Margaret River in numbers*
- Elevation: 0–227 metres above sea level
- Annual rainfall: 931 mm
- Mean temperature (Jan): 20.4°C
- Area under vine: 5,840 hectares
- White grapes: 59%
- Red grapes: 41%
- Average yield: 5.1 t/ha
Margaret River is relatively remote by the standards of some of this country’s emblematic wine regions, with many clustered near to major cities. Even though the Hunter Valley is a similar distance from Sydney than Perth is from Margaret River, it has Newcastle somewhat closer by. In fact, Margaret River is one of the most isolated wine regions in the world, which goes some way towards its idyllic charm. And though today’s traveller will find it a vibrant and amply serviced destination, its history of quality winegrowing is a relatively short one.
Historically, grape-growing in Western Australia was more or less confined to the warm and dry territory of the Swan Valley, on Perth’s doorstep. It was not until Dr Harry Olmo, then the Professor of Viticulture at the University of California, was commissioned to report on the impacts of climate on grape production in the Swan District that the possibility of expanding further south was tabled. Olmo saw the limitations of the Swan and saw vast potential in the Great Southern, amongst other areas. With the seed planted, it was Dr John Gladstones who took up the message in the 1960s, with him pinpointing Margaret River as a region with the potential to produce world class wine.
While Olmo’s technical research was centred on the Swan, Gladstones applied the science to the regions he had researched. Gladstones’ view on Margaret River was actually at odds with Olmo, who noted that the high rainfall would be an impediment to viticulture. And while the rainfall is indeed very high, Galdstones highlighted that the majority of that rainfall was in winter and spring, which would set up the vines for what were typically warm and dry summers. (Indeed, it is often managing the dryness in the growing season that has become a challenge for some growers.) The region also had minimal issues with frost and hail and enough well-drained sites to meliorate the heavy rains.
Gladstones’ report was published in 1966, with the first vines planted at Vasse Felix in 1967, followed by Moss Wood (1969), Cape Mentelle (1970), Sandalford (1970), Cullen (1971), Woodlands (1973) and Leeuwin (1974), which remain some of the most famous names today. It’s worth noting that vines had been planted in Margaret River before, but only on a relatively small scale with more a functional than quality focus.
Those first vines are credited to the Bussell family, who planted in the 1830s to make wine solely for themselves. Most of the ensuing pioneers were immigrants with a heritage of mixed farming, like the Credaro family, who originally worked in the timber industry, but had meaningful vineyards for personal use in different Margaret River locations from early in the 20th century up until they engaged in commercial viticulture in the 80s. A piece of that history survives as a living relic in the fragola vines (a Northern Italian curio variety) that the family have cultivated in those sites over the years and produce today as a varietal bottling.
Dr Tom Cullity was first off the mark to act on Gladstone’s ground-breaking report, looking for his ideal site, which he described as being “red gravel in redgum country, with clay about 18 inches below the surface.” Cullity already had a little experience with viticulture, trialling plantings in the south-west from 1965. He put riesling, shiraz, malbec and cabernet sauvignon vines in first, with the original plantings of the last two varieties appropriately making up the Vasse Felix flagship ‘Tom Cullity’ bottling of today. The first vintage was from four-year-old riesling vines that were heavily affected by both rot and feasting birds. The second vintage, 1972, won a gold medal at the Perth Show and shone a bright light on the potential of the region.
While riesling is very much a bit player in Margaret River today, the Bordeaux varieties that Cullity and other pioneers planted proved more enduring, as did shiraz to a lesser degree. Cabernet sauvignon, either by itself or blended with its Bordeaux cousins, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec and petit verdot, is the driving force of Margaret River, with producers like Moss Wood, Woodlands, Cape Mentelle, Howard Park and Cullen, amongst others, arguably making Australia’s most compelling expressions.
It was the influence of Robert Mondavi, perhaps building on one of the cornerstones of Olmos’ career at Davis, that saw chardonnay planted in meaningful quantities, which laid the foundations for the other major pillar of Margaret River wine. That was at Leeuwin Estate, where Mondavi, then one of the most progressive and celebrated winemakers in the world, convinced Dennis and Trish Horgan to plant chardonnay. The rest as they say… Today, Leeuwin’s ‘Art Series’ Chardonnay is still Australia’s most celebrated take on the Burgundian grape. And it has significant competition, even just locally, with the likes of Vasse Felix, Voyager Estate, Deep Woods, Xanadu, Cloudburst, Cullen and many, many more all at the elite level.
