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Margaret River’s winemakers embrace alternative grape varieties

While the classic varieties in Margaret River continue to shine, Aleesha Hansel is struck by an appetite amongst the region's producers to make wines from less traditional grapes. It was a trend that intrigued at a recent IWSC judging

Words by Aleesha Hansel

Happs
Mark Warren, winemaker at Happs, is making wines from Tannat, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and others

They say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it and in the wine world that certainly rings true. Regions are built on traditions, often based on specific grape varieties and styles, and for many areas there is a legal framework ensuring producers adhere to them.

A firm winemaking direction makes plenty of commercial sense, giving consumers a reliable notion of what to expect from a region’s wines. Drinkers can look at a label and reference previous experiences of wines from the same place to decide whether the one in front of them is a bottle they’re likely to enjoy.

The downside? Well, sometimes wines from one region can become a little samey – especially with the proliferation of international grape varieties.

Because there is no rule book and no real expectations about what these wines need to achieve, you can really unshackle the winemaker – Mark Warren

On my recent visit to Margaret River to take part in the IWSC In-Situ judging, it was clear that the area continues to make some of the very best Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillion and Chardonnay in the world. The climate is, broadly speaking, similar to that of Bordeaux, which goes some way to explaining the success of the first three varieties mentioned. Chardonnay can call home pretty much wherever it lays its hat and is thriving particularly well in Margaret River thanks to the region’s Gingin clone.

What struck me while there, however, was the appetite to do something a little more daring. The overall feel of the region reminded me of my own journey in wine. After completing the lower levels of WSET, I would stick to the conventional wisdom around topics like food and wine pairing, safe in the knowledge that I wouldn’t make a mistake. But moving up the ladder, learning more and trusting myself led to the confidence to speak up, challenge the norm and start having fun with things – which is exactly where Margaret River is at.

It’s in this spirit that winemakers in the region are beginning to see the potential in alternative grape varieties to the ones that first put Margaret River on the fine-wine map. Whether it’s whites made from Gewurztraminer, Viognier and Marsanne or reds featuring Sangiovese, Nebbiolo or Tannat, there is an exciting new wave of wines worthy of investigation, some of which are also the product of wild ferments, amphora-aging and other, more experimental, techniques.

Josephine Perry
Josephine Perry, winemaker at Dormilona, whose wines are made organically using low-impact techniques and minimal intervention

‘These wines really have some interesting stories,’ laughs Mark Warren, winemaker at Happs, while pouring his wines for me and the rest of the judging panel at the alternative varieties tasting. ‘They might be founded in madness but at least it’s interesting.’

One such story was told to me at the same tasting by Josephine Perry, winemaker at Dormilona. She has created a Terry-Pratchett-style fantasy universe in which her wines exist. Dormilandia, the magical island of lazy bones, is where the story starts and can be followed by ‘watching’ the adventures of the protagonist resident skeleton as it ventures around with each vintage and new narrative label.

I left the evening with some of Warren’s words ringing in my head: ‘Because there is no rule book and no real expectations about what these wines need to achieve, you can really unshackle the winemaker.’

Dormilona in Margaret River is experimenting with new methods of maturing
Some of the wines at Dormilona are matured in handmade Italian amphora vessels

It’s actually not that surprising to discover a slightly maverick underbelly of this sophisticated region. Margaret River does, after all, owe its very existence as winemaking region to someone who, in his time, would have been considered a little ‘out there’ in his thinking. With nine golds awarded at this year’s in-situ awards alone, we forget how much of a joke the idea of quality Australian wine was in the 1960s, when Dr John Gladstones conducted his research here and likened the area to Bordeaux.

As with anything new or alternative, challenges do arise. ‘The future of any classic wine region is hard to determine because which way do you go?’ says Alex Hunt MW, IWSC Wine Judging Committee member and chair of this year’s panel. ‘You either stick to your guns and continue to excel at things that made you famous or you join the race to do something different which in the end, however well you do it, can fail to differentiate you.’

Margaret River owes its very existence as winemaking region to someone who, in his time, would have been considered a little ‘out there’ in his thinking

While nobody has a crystal ball to tell which path is best to take, customers are responding positively to the increasing variety of wines made by producers in Margaret River.

‘People that like Cabernet Sauvignon or more extracted, heavier wines are still in the market but there is more of an interest in lighter styles’ says Nina Throsby, fellow judge and group sommelier for Kailis Hospitality Group. ‘Having those [lighter] wines on the list, they sell. And not just from us pushing them.’

While we tried a range of alternative wines in Margaret River, with notable examples including a personality-filled Fiano from Higher Plane, an amphora-aged Shiraz from Dormilona and a dynamic-by-name, dynamic-by-nature Chenin Blanc from L.A.S Vino, there was one grape leading the alternative pack. ‘Cabernet Franc was an uncool kid but it has now turned a corner,’ says judge and fine-wine buyer Greg Sherwood MW. ‘We have dropped a generation that won’t drink it and the new generation love it. It is the new future.’

A vineyard belonging to Happs Wines, a winery based in the northern part of Margaret River

At lunch at a pub with a surprisingly good wine list, considering it wouldn’t look out of place in Crocodile Dundee, the topic of Cabernet Franc comes up again. ‘When we are talking about these on-the-fringe varieties, we need to talk about price and access,’ says Throsby, ‘especially in a region like Margaret River where Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are so expensive to buy for young producers.’

Indeed, Throsby’s astute point reminds me of a rather-tongue-in-check quote made to us by Remi Guise, winemaker for Clairault Streicker and his own wine label tripe.Iscariot: ‘When my father is rich and dead enough, I will plant some Nebbiolo.’

Four wines from alternative grape varieties to try from the IWSC 2024 wine judging in Margaret River

FLOWSTONE, TOURIGA 2021

Lush and opulent in style, with beautiful aromas of rich black fruit and pepper spice delighting the senses. Dark, broody fruits define the palate, accompanied by attractive tones of chocolate and leather. Great concentration and personality, culminating in a lengthy, solid finish. Read more.

McHenry Hohnen Vintners, Bdx, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot 2022

Lively, fruit-driven aromas lead to a merry palate of rich blueberry with inky undertones. Generous in style, with bright acidity and robust tannins, finishing with delightful layers of warming spice and juicy black fruit. Read more.

DOMAINE NATURALISTE, LE NATURALISTE, CABERNET FRANC 2021

Blue fruits and subtle smoke on the nose, leading to a supple palate supported by attractive, chalky tannins. Flavours of dried fruit and toasty oak come through beautifully on the finish. Read more.

 

VINEYARD 28, FIANO 2023

A lively, tropical nose with an appealing sweetness paves the way to vibrant flavours of pineapple and nectarine, underpinned by well-integrated oak notes. Classy and bright, with a persistent finish. Read more.