Is Margaret River Australia’s answer to Bordeaux? After spending a week looking at some of the best estates on Bordeaux’s Left Bank, I couldn’t help thinking about the similarities between Bordeaux and Margaret River. Like Bordeaux, Margaret River shines at making cabernet sauvignon blends and one of its signature whites is a typical Bordeaux blend of sauvignon blanc and semillion.

No surprise then to learn that the renowned agronomist Dr. John Gladstones from the University of Western Australia published two reports in 1965 and 1966 respectively that confirmed Margaret River as an ideal region for viticulture and compared the climate to Bordeaux’s Pomeral region.

In fact, Margaret River’s climate is much more sympathetic to grape growing than Bordeaux. Summer rain is almost virtually non-existent, allowing the grapes in most years to fully ripen and avoid problems like mildew and rot that can plague Bordeaux’s vines. Its maritime location – the furthest part of Margaret River is about 7 km from the Indian Ocean – creates a temperate climate that insures a long growing season, while also accommodating earlier ripening varieties such as chardonnay – another variety for which Margaret River has established a great reputation. While Margaret River’s top winemakers can single out the top vintages over the region’s short 40 plus year history, vintage variation is far less of an issue in Margaret River than it is in Bordeaux.

Like Bordeaux, the terroir of Margaret River is ancient. Ranging from 150 to 200 metres above sea level, the best vineyards are on a ridge, which was once a granitic island and considered to be one of the oldest land masses in the world. The weathered, free draining gravel soils over clay subsoils and decomposed granite are not too rich in organic matter, providing the necessary stress that grape vines need to develop vigour and endow their fruit with the character of their terroir.

Gladstones’ work inspired the first winemakers, and most of the pioneer wineries are famous names today. Vasse Felix was the first winery to be established in the Margaret River. Dr Tom Culity, a cardiologist who later sold his winery to the Holmes a Court Family, founded Vasse Felix in the Wilyabrup sub-region in 1967.  The original wine pioneers, however, were Diana and Kevin Cullen, who planted an experimental acre of vines in 1966 on a property abutting Vasse Felix. Cullen Wines was formally established in 1971, when 18 acres of vines were planted on the couple’s sheep and cattle farm.  Moss Wood, also in the Wilyabrup sub-region and founded by Bill Pannell in 1969, has been owned by Keith and Clare Mugford since 1985. Leeuwin Estate was established by Denis and Patricia Horgan on a site identified by the legendary California winemaker Robert Mondavi in 1972. Mondavi served as a consultant and mentor to the Horgans in the early years.

Dr Cullen, Dr Cullity and Dr Pannell were committed to making “wines of terroir” at a time when most winemakers in Australia were following a cross regional blending model. They established their own appellation scheme in order to protect the Margaret River wines from cross regional blending.  In 1999, Dr John Gladstones proposed the recognition of sub-regions to formally acknowledge that the relatively large Margaret River region contains several distinct micro-climates and soil variations. Wilyabrup, for example, is acknowledged as the most ideally suited sub-region for growing cabernet sauvignon grapes. (A History of the Margaret River Wine Region, with particular emphasis on Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvigon by Vanya Cullen, Cullen Wines)

Over the course of this week we will look at the flagship wines from these great wineries, which now share company with numerous other wineries renowned for making world-class wines in this flourishing region.

Photo Credit: Margaret River Wine