Australia's Wild West

Western Australia’s pioneering spirit is alive and well in its wine regions, which seem capable of turning almost any grape variety into gold.


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A frown flickers across the face of Hunter Smith as we near the interchange. Despite recent advice to the contrary, it’s apparent that the highway from Margaret River to Frankland River is closed for roadwork.

Without missing a beat, Smith—part of the family that owns Frankland Estate winery—swings his bulky Holden Colorado SUV onto the partially paved secondary road that we’ll follow instead.

At times a single dirt track, it widens as we approach hillocks so we can move left and avoid oncoming traffic. There isn’t any. 

We bounce along, taking care not to drop too much of our “brekkie burgers”—scrambled eggs, thickly sliced bacon and barbecue sauce—in our laps. Outside the car, vast open spaces and scrublands scarred by bushfires zip past, along with the occasional bodies of unfortunate marsupials.

Behind us, a reddish haze of kicked-up dirt traces our path. Far from the country’s teeming mining regions and the coast’s bustling cosmopolitan cities, this is a very different Australia.

Here, in the southwestern corner of Western Australia, although vines were planted by some of the original settlers in the mid 19th century, grape growing and winemaking are uncommon and relatively recent pursuits, born of a few prescient individuals’ vision and nurtured by the backbreaking labor of others.


Western Pioneers

The first visionary to arrive was Harold Olmo, a professor at the University of California at Davis. As part of a program to diversify the state’s economy, he was invited by the government of Western Australia to prospect for sites that could support viticulture. 

His report, published in 1956, identified Frankland River, Margaret River and Mount Barker as areas capable of producing European-style table wines.

Next up was John Gladstones, a Western Australian agronomist specializing in lupines. A wine lover, he carried out painstaking climatic research that quantified the similarities between Margaret River and Bordeaux in terms of heat summation and distribution. 

Published in 1965, Gladstones’s work didn’t exactly ignite a land rush, but Tom Cullity planted Vasse Felix’s first vines in 1967. Over the next decade, other pioneering vintners—including one Robert Mondavi—followed Cullity.

Mondavi found his way to Margaret River in 1973, when he tried to purchase property there from Dennis Horgan. But Horgan, a Perth businessman who had acquired the property along with a plumbing business in 1969, refused to sell. 

He did meet with Mondavi, and the two entered a brief partnership in which Mondavi provided consulting services as Horgan developed Leeuwin Estate into a vineyard and winery.

“I was a beer-drinking surfie,” says Horgan. “We just got on well.”

Other early Margaret River wineries include Cape Mentelle (established 1970), Cullen (1971) and Moss Wood (1969). All continue to produce high-quality wines. Steadily, a region once known for its natural beauty, surfer lifestyle and perennially high unemployment transformed into a burgeoning wine destination.


Modern Margaret River

Today, Margaret River is Western Australia’s most renowned wine region, stretching approximately 60 miles from north to south between Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin. Surrounded on three sides by water, the climate is moderated by the adjoining oceans.

The warm waters of the Indian Ocean lap at the northern and western shores, while the cold Southern Ocean growls up from the south.

“It’s a Mediterranean climate with a maritime influence,” says Virginia Willcock, who has been the winemaker at Vasse Felix since 2006.

Margaret River’s subregions—delineated in 1999 by Gladstones based on climate and drainage basin—remain unofficial, but are referenced often by winemakers. 

Along the western coast, from north to south, lie Yallingup, Wilyabrup, Wallcliffe and Karridale. Just to the east lie Carbunup, in the north, and Treeton, in the center.

Most of the original vineyards lie in the Wilyabrup and Wallcliffe subregions, where Cabernet Sauvigon and Chardonnay thrive.

“Wilyabrup is chocolate-rich,” says Rob Mann, senior winemaker and estate director of Cape Mentelle, speaking about Cabernet Sauvignon. “Further south is more structured and red-fruited.”

“Cabernet is at home in Margaret River,” says Vanya Cullen, who runs her family winery in accordance to biodynamic principles. “It just grows so easily.”

While most growers agree that Cabernet is the region’s easiest grape, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Back in the early 1990s, says Cliff Royle, general manager and chief winemaker for Flametree Wines, the Cabernets were relatively low in alcohol and often a bit green. 

