The Masters of Margaret River
Cabernet and Chardonnay: Discover the wines that put Margaret River on the map.
More than any other varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay have brought Margaret River to the attention of wine lovers across the world. Wineries both old and new have built their reputations upon these flagship varietals for over half a century.
Where it all began
After a number of tests, the first commercial planting in 1967 at Vasse Felix saw the dawn of Margaret River wine. Other plantings and wineries followed and built the foundations of what we see today: a region with over two hundred wine producers and grape growers.
Vanya Cullen’s (Winemaker / Managing Director, Cullen Wines) family have been part of shaping the region’s reputation. One of the founding wine families, their vineyard and cellar door is a must-visit on Caves Road.
Of those early days Vanya says “the whole community down here worked together. You know, there was Dad (Dr Kevin Cullen) and Dr Cullity (Vasse Felix) and Dr Pannell (Moss Wood), and everyone helped each other. It was a very different world to what it is now. That came out of everyone working and wanting to have the dream of great red wine, in particular Cabernet Sauvignon, because that was what Dr John Gladstones said that this region was perfect for growing. The Bordeaux grapes, and in particular, Cabernet Sauvignon. John actually identified this region, the Wilyabrup area, as being the sweet spot for Cabernet Sauvignon.”
The Margaret River wine region, 100km long, by 27km wide is “effectively surrounded on three sides of ocean, it’s a little Cape that pops out into a big cold ocean“ says Virginia Willcock (Chief Winemaker, Vasse Felix). “In our Mediterranean climate we have a warm dry summer but a cool wet winter, the grapevines just love it.”
That coastal influence is as loved by winemakers; many drawn for the surf, as much as the vines. As you journey through the region, north to south there are the sub-regions (albeit not used by all) of Yallingup, Carbunup, Wilyabrup, Treeton, Wallcliffe and Karridale. While we talk of a region’s terroir, or how factors like climate, soil and aspect conspire to affect a wine’s taste, you can see differences within single estates.
Andrew Watson (Woodlands Wines) says, “Margaret River Cabernet doesn’t just show its sub-region, it shows its vineyard. You’ll see a slope facing towards the sun will be more those red berry fruits, while one facing away from the sun will have a bit more of those tobacco, those secondary savoury characters. It really just shows you where it’s come from.
“You know it’s pieces of a puzzle.” Says Tim Lovett (Senior Winemaker, Leewuin Estate). “If you take Chardonnay, for instance, we have parcels of fruit that have concentration and intensity of fruit. And then we have other parcels, which have this beautiful minerality, this fragrance and perfume and you take parcels of those two and then you create the story. Because wine is a story; it’s reflective of the vintage conditions the climatic conditions that we experience, each vintage.”
Margaret River has the the perfect heat and sunlight to ripen Cabernet, retaining elegance in the wines and while everyone’s taste is different Virginia Willcock describes “beautiful berry fruits, but herbal nuances: earth, beautiful gravel.” She says, “If anyone has driven down a dirt road in Margaret River, that smell of dust and earth is beautiful and I think with the soils we grow our Cabernet in you can almost see a little bit of that gravel road.”
Josephine Perry (Winemaker, Dormilona), says “Cabernet has this structure about it that’s very chiseled, and you need to just let that naturally occur, let those tannins come out.” She is one of the region’s new generation of winemakers, but Cabernet and Chardonnay still form a big part of her Dormilona label, renowned for natural wine-making.
“Margaret River goes from Cape Leeuwin to Cape Naturaliste, through that cape there’s lots of micro-climates, so Chardonnay really changes as you go further south from the north of the cape,” says Perry. “ It has lovely beautiful acidity, like a fishbone or an oyster shell, just spiking through to the end.”
Speak to any winemaker in the region and they’ll tell you to get out and explore, taste from cape to cape. Virginia Willcock says there’s an array of style to discover, “from elegant tight lines of refined oak treatment, always complex to powerful, very full bodied, beautiful, deep rich Chardonnay.”
Whether you’re in the region for a few days or a few weeks, getting to know the flagship varietals, tasting from cellar door to cellar door, is one way to take a different memory with you, a memory of taste. Long after you’ve left the region, you can pick up a glass of Margaret River Cabernet or Chardonnay, close your eyes and be in what some have described as “wine paradise.”