Exploring the great south west

From the comfort of Google maps, Western Australia’s southwest looks a doddle. A nice little green chunk in Australia’s bottom western corner, criss-crossed by decent roads, with wineries sprinkled, albeit sparsely, across almost the entire landscape.

Close up, though, it’s a large swathe of country – three hours drive from Perth to Margaret River, via Capel; more than an hour and half from Margaret River southeast to Pemberton; another half hour up to Manjimup; and from there two and a half hours southeast to Denmark on the coast.

And Denmark, a pretty seaside town, makes a beautiful base for exploring the vast Great Southern wine region. But visiting even a handful of its 60-odd wineries, widely dispersed across hundreds of kilometres, eats up large slabs of time. And then there’s the five-hour drive back to Perth airport when the tastings end.

Even for the traveller hell bent on wine tasting, the landscape throws up its own natural distractions – from the awe of so much bush, dotted here and there with farms and vines; to the towering Karri and Red Tingle forests, to the endless seascapes. This is the wild west – a unique, sparsely populated setting for so many fine wines and a growing local-food culture.

Margaret River wine region sprawls about 100 kilometres from north to south (almost two hours drive end-to-end), from Cape Naturaliste to Cape Leeuwin. It’s bounded by the Indian Ocean to the north, west and south, with a man-made eastern boundary stretching about 27 kilometres into the hinterland, parallel to the sea. The boundaries enclose around 270 thousand hectares, of which only about 5,360 hectares – perhaps two per cent of the land surface – were covered in vines by 2008.

Margaret River township sits roughly in the middle of the official wine region. But its reputation rests largely on the long-established strip of vineyards immediately to the north around Wilyabrup and Cowaramup (for example, Vasse Felix, Cullens and Moss Wood) and a few more, notably Leeuwin and Voyager Estates and Cape Mentelle, just to the south of town.

In 1967, Dr Tom Cullity planted Margaret River’s first vines, at Vasse Felix (now owned by the Holmes a Court family). In 1999 the area produced 13 thousand tonnes of wine grapes (equivalent to roughly 900 thousand dozen bottles), and output almost tripled to 36,600 tonnes (around 2.5 million dozen) by 2008.

The production peak coincided with the global financial crisis. At the same time Australian wine exports tanked and New Zealand’s sauvignon blanc surplus flooded the eastern states – sparking a price war that continues to affect Western Australian semillon sauvignon blanc blends.

Some producers left unwanted fruit on the vines. However, Nick Power, CEO of the Margaret River Wine Industry Association, says that only a few owners removed vineyards during the glut and the broad response to oversupply has been “to re-work vines and or graft over to more suitable varieties for the vineyard. For example cabernet sauvignon and shiraz south of Margaret River [town] is being grafted to sauvignon blanc or semillon”.

Proving the benefit of regional specialisation, though, Power reports, “some wineries are planting – as cabernet sauvignon is in heavy demand and forecast to be so for a few years to come”. In the wider market, cabernet continues to run a distant second to shiraz.

Certainly as we tasted around, cabernet blends proved to be the predictable highlights, if not the only bright spots on the scene. But with 140 wineries and six breweries now operating in Margaret River, a vignette is the best any casual visitor can hope.

Arriving too late in the day for cellar door visits, our tasting began at Must wine bar, in the main street. Offering dozens of Western Australian wines by the glass or half glass, it allowed us to sip a few old friends and discover, on the sommelier’s recommendation, a couple of nice new drops, including Bellarmine Pemberton Riesling 2010 and Thompson Estate Margaret River Andrea Reserve Cabernet Merlot 2005.

Must’s food focus, too, is on local produce, beautifully prepared – including succulent asparagus and delicious pork cutlets and chorizo.

The food theme continues among the wineries, too, with any number of eateries attached to cellar door. The offers range from the simple, largely outdoor, casual setting at McHenry Hohnen, to the luxury of big-money estates like Voyager, Leeuwin and Saracen.

The McHenry Hohnen Farm Shop serves as cellar door, restaurant and outlet for pork and lamb farmed by David Hohnen – founder of Cape Mentelle, Margaret River, and Cloudy Bay, Margaret River. Hohnen’s wife, Sandy, runs the shop and his daughter Freya and partner Ryan make the wines.

When Hohnen sold Cape Mentelle to Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, he had the good sense to keep the vineyards he’d planted in the region from around 1970. These now provide fruit for the graceful McHenry Hohnen wines.

We tasted and loved the wines, but raided the meat fridge, packed with tasty bits and pieces of fresh Arkady Farm, grass-fed, Wiltshire lamb and Jarradine Farm free-range pigs (a composite herd of Tamworth, Berkshire and Duroc breeds).

It’s obligatory to lunch in the grandeur of Leeuwin Estate, sipping the opulent and legendary chardonnay (a match for the rich XO butter sauce that, alas, outweighs a delicate, fresh marron) and watching Kookaburras feed their young on fat worms from the vast green lawn.

And what an utter contrast it is motoring up the road to Rob and Karen Karri-Davies tiny (6.5 hectares of vines) Cape Grace Wines, in the Willyabrup Valley. Nothing posh here – just a humble winery and cellar door set among the bush and wildflowers. Rob Karri-Davies attends the counter serving the very good, estate-grown wines – notably a 2007 cabernet sauvignon and yet-t-be-released 2008 shiraz – made by Mark Messenger.

We see here that a chalk-dry chenin blanc offers an interesting alternative to mainstream varieties.

And at Vasse Felix we glimpse in three glasses the spectrum of Margaret River’s ubiquitous semillon-sauvignon-blanc-blend styles: The crisp, fruity, straightforward $20 Classic Dry White 2010; the similar but weightier, more complex, partially barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2010; and the delicate, texturally rich, delicious Semillon 2009 – about one third of it barrel fermented.

We taste, too, the highly-regarded Heytesbury Chardonnay 2008 and note how it’s going down the funky, “struck-match” style loved by some show judges (more on this in a later article). We also enjoy a taut, pure, dry, savoury Tempranillo 2009, one of the few non-estate-grown wines in the line up.

But the highlights are the big-value 2008 Cabernet Merlot, convincing 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (with nine per cent malbec) and the stunning 2007 Heytesbury, a cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, malbec blend. This style is Margaret River’s greatest wine achievement, and it’s true signature.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010