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The Best Wine You’ve Never Heard of Comes From Margaret River

This Western Australia region makes extremely fine wines in extremely small quantities

Ken Gargett By April 14, 2022
waters of Castle Rock, Dunsborough, Margaret river, Western Australia
Beautiful waters of Castle Rock, Dunsborough, Margaret River, Western Australia. Photo by Sahil Malhotra/iStock.

Few wine lovers would be unaware of Robert Mondavi’s contribution to the Napa Valley and wine worldwide, but they mightn’t be quite so cognizant of his impact on another far-distant region. Nor are they likely to be aware of the role played in the development of Margaret River by a descendant of American Confederate General Robert E. Lee — Seattle lawyer Robert Lee Ager.

In the ’60s, Ager’s investors wanted to establish a global wine business with Mondavi as its face. They were interested in this unknown region in the southwest of Western Australia.

They weren’t the only ones. A bunch of doctors had got there first.

The beginning of Margaret River

In 1966, agronomist Dr. John Gladstones wrote a paper suggesting Margaret River would suit viticulture. His findings dovetailed with those of California’s Professor Harold Olmo.

This was enough to persuade cardiologist Tom Cullity to establish Vasse Felix. Other medicos followed: Kevin Cullen of Cullen Wines, Bill Pannell of Moss Wood and, later, Mike Peterkin of Pierro. Other pioneering wineries included Woodlands, Sandalford, Cape Mentelle with David Hohnen, and Leeuwin Estate with Denis Horgan.

In 1969, Horgan had bought a plumbing business, and a Margaret River property came as part of the deal, which he used as a family getaway. Horgan, a merchant banker and self-described beer-drinking surfie, then attracted the attention of American wine royalty. He got a phone call from Robert Lee Ager.

Horgan doubted someone from Seattle was calling about plumbing, which turned out to be correct — Ager was calling on behalf of Robert Mondavi, who was interested in the land. 

He was persistent because he’d already been turned down by David Hohnen, founder of Cape Mentelle, who planted his vineyard without any access to machinery or technology. “I was making wine in a tractor shed and a single new barrel was worth more than my car,” recalls Hohnen.

Yet he decided not to sell, so Mondavi tried Horgan next. Although Horgan wasn’t interested in selling, he met the visitors for a drink, first sending his secretary to the State Library of Perth to see if she could find anything about them. She returned with a copy of Time Magazine with Robert Mondavi on the cover.

Both Robert Mondavi and, later, his son Tim, made many visits to the region and consulted Leeuwin. It was he who suggested Horgan plant Chardonnay — and the Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay now sits alongside the best in the world.

Horgan was no fool. He made the unprecedented decision to hold his Chardonnays back for five years before release and priced them at never-before-seen levels. Both decisions were more than vindicated.

Having a world-famous winemaker like Mondavi show such interest in Margaret River encouraged local winemakers because few at that time were interested in the emerging region. 

When everything changed

In 1983, a Cape Mentelle red wine won the Jimmy Watson Trophy for Best One-Year-Old Red at the Melbourne Wine Show; to Australians, the Jimmy Watson Trophy is akin to the Nobel Prize for wine. When Cape Mentelle won a second time, with their 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon, all eyes turned to Margaret River. So important was this recognition, that Margaret River’s winemakers held a dinner for Hohnen on his return to Melbourne, “because there was recognition that it was just what Margaret River needed.”

Today, Margaret River has around 12,355 acres of vineyards; about 150 wineries — 60% produce less than 15,000 cases a year — along with great restaurants, art galleries, and accommodation. Production is small and elite, but the region is large — 162 miles north to south and up to16 miles wide. The western boundary is the Indian Ocean.

While in the early days there was plenty of Riesling to be found, the main grapes found in Margaret River today are Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Coralie Lewis, winemaker at Cape Mentelle, likes Cabernet “because it is made from the grape variety we pick last; it is the grand finale. A real team effort of nurturing every vine, every micro selection in unison to offer a complex piece with layers, dimension, and great elegance.” Of Chardonnay, “the variation across our vineyard sites and individual blocks allows us to grow beautiful Chardonnay bunches that are highlighted with good acidity and ripeness.”