In the late ’90s, the pendulum swung the other direction, and many of the wines were high in alcohol, with stewed fruit flavors. Today, the moderate alcohol levels and ripe flavors so prevalent in the region can be attributed to better viticulture and site selection.

“The best, most consistent vineyards are in a very small area,” says Royle.

That said, winemakers often source fruit from several different subregions. Stuart Pym, production manager and senior winemaker for Stella Bella, manages 225 acres of vineyards in six locations, all south of the town of Margaret River.

“Red wines from this part of Margaret River are finer wines, with a bit more perfume and elegance,” he says.

At the extreme southern end of Margaret River, in Karridale, most of the vineyards are devoted to white grape varieties because of the dramatic cooling effects of the Southern Ocean. Yet, even here, there are exceptions.

Erl Happ grows 30 different varieties—21 of them red—and claims he’s “able to ripen all of them with ease.”

Pym’s Otro Vino—a blend of Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cão and bottled under Stella Bella’s Skuttlebutt label—comes from Happ’s vineyard and supports his conclusion. It offers a juicy mouthful of medium-bodied blueberry fruit tinged with spice. 

One of the few wineries to prominently feature subregions on the wine labels, Cape Mentelle is making a blended red and a blended white labeled Wilyabrup and Wallcliffe, respectively.

“We’re trying to get people to go beyond the variety and talk about region, subregion and vineyard,” says Mann. “It’s getting back to those classical, terroir-based wines.”

Given the French ownership of Cape Mentelle—it’s been part of luxury group LVMH since 1990—this sentiment isn’t surprising. But most Western Australian wineries stick to varietal labeling.


Frankland River

One obvious exception is Frankland Estate’s Olmo’s Reward, a Bordeaux-inspired blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot, named for the pioneering American professor.

Barry Smith—Hunter’s father—came out to Frankland River 40 years ago as a farmer, when the only vineyard in the region was a research plot on a neighboring property.

“We saw the quality of the fruit they were getting next door and figured we’d diversify a bit,” says Barry. 

His wife, Judy, is less matter of fact: “When we came here, we were seduced by the Rieslings from our neighbors,” she says.

And it is Frankland River’s Rieslings that have put—and kept—the region on the map. While the Bordeaux varieties can be excellent and the Shiraz is consistently good, the Rieslings show the most distinction.

“They have a wet stone, mineral characteristic that we see in a lot of the wines from the region,” says Hunter.

Frankland Estate now bottles three single-vineyard dry Rieslings and a “kabinett”-style Riesling, all of which have the ability to age elegantly for 10 years or more.


Mount Barker

Frankland River is just one subzone within the sprawling Great Southern appellation, or Geographic Indication (G.I.) as they’re known in Australia. Nearby Mount Barker is another one, with slightly warmer temperatures.

Nevertheless, says Cath Oates, winemaker for Mount Barker’s Plantagenet Wines, “Cool climate is what Great Southern is all about.”

Oates is originally from Margaret River, so she’s in a unique position to compare the regions.

“Stylistically, Margaret River is bolder and more voluptuous,” she says, speaking about Cabernet. “It’s that classic cassis. Here, we’re briary and red currants.”

But, she says, “Shiraz was one of the big drawing cards to come here.”

Plantagenet’s Shirazes are plummy and rich, with deep mocha shadings but plenty of savory spice, and bright acids that make them surprisingly versatile at the table.

Other parts of Great Southern producing notable wines include Porongurup, Albany and Denmark. Albany and Denmark are both on the coast, more exposed to the cooling influence of the Southern Ocean and more susceptible to untimely rain events.

Based on the limited tastings I had time for while visiting Albany, the coastal subregions seem to do well with Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Pinot Noir also shows potential.

“Great Southern isn’t a Pinot Noir district,” says Rob Wignall, before pouring me a taste of his very good 2010 Pinot Noir from Albany, redolent of cherry and beetroot. It’s deep and spicy, just a little coarse on the finish.

