Pride of the West
Margaret River is a wine region, a small town and – not surprisingly – a river in Western Australia. Census records show that Margaret River draws more than 500,000 visitors per year based on a population of 10,000 – that’s fifty times its population per year, or in Hong Kong terms, roughly 350 million visitors. And why not? Margaret River is a region of rugged, untamed coastlines, massive Karri trees, spectacular surf breaks and superlative wineries. Even humpback whales like to make an annual tourist jaunt along the Margaret River coastline.
Located about 288 kilometres south of Perth, the region was named after Margaret Wyche, a cousin of John Garrett Bussell who is the founder of nearby Busselton. In the early days both towns were anything but bustling, though by 1910 Margaret River did sport the obligatory pub, which also operated as the town’s hotel and post office. Margaret River only came into its own in recent decades when the region began to attract global accolades for its elegant cabernet sauvignon wines. The region has an astonishing reputation given its first commercial vines were only planted in 1967 and the district was only officially registered in 1996. That vines were planted in Margaret River at all is due to a government report prepared by renowned viticulturalists Harold Olmo and John Gladstone who professorially declared, “All known theoretical considerations point to a very good potential indeed.”
Geographically, Margaret River is one of Australia’s largest wine regions, running roughly 120 kilometres from north to south and 30 kilometres from east to west. Though seemingly substantial in size, Margaret River produces only 3% of Australia’s grapes, which makes it all the more impressive that Margaret River supplies more than 20% of the nation’s premium wines.
While many grape varieties are grown, the district is renowned for its chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon wines, similar to California’s Napa Valley. Other red varieties include shiraz and merlot and white varieties include excellent semillon, sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc and verdelho.
Margaret River is unofficially sub-divided into six districts all with lyrical aboriginal names. The bulk of the vineyards and wineries are in Wilyabrup, a sub-region near the coastline; and Wallcliffe, which is south of the Margaret River. Other sub-regions include Yallingup in the north, Carbunup in the north-west and Karridale and Treeton in the south. It can’t be a coincidence that three of these sub-districts end with “up.” The producers in Margaret River should be feeling “up” indeed, given the high reputation of their wines and the prices they can command on international markets.
The Margaret River producers must also be a healthy bunch as many of its top wineries were established by wine loving medicos. Dr Tom Cullity founded the region’s first winery, Vasse Felix, in 1967; Dr Kevin and Di Cullen, Cullen Wines; Dr Bill and Sandra Parnell, Moss Wood and Drs Eithne and John Lagan, Chateau Xanadu. Ownership has changed hands in some cases, but these early vineyards set the stage for Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon. The most highly regarded chardonnay producers include Pierro, Brookland Valley and Leeuwin Estate.