Let’s talk about wine! Recently, I spent two days exploring the Margaret River wineries – the most well-known wine region of Western Australia. I say well-known, but chances are if you’re from the US or Europe, the only Australian wines you’re familiar with are from South Australia. Prior to my adventures, I was like you before you stumbled on to this post: Western Australia has wine? I thought Margaret River was near Adelaide!
BOY WAS I WRONG.
Like I did with the Central Otago wine post, I’ll talk a bit about the region and then name some of the big players in Margaret River wines.
Pour a glass and settle in…
Margaret River wines
Margaret River is in the southern corner of Western Australia, between the hills and the Indian and Southern Oceans. It’s a unique microclimate with ocean on three sides and likely the most isolated wine growing region in the world: wind and weather cross no other land before hitting land in Margaret River, ensuring that weather is pure. Soil varies from dark red clay to chalky white soil, and the Cape Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park protects the region’s vast 120km long coastline. Because Margaret River is surrounded on three sides by ocean, it sees mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers.
The main town – or I should say the most central town – is Margaret River. A majority of the vineyards are concentrated between MR and Dunsborough/Busselton, about 50km to the north. There’s plenty of accommodation around, from hostels to simple chalets, luxury lodges, and bed & breakfasts.
Why should you learn about Margaret River wines? The region is one of the newest. The earliest grapes here were planted in the late 1960s, which makes it relatively new in wine world terms. You should expect to see them start to pop up at your local bottle shop and on the wine list at restaurants near you, even if you’re in the middle of the US.
what do they grow?
The first grapes were planted in 1967 by Dr. Tom Cullity, of Vasse Felix. Most of the grapes here are Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay – two varietals I don’t particularly like. But, when in Rome… I tried a Chard at all the wineries that offered it. And you wanna know what? They were all different. I learned that I like oaky Chardonnay, when all along I thought it was the other way around!
In addition, most wineries produce both a Shiraz and a Semillion Sauvignon Blanc blend. Whether they call it an SSB or an SBS depends on the percentage of each varietal in the blend. I also tried several Malbec Merlot blends and one of the best wines I’ve ever had in my life (keep reading to find out where that was!).
Margaret River Wineries
Some of the biggest names in wine here are Leeuwin Estate, Voyager Estate, Sandalford Estate, Vasse Felix, and Cullen Wines. There are over 200 wineries though, and it will take more than a few days to experience the region in full. I suggest taking two days to visit the region; you can do about six wineries a day without really screwing up your palette and most also have restaurants or cheese platters available. Since I went to ten wineries, I’m only going to write about those.
Wine is completely subjective – what I think is phenomenal, you won’t. I urge you to taste as much as possible over the course of a few days, within reason. If you’re driving, take it easy and if you’re on your seventh winery, your palette is going to be all sorts of screwed up unless you’re spitting wine out (who does that?!). I think I have a good range of wineries in a wide area here.
Flametree Winery was the first one I stopped into, on my way into Dunsborough. I was the only person in there, which meant I had the full attention of Shatelle, the woman behind the bar. We chatted about wines and she is the one that told me that MR is known for Chardonnay. When I mentioned that I don’t often drink it, she asked me if I would consider trying one. I acquiesced, and thus began my love affair with Chardonnay.
(Well, sort of. I’m still a red wine kinda gal, but if someone said that Chard paired best with the food I was about to eat, I wouldn’t stare at the wine list running through my other options.)
Taste: 2013 Frankland River Shiraz and 2015 Chardonnay
Wise Wine is in Eagle Bay, next door to the Eagle Bay Brewing Company. The first wine I tasted here was the effervescent, crisp, and sparkling Bead Chardonnay Pinot Noir. I’m a sucker for bubbly though and this wine flooded my mouth with citrus-y, honey flavours. They produce three series: the Sea Urchin, Lot 80, and Eagle Bay. The Eagle Bay series is their highest end range and they only have three wines in that range.
During my tasting, I chatted with Karen, behind the bar, and a few of the other tasters. Karen is incredibly wise (ha! punny) about all the wines the Wise produces plus what the region does best. She definitely piqued my interest in Chardonnay and helped me figure out that my favourite Chards are oaky. My tip? Start with their unoaked Chard and work your way through the three to see what your preference is.
Taste: 2016 Karridale Chardonnay (Eagle Bay series)
*I went to their Swan Valley winery, not the one in Margaret River; but the grapes are sourced from the same places.