“The introduction of Burgundian clones has been the biggest thing,” says Harewood Estate’s James Kellie. His 2010 Reserve Pinot Noir, grown near Denmark, blows me away with its combination of delicate floral notes and sublime silkiness.

It’s a tasting experience that makes me realize how little we know about viticulture and the potential for great wines in this far-off corner of the world. And the resulting smile isn’t just because this wine is so good, but because of how many other great wines are still out there in Western Australia, waiting to be grown, made and discovered. 

Margaret River Wine Styles


Cabernet Sauvignon & Blends

Since Vasse Felix produced the region’s first commercial Cabernet Sauvignon from the 1972 vintage, it’s been the mainstay. Because of the moderate climate, Margaret River Cabernets develop particularly silky tannin structures that set them apart.

But beware, says VF winemaker Virginia Willcock, “The bigger you try to make Cabernet, the uglier it can be.”

Vintages can be important for Cabernet, as it’s among the last of the varieties to be harvested, but recent years have been kind.

Keith Mugford at Moss Wood calls 2010, “one of the great Cabernet years in Margaret River.”

Fortunately, 2008 and 2011 are also excellent, with 2009 not far behind.

93 Vasse Felix 2009 Heytes-bury (Margaret River). A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Malbec, the 2009 Heytes-bury is a medium- to full-bodied wine with a taut line of acidity that accentuates its slightly drying tannins. Cassis and red currant notes predominate, but there’s ample complexity in the form of mint, cedar, leather and dusty earth. Drink 2018–2025. Negociants USA, Inc.

abv: 14.5%     Price: $74

92 Moss Wood 2008 Moss Wood Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Margaret River). The Moss Wood Cabernets are typically full-bodied and rather lush, and the 2008 is no exception. The tannins are fully ripe, giving the impression of great suppleness in the mouth, while the flavors blend plummy, fruity elements with meaty, savory ones. The finish is long and harmonious, suggesting ample longevity, although the wine is approachable now. Epi-curean Wines.

abv: 14.5%     Price: $101

91 Cape Mentelle 2010 Wily-abrup (Margaret River). Named for a Margaret River sub-region, Cape Mentelle’s Wilyabrup is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. It’s structured and restrained on the palate, easily blending cherry, cedar, leather and earth notes in a truly claret-styled wine whose dry finish picks up hints of black tea. Drink now–2020. Moët Hennessy USA.

abv: 13.5%      Price: $55


Shiraz

Australia’s renowned red is often overlooked in Margaret River, but it’s capable of making medium-bodied, attractively spicy wines.

“They sit somewhere in the middle, between big South Australian styles and the über-hip, cool-climate styles coming out of Victoria,” says Stella Bella’s Stuart Pym.

“When it comes to Shiraz, I think the wines are serviceable,” says Flametree’s Cliff Royle, but he crafted a very good 2011 that’s not yet been imported.

Perhaps because of Margaret River’s identification with Cabernet, few American importers are bringing in Shiraz, but here are some top examples that are available in the States.

89 Miles From Nowhere 2011 Best Blocks Shiraz (Margaret River). Miles from Nowhere partner Franklin Tate’s family helped launch Evans & Tate to Margaret River stardom, but now this new venture is poised to take off. This full-bodied yet crisp Shiraz features vibrant, dark berry and cherry fruit framed by subtle vanilla and toast shadings. It’s solid from start to finish, and the regular Shiraz bottling is a Best Buy. International Vines, Inc.

abv: 14%     Price: $18

89 Skuttlebutt 2009 Shiraz-Cabernet (Margaret River). Skuttlebutt is a second tier in Stella Bella’s range that can represent excellent value. This blend shows some of Cabernet’s pungent leafiness, but also plenty of Shiraz’s fruity volume to balance things out. The tannins are nicely supple and silky, with the wine’s various components in elegant harmony. It’s ready to drink now. Editors’ Choice. Stella Bella Wines.

abv: 14%      Price: $16

88 Evans & Tate 2010 Metricup Road Shiraz (Margaret River). This bottling offers concentrated fruit, nicely accented by hints of cedar and mocha. The tart, mixed-berry flavors are crisp and mouthwatering, culminating in a dusting of cocoa powder on the finish. Editors’ Choice. Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits.

abv: 14.5%     Price: $15


Chardonnay

Although Margaret River was first perceived as an analogue to Bordeaux, Chardonnay thrives throughout almost the entire region, from Wilyabrup right down through Karridale. 

