The Sustainable Mantra of Margaret River

Monday, 17 June, 2019
Graham Howe
Sustainable food and wine tourism is the mantra of Margaret River, an idyllic new-world wine region on the frontier renowned for signature varieties and cool-climate styles.

Driving south from Perth, one of the most isolated cities in the world, the main coastal highway winds through a quintessential Australian landscape of endless eucalyptus forest, bush and farmland. Stopping along the way in coastal resorts like Bunbury (to experience the amazing new Dolphin Discovery Centre) and Busselton (to walk on the longest wooden pier two km out to sea in the southern hemisphere), the road brings us to Yallingup, the northern gateway to Margaret River. Three hours after leaving the high-rise boomtown of Perth, we’re heading down Caves Road, the long viticultural artery which meanders for 100 kilometres from Cape Naturaliste to Cape Leeuwin.

Some eighty wine cellars are hidden down country lanes set in a pristine landscape of ancient woodland, virgin bushland and mountain ridges. A little over fifty years ago, these were all pastoral cattle, sheep and dairy farms – until a study in the late 1960s comparing the climate and terroir to Bordeaux inspired the planting of the first vines at Vasse Felix. The struggle between man and nature is epitomised by the early stories of Margaret River – and by the iconic falcon on the Vasse Felix label. When flocks of wild parrots and silver eyes ate the first exotic crop of grapes in 1971, Cullity brought in a peregrine falcon and studied falconry – all in vain as the bird of prey flew away. Today, viticulturists wrap the vines to protect the fruit – and closely watch the marri trees which blossom (the parrot’s favourite diet) during harvest. Winemakers dread vintages when the blossoms fail.

The falcon is a parable of the fragile balance between man and nature around here. At Cape Mentelle, one of the five founding wineries of Margaret River, a story board on the first forty vintages from 1970 to 2010 states that in 1973, “No wine produced – the neighbour’s cows ate the crop”’! But Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon won the coveted Jimmy Watson Trophy in both 1983 and 1984 – the most prestigious of Australia’s wine awards - putting Margaret River on the map as a key producer of this hero variety at a time when the region was barely a decade old. There’s been no looking back since.Since 1982, Cape Mentelle has hosted an annual tasting of the World’s Top Twenty Cabernet Sauvignons– a major event on the global wine calendar. Langton’s Classification rates Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon as one of the top fifty Australian wines today.

While most of the Margaret River wineries are boutique enterprises pioneered and run by families, Cape Mentelle - started by David Hohnen who went on to establish Cloudy Bay - is owned by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH) today. The same marri trees loved by the local parrots are the motif of Cape Mentelle on every label.  Today, Margaret River is responsible for a mere 1,6% of total Chardonnay and 3,1% of total Cabernet production in Australia. Although this remote region grows 3% of wine grapes in Australia, it commands an estimated 20% of the national premium market.

We stayed at Smith’s Beach Resort at the northern end of Margaret River divided into three main regions in a straight line: cellars south of Dunsborough, the cluster around Wilyabrup and the wine heartland south-west of Margaret River village. With a gourmet restaurant run by renowned chef Kate Lamont of Lamont winery, the chic resort is a great base to explore the area – set right on the Cape to Cape hiking trail and in close proximity to many cellars. We enjoyed many fine WA dishes such as Abrolhos Island scallops, Shark Bay whiting, Exmouth prawns and Margaret River wagyu paired with local wines like Lamont’s White Monster Chardonnay (MR), Pierro LTC SSB (SemillonSauvignon), Lamont’s Pinot Gris (Pemberton), Castle Rock Riesling (Porongurup) and Happs Chenin.

Margaret River, Australia

Sustainable viticulture plays a big role in keeping the balance between nature and viticulture in Margaret River. Cullen Wines, one of the big five founding families of the region (along with Cape Mentelle, Leeuwin, Moss Wood and Vasse Felix) is the first certified biodynamic and organic wine producer in Margaret River – under Vanya Cullen, one of the many women winemakers in the region. Organic cellar construction also plays a role in the symbiosis of vine and nature – inspiring the cellar trend led by Cape Mentelle to constructing rammed earth buildings made of limestone and ironstone cuttings from excavated vineyards. They are serious about conservation in the winelands which run through the ancient Gondwana landscape of Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park.

We stopped at the mouth of Margaret River to watch the force of nature at one of the most famous surf-breaks in the world – and did an amazing nocturnal wildlife walk in a nature conservancy with South West Eco Tours to spot rare marsupials – bettong, bandicoots, possum and kangaroos.

We headed off to Howard Park, a landmark family cellar renowned for its fengshui architecture. The flow of water – as well as earth, wind and light – is essential to making wine. Janice McDonald, Australian winemaker of the year in 2018 (Gourmet Traveller), runs this cellar in the heart of Margaret River. Owned by one of Australia’s first families of wine, Howard Park is the biggest producer of sparkling wine (including prosecco) in Western Australia – and the home of one of the region’s biggest wine brands: Mad Fish (known in Australian slang as “a critter wine”!).  Emily Bromwell, cellar manager, took us on a tour of the winery which trail-blazed the Great Southern wine region in the 1980s before upping sticks to Margaret River to get to the hub of wine tourism.

Howard Park is the largest family-owned boutique wineries in Western Australia. The sparkling wine experience and museum tasting flight in the chic wine chapel – under chandeliers made from the old Cabernet Sauvignon stokkies planted in the 1970s – is a major drawcard at this cellar. Over a museum tasting of fabulous Riesling back to 2009 and Cabernet Sauvignon back to 2004, Bromwell commented, “When you talk about how well your wines age at the cellar door, you need to show visitors that they really do over a tasting. We have archived museum vintages of Riesling and Cabernet back to 1986 for sale – and Cabernet back to 1995 for our new museum tasting”.

Over the sparkling wine tasting, Bromwell revealed the secret of many of Margaret River’s producers – sourcing and blending grapes from the vineyards of the Great Southern wine region to the south.Howard Park owns vineyards in cool-climate wine regions such as Porongurup (renowned for its Riesling), Mount Barker (the high-lying area which supplies the base Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for bottle-fermented Jetésparkling wine) and Scotsdale (Shiraz). The winery specialises in varietal wines which express specific vineyards in their regional and distinguished site collection – praised by wine guru James Halliday as “an outstanding winery producing wines of exemplary quality and typicity”.

To find out more, we headed south on our 800-kilometre road-trip from Perth to the wine regions of Pemberton, Denmark (how cool climate is that?) and the Great Southern, all the way to Albany.

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.