The Wines Of Margaret River: A Sommelier’s Tale
By Michaël Engelmann
Falling for Western Australia In the Fall
In early 2010, a dream became a reality. I travelled to Australia for the first time with a group of sommeliers from the U.S. Our focus was Victoria and South Australia. I had a to wait a few more years to travel to Western Australia once I had moved to Sydney to work as a wine director for Neil Perry at Rockpool Bar & Grill. I remember landing in Perth and then driving south to Margaret River. I immediately fell under the charm of the region and wondered how even more beautiful it must be during the fall season. Maybe because of its isolation I had to wait a few more years to go back but when I finally did, it confirmed how beautiful this region is. I didn’t judge the quality of the wines by its forests, vineyards, beaches but it expressed how special the region is. Located in in the southwestern corner of Australia, Margaret River is surrounded by the ocean on three sides. This is not only a surfer’s paradise but also ideal conditions for growing premium grapes.
The vineyards are planted a few miles from the coast in a Mediterranean-style climate on predominantly gravelly or gritty sandy loam. With this natural landscape advantage, Margaret River has quickly gained a reputation as one of the premium wine-producing regions, not just in Australia, but in the world.
Margaret Turns 50
This year, Margaret River celebrates its 50th anniversary as an official winemaking region. Yes, the first vines were only planted five decades ago! It is pretty impressive to see how much was achieved in such a short period of time. In the early years, pioneer winemaker Robert Mondavi visited the region frequently and saw the region’s potential, and generously offered the winemakers there the benefit of his expertise. Very quickly Margaret River became known to be producing world class varietal wines from Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as offering Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blends that have proved fantastically popular along with some very good Shiraz.
Today, the region has over two hundred wineries, producing around 20% of Australia’s premium wines from just 3% of Australia’s total harvest. I remember tasting some of the more classic producers in the early 2000s when I was a sommelier in England. When I moved to Sydney nearly 10 years later, it was great to taste these well-known producers again as well as discovering new talents who are pushing the envelope even further. Cullen Wines had been using organic and biodynamic practices since the early 2000s, but now people were also exploring the world of natural wines, the use of amphora, extended skin contact, alternative varieties, less new oak usage, grapes picked earlier, etc…
I have always found the Chardonnay from the region to be quite diverse and flexible with food. It could be a brighter, fresher style from a newer producer like Si Vintners. On the other side of the spectrum is a more classically styled incarnation from a long-established winery like Leeuwin Estate, whose ‘Art Series’ Chardonnay has richer fruit notes and a rounder texture. I am also a fan of the winemaking from Virginia Willcox, Chief Winemaker at Vasse Felix. She employs a style of wine that falls more ‘in the middle’ between the other two, with fine reductive notes that many producers strive to achieve but that she has mastered brilliantly.
Food and Wine Matching Paradise
These differences can be explained by the diversity of the region, its sub-regions, the vintages and, definitely, the vision of these producers. It is a very exciting era for Margaret River in terms of the diversity of wine styles. I find these wines to be quite fun to experiment with. These three wines could work quite well with the same dish prepared in three different ways. For example, a lobster steamed and served with lemon thyme butter would pair brilliantly with the Si Vintners Chardonnay. Here the lighter preparation of the dish matches the more energetic nature of the wine. The Leeuwin Estate would be wonderful with a lobster too, but maybe more with a preparation where the lobster is chargrilled and served with a béarnaise sauce. For the Vasse Felix, perhaps abalone simply served with brown butter would be delightful. The wines can also age very well too; I had the chance to taste some examples that were 10-15+ years old and they were holding up very nicely.
Australian Wines Come of Age
One of the first things I did when I started working at Rockpool Bar & Grill, in 2010, was purchase a large amount of older Australian wines. The wine list already had a very large selection of wine and was holding the Wine Spectator Grand Award. But, being a steakhouse located in Sydney’s central business district, we definitely needed to beef-up our selection of regional Australian reds. One of these regions was, of course, Margaret River. After doing a bit of research we found verticals of Cullen, Leeuwin Estate, Moss Wood, Woodlands, Vasse Felix – most of these classic wineries had back-vintages available on the market, in private cellars or at auction. We also looked for newcomers like Si Vintners, Ipso Facto, Blind Corner and the like. Needless to say, these wines were the perfect pairing for some of the most amazing beef in the world; should it be David Blackmore Wagyu beef from Victoria or a dry-aged rib eye from Cape Grim in Tasmania. I had the chance to taste a fair number of bottles going back to the ‘90s, sometimes even the ‘80s. When stored perfectly and with a good cork, these wines show great depth of fruit, with those classic Cabernet cedar, tobacco and violet notes. The best examples still have a long way ahead of them. These wines have structure with earthy, gravelly mineral notes and well-integrated oak and alcohol. They are powerful, yet elegant, and are truly world class Cabernets.
Since starting at The Modern in July 2014, I have been lucky enough to find some exceptional Australian wines. The overall Aussie selection went from 5 wines to 100, with a few of those coming from Margaret River. The cliché pictured of Australian wine as being overly fruity, oaky and alcoholic has now gone. Very often we’re able to introduce something new to our guests and we’ve encountered great success with people who have taken the plunge on a Margaret River Cabernet from our list.
I look forward to going back to Margaret River someday, to visit some producers and catch up with what has been happening in the region lately, should it be in the fall season, or not.
Michaël Engelmann MS is the Wine Director at The Modern and Untitled at the Whitney