Tasting terroir in Margaret River, Australia

Tuesday, 28 May, 2019
Graham Howe
While attending the Australian Tourism Exchange in Perth in April 2019, Graham Howe heads south to explore wine tourism initiatives in Margaret River.

Our wine tasting at Vasse Felix in Margaret River begins with a flight of Cabernet Sauvignon and ends with a flight of Chardonnay, two signature varieties of this iconic Australian wine estate. Open to persuasion, I muse that doing things the other way around might be par for the course for a wine tasting down under. Estate sommelier Evan Gill agrees that traditionalists are surprised by doing reds first, whites second – but that it is typical of their innovative approach to wine, and freedom to experiment in a new world region such as Margaret River. So they reversed the usual order in 2018 – and they offer tutored private tastings in the vault, wine lounge; or (free of charge) in the wine bar.

The logic becomes apparent. Cabernet Sauvignon, the hero red variety of Margaret River is restrained, elegant and delicate with light, fine tannins – whereas the distinctive Mendoza clone of Chardonnay planted here produces wines that are intensely aromatic, robust and powerful. Evan, a skilled wine communicator comments, “If Cabernet is the king of Margaret River, Chardonnay is the queen. Chardonnay from this region is reintroducing many Australians who turned away from over-oaked Chardonnay a decade ago to the incredible fruit purity of the variety. We use oak – mostly older fill barrels – for structure not flavour”. Our tasting moves from a gateway Filius Chardonnay through the renowned tiers of the estate Chardonnay to the flagship Heytesbury Chardonnay.

We started our tour of Margaret River at Vasse Felix, the oldest winery in the region, founded in 1967 by visionary viticulturist Dr Tom Cullity who launched their maiden vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec in 1972. Over the last fifty years, this winery has won accolades from the world’s top wine critics from “best new world winery” to “the top rank of the world” (Wine Spectator). On a walkabout of the oldest vineyard in the regionset among a creek and blue gums, we met Virginia Willcock, Australian Winemaker of the Year, monitoring over 80 parcels of fruit harvested from their four vineyards in the Margaret River region and individually vinified in the 3200 red barrel hall.

Willcock comments, “The magic of Margaret River lies in the cool maritime influence, the long ripening time and the innovative approach to winemaking. Wine should be allowed to show its natural character. If driven by the vineyard and the natural yeast, it will reflect its natural beauty”.  She talks briefly about genomics and the study of wild yeast (over sixteen strains were identified in one vineyard) and their exclusive use of wild yeast since 2012 as a key expression of vineyard sites. A boutique approach to organic viticulture, with traceability back to each vineyard block lies at the heart of Vasse Felix, from hand harvests to basket press, whole berry and whole bunch ferments.

Willcock also talks about ongoing research into the new science of “cineoles”- the influence of vaporised oil compounds from eucalyptus trees on vineyards. In Margaret River, winemakers talk about the “peppie” influence of peppermint gums which contribute a distinct herbal “but not minty!” nuance to Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine with herbaceous varietal character.We headed off for a superb food and wine pairing lunch at Vasse Felix, one of the top cellar-door restaurants in Australia where chef Brandon Pratt (ex Fat Duck, UK) showcases the flavours of local produce from kangaroo and emu carpaccio with foraged saltbush and wattle seed to samphire and local fish called nannygai. The terrace overlooks shimmering wrapped vines which protect grapes from wild parrots.

We had worked up quite an appetite with a hike along a stretch of the 123-kilometre Cape to Cape track which takes walkers along spectacular coastal scenery from Cape Naturaliste to Cape Leeuwin. In an innovative approach to wine tourism, Vasse Felix has linked up with a local tour company to offer an innovative Cape to vine tour – intended to awaken the senses of tourists to the ancient granite, gravel loam and limestone soils, the maritime influence of two oceans and the pristine isolation of the area before a cellar tour and tasting of the wines expressing cooler climate terroir.

Jancis Robinson writes, “Margaret River is the closes thing to paradise of any wine region I have visited” – while James Halliday adds, “Margaret River’s top tier wineries collectively produce an indecent amount of Australia’s greatest Chardonnays and Cabernets”. Three of the 22 members of the Ultimate Winery Experiences Australia collection (whose motto is “Go beyond the cellar door”) are from Margaret River, namely Vasse Felix, Voyager and Leeuwin – and at least four more of the eighty cellars in the 100-km long region should be: Cullen, Cape Mentelle, Moss Wood and Xanadu.

Watching the annual salmon run, the dramatic sight of a roiling dark mass in the surf, I thought of how the winelands of the Cape lie out there, across the same ocean which washes the shores of Western Australia and South Africa. I came across the protea labels and Cape Dutch gables of nearby Clairault and Streicker estate, founded by the South African Lewis family in 1976 where we did another benchmark tasting of Margaret River Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Manager Simon Cross calls Chardonnay “the vintage varietal” – while showing the power of their Streicker Old Vine Ironstone Block Chardonnay which expresses the oyster shell minerality of the soils. “We’re in the top ten of the oldest vineyards in the region”, he adds, noting that Australians struggle to get their heads around Chenin Blanc – “a sacrificial lamb” and standout variety made from 36 year-old vines.

The elegance, restraint and finesse of the Clairaultand Streickerhouse style reflects the cooler climate side of Margaret River. I especially enjoyed the no-nonsense winemaker’s tasting notes on the back label of these wines, “18 months in French oak barriques, yada, yada, yada!”or “the engulfing humic finish” of the Pinot Noir. The Streicker Bridgeland Block Syrah 2008 – all wines are single vineyard in this range - won the Great Australian Shiraz Challenge. Simon concludes, “The sweet spot for Margaret River reds comes eight years after vintage when the secondary characters show.” Back on the road I read Matt Kramer of Wine Spectator USA on, “The top rank of Margaret River Chardonnay and Cabernet is, simply put, in the top rank of the world. And by that, I’m including the likes of Burgundy (for Chardonnay) and Bordeaux and Napa (for Cabernet Sauvignon)”.

We enjoyed another superb food and wine pairing at Cape Lodge, a gourmet landmark in Margaret River voted among the Top 10 “Best Food” in the World by Conde Nast Traveller UK – and Best Australian Boutique Hotel. Our affable host, GM Drew Bernhardt, entertained us with stories of all the celebrities who have stayed here over the years while headlining at Leeuwin Estate or the annual Gourmet Escape, from Jackson Browne and James Taylor to Nigella Lawson and Germaine Greer. Acclaimed chef Tony Howell created a fabulous showcase of local tastes and textures: Esperance scallops, Manjamup truffles, Augusta Shark bay crab, marron bisque and Arkady lamb – paired with Cape Lodge’s own Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz, etc. Drew comments, “Margaret River is not one of those homogenised destinations like Dubai. It’s about individual, unique, top-end, self-drive experiences”.

Graham Howe attended the Australian Tourism Exchange in Perth as a guest of Tourism Australia. Visit www.australiassouthwest.com, www.westernaustralia.com and www.margaretriver.com

Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is likely the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for a wide variety of print media, online and radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over seventy countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra.

Vasse Felix
Vasse Felix

Clairault Streicker SA-owned winery Margaret River
Clairault Streicker SA-owned winery Margaret River

It's a wrap - Saving the grapes for harvest at Vasse Felix
It's a wrap - Saving the grapes for harvest at Vasse Felix

more news