Styles range from the full-bodied, tropical-fruit end of the spectrum epitomized by Leeuwin Estate to the leaner, more refined pineapple and smoke shadings of Cullen. Both have their place—the first is more shrimp on the barbie with your boisterous mates; the second evokes white tablecloths and quiet romance.

From vintage to vintage, Chardonnay is probably Margaret River’s most consistent performer.

93 Cullen 2010 Kevin John Chardonnay (Margaret River). One of Australia’s leading Chardonnays, this is wonderfully mouthfilling and fleshy, yet remains cool and sophisticated. Buttery, toasty and nutty notes accent grilled peach and pineapple flavors, all pulled together on the finish by a refreshing squeeze of lime-driven citrus. Old Bridge Cellars.

abv: 13.5%     Price: $109

93 Leeuwin Estate 2009 Art Series Chardonnay (Margaret River). Leeuwin’s 2009 is a worthy successor to the flamboyant 2008. While perhaps just a touch more restrained in aroma and flavor despite being higher in alcohol, it still shows off flashy notes of grilled peach and pineapple. As always, it’s full bodied and luscious without being overblown, and has a lingering finish. Old Bridge Cellars.

abv: 14.5%      Price: $89

91 Vasse Felix 2010 Heytesbury Chardonnay (Margaret River). Surprisingly full bodied, lush and expansive given its moderate alcohol level, this is a whirlwind of tropical fruit and buttered nuts on the nose, then grows more refined and understated on the palate, where the flavors are white peach, melon and citrus. Negociants USA, Inc.

abv: 13%         Price: $49


Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon Blends

Keeping in line with the region’s propensity to mirror Bordeaux, this is the white counterpart to the Cabernet blends. Unfortunately, most of them are significantly less successful.

That’s not to say they’re bad wines—they just tend to lack the layers of texture found in good white Graves. Instead, they end up tasting more like lemon water—refreshing on a hot summer day, but not much more.

They’re still very successful in Australia, but the amounts coming to the U.S. have slowed to almost nothing. These are three of the best examples reviewed recently.

89 Cape Mentelle 2012 Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon (Margaret River). This wine shows an intriguing touch of flinty, fumé character as well as ample melon and fig fruit. It’s reasonably full-bodied and textured for a wine of its ilk, but for a more exciting example, visit the winery to taste the limited-production Wallcliffe bottling. Moët Hennessy USA.

abv: 12.5%        Price: $16

88 Moss Wood 2011 Ribbon Vale Vineyard Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc (Margaret River). This blend shows decent weight and texture, along with elegant aromas and flavors of scorched citrus peel and grapefruit. It’s long and mouthwatering on the oak-free finish, making it a versatile food companion. The 2012 looks to be even better. Epicurean Wines.

abv: 13%            Price: $27

88 Robert Oatley 2012 Sauvignon Blanc (Margaret River). It’s not a blend, but this varietally labeled Sauvignon Blanc sourced from the southern portion of Margaret River is delightfully clean, crisp and refreshing. Nectarine, pineapple and citrus flavors mingle easily on the medium-bodied palate. Robert Oatley Vineyards Inc.

abv: 12.5%         Price: $20


The Best of Great Southern 

Very few of Great Southern’s wines are widely distributed in the United States. These are my favorites of the wines that are.

92 Frankland Estate 2012 Isolation Ridge Vineyard Riesling (Frankland River). Vibrant citrus, laser focus and an electric finish. Cellar Selection. Quintessential Wines.

abv: 11.4%     Price: $40

91 Plantagenet 2010 Chardonnay (Mount Barker). Plushly styled. Editors’ Choice. Old Bridge Cellars.

abv: 13.5%     Price: $21

90 West Cape Howe 2009 Book Ends Cabernet Sauvignon (Great Southern). A velvety blend of cassis and mint. Editors’ Choice. The Vintner Group.

abv: 14%        Price: $21

For more reviews of Margaret River wines, please check out the Buying Guide >>>

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