The Margaret River area is one of Australia's best-known wine regions. Although Margaret River produces only about three percent of Australia's wines, the region's wine producers make about 20 percent of Australia's "premium market" wines, according to the Margaret River Wine Association.
The First Fleet sailors brought vines to Australia on their 1788 journey to Botany Bay. This modest beginning has exploded in recent decades into a true wine boom. Australia's 62 regions export wines to dozens of countries around the world. Australia is the world's fourth-largest wine producer and exports more wines to the U.K. than any other country.
Margaret River History
Dr. Tom Cullity, founder of the Vasse Felix winery, is credited with creating Margaret River's modern wine industry. Dr. Cullity began planting vines in 1967 after investigating the possibilities for making quality wines in the area. He based his enterprise on information published by Dr. John Gladstones and Professor Harold Olmo, who studied the Margaret River region and determined that the weather and soil conditions there resembled those of Burgundy, France. Dr. Cullity began with just a half-acre vineyard; today, Vasse Felix is one of the most popular wine destinations in the Margaret River region.
Other entrepreneurs, many of them also doctors, began to plant vines shortly after Dr. Cullity began growing wine grapes at Vasse Felix. These early Margaret River wineries, including Cullen Wines, Moss Wood, Xanadu and Leeuwin Estate, still make some of the area's best-known quality wines. Today there are over 120 wineries in the Margaret River wine region.
Winery owners quickly realized that they could tie wine tourism into their business models and designed their wineries with visitors in mind. Margaret River is one of Australia's top wine tourism destinations. The area is known not only for its fine wines but also for gourmet foods, wonderful beaches and a thriving art scene. Wineries regularly host concerts, festivals and other special events.
Geography, Soils and Climate
The Margaret River wine region is officially defined on its eastern side by the 115 18 E line of longitude, which passes north to south near the town of Busselton. The rest of the region, north, west and south, is surrounded by water. The wine region is located on a peninsula in extreme southwestern Australia, bordered by the Southern and Indian Oceans to the south and north. The west coast is tipped by two capes, Cape Naturaliste to the north and Cape Leeuwin to the south.
Because it is surrounded by water on three sides, the Margaret River region has a relatively mild climate, sometimes described as "maritime" and sometimes called "Mediterranean." Winters are mild and summers are warm and dry. The average temperatures are cooler than those in a typical Mediterranean country – the average January (summer) temperature is 68 degrees Fahrenheit – but the rainfall amounts are definitely more Mediterranean than maritime. Average rainfall ranges from 43 to 47 inches per year in the Margaret River region.
Frosts are fairly rare, but the region's wine growers do have to contend with winds during the spring months. Some of these winds blow off the ocean and are salty, a unique issue Margaret River growers must deal with each year.
Growers also have to consider irrigation issues when rainfall is low, especially because the soils in the region are quite permeable and do not retain water well. Most soils are loam, either sandy or gravelly, and are igneous (granite) or metamorphic (gneiss) in origin.
Margaret River Grape Varieties
Margaret River's best-known wines are made from cabernet sauvignon grapes, but shiraz, merlot, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and semillon grapes also grow very well here. Chardonnays, in particular, take on unique characteristics in the Margaret River region.
While these varieties are the most popular, many other grapes grow well in Margaret River. Verdelho, viognier, malbec, pinot noir and chenin blanc are just a few of the many varieties of wine grapes grown here.
Visiting Margaret River Wineries
Even if you visit for a week or more, you probably won't run out of wine-related things to do in Margaret River. Many wineries have award-winning restaurants on their properties (look for the "Gold Plate" award). Most have tasting and sales rooms, usually called the "Cellar Door," and some also offer concerts, accommodations and even festivals.
The Margaret River Wine Region Festival is held in April each year. Events include wine auctions, wine tastings, classes, concerts, dinners, and a fascinating array of competitions, such as petanque, poster art and wine barrel racing. If you happen to be in Western Australia during this festival, head south from Perth to Margaret River and join in the fun.
At other times of the year, you can take tours of individual wineries or sign up with a local tour operator for a half-day or day-long wine tourism experience. Margaret River Vintage Wine Tours offers winery tours and lunches. Wine for Dudes, which doesn't restrict its tours to men but instead focuses on a "wine for everybody" concept, offers daily winery, brewery and chocolate tours as well as customized wine experiences. If you're ready to splurge (really, really splurge), you can take a helicopter tour of the area with Eco-Star Helicopters. Book these and other wine tours through the Margaret River Visitor Centre.
If you'd rather spend more time at one particular winery or travel on your own, you'll have dozens of wineries to choose from. Many visitors choose to tour one of the original Margaret River wineries. Leeuwin Estate, a true pioneer in Australian wine tourism, is perennially popular. Here you'll find daily tours (three per day), tastings, the Cellar Door, an award-winning restaurant and a top-notch art gallery. Leeuwin Estate has been named "International Winery of the Year" three times by Wine & Spirits magazine; its wines, especially the Art Series Chardonnay, regularly garner awards and prizes. The annual concert series has become an important Australian music event, featuring top performers. Tickets sell quickly, so plan ahead if you would like to attend a concert.
Xanadu Wines, founded by John Lagan in 1977 and now owned by the Rathbone family, was named Winery of the Year 2007 by Western Australia Tourism. Taste the winery's Xanadu and Dragon labels in the on-site Gold Plate restaurant or at the Cellar Door. (Lunch reservations are strongly recommended.)
Vasse Felix, the area's first vineyard and winery, offers tours each weekday at 11:00 a.m. You will need to reserve your tour in advance through the winery's Cellar Door. Vasse Felix's restaurant and art gallery are open each day, as is the Cellar Door. Special events and concerts take place on site throughout the year.
If you'd like to stay at a winery, try the bed and breakfast Winestay at the Warren Vineyard or, if you're traveling with a family group, book the Homestead, on site at Cullen Wines. Both wineries offer meal options; the Warren Vineyard offers meals only to overnight guests, while Cullen Wines' restaurant is open for lunch to day visitors as well as Homestead guests.
What's Next for Margaret River?
If you look at Margaret River as a whole, it appears that the region's growers and wine producers are doing nearly everything right. They're producing good quality wines at competitive prices; wine tourism is well-established and effectively marketed. Where can Margaret River go from here?
One noteworthy trend is the move toward sustainability. Wine producers are working together to improve their already highly-mechanized production processes and minimize their impact on the environment. This effort dovetails nicely with the current focus on sustainable travel and should help to grow tourism in the area.
On the other hand, wine exports to the U.S. and U.K. fell substantially in 2008. Jancis Robinson highlighted some of the current issues feeding into this problem in her April 2009 article, "How Australia Went Down Under," and mentioned the high price of vineyard land in Margaret River as a difficulty growers currently face. Marketing and brand image are also issues affecting current wine sales; the global economic crisis hasn't helped, either.
There's some room for Margaret River's top wine producers to make inroads here, while media attention is focused on Australia – most writers covering Australian wines agree that there are many high-quality Australian wines on the market, but U.S. wine drinkers don't know much about them. This may be the perfect opportunity for Margaret River's producers to take advantage of the media spotlight, speak up and promote their best wines.