The South-West Wine Region Feature
Margaret River Wine Region
From humble beginnings more than 30 years ago, the Margaret River Wine Region now ranks as one of the premium wine-producing regions of the world.
Agronomist Dr. John Gladstones is credited with the birth of the area's wine industry—his 1965 report identified climate, soil, and weather conditions in the South West as similar to the Bordeaux region of France. A handful of pioneers took his advice, and by the mid-1970s were turning out outstanding wines. Today approximately 150 wineries claim Margaret River origins. At 120 or so on-farm cellar-door outlets you can taste and buy wines and often have a delicious meal as well.
Although the wine gives the region its cachet and is the prime reason for touring the area, there is more to explore. With gorgeous landscapes and seascapes, world-renowned surf breaks and swimming beaches, arts and crafts outlets, locally produced foods, and forest and beachside hiking trails, the region attracts some 1.5 million visitors a year.
When to Go to the Margaret River Wine Region
The region is a year-round destination. Most wineries are open seven days a week, but its popularity with visitors from Perth means that weekends are busiest and public holidays, such as Easter, can be crowded and accommodations booked solid. The summer school holidays in December and January are also popular times for Western Australians to visit, and accommodations can be at a premium. Vintage—when the grapes are picked and crushed—is usually between February and April, while in mid-winter from June through August the vines are bare and you'll see pruning teams in the vineyards.
Margaret River wineries are owned and run by international corporations, midsize companies, and families. This ownership structure influences your experience when visiting a cellar door—often, though not always, the family-run operations offer a friendlier welcome and a more authentic winery experience.
Cullen Wines is one of the region's founding wineries, established by the late industry patriarch Dr. Kevin Cullen (and his wife Diana) in 1971. His daughter Vanya now runs the operation, producing wines using biodynamic practices, one of the few such wineries in Australia. The tasting room is small, but the experience is archetypal Margaret River. Their flagship wines are named after mum and dad—the Kevin John Chardonnay and the Diana Madeline Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot.
Happs Winery is the product of another pioneer vigneron, Erl Happ, who hand-built his winery and adjoining pottery with mud bricks, recycled timbers, and stained glass, planting the first vines in 1978. The eclectic architecture of the cellar door is also reflected in Happ's passion for trying something new—the biggest choice in wines is found here. Daughter-in-law Jacquie runs the adjacent pottery.
Hayshed Hill has been through the circle of ownership. Established as a family operation—the first vines were planted in 1973—it was bought out in 2000 by a national wine investment company and then bought again by winemaker Michael Kerrigan in 2006, in a move he describes as "winemakers buying back the farm." The white-clapboard building that houses the cellar door and a small café is the perfect setting for tasting the wines and enjoying a light lunch.
Leeuwin Estate is one of the iconic wineries in the area, established by the entrepreneurial Denis Horgan in 1974 with the assistance of legendary American winemaker Robert Mondavi. Before you taste the wines in the stone-and-timber tasting room, head downstairs to view the art gallery of original commissioned works from Robert Juniper, Peter Cole, Sidney Nolan, and Clifton Pugh, among others.
There are some 120 wineries with cellar-door outlets in the region, so deciding which ones to visit can be a challenge. We suggest that you don't try to visit more than four or five wineries in a day—this gives you time to appreciate the architecture and ambience of each cellar door, learn about and taste the wines on offer, talk with the staff (maybe even the winemaker), stop for a leisurely lunch at a vineyard restaurant, and avoid getting completely bamboozled. If you're driving, make sure you choose a "skipper," a nondrinking driver.
Need a Break
One of the great pleasures of touring the Margaret River wineries is lunch, and there are some excellent winery restaurants to choose from. Vasse Felix's restaurant is set on top of the cellar door, shop, and winery complex with views over landscaped gardens, bushland, and a billabong. Chef Aaron Carr's menus include "trust the chef" options with two- and three-course set menus that spotlight fresh creations of the day.
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