perfect for growing fruit that the region’s reputation is staked upon.

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Virginia Willcock is the chief winemaker at Vasse Felix winery, where she turns beautiful Margaret River grapes into delectable wine. She lives in Margaret River town, walking distance from the main street and close to the river and bush. The Margaret River region is just a three-hour drive south from Perth, and for anyone thinking about visiting the Margaret River region for five days (or more), Virginia shares her tips on some places you shouldn’t miss.

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