Margaret River is arguably the fine-wine destination in Australia. One of the world’s 34 internationally recognised biodiversity hotspots, it produces around 20 percent of the country’s premium wine from just two percent of its grape production. Dr John Gladstone was responsible for starting Margaret River’s modern wine journey in the 1960s, when he published his paper in Agricultural Science claiming the region was similar, in terms of soil, to Bordeaux.
Gladstone encouraged Tom Cullity, a cardiologist from nearby Perth, to create a vineyard in Margaret River and Vasse Felix was started in 1967, followed swiftly by Moss Wood two years later and Cape Mentelle, Cullen, Sandalford and Leeuwin Estate by 1972. These original pioneers still stand strong today, creating some of the most acclaimed wines one can buy, though they have also inspired around 200 other local producers in the last 50 years.
Margaret River Chardonnay was put on the map by Leeuwin Estate, whose second vintage won Decanter magazine’s ‘best Chardonnay in the world’ award in 1982 but the region also produces beautiful Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon blends, and Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s the latter that really shone at the recent IWSC judging.
We talk about the Margaret River region as a relative newcomer to the wine world but many producers planted over 40 years ago, making them ‘old vines’ by UK standards. IWSC judges found the Cabernet Sauvignons sampled shared a common thread of supple, succulent acidity and a remarkable fruit concentration and purity, which continued to sing even after decades of aging. ‘The fresh fruit carries over far more than similar wines in Europe,’ commented UK judge, Beth Pearce MW.
It was particularly interesting to note, however, the stylistic refinements over the last ten years and especially the pivot caused by the 2017 vintage. It was a year that changed and challenged the Cabernet Sauvignons of Margaret River.
After a series of warm sunny years, 2017 was dramatically cold and wet for the area. Not usually a place of extremes, growers and winemakers had to work far harder to manage the vines and ripen their grapes. Chardonnay was, thankfully, largely unaffected, but it was a ‘scary vintage for Cabernet Sauvignon’ in the words of Colin Bell, Viticulturalist for UMAMU.
New techniques and technologies were employed and resulted in a realisation for many that ‘Cabernet Sauvignons don’t need to be big, masculine wines. There’s a real beauty, a real vulnerability,’ said Vanessa Carson of Lenton Brae, ‘so why can’t we celebrate that?’. A more ethereal style was embraced. ‘We still picked when the perfume was there in 2017,’ said Matthew Byrne of Evans & Tate. ‘For us that showed more typicity, a lightness without a shortness’.
If 2017 tested the producers, then 2018 was their reward. It is widely recognised as a ‘perfect’ vintage across Australia, one that gave winemakers the opportunity to make the best wines they ever had, armed as they were with the knowledge from the previous year. ‘If your wines weren’t working in 2018, a gift of a year,’ Byrne continued, ‘then they weren’t going to work. So: change what you’re doing’.
There is general agreement that this period led to many winemakers feeling more confident and comfortable; they had been tested and had come out the other side.
The wines were not emulating those of Europe, despite Gladstone’s Bordeaux comparison; they were finding their identity as something truly Australian that spoke of Margaret River’s unique terroir and seasons. Australia’s southwest has six seasons: Birak, Bunuru, Djeran, Makuru, Djilba and Kambarang and growers talked of going back to these Aboriginal roots and listening to the nuances of the vineyard, rather than dogmatically adhering to specific dates. In other words, they had faith in the vineyards instead of forcing them. ‘Wines don’t need to be made,’ said Glenn Goodall of Xanadu, ‘they need to be grown’.
The result is wines of strength and structure but with a graceful softness to their red and blue-fruited succulence. Fragrance and vibrancy abound but it is that juicy acidity, attributed to the Houghton Clone used, that kept me going back for more. Though 2018 is notable as a wonderful vintage, the refinement and tension of the 2019s was similarly shown to great advantage, the cooler years creating elegantly poised Cabernet Sauvignons that also promise longevity.
Many other varietals are now finding traction in Margaret River, from Chenin Blanc to Italian varietals such as Vermentino and Nebbiolo. Goodall spoke of how ‘diversity will futureproof Margaret River’, but it is the classical pillars of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon that currently propel the region to its greatest heights. With increasing investment in technology, ensuring gentler machines, plus techniques such as hand harvesting, it seems Margaret River is striding confidently into the future of its Cabernet Sauvignon. Sometimes a challenging vintage is just what is needed to truly flourish.
Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon: five of the best to try
Cape Naturaliste Vineyard, Torpedo Rocks Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2018
The nose is redolent of violets and summer fruits with hints of sage and savoury eucalyptus. A succulent and powerful palate of poised cassis and red berries, pink peppercorns and supple tannins with a gorgeous, refined star anise spiced long finish. 97 points. Read more.
Robert Oatley, Finisterre Cabernet Sauvignon 2018
Delicately elegant nose of blueberries and perfumed lavender, with a serious palate of graphite and primary black fruits, creamy sophisticated tannins and a fresh salinity giving texture with a long, rich and deliciously long length. 96 points. Read more.
Voyager Estate, MJW Cabernet Sauvignon 2020
Delicately elegant nose of blueberries and perfumed lavender, with a serious palate of graphite and primary black fruits, creamy sophisticated tannins and a fresh salinity giving texture with a long, rich and deliciously long length. 95 points. Read more.
Fermoy, Wilyabrup Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2018
Delicious aromas of cassis and eucalyptus, with underlying notes of green peppercorns and tomato stalk giving a savouriness to the palate. An opulent mouthfeel of plump forest floor berries, clove spice and black fruit fill the seductively fragrant finish. 95 points. Read more.
Cape Mentelle, Cabernet Sauvignon 2020
Charming aromas of luscious dark ripe fruits, dark chocolate and sweet oak with a savoury salinity on the palate giving texture. A touch of graphite and restrained peppery spice, fine and savoury tannins, with a well-rounded enjoyable and elegant finish. 95 points. Read more.