Leeuwin co-CEO, Simone Furlong, notes that, “The key to our consistency is the Gin Gin clone, which gives natural fruit weight on the palate. Wines produced require less winemaking influence to build weight; this allows the pure fruit flavors of the vineyard to be retained.”

For Cabernet, the most widely planted clone is the Houghton clone, named for a classic old Western Australian winery. Furlong describes the clone as having “low vigor, small berries, and low yields. It produces wines with ripe skin and seed tannins, medium to full weight, and with great intensity.” She says the first vines were originally planted at Houghton’s in the 1930s. “A selection of cuttings taken from the 21 best performing vines were planted and then distributed to Margaret River and beyond. Leeuwin Estate’s Cabernet Sauvignon was sourced from these cuttings in the mid-1970s.”

Howard Park’s general manager Natalie Burch notes they use “the original Houghton clone. We believe that the original plantings have a tannin complexity and profile that’s hard to beat.” 

Shiraz does well but is outshone by the Cabernets. Cape Mentelle also offers one of Australia’s very few Zinfandels, made in a style far more powerful and burly than most. Another classic style is the Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc blend, dubbed the classic dry white; these whites have suffered badly in the face of the massive popularity of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Other varieties such as Chenin Blanc, Verdelho, Tempranillo, and Nebbiolo are also making an appearance; altogether, about three dozen different varieties are represented.

“Margaret River only contributes 2% of Australia’s overall crush, but at the top end we represent a significant number of the wines. Many of the most collectible wines of Australia are from Margaret River.” — Natalie Burch

Difficult to find

Only around 10% of Margaret River’s wines are exported, with many not even leaving their own state, but most top names are represented in the top restaurants and retailers of the world’s major wine markets. 

Burch notes that, “Margaret River only contributes 2% of Australia’s overall crush, but at the top end we represent a significant number of the wines. Many of the most collectible wines of Australia are from Margaret River.” She has strong views on what great value these wines are. “Despite that we are still a fraction of the price of Bordeaux or Napa Cabernet, the wines are arguably better.” 

4 Margaret River wines to try:

bottle of Vasse Felix Margaret River Chardonnay 2020

Vasse Felix Margaret River Chardonnay 2020 (~$20)

The original pioneer, now owned by the Holmes à Court family and making better wines than ever under the hand of superstar winemaker, Virginia Willcock. An intense nose of citrus, grapefruit, cashews, and apricot kernels with well-integrated oak, a third of which are new French barriques. Richly flavored, finely structured, and with a seductive texture, this has an exciting future.

bottle of Cape Mentelle Shiraz Cabernet 2018

Cape Mentelle Shiraz Cabernet 2018 (~$55)

The Cape Mentelle Cabernet is another of the region’s stellar wines and a worthy legacy from the iconic pair that led many to first discover the region. The Shiraz Cabernet blend is known Down Under as “the great Aussie red blend.” It works. From a mix of vineyards up to 48 years old, this is beautifully aromatic with black cherries, cloves, blueberries, and hints of chocolate. Plush, with decent length and satiny tannins, this is delightfully generous.

bottle of Leeuwin Estate Prelude Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Leeuwin Estate Prelude Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 (~$30)

There was a time when Leeuwin’s reds were seen as very much second fiddle to their legendary Chardonnay. Those days are long gone, and their Cabernet now sits alongside the region’s very best. This wine is ripe and intense with notes of blackberries, chocolate, tobacco leaf, cassis, leather, and superbly integrated oak. Seamless, with a very long palate on which the intensity is maintained throughout, it finishes with carefully managed tannins, which are both silky and slightly gravelly at the same time. Will easily impress for the next ten to twenty years. 

bottle of Howard Park Miamup Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Howard Park Miamup Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 (~$23)

Dense purple, the nose is chocolate, cassis, licorice, black olives, dried herbs, and cloves. More aniseed on the palate, which is intense and thrilling. Seamless, excellent length, and silky tannins. Young, but an exciting future.