One of the nicest wineries and has impeccable staff plus vast tasting rooms. My favourite Sandalford wine was the Verdelho, a slightly sweet, acidic white. Sandalford is also another one of the older, bigger wineries in Margaret River and worth a visit. Enjoy the tasting room before drifting into a late lunch on their sun-soaked patio under vine leaves, sip bubbles while overlooking the lawns, whatever. This is a place to go and relax.
Taste: 2016 Sandalford Estate Reserve Verdelho
Cape Naturaliste Vineyard
I was warned before going here that it’s “great wines in a shack.” To be fair, yes, it’s a barn-like structure but it’s got impressive local art, delectable wines, and one of a kind views out over their vineyard. They also have dogs – the only dogs I found at a winery in Margaret River. The wines were great and the winemakers definitely know what they’re doing. Cape Naturaliste Vineyards is near Eagle Bay, not in the Margaret River region proper, so if you’re coming down from Perth and stopping in Busselton or Dunsborough for the night, it’s either a great place to end your day or a perfect one to start the next day.
Taste: 2012 Torpedo Rocks Cabernet Sauvignon
Leeuwin Estate Winery
Leeuwin Estate is one of the big players in Margaret River wineries. The vineyards sprawl across the hills and the cellar door and restaurant are often packed with wedding parties, stag dos, and tour buses. Their Art Series is fantastic and one of the older ranges in MR wines. Do not miss the gallery downstairs, where you can see all of the artwork that goes on the Art Series bottles. The estate has amassed over 150 artworks from John Olsen, Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, and more. The Aboriginal landscapes that are printed on the Shiraz bottles are stunning in person.
Taste: Art Series Riesling, Art Series Cabernet, Art Series Shiraz
Voyager was my last winery of the first day, and was a great place to end. I started with their sparkling Chenin Blanc, which was just bubbly enough with notes of pears and honey, and ended on a special, extra taste of the 2007 Cabernet Merlot, which they’d opened and decanted for someone just minutes earlier. This was the only winery I visited that did NOT offer a complimentary tasting, so be aware of that before you go… tasting flights are $9 or you can create your own (the list gives prices for each wine you can taste).
Taste: 2013 Shiraz
Vasse Felix is one of the earliest vineyards in the region. Tom Cullity planted the first vines in the late 1960s and even now they are producing stellar vintages. The only 2016 wine I tasted was an SSB, the rest were 2015 and younger. These wines will all cellar incredibly well! The tasting room is a gorgeous space overlooking the wide green lawn and the staff is incredibly knowledgeable about the wines they pour. I had a great woman serving me and I liked her approach as well as her knowledge. I came across only a few other wineries where the staff was as lovely and fun.
Their sparkling was phenomenal and also exclusive: they only produce 2000 cases per year; they say it’s because they focus on other varietals.. I like to think its so you can say you’ve had one. This is also where I tasted one of the best wines I’ve ever had in my life: the anniversary Cabernet Malbec named for Tom Cullity.
Taste: 2013 Tom Cullity Cabernet Sauvignon Malbec
Cullen was my last of the Margaret River wineries. What caught my eye immediately was that there was no Chardonnay on the list to taste. Margaret River is known for Chards – so why not? They also don’t so a Shiraz; they believe that the soil isn’t the best. What they do do is a stunning Sauvignon Blanc Semillon. It’s 64% SB and 36% Semillon and aged in French oak barrel for 6 months. It will cellar for up to ten years, according to the bartender – who, I might add, was well-informed about the wines she poured me and the others around me. By contrast, the Mangan Vineyard Semillon Sauv Blanc is 58% Semillon and only 40% SB.
Taste: Cullen’s Amber Wine and the 2014 Rose Soom Petillant Naturale
My notes from Cape Mentelle are amusing to read, because I tasted eight different wines and I managed to write down all the details, but none of the aesthetics. It was my first winery on my last day of tasting, mid afternoon, after a showery, cloudy morning. The winery is tucked down a narrow drive under some trees; there’s a wide lawn where they host movie nights. It was quiet; staff wasn’t overly enthusiastic or knowledgeable about the local wines and other wineries, even when I asked leading questions. Here, I really liked the 2012 Wilyabrup Cabernet Merlot – I tried it to compare it with the 2014 Trinders Cabernet Merlot. It was softer than the 2014, with a long finish and more plum flavours.
Taste: 2012 Wilyabrup Cabernet Merlot and 2014 Shiraz
Have you been to Margaret River? What are your thoughts on my choices for visiting? I heard that Lawrence was a beautiful winery to visit but that the wines weren’t very good. Do you think differently? Why? I hope you find these Margaret River wineries and Australian wines as exciting as I did. I’m certainly looking forward to learning more about them as I travel!
Like this post? Pin it!