Today, there are over 200 producers in Margaret river, with nearly 100 cellar doors. The established producers vie for top billing with some of the country’s best cellar door and dining experiences, but there is also a new wave of producers who are making their mark without the glamorous finery of the icons.
Nic Peterkin of L.A.S Vino comes from Margaret River royalty (Pierro), but is finding his own way, while makers like Josephine Perry (Dormilona) are using their local and international experience to craft wines as subtly as possible to express a finer side to the region, employing skin contact and amphora, while still building a bridge between the familiar and the avant-garde. Sam Vinciullo, Blind Corner and Si Vintners are similarly colouring both inside, but mainly outside, the established lines, while makers like Remi Guise from Tripe Iscariot and Julian Langworthy of Nocturne balance significant day jobs at important wineries (Domaine Naturaliste and Deep Woods, respectively) with the production of some of the most exciting new wines to come from the region. Margaret river may be geographically isolated, but it is one of the country’s most dynamic and exciting regions, and not one resting on reputational laurels.
Margaret River is blessed like few other regions with vintages of consistently high quality, while by no means being homogenous in style. While the heat of some vintages can pose a challenge, many of these years have also been the most celebrated for producing cabernet sauvignon. Excessive rain and subsequent disease is rarely an issue in the growing season, and while some producers are less enamoured with cooler years, many modern producers favour them.
From Cape Naturaliste at the northern tip to the southernmost point at Cape Leeuwin, runs a ridge that dominates the soil type of the region, though there is significant diversity to those soils, too. Generally, they are characterised by gravelly and sandy loam over granite and gneiss, with low water retention capacity, which helps to wick away excess moisture from the high rainfall. Although not officially delineated, Dr Gladstones identified six sub-zones in a follow-up paper in 1999. He presented detailed data on nuances in both climate and geology to support his proposed borders. Karridale is the largest, occupying about half the region from the southern tip up, which is bordered by Wallcliffe to the north, then above are the smallest zones of Wilyabrup, next to the Indian Ocean, and Treeton, inland from it, with Carbunup above with its northern limit Geographe Bay, and Yallingup running along the Indian Ocean side up to Cape Naturaliste. And while not cemented in the GI, producers will frequently reference these sub-zones on their labels.
Given that the region is hemmed by both the Indian and Southern Oceans, the climate, unsurprisingly, has a maritime influence, though it is classed as Mediterranean. While there is a low diurnal temperature range, the ocean breezes cool the vines, meaning the grapes tend to retain good acidity and allow for relatively extended ripening.
Cabernet sauvignon is the regional leader both for volume and quality of red wine produced, representing just over half of the red crush. The other Bordeaux red varieties also factor, though merlot is by far the most represented. And while the style has typically been a powerful one, if not necessarily sweet-fruited, progressive makers like Vanya Cullen have pulled back both ripeness and alcohol, pushing into a more mid-weight spectrum with no loss of complexity or character.
Shiraz, while it doesn’t have the same level of prestige as cabernet, has a fair foothold in the area, representing about 30% of the red crush. Pinot noir, tempranillo and grenache make lesser but meaningful contributions.
For white grapes, while chardonnay may be responsible for some of Margaret River’s most iconic wines, it is shaved by both semillon and sauvignon blanc for vineyard holdings, and when combined, as they often are in bottle, they dwarf it. That Bordeaux-inspired white blend is also a regional standard bearer, with it even leapfrogging Chardonnay at one point to form Voyager’s pinnacle ‘Tom Price’ bottling (though no longer made).
Chardonnay, however, is a much more lucrative grape, and the plantings are increasing over the Bordeaux pair. One of the things that has made Margaret River Chardonnay so distinctive is the unique expression of the Gingin clone (aka Mendoza), which produces both small and large berries in the one bunch (hen and chicken). This variation gives ripe and expressive fruit notes, as well as fresh flavours and vibrant acidity, and though this viticultural variability isn’t particular to the region, the profile of the expression certainly is. Today, while the clone is still highly prized, there is also significant interest in the Bernard clones, amongst others, to add complexity.
Chenin blanc is the next most populous white variety, followed by Verdelho, with muscat blanc and pinot gris also planted in some concentration.
