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Australia’s Wild West

Winemakers need to be persistent and pioneering in order to be successful in western australia. it also helps if they know how to surf.

We started with a blank sheet,” says Denis Horgan, founder of Leeuwin Estate. “Thank God we didn’t know what we couldn’t do.”

Horgan, in the early 1970s, was among Western Australia’s wine pioneers, spurred by a colleague of Robert Mondavi’s who identified Margaret River, and specifically Leeuwin Estate, as one of the best places in the world to produce premium wines. Though there’s more to Western Australia than Margaret River, the area would, due to the quality of its wines, become Western Australia’s locomotive.

There are, in fact, four Margaret Rivers: There is the Margaret River peninsula that juts out from the southwestern heel of Australia into the Pacific, like a spur. There is the Margaret River GI (Australia’s version of an AVA), which encompasses 2,400 acres of vineyard land. Then there’s Margaret River, a town of 5,000 people, which is on the banks of the river of the same name. The town was settled by dairy and cattle farmers in the mid-19th century. Even a century later, it was more known for its world-class surf breaks than for its viticulture. Horgan’s thoughts echo those of the area’s other pioneers, and what many Oz-watching wine aficionados are still wondering: How anyone can make wine—in many cases, excellent wine—at what feels like the edge of the world?

Western Australia is remote even by Australian standards. It’s the largest of Australia’s states, covering roughly a million square miles—that’s one-third of Australia, and more than the areas of Texas, Japan and New Zealand combined. Two-thirds of the state’s 1.7 million inhabitants live in Perth; that leaves plenty of open space for mining, parks, and, of course, vineyards, which are yielding grapes for some prestigious wines. Though Western Australia accounts for only 5 percent of Australia’s wine production, it produces 23 percent of the nation’s premium bottlings.

Margaret River, the state’s best-known wine region, is becoming renowned for its elegant, boutique Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays. Other wineries in the even more remote Mt. Barker, Frankland River and Pemberton regions to the southeast of Margaret River are also getting a buzz for their cooler-climate Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernets.

“The essence of Margaret River,” says Dave Hohnen, who planted his first vines at Cape Mentelle with his brother, Mark, in 1970, “comes from us producing wines that taste of the soil of this region. In my opinion, only 5 percent of food for sale gives a taste of where it is from. And the same goes for wine. But this is what Margaret River is all about.”

The Hohnens and the Horgans (Denis and his wife, Tricia) were among Margaret River’s first winemaking settlers, as were Tom Cullity at Vasse Felix, Kevin and Di Cullen at Cullen, and Dan and Sandra Pannell at Moss Wood, all of whom moved to the area in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They were spurred westward by a 1965 study in which Dr. John Gladstones, a University of Western Australia professor of agronomy, declared, after extensive analysis of climate and soils, that Margaret River was a viable place to grow quality winegrapes.

Still, there was a big difference between identifying Margaret River as a good viticultural area and actually moving there. Dr. Mike Peterkin, winemaker at Pierro Winery, recalls that naysayers abounded, even after Gladstones’s recommendation. “Everyone, from the local farmers to the Australian winery establishment, thought we were fruitcakes.” Peterkin describes Richard Smart, the director of viticulture at Roseworthy, South Australia’s premier wine college, as being incredulous that any of his graduates would go to the Margaret River. ” But we were land junkies and we had this passion for it.”

On Gladstones’s advice, Cullen, Cape Mentelle and the rest planted their vineyards along the river, near where the local red gum trees grew. Here the soil was predominantly gravel over loam, with good drainage for the vines. Cullity planted the first commercial vineyard in 1967, at Vasse Felix. His friend, Kevin Cullen, a fellow doctor who became renowned internationally for a rural population study, planted Cabernet Sauvignon nearby. (Interestingly, Cullen’s published research highlighted the beneficial effects of moderate red wine consumption long before the “French paradox”studies were published in the early 1990s. Both Vasse Felix and Cullen were passionate about making top-quality red wine and began the process of establishing the Margaret River appellation to protect the name, which finally passed in 1982.

