We’re in Australia, driving north through fields and past tall eucalyptus stands, in a utility vehicle, known in these parts as a “ute”.
“Ah, yeah, I suppose it is a bit of a cliché. I got it because without a ute you can’t get to the most beautiful places in Margaret River, like beaches with a sand track to them,” says Julian Grounds, who moved here from Giant Steps in the Yarra Valley to make wine at McHenry Hohnen.
We can’t see the coast, but it’s not far away – wild and ravishing, with scrubland giving to scalloped sandy bays, and the occasional memorial stone to surfers so tasty the sharks couldn’t resist them. Well, nowhere’s perfect.
Margaret River is a riddle of a wine region. Among the best-known producers there is some serious clout and cachet: think Cullen Wines, Leeuwin Estate, Moss Wood, Cape Mentelle and Vasse Felix (incidentally, with Sandalford and Woodlands, the wineries on which the region was founded in the late Sixties and early Seventies).
Unfairly, considering the quality of its wines, and the savage beauty of its surfers’ coastline, Margaret River has somehow acquired a beige sheen. Eyes don’t light up when you say you’re going there. It’s always – “And will you also make it down to Manjimup, or Great Southern? Or maybe out to Tasmania?” So when I flew to Margaret River last month to join the party for its 50th anniversary celebrations, I wasn’t thinking about the region’s history, so much as where it might be headed, and how much gap there is between the slightly bland, conservative reputation, and what’s actually going on.
Plenty, is the immediate answer. You don’t need to look beyond Cullen to find biodynamics, concrete eggs and prestige cuvées – but what about the other guys? High land prices make hipster experimentation a tricky prospect, but there are some tiny outfits bucking the trend. I spent an afternoon tasting teroldego (of all curiosities) in the surfer paradise that is Prevelly; and caught up with Lara and Jamie McCall of Burnside Organic to try their organic primitivo and vermentino – as well as the capers and avocados they sell at Margaret River’s gipsy caravan and gourmet coffee Saturday farmers’ market.
It’s the classic varieties that will carry the place, though. Let’s not forget that Margaret River is a world-class fine wine region that produces three per cent of Australia’s total wine crush but accounts for [FIGURE TO COME] per cent of its show trophies. Its reputation was forged on cabernet sauvignon and, later, chardonnay and sauvignon-sémillon blends – and while “more very good classically styled wines” might not be the sexiest headline ever, overlook them at your wallet’s peril. The local chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon shone in two big blind tastings of Australian and international wines I took part in last month (more of those on another day, suffice to say that one was widely mistaken for a first-growth bordeaux).
The story with Margaret River is more about better and more interesting, than different and weird. The place has momentum and it has talent. There are newer producers whose wines sing alongside the established names. Here’s a handful. Look to Fraser Gallop for breathtakingly good chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and also sémillon-sauvignon blanc. There’s Flametree, which won a Jimmy Watson trophy in its inaugural 2007 vintage. And the highly sought-after Cloudburst, a vineyard consisting of a minuscule garden-sized vineyard planted by Yale-educated Will Berliner, a New Englander who says he moved here because “we were living in Maine and it was cold for my Australian wife”, and who operates to an insanely high standard despite having what he describes as, “the throughput of a gnat’s fart.”
Nor do you have to look far to find an open-minded approach to tweaking and finessing styles. It’s just that maybe not everyone has spotted that yet. “Some of my black pinny-wearing friends [sommeliers] in Melbourne criticise Margaret River wines for being a little four-square, and the chardonnay for being too fruity,” says Cliff Royle of Flametree, as we sit in an old forest with kookaburras and honeysuckers chattering around us.
Royle is one of those who have been fine-tuning, “to bring in the savouriness you get in French wines, and make use of our rich tapestry of fruit, but with a tailored feel”.
As for cabernet sauvignon, I have been really impressed by the wines from Woodlands, one of Margaret River’s pioneers, but there have been stylistic changes here, too. “We started trying Margaret River wines from the Eighties and realised they were incredible, so we moved the style and at Woodlands we went from making wines at 14.5% in 2004-5 to wines at 13.5%,” says wine maker Andrew Watson.
Meanwhile if you’re as much of a fan of Pessac-Léognan whites – oaked sauvignon blanc and sémillon blends – as I am, then look no further than the glorious Suckfizzle from Stella Bella.
Margaret River is never going to be a destination for cheap wines – its isolation, and the lack of the cheap immigrant labour that funds so many other wine regions, ensures that. But the “extreme maritime” climate, as Virginia Wilcox of Vasse Felix calls it, ensures that for lovers of classic styles, there are some real fireworks to be found here.
Margaret River isn’t boring; it’s underrated. And it’s beautiful. The millennials come here to surf; their parents know it for the wine; once enough people realise it’s good at both, there will be mayhem.
Victoria Moore's wines of the week
Moss Wood Amy’s Blend 2015 Margaret River, Australia (14.5%, Waitrose, £16.49)
A cabernet, merlot, petit verdot and malbec blend that has been aged for 18 months in French oak so carries the vivid fruit inside an oak corset. It’s young, but it still works now, although I would decant.
Cullen Margaret River Cabernet-Merlot 2016 Margaret River, Australia (13.5%, The Wine Society, £26)
All Cullen wines are biodynamic, and the cabernets have an incredibly calm feel with an attractive texture. A good one to try over Christmas with rib of beef.
Ringbolt Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 Margaret River, Australia (14.5%, Tesco, £10, for sale in 100 stores)
Margaret River isn’t a region for cheap plonk, but a tenner does buy you a very convincing cabernet, with hints of cacao nibs, juicy blackcurrant and dried thyme.