In under fifty years, Margaret River has built an international reputation as a home of fine wine in Australia. It is a region that is more than capable of producing wines to match the world’s best, offering powerful, yet elegant, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blends.
The region, located in the far south-west corner of Western Australia, is one of the most geographically isolated wine regions in the world. But this isolation has been no barrier to the development of Margaret River, with the region evolving from pioneer ‘outstation’ to a place dedicated to the pursuit of great wines, great food and an exceptional lifestyle. None of this would have been on offer were it not for the work of two research scientists, Professor Harry Olmo and Dr John Gladstones. Their pioneering work in identifying the potential of the region for fine wine laid the groundwork for the growth of a jewel in the Australian wine crown.
Margaret River – A scientific approach to identifying great terroir
Anyone who has visited Margaret River will be able to tell you how beautiful it is. Woodlands, jarrah and marri forests give way to vineyards which in turn give way to stunning surf beaches. It’s an isolated slice of paradise that was once home to dairy farmers and a few surfers and it could still be that way today if it wasn’t for the work of Harry Olmo. Harry Olmo is one of the great unsung heroes of wine, nowhere near as well-known as vignerons like Max Schubert or Robert Mondavi but equally important to the development of the modern wine industry. His work with the Chardonnay was one of the reasons that it has gone from being a relatively insignificant variety to one of the world’s most popular and revered. But it was his time spent in Western Australia in the 1950s that would have the greatest impact on the Australian wine community.
In 1955 Olmo, at the time Professor of Viticulture at the University of California, was in Western Australia studying climatic limitations of viticulture in the Swan Valley at the invitation of the Western Australian Vine Fruits Research Trust. It didn’t take long for Harry to recognise that there were other regions in the state that would be better suited to the production of high quality grapes. He was forthright with his opinions, telling those who had sponsored his research, ‘Why are you growing all your wine grapes in the Swan Valley? You've got all this wonderful country down south where you should be growing the wine grapes.’ And while he may have offended some in the Swan Valley, the Californian had taken the first tentative steps in identifying the Margaret River as a potentially great wine region.
From Olmo to Gladstones to the birth of the Margaret River wine community
Harry returned to California and in the 1960s the baton was passed to Dr John Gladstones. John Gladstones painstakingly researched the climate and the soils of the south west of Western Australia before publishing. ‘The Climate and Soils of South-Western Australia in Relation to Vine Growing’ in the Journal of Australian Institute of Agricultural Science in December of 1965. Gladstones identified that the climatic conditions of the region were ideal for producing premium wines. In terms of climate the area had a high winter rainfall, a dry, warm summer and experienced few instances of frosts and hail. Perfect conditions for viticulture. Gladstones’ geological surveys also produced encouraging results with much of the region consisting of grey loam on a subsoil of clay. Excellent soil for viticulture.
Gladstones’ report supported Olmo’s assertions on the region with hard evidence. And while at times academic reports can end up gathering dust in academic libraries, having little impact on those targeted by the research, the complete opposite is true of Gladstones’ and Olmo’s work. People were paying attention. In under two years’ vines were planted in the region. Within five years’ the now legendary Moss Wood, Vasse Felix, Cape Mentelle and Cullen wineries were established. Australia’s new kid on the block was building momentum. A momentum that has taken all before it and hasn’t let up to this day.
‘Not only should excellent quality be obtainable with choice grape varieties, but the district might also be very suitable because of its equable climate for the higher yielding, but still good qualities, such as shiraz and Semillon.’
Margaret River – Australia’s fine wine heavyweight?
From the first vintages in the early 1970s, the Margaret River region quickly established itself as one to watch. This is even more impressive given that many of the first vignerons in the region were newcomers to the wine game. Dr Tom Cullity at Vasse Felix was a cardiologist from Perth while Dr Bill Pannell of Moss Wood and Dr Kevin Cullen of Cullen Wines both practised medicine in nearby Busselton. Another example of the amateurs becoming professionals comes from Leeuwin Estate, today one of the most highly regarded Australian wineries around the world. Denis and Trish Horgan bought the property on which Leeuwin Estate now stands in 1969. Did they dream of building a fine wine estate? Nope. Denis, a merchant banker in Perth, bought the property because it was attached to a plumbing business he wanted. The property lay untouched until in 1973 when Denis got a phone call from the U.S….
On the phone was an attorney from Seattle, Washington calling about their property in little old Margaret River. Surely the attorney wasn’t interested in the plumbing business? A few probing questions from Denis and the attorney revealed that his client was Robert Mondavi, a man who was already a legend in the world of wine. Mondavi, recognised as arguably the most important person in the modern wine, put the Napa Valley on the map with technical innovations and brilliant marketing strategies. He was a key advocate of labelling wines using their varietal name rather than generically. When Robert Mondavi was interested in planting vines on your property it was a pretty good sign to Dennis and Trish that it was time to forget the plumbing business and start planting vines.
In the early years Mondavi helped as a consultant with the planning of the vineyards and with the direction of the wine styles. One of Robert’s key pieces of advice was to plant Chardonnay, which was quite a rare variety in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s. This astute advice from led to Leeuwin Estate’s most iconic wine, the Art Series Chardonnay. This wine was a beacon to other producers in the region, helping to show that Margaret River could make wines to rival the best in the world.
The future for Margaret River – New talent reinvigorates a fine wine
In the years since its establishment as a fine wine region, Margaret River has grown and grown. Today there are over two hundred wineries in the region, producing around 20% of Australia’s premium wines from just 3% of Australia’s total crush. In recent years, the established icons of the region have been joined by a new generation of producers redefining what Margaret River wine could be. Having one of Australia’s most renowned biodynamic wineries in the region in Cullen Wines has inspired people like Sarah and Iwo at Si Vintners, Sam Vinciullo, Ben and Naomi Gould at Blind Corner and 2016 Young Gun of Wine award winner Jo Perry at Dormilona Wines. These are vignerons dedicated to natural farming and pushing the boundaries in a region that, for all its strengths, is one of the most conservative in Australian wine. From organic and biodynamic farming methods to whole bunch fermentation in amphora to extended skin contact for white wines to experimenting with alternative varieties, the next generation of Margaret River producers are finding a new audience for the region around the world.
And this generation isn’t just inspiring each other; they are also inspiring the established names in the region. Vanya Cullen recently released their very first amber wine, an extended skin contact Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc blend, to great acclaim, while the number of vineyards being farmed organically and biodynamically in the region increases every year.
For somewhere that was identified all those years ago by Professor Harry Olmo and Dr John Gladstones as an ideal location for viticulture, it makes sense that minimal input farming is well-suited to the Margaret River. It’s a wonderful example of new talent respecting those that established one of the world’s great wine regions while adding to the Margaret River’s rich tapestry, assuring the future of the region for generations and generations to come. Now that is something we can all be grateful for.
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