Like the Cullens in the north, the Hohnens and the Horgans in the south converted their cattle properties to vineyards. Although Margaret River was remote and the pioneers inexperienced in the ways of the grape, they thought internationally, rather than concentrating on Australia. Indeed, Leeuwin bucked the red wine trend of the times, planting 35 percent of their vineyards to Chardonnay. Most of the other pioneers focused on red varieties, specifically Cabernet Sauvignon, and invested all their available resources back into the vineyards and wineries. The bottom line did not figure into their calculations, and many did not turn a profit for decades.

Over those decades, a Margaret River style began to evolve. Typical Margaret River wines aren’t blockbusters; rather, they are elegant wines with more structured tannins. Those moderating sea breezes that cool the blazing afternoon sun bring a certain refinement to the slowly ripened fruit. Chardonnay clones from Burgundy do well in Margaret River’s long, slow ripening season to create wines with intense, luscious fruit, good balance and nice structure.

Cabernet Sauvignon, the latest of the major red varieties to be harvested, and the one that can sometimes be brought in soggy and diluted in Bordeaux, arrives in Margaret River vats full, rich and ripe. They are structurally complex, with layers of texture that befit a cool climate wine region in a good year. And in the Margaret River good years are the norm—both in terms of vintages and in terms of vacationing.

Visiting Western Australia’s top wineries
The Margaret River tourist information center (10 Bussell Highway, tel.: (61-8) 9757-2911) is the place to pick up maps and information about wineries, accommodation and touring. The town of Margaret River is smack in the middle of the region, conveniently dividing the wineries to the north and south. The city itself is wedged along the ridge between two major north/south roads: the Bussell Highway and Caves Road, which is closer to the coast.

The first major winery along the Bussell Highway, Palandri, is hard to miss. Newcomer Palandri has headquarters in Margaret River but sources fruit from all over Western Australia. The wines are straightforward, quite good and are widely available. In this “aircraft hangar,” as the winery’s typically described, gecko refrigerator magnets compete with wine paraphernalia in a massive emporium (tel.: (61-8) 9755-5711).

On Metricup Road, Moss Wood has no tasting room, but the informed know to call ahead (tel.: (61-8) 9755-6266) and make an appointment to taste the wines, some right out of the barrels. Keith Mugford, who was chief winemaker for the pioneering Pannell family, bought the winery in 1985. He continues to champion the Moss Wood style, creating elegant, balanced, long-lived Cabernets, Pinots, Chardonnays and other varieties that reflect the fruit characteristics of his vineyards.

Across the road, Margaret River’s largest winery, Evans & Tate (Metricup Road, Willyabrup, tel.: (61-8) 9296-4666), produces about a third of the region’s wine and, with the purchase of Cranswick Estates in Eastern Australia, has become Australia’s seventh largest winery. Presenting a more corporate feel to the region, a sleek new cellar door greets visitors along with a bistro and a playground for the kids.

Along Caves Road in Willyabrup, the picturesque, rammed-earth Pierro Winery (tel.: (61-8) 9755-6220) is the home of Dr. Mike Peterkin, who is married to one of the Cullen’s children, Shelley. Peterkin is fanatical about every detail of the winemaking process. From Jacques Rousseau in Montpellier, he has learned how to assess tannin ripeness in the vineyard through seed color. He is a passionate practitioner of New World techniques such as storing recently picked grapes at cool temperatures to control oxidation of flavor and aroma compounds, as well as removing seeds, stems and leaves on sorting trays and utilizing whole-bunch fermentation to produce soft tannins. His Chardonnay is among the best in Australia.

Just down Caves Road is Cullen (tel.: (61-8) 9755-5277). Kevin and Di’s youngest daughter, Vanya, who worked every day for 20 years with her mother, now runs the rustic winery, which has an alfresco café that evokes the early days. Already in her 60s when she started making wine, Di Cullen forged the winery’s exceptional reputation; through their intimate relationship, the soul of Cullen Wines transferred from one generation to the next. Di Cullen died during harvest this year.

