Some say Perth, Australia is the most isolated city in the world. While there are different ways to validate such a distinction, as Perth is closer to Jakarta, Indonesia (1,825 miles) than Sydney (2,045 miles), I’ll accept the claim. In which case, Margaret River (a 3-hour drive south of Perth), must be a strong candidate for the world’s most isolated wine region. To get there, I took a 3-hour flight from Seattle to Los Angeles (plus layover), a 14-hour flight from LA to Sydney (plus customs, immigration, and layover), then a 5-hour flight to Perth (plus overnight rest), followed by that 3-hour drive. Whew!
The May (i.e., autumn) weather was quite pleasant, but I remember my only previous trip to Perth for the blazing February (i.e., summer) heat. I visited the Swan Valley wine region then and noted the challenges facing winemakers as the climate has been heating up over the last many years. While the Margaret River region is a bit further from the equator, I fully expected it to be facing similar difficulties. Margaret River, however, is not only closer to the ocean but also has water on three sides. This introduces an important moderating effect I had not understood previously. As an added layer of climate complexity, Margaret River actually seems to be cooling down over time. This is certainly unique among the world’s wine regions and presents other challenges to winemakers just as any change in weather patterns would.
I chose Domaine Naturaliste (named for the nearby Cape Naturaliste rather than any particular winemaking philosophy) as my first stop. Founding winemaker Bruce Dukes studied agronomy in Australia then earned a master’s degree in viticulture at well-regarded UC Davis. He went on to work at the Coppola winery in Napa Valley before returning to Australia. He is known locally as a producer for many other brands and since I work as a négociant (sourcing the best available wine to bring to market), I was curious to know more about his work.
Naturaliste grows and produces wines from Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. White blends are either “SSB” (Semillon dominate) or “SBS” (Sauvignon Blanc dominant). Chardonnay, Syrah, and Cab Sauv are used for varietal wines (i.e., no blending with other varieties). I found the whites fresh and tropical, the Chardonnays tending toward a lean style, and the reds reflective of the cooler climate (e.g., some white pepper on the Syrah, while Cabs showed eucalyptus and menthol). Native yeasts (i.e., whatever occurs naturally in the vineyard and winery) are often used for fermentation, carbonic maceration (a winemaking technique meant to highlight sweet fruit flavors) is employed in the Syrah production, and oak treatment is restrained overall (never more than 40% new oak with frequent use of neutral, previously used barrels). My conclusion? Domaine Naturaliste is a lovely estate with laudable wines and proved a friendly spot to start my day.
Vasse Felix prides itself as Margaret River’s “Founding Wine Estate.” Established in 1967 (the very definition of “New World Wine”), the setting, plentiful art, hospitality, and, oh yes, the wine, certainly live up to the legacy. (While I didn’t dine here, I imagine the cuisine is just as impressive.) Vasse Felix focuses on Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz (Aussie for Syrah) and Semillon Sauvignon Blanc blends. There’s also a bit of Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec used for blending. I tasted through a tremendous round of whites and reds including a Bordeaux blend named for the founder, Tom Nullity, which represents only 0.7% of total production. Of all the excellent wines, the most interesting to me was the 2018 “Blanc,” a 100% Sauvignon Blanc that spends 30 days on the grape skins thus producing a golden color, perfumed nose, and flavors of apricot and honey (the last being unusual for a young wine). With an annual production of 150,000 cases (a medium-sized output in the big picture but quite significant for a boutique-style producer), I was profoundly impressed with the level of personalized hospitality and excellence on display. The addition of so many stirring works of art (both inside and out) was an additional admirable touch.
The tasting room managers at Naturaliste and Felix had both raved about neighboring Cullen Wines so I decided to pop in for a quick bite and a glass of the Rose Moon Pét-Nat (Pétillant Naturel, the original method of producing sparkling wine used before the Champagne method) made from a blend of Bordeaux grapes (while not specified, I presume Cabernet Sauvignon with possibly some Malbec, Petit Verdot, Merlot, or Cabernet Franc as well). It’s a hard wine to describe being both earthy and fruity, rustic and delicate. It’s also a surprisingly complex wine and presents plenty more to consider on the nose and palette. The organic, biodynamic, sustainable, and carbon-neutral farm grounds and gardens were a pleasure to explore. While the local parrots were a delight to the eyes, the preponderance of birds do create significant challenges in protecting and preserving the fruit in the vineyard.
After a quiet amble through the town of Margaret River and another stroll through the grounds surrounding Leeuwin Estate, I settled in for a fine dining experience at the estate restaurant which serves dinner only once a week. I skipped around the menu choosing small plates that I thought would pair well with the wines I most wanted to try. I selected wagyu beef with a Pinot Noir Chardonnay sparkler, braised cabbage (with lime and pistachios) with a dry Riesling, and an absolutely delicious cheese plate with a lightly oaked Chardonnay. I also visited the striking art gallery downstairs between courses. Which is not to be missed!
So after 25 hours of travel time (plus all the layovers, etc…), I had to consider whether Margaret River was worth all that effort. There are many great wine regions around the world, of course. Many of which are more historic, famous, exclusive, or whatever (not to mention easier to get to). On the spectrum between very good and great, Margaret River wines are certainly somewhere in the mix. Bordeaux, Napa, Rioja, Chianti, Champagne and others may already be on your list but if you want to go just a bit (or a LOT) off the beaten path, you should certainly consider Margaret River. Just don’t get in any hurry to arrive.
The world of wine never ceases to teach and surprise us. Had any good wine surprises lately? Be sure to email us and tell us all about it.