Vanya Cullen is at once part of the establishment and the avant-garde. With the encouragement of Gladstones, the estate was planted by her parents, Kevin and Diana Cullen, in 1971, being the fifth landholder to do so. Vanya was made Chief Winemaker in 1989 and General Manager in 1999. Since then, she has tirelessly pursued soil health through biodyamics, picked fruit earlier and earlier, and intervened in the winery as little as possible – an ethos that mirrors many cutting-edge makers. Chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon are the flagships here, with fascinating forays into other styles, including a skin contact white and pét-nat. You’ll find both a highly regarded restaurant and cellar door at Cullen.
Leeuwin is one of the founding wineries of Margaret River, with the site identified by legendary Californian vigneron Robert Mondavi in 1972. Mondavi encouraged Denis and Trish Horgan to plant their site to grapevines, and also pushed heavily for a focus on chardonnay, which was to become Leeuwin’s most famous asset. Their ‘Art Series’ Chardonnay remains a national benchmark for the grape, with their expression of the Gingin clone (aka Mendoza) becoming a quintessentially Margaret River style. They also produce a notable cabernet, as well as bottlings of the emblematic varieties at various price levels, including a riesling – rare for the district. Their cellar door is impressive, and the restaurant one of the region’s most celebrated.
Planted in 1969 by Dr Bill and Sandra Pannell (Steve Pannell of S.C. Pannell in McLaren Vale is their son), Moss Wood has been one of Margaret River’s benchmark producers for its entire history. Here, cabernet is the champion, though chardonnay is also highly regarded, and they are one of the few producers who persist with pinot noir at a high level. The Pannell’s have long moved to Pemberton, where they established Picardy, with Keith and Clare Mugford buying the property in 1984, after Keith was appointed viticulturist and winemaker in 1979. Since then, they have expanded to include the nearby Ribbon Vale Vineyard, which they bottle separately.
Dr Mike Peterkin made his first vintage in 1979, a cabernet sauvignon, the same year that he purchased his property in Wilyabrup. That fruit was purchased from Moss Wood, and it wasn’t until the following year that the first vines were planted, with a deeper investment in chardonnay and the Bordeaux varieties seeing a new vineyard established in 1988. A medical doctor who was diverted into a winemaking degree at Roseworthy in the 70s, Peterkin is credited with pioneering the semillon and sauvignon blanc blend in this country, while working at Cullen in 1979. His blending of the cabernet varieties was also seen as deeply influential for the region, but he is perhaps best known for his much-revered chardonnay. Bucking the trend for nervy styles, the Pierro take is unashamedly bold, with powerful flavours and a silky texture – one of the region’s best. Pierro also own Fire Gully, in Wilyabrup.
Acting on the report by Gladstones, Dr Tom Cullity was the first to put down roots in 1967. The first vintage followed in 1971. Owned by the Holmes à Court Family since 1987, Vasse Felix is one of the region’s pinnacle producers, specialising in the benchmark varieties: chardonnay and cabernet. Virginia Willcock has helmed the winery since 2006 and is one of the country’s most highly respected makers and thinkers. Vasse Felix also has significant cellar door, with a range of tasting ‘experiences’, one of the region’s most celebrated restaurants and a gallery that features curated treasures from the Holmes à Court Collection.
David and Heather Watson first planted vines at their Woodlands property in 1973, making them one of the pioneers, and they have established somewhat of a cult-like following over the years. Although they have some of the region’s oldest vines, the Woodland’s label was rested for the majority of the 90s. The Watson’s opted to educate their children in Perth, so maintained the vineyards to sell as contract fruit. Those grapes informed some significant wines from iconic producers over that period. With production picking up again in 1999, the Woodlands imprint has become one of Margaret River’s most respected. They produce a dizzying range of Bordeaux varieties and chardonnay, with specialised cuvées bearing familial names. The cellar door is open daily.
Josephine Perry had an early start with her first harvest at Cape Mentelle when she was only 14. Since then, she has worked both locally and in Europe, particularly Spain, which is where the Dormilona name came from. Meaning ‘lazy bones’, it captures her hands-off approach in the winery, with lo-fi but deeply thoughtful processes employed, including fermenting in amphora. Working with classic Margaret River varieties, Perry fashions lithe and elegant offerings of great energy and drive.
Nic Peterkin is a about as close to Margaret River royalty as it comes, being the son of the pioneering Dr Mike Peterkin of Pierro fame. But Nic was never going to let his princely birthright drive his career. Indeed, rather than slip into the family groove, he founded L.A.S. (luck, art science) Vino, with its foundation in sourcing fruit from growers working sustainably and making wines with minimal intervention. The range includes the ‘Albino PNO’ a rosé made from pinot noir and chardonnay and ‘The Pirate Blend’, a Portuguese melange.
