Arguably Australia’s most-famous winemaking region, there’s far more to Margaret River than Bordeaux and Burgundy lookalikes, as Peter Ranscombe discovers.
TEXTBOOKS will tell you that Western Australia’s Margaret River is an interesting blend of Bordeaux and Burgundy, producing red wines from cabernet sauvignon and white wines from chardonnay.
While it’s only natural for wine drinkers in Europe to begin exploring the tastes of the New World by making comparisons with the Old World bottles with which they are familiar – meaning any pinot noir made in New Zealand or California or Chile is immediately benchmarked against Burgundy, while malbec from Argentina is held up against Cahors, and South Africa’s chenin blanc is compared to the Loire’s version – that’s just the start of the story.
Margaret River may only be a relatively young winemaking region, with its first vines planted in the 1950s, but it’s already developing styles of its own, while a new generation of producers makes its mark through lower-intervention wines.
It’s easy to see how comparisons arise – isolated down on Australia’s south-westernmost tip, Margaret River has traditionally looked to Europe rather than South Australia or Victoria for its winemaking influences.
That influence probably reached its zenith when American wine critic Robert Parker praised the use of new oak and over extraction in Bordeaux, leading to the creation of a generation of over-oaked, over-ripe cabernet sauvignon blends that may have hit the States’ sweet spot but left more savoury palates cold.
Then there’s the climate; labelled variously as “Mediterranean” or “extreme maritime”, the peninsula is insulated on one side by the warmer Indian Ocean and on the other by the cold Southern Ocean.
Its geographical quirk means Margaret River is one of the very few winemaking regions that hasn’t been affected by climate change – yet.
When the oceans do begin to warm, as they inevitably will under climate change models, then so will Margaret River.
For now, the area – and its neighbouring region, Great Southern – are not warming, instead enjoying the consistent climate that eliminates vintage variation between wines made in successive years.
Where Margaret River differs from Bordeaux climatically is through its long dry summers, which allow cabernet sauvignon to reach full ripeness.
New kids on the block
Against that backdrop of differences and similarities, fresh-faced winemakers are creating wines in styles that are all their own.
Perhaps one of the best examples is Nic Peterkin, whose father, Mike, is the winemaker at Pierro winery, and whose mother, Shelley, is part of the Cullen clan, one of Margaret River’s best-known winemaking families.
Peterkin’s LAS Vinos brand has distinctive labels – including a 2017 chardonnay in the image of Donald Trump with a very provocative name – but it’s the liquid inside the bottles that’s most exciting.
His 2014 LAS Vino The Pirate Blend (£209 for six, Fine Wine Co) first caught my eye at the massive Australia Day tasting in Edinburgh a couple of years ago – check out the note at the foot of this blog entry for details of this year’s public tasting – with its complexity, and the 2018 blend of Portuguese varieties tinta cao, touriga nacional and souzao was still just as impressive, with raspberry, raspberry jam, spun sugar and caramel.
The 2016 LAS Vinos CBDB (£32.65, Exel Wines) – “chenin blanc dynamic blend” to its friends – brought together 96% chenin with a 4% splash of viognier to produce lemon with a touch of lime on the nose and more lemon sherbet-centred fruitiness on the palate; I only wish Peterkin’s 2018 Albino PNO, a rosé blend of 80% pinot noir and 20% chardonnay, was available in the UK.
During a tasting at his cabin beside a lake, Peterkin invited some of his friends to show off their wines too.
Iwo Jakimowicz brought his 2016 Si Vintners Halcyon Chardonnay, which crackled with fresh acidity alongside pineapple and peach flavours; sadly not available in the UK, but I notice that L’Art du Vin has the 2015 Si Vintners Si White blend of semillon and sauvignon blanc, which looks intriguing.
Similarly, Ben and Naomi Gould’s 2019 Blind Corner Orange is sold out in Australia and not stocked in the UK, which is a shame because I loved the balance it struck between its high acidity and savoury lemon juice and grapefruit flavours.
Last – but by no means least – were the Wines of Merritt made by Nick James-Martin, whose sister works in Edinburgh.
James-Martin’s wines may not be listed in the UK, yet, but they’re well worth seeking out “down under”, especially his 2018 Chenin Blanc, 2018 Cabernet Franc and 2018 Vermentino, one of the few examples I’ve tasted from outside Sardinia that truly demonstrates the grape’s salty tang.
Innovation’s what you need
It’s not only the low-intervention crowd that are innovating in Margaret River though.
Touring around the wineries, it was some of the longest established names in the region that grabbed my attention.
Over the past 15 years, Vasse Felix has gone from owning 62% of its own vineyards to 96%, giving it full control over farming practices, and allowing it to start classifying plots at “village”, “premier cur” and “grand cru” level, like in Burgundy.
When it comes to production, chief winemaker Virginia Willcock has a simple attitude: “All you need is a bunch of grapes and a bucket,” she laughed, before likening the use of sulphur in winemaking to using deodorant.
That sense of simplicity shone through in her 2016 Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay (£42, Specialist Cellars), with its white peach and touch of smoke on the nose, leading into more peach, apricot and red apple on the palate, accompanied by fresh acidity and almost a touch of mint; Heytesbury is the brand for the producer’s “grand cru” plots and the wine has much more texture than the simpler estate blend.
Willock continues to experiment, pulling out samples of wild ferment sauvignon blanc, syrah and malbec over lunch.
Equally as impressive is the level of innovation that courses through everything senior winemaker and managing director Vanya Cullen does at her family’s Cullen Wines, following in the footsteps of her mother and father, who were pioneers in the region.
Cullen began producing biodynamic wines in 2004, went carbon neutral in 2006 and is now carbon negative, leading the way when it comes to sustainability.
Tasting older vintages of her sauvignon blanc-semillon blend was fantastic, but it was her 2018 Cullen Amber (2017: £25.50, Exel Wines) that really caught my eye, with the skins from the sauvignon blanc and semillion grapes left in contact with their squeezed juice for about 18 days to build up the amber colour and the texture, with aromas of jasmine, wood smoke and orange rind opening up into lemon rind, apricot and a salty tang on the palate.
Whether it’s the low-intervention young guns or the long-established brands that are continuing to innovate, it’s clear that there’s so much more to Margaret River than Bordeaux and Burgundy copycats.
Peter Ranscombe offsets the carbon dioxide emissions from the international flights he takes for his wine trips by paying the Trees For Life charity to plant Scots Pines and other native species near his birthplace in the Highlands – find out more at http://bit.ly/SF_Trees
Wine Australia, the national marketing body that took Peter Ranscombe to visit Margaret River and a host of other wine-producing regions, is holding Scotland’s biggest Australian wine tasting at The Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh on Monday 27 January. More than 350 wines from 60 producers will be on show. For more information about tickets please visit https://www.australianwine.com/en-AU/our-story/events/australian-wine-tasting-edinburgh