Vanya is an advocate of the influence of Margaret River’s pristine environment on wine quality, so much so that Cullen is now certified as an organic vineyard and next year will be fully biodynamic. “Biodynamic farming basically focuses on enriching soil health,” she says. “We apply manure in the afternoon of the ascending moon.” While this might sound a little New Age for some, Vanya has not made these management decisions lightly. With a degree in science and a Roseworthy winemaking certificate, she was the first woman and the only Western Australian to be awarded the prestigious Qantas Australian Winemaker of the Year in 2000. She is a highly sought-after judge on the international wine show circuit.

Down Caves Road at the corner of Harmon’s Road, Vasse Felix’s underground cellar offers a delightful range of Cabernets and Chardonnays, including the top-tier Heytesburys. Now owned by prominent businesswoman Janet Holmes à Court and her family, the winery also has a gallery that displays remarkable Aboriginal art, another of Holmes à Court’s passions (tel.: (61-8) 9755-5242).

On nearby Maimup Road, Howard Park Wines’ dramatic cellar door was designed along Feng Shui principles. What started as the largest family winery in the city of Denmark, in the Great Southern region, now has processing facilities in both areas. While they do have a couple of vineyard-specific wines, Howard Park focuses on blending the best grapes from both regions into its well-balanced Cabernets. Its excellent Riesling and Chardonnay, on the other hand, come mainly from the Great Southern (tel.: (61-8) 9756-5955).

The first stop outisde of Margaret River is Cape Mentelle (Wallcliffe Road, tel.: (61-8) 9757-3266). Founder Dave Hohnen is a local boy who studied winemaking at UC Fresno. After establishing Cape Mentelle, he bought Cloudy Bay in Marlborough, New Zealand, and brought it (and more specifically, its Sauvignon Blanc) to international prominence. Veuve Cliquot now owns both wineries; Hohnen has only in the past month stepped down as CEO.

“They have a hands-off attitude when it comes to internal management,” Hohnen says of the parent company. “I think they’ve enjoyed going a little bit wild with Cape Mentelle.”

Leeuwin Estate, with its rolling hills, grassy, picnic-perfect lawns, spacious restaurant and tasting room, is almost Napa-esque in its size and feel. Yet the towering local karri trees scream Margaret River, which is exactly where Denis Horgan, the region’s unofficial ambassador, belongs. The winery’s art gallery exhibits the original commissioned paintings that grace the winery’s acclaimed Art Series wines (Stevens Road, tel.: (61-8) 9759-0000).

Next door to Leeuwin, Voyager Estate (Stevens Road, tel.: (61-8) 9757-6354), offers an opulent cellar door and restaurant experience in its Cape Dutch building and manicured gardens. With no expense spared, winemaker Cliff Royale is focusing on producing Chardonnay and Shiraz to rank with the region’s best. Nearby, Xanadu, on Boodjidup Road (tel.: (61-8) 9757-2581), in light of its recent public listing, has dramatically expanded its facilities into an impressive rammed earth-and-stone building that now houses a spacious cellar door, art gallery and family-style restaurant.

Pemberton is an hour and a half’s drive from Karridale in the Southern Margaret River. Along the way you will drive through magnificent karri forests; the massive white-trunked trees can reach a height of more than 150 feet. The Pemberton visitor’s center (tel.: (61-8) 9776-11330) offers information about the 180-foot Gloucester tree, which you can climb, plus touring details.

While the Margaret River has established its reputation on its Chardonnays and Cabernets, the climate of the more far-flung regions of Pemberton, Frankland River and Mt. Barker allows for a wider variety of grapes (Riesling, Chardonnay, Shiraz, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon). Pemberton and the Great Southern Region, where Frankland and Mt. Barker are located, experience more of a continental climate pattern with large areas experiencing warm days and cold nights, including frosts. The maritime influence, more significant the closer you get to Denmark, comes directly from the Antarctic via the Southern Ocean. Hence, the weather pattern can be more erratic, with higher risks due to disease pressure and delayed ripening, but in a good vintage, the fruit can be outstanding.

