Farewell 2017 – the year we celebrated 50 years of commercial winemaking in Margaret River.

As we await the ripening, picking and pressing of the 2018 vintage in the Margaret River Wine Region, I thought it might be of interest to reflect on the history of the region so far. In 2017 Vasse Felix celebrated its 50th birthday and this was cause for great celebration in the Margaret River wine community.

Even though a few locals had no doubt been growing grapes and pressing them into wine in their own backyards prior, the commercial wine industry in Margaret River was officially born in 1967 at Vasse Felix. Dr John Gladstones, who was commissioned to research the viability of commercial wine regions in Western Australia, cited Margaret River and surrounding areas as possessing ideal conditions to establish a potential world-class wine region. Soon after that report was released, the first vines were planted by Dr Tom Cullity of Vasse Felix, Wilyabrup in what has become the heart of the Margaret River Wine Region. The opportunity, or challenge as was often the case, to get involved at the grass roots was taken up, at around the same time, by a handful of other pioneering vignerons who established the likes of Woodlands, Moss Wood, Cape Mentelle and Cullens. Despite being in competition, these founders often worked together, sharing tastings and opinions of their respective vintages as well as assisting one another to overcome the trials and tribulations of establishing their vineyards and refining their winemaking techniques. Together they set the framework that would eventually turn the dream of creating a world-class wine region into a reality.

By the mid 1980s the efforts of these pioneers began to pay dividends and when Cape Mentelle won consecutive Jimmy Watson trophies, the words Margaret River were beginning to be uttered by those in the know in the Australian wine industry.

These days the Margaret River Wine Region is undoubtedly ranked highly alongside other world-class wine regions and it currently produces 20% of the annual turnover of Australia’s premium wine market. That’s pretty good when you discover that in terms of volume, the region is currently only able to produce around 3 per cent of the total wine made in Australia. As these vines mature the quality is likely to improve even further, which means our market share and reputation is also set to grow, giving everyone in the wine region plenty of reason to be positive about the future.

Superior growing conditions across a number of factors including even and relatively moderate temperatures throughout the ripening season and many rain-free days during the growing months produces the consistently high quality fruit that is responsible for the intense flavours represented in many of the region’s wines. In addition to climate, soil type and topography have also contributed to the region’s success, giving Gladstone’s prediction full credibility.

“What I find really exciting about the Margaret River Wine Region is that it’s still relatively young and already it is competing very well with the more established regions around the world. Not only are we keeping up, we are kicking goals,” says Adam Betar from Margaret River Tours. “To mark its 50th anniversary, in 2017 Vasse Felix released a new wine onto the market, a Cabernet Sauvignon Malbec, fittingly called the Tom Cullity. The 2013 vintage of that wine recently scored 98 points awarded by James Halliday in his 2018 Australian Wine Companion. Vasse Felix is by no means the only winery receiving these top level accolades, with Leeuwin Estate also receiving 98 points from Halliday for their 2014 Art Series Chardonnay and a perfect score of 20/20 from wine critic Matthew Dukes for the same wine. Margaret River winemakers have reached an impressive list of high profile international ratings in the past few years,” says Adam.

Adam has been running tours in the region for 22 years so he is somewhat of an expert on how winemaking in Margaret River has evolved. He has plenty of great yarns about the characters who had already established themselves in the industry by the time he got to town and he says he has nothing but full respect for the Margaret River community, deepened as he has watched it grow and develop over the years.

“I’ve got so many great things to say about this region’s winemakers and vignerons and I feel really lucky to have been a part of that in some way. I have watched our local wine industry develop strength after strength while often employing and maintaining a great balance of traditional and experimental styles. In terms of size, we now boast an impressive range of boutique and larger scale wine producers and of course this is partly why we have attracted some truly talented winemakers to join us in making this region such a star performer. Not only is there a fantastic lifestyle to be enjoyed living here in Margaret River, there are also plenty of diverse career opportunities where winemakers can express their creativity and explore innovative ideas,” says Adam

“Personally, I moved here to surf and go fishing but as an added bonus I quickly fell in love, not only with the amazing natural beauty of the region, but of course the local wine, which inevitably led me to becoming a tour guide. Everyone I knew was telling me I was a walking talking promoter of the region, its history and its environmental features so becoming a tour guide seemed like a natural progression,” said Adam. “It’s not just the beaches and the forests either, it’s a great community to live in, for so many reasons” he added.

Many of the established wineries that started Margaret River’s wine industry from scratch are now being passed on to second and third generations who have grown up tending the vineyards and stirring the lees, while talented winemakers from around the world have been attracted by the increasing buzz of the region’s success and stunning natural resources over the last 30 years.

“There is a lot of passion, commitment and integrity that goes into making the majority of our local wines,” says Adam. “Essentially, we are all one big family who are working together to make the Margaret River Wine Region the jewel in Australia’s already impressive winemaking crown. Everyone is justifiably proud of what we do here and most of us are in it for the long haul. Its really exciting when you see our progression so far, on one hand, alongside the upcoming movers and shakers that are ready to integrate all that their predecessors have passed down, taking it to the next level, on the other hand,” said Adam.

The south-west of WA is still undiscovered by many people, so while the Margaret River locals love their generally slower pace of living, they’re also very willing to share their hometown and local secrets with new and returning visitors. Margaret River welcomes an average of 500,000 visitors annually, which is impressive when the local permanent population comes in at around 10,000. Tourism is one of the town’s main sources of income, and rightly so, as it is such a lovely relaxed place to visit and wine production is part of both the farming and tourism industries.

“It makes sense for an outstanding food and wine industry to grow alongside such stunning natural beauty including the caves, beaches, rivers and forests that naturally bless us. It’s a biodiverse hotspot, and now with added food and wine its just icing on the cake,” said Adam. “While most of the locals are committed to maintaining and protecting our natural resources, we have also had to adapt our economic survival strategies over time. There’s a lot to be proud of in terms of our region’s ability to be resilient and inventive. The local farming industry has cleverly transitioned from forestry into dairy and then into wine,” he added.

With only 50 years to get to where it is now, the only question on everyone’s lips is, “how good is this wine region actually going to get?” Time will tell, and until then, we, the humble audience, can just keep sipping and swirling and checking in on their progress. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.