Husband and wife winemaking team Julian and Alana Langworthy make wines both from their Sheoak Vineyard in Yallingup, as well as from other distinguished sites. Julian, as the Chief Winemaker of Deep Woods Estate, has won pretty much every accolade possible, including a Jimmy Watson Trophy. At Nocturne, the dial is turned down, with a focus on seriously refined and elegant expressions of the Margaret River classics, cabernet and chardonnay, as well as a delicate nebbiolo rosé.
Liv Maiorana and Mijan Patterson founded South by South West in 2016, with the mission to celebrate the diversity of grapes and sites in Margaret River. To that end, they produce a dizzying and everchanging selection of cuvees, from small to micro in size, with many of their lines only filling 25 to 50 cases – vivid expression made with a lo-fi ethos.
Sarah Morris and Iwo Jakimowicz founded Si Vintners in 2010 when they bought a mature (1978) vineyard in Rosa Glen. They were early players in redefining what was a very established, and some would say conservative, region. Biodynamic farming, no chemicals, minimal-intervention making and the familiar sitting side by side with the eccentric, including their ‘Baba Yaga’, a skin-contact sauvignon blanc co-fermented with a little cabernet sauvignon.
Remi Guise’s day job is as Senior Winemaker at Bruce Dukes’ excellent Domaine Naturaliste. Tripe Iscariot is his creative outlet, where his mantra is inspired by nose to tail eating (yes, that’s the tripe reference), making use of all that the vines give him to build texture, complexity and individuality both across varietal wines and some quiet eclectic blends.
Amelia Park take the cellar door experience to a sumptuous level, with a dramatically lit vaulted room lined with barrels leading to the tasting room that commands expansive views of the Wilyabrup Valley. Drop in to taste casually, with cheese and charcuterie available to snack on, or make a day of it and book in for a more extensive winery tour followed by lunch in the restaurant.
The Credaro family can lay claim to having grown grapes in Margaret River for over 90 years. Initially this was for private use, mimicking the traditions of their Northern Italian origins. Commercial harvest didn’t begin until the 80s, but there is a piece of winemaking history that has survived since those early days, namely cuttings of fragola (a Northern Italian variety), which they still produce today. The Tuscan-style tasting room has some stunning views of the valley below, as does the lawn in front, where BYO picnics are encouraged.
Veteran winemaker Mark Warren walks a slightly different path to many of his neighbours, experimenting with uncommon techniques and grape varieties. You’ll find gamay, vermentino, tempranillo, petit manseng and fiano amongst the more familiar players, albeit perhaps skewed with air drying methods or wild ferment experiments. The cellar door has all the Margaret River charm on a more discreet scale, with obligatory cheese and local charcuterie selections available.
A visit to the first producer to lay the foundations for the Margaret River we know today is a must. And not just for a piece of history, Vasse Felix have one of the most comprehensive visitor experiences in the country. From full winery tours to casual tastings and wine and food matched feasts, Vasse Felix has it all, including a legendary restaurant and world class art gallery.
Housed by a building that was inspired by the Cape Dutch homesteads of South Africa, the Voyager Estate cellar door is a unique experience for the region. Aside from transportive architecture, the breadth of ‘wine experiences’ is particularly compelling. From the full Voyager range available in flights to rare and aged examples, it covers all things Voyager comprehensively, but there are broader instructive options available, too. Private tastings can be organised with their sommelier, with almost any theme up for consideration. Estate-grown vegetables and house-baked bread complement local charcuterie and international cheeses on the food front.
Local chef Coby Cockburn opened Blue Manna Grill in partnership with his seafood supplier, assuring a sparklingly fresh catch for this pan-Asian bistro. Step next door and you can buy that produce fresh from Oceans Fresh Seafood, or one door further down brings you to Blue Manna Takeaway.
If you’re heading down south to Augusta, at the very southern edge of the Augusta-Margaret River Shire, this is a contender for best fish and chips in the country. With a decidedly non-hipster vibe, this is a classic regional fish and chipper, but it sources its catch directly from the Augusta Marina, skipping the frozen fillets that the majority of its ilk employ.
Vanya Cullen applies her obsessive approach to biodynamic viticulture to the vegetable garden in equal measure, providing the heartbeat for the celebrated restaurant at Cullen. What isn’t grown or reared on-site is sourced from ethically aligned producers.