With its heavier clay soils and significant rainfall, the Pemberton region focuses on Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Merlot. According to Howard Park’s winemaker, Michael Kerrigan, who sources much of his Mad Fish wine from Pemberton, the biggest issues here involve reducing vigorous crop levels and managing canopies to maximize sunlight exposure.

Denis Horgan’s brother, John, has been instrumental in establishing the Pemberton region. His impressive winery and cellar door facility at Salitage, on the Vasse Highway (tel.: (61-8) 9776-1771), commands a fabulous view over the undulating landscape.

Just down the highway at the corner of Eastbrook road, Picardy Wines (tel.: (61-8) 9776-0036; call for an appointment) looks like it belongs more in the vales of Burgundy, with poplars framing a compact winery adorned with blue French doors. The Pannell family, who started Moss Wood, are now producing excellent Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet blends and Shiraz.

Gas up your car once you leave Picardy—Frankland is a full two-hour drive east along a narrow, single-lane road, where your only company will be woefully long trucks (or road trains as they are called here) laden with logs, sheep or cattle. Like Margaret River, the Frankland River wine region was recommended by an academic for its viticultural suitability, in this case by UC Davis Professor Harold Olmo, in his 1955 paper.

Frankland Estate and Alkoomi span the spectrum of what has been described as the wine region in the middle of nowhere, where most of the current growers converted all or part of their land from sheep farming to vines, and, in some instances, to olives.
Judi Cullam and her husband, Barrie Smith, still run sheep for wool on 3,000 acres at Frankland Estate (Frankland Road, tel.: (61-8) 9855-1555). In 1985, however, they planted the first of their vines, on the ironstone soils of the appropriately named Isolation Ridge. Their corrugated tin-shed winery speaks the classic Aussie bush vernacular, with the added touch of a French brazier and olive pots. Riesling is their passion— they produce three single-vineyard bottlings that express their distinctive sites. Other wines include a big Shiraz and a Bordeaux from the Bush.

Merv and Judy Lange at Alkoomi, five miles west of Frankland (Wingeballup Road, tel.: (61-8) 9855-2229), may still live in the simple bungalow where they started life as sheep farmers, but they have been true visionaries in both wine and olive farming since they started planting in the early 1970s. Michael Staniford, their winemaker for the past nine vintages, creates some of the best Sauvignon Blanc in Australia (91 points, $18).

Another hour and a half’s drive through open farmland is the little township of Mt. Barker, where you’ll find Plantagenet, on the Albany Highway (tel.: (61-8) 9851-2150), which is smack in the middle of the town that grew around it. It may seem curious to name a winery here in the back of beyond after a line of British royalty, but it happens to be the name of the shire. Winemaker Gavin Berry makes Shiraz, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, not to mention one of the best unwooded Chardonnays around.

Goundrey is the other big name in these parts, with an impressive cellar door (Langton, Muir Highway. Tel.: (08) 9851-1777) . The family winery was founded in 1978; after a succession of owners including millionaire American Jack Bendat, the Canadian giant Vincorp purchased the winery last year and plans to bottle the region’s reliable cool-climate fruit into accessible, reasonably priced wines. It may be a four-hour drive from Perth, which itself is a five-hour flight from Sydney, further proof that wineries big and small, in this part of the world, are attracting international attention.

From Mt. Barker to the Margaret River, this swath of wine paradise on the southwestern tip of Australia presents a proud heritage in the pursuit of excellence. They may be relative newcomers, but they honor their unique and pristine environments, which happen to be well-suited for cool-climate wines. They have just enough of that “Wild West” ethos to go their own way, to experiment with the traditional canon, to ignore what may be trendy, and come up with winemaking practices that work best to create elegant wines—nothing fussy or pretentious, just classy Western Australian style.