There’s no shortage of glamour in Margaret River, which makes Glenarty Road somewhat refreshing. Situated on the McDonald family’s 90-year-old family farm in Karridale, which boasts revered grass-fed lamb, orchards, vegetable gardens and a vineyard, the cellar door and restaurant is a charmingly humble affair, with some of the finest paddock-to-plate food in the region. The dining room is tiny, so bookings are essential.
In the heart of Margaret River, Miki’s Open Kitchen is a Japanese restaurant with a decidedly local accent. Presiding from the predictably open kitchen that is the hub of the room, Miki turns out four degustation menus (including one for kids) fusing Japanese technique sand sensibilities with local ingredients.
Schooled in the art of pizza from the age of 14 at the fabled Pizza da Franco in Sorrento, Campania, Italian expat Ivan Zecca started Pizzica in Margaret River with his wife Anna after emigrating in 2010. Situated underground in one of the town’s oldest buildings, Pizzica is not just about the revered wood-fired pizza, but also what comes off the charcoal-fuelled grill. It is a firm local favourite, with bookings recommended.
Settlers Tavern is one of the country’s true gems. Ostensibly, it’s a pub licensed for 800, with live music and a hectic counter meal trade. But it’s much more than that. The food is highly regarded, and it caters for all sorts of dietaries, and the wine list is epic, with over 600 listings and 30 by the glass. Want to know if your glass of sauvignon blanc is organic and vegan? The list will tell you that. Plus, they’ve been actively pursuing a low waste, no plastic mantra since way back in 2003. Real ground breakers.
Yarri, in Dunsborough, acts as a canvas for both chef Aaron Carr’s cooking and the Snake & Herring wines. Carr headed up the lauded Vasse Felix dining room for 21 years before partnering with winemakers Redmond Sweeny and Tony Davis. And while the Snake & Herring wines get plenty of airplay, the restaurant features both local and international touchstones on the list, too. You can get a taste of Carr’s refined fare in a degustation offering, or graze across the seasonal all-day menu.
Regarded as one of the best restaurants in the west, Wills Domain’s kitchen has been headed by Seth James for over six years. An alumnus of Melbourne’s Cutler & Co., James presides over a lunch-only menu, either à la carte or as a degustation menu. Much is grown on-site, with an additional focus on sustainable and wild-harvested produce. Wills Domain’s adjacent cellar door shares the same spectacular views across the Gunyulgup Valley, and cheese and charcuterie provide a more casual food option.
Founded in 2004, CBCO is a pioneering microbrewery about 8 kilometres north of the town of Margaret River. You can sample their range of beers on-site in the buzzing beer hall, which offers a compact menu of snacks, burgers and half a dozen pizza options.
Housed in an abandoned dairy in Metricup, the Beerfarm has a rustic knees-up vibe, while a gleaming array of tanks produces a broad and ever-changing range of craft beers in an adjacent shed. There’s a deep sense of community and sustainability in the DNA here, which knits in seamlessly with the pretence-free and lo-fi approach. You can grab a meal here, too, with both beer and spent brewing products employed creatively in the kitchen.
With a retail shop in Fremantle, Gabriel Chocolate produces its own chocolate from scratch in its Yallingup facility. They are “Western Australia’s first bean to bar chocolate makers,” with an onsite store selling a range of eating and drinking chocolates, as well as a café that fashions them into other delicious guises.
Expect a broad range of locally grown produce, as well as a slew of other stalls selling value-added goods, like, chocolate, pasta, cheese, preserves, olive oil and baked goods. The market runs every Saturday from 8 am–12 pm, and opens and closes half an hour earlier from November through to March to beat the heat.
Starting life as the bottle shop attached to the legendary Settlers Tavern, Settlers Liquor was established as a standalone store just across the road in 1994. A similar ethos to the selection at the mothership is taken here, with a vast and eclectic mix of local and imported products rubbing shoulders with some more familiar names.
The internationally significant Holmes à Court Collection of over 4000 artworks is curated into rotating exhibitions that are displayed in the old Vasse Felix winery, which is flanked by a sculpture garden.
This is decidedly on the fancy side of the spectrum, with 10 beachfront (adult only) villas that each have their own plunge pool. The adjacent Bodhi J Spa tends to any other unwinding needs.
A fully self-contained rental with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, accommodating six guests at very reasonable rates.
Located on the edge of the Margaret River township, just 500 metres from the centre, are three light, modern and beautifully appointed bungalows. Each has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, large open plan living and dining area, plus a full kitchen. They sleep up to eight guests, but can be rented by the room, while maintaining exclusive use of the bungalow.