It was probably the 7am swim at Prevelly beach that really brought home to me the cool climate and clean environment of Western Australia’s premium wine region, Margaret River. The chilly water was crystal clear and as I looked out to the horizon, just beyond two whales that surfaced intermittently, I realised that the next landfall is South Africa, 6,000 miles away.
Unusually for an Australian wine-growing region, Margaret River also manages to get just the right amount of rain with between 600 and 1,000mm falling each year, always in wintertime.
Fifty years ago the short, stubby promontory that forms Margaret River was just cattle country. Then a government agronomist, Dr Gladstones, surveyed the region and decided that the climate here was pretty much like Bordeaux. He inspired a few local professionals to turn a few acres of their land to vines, and the region has gone from strength to strength.
My recent travels around Australia took me to Margaret River and to a series of masterclasses hosted by the winemakers of four of the best properties in the region – Leeuwin Estate, Voyager Estate, Vasse Felix and Cape Mentelle. The wines that wrapped themselves around my taste buds were the three most important styles of the region – Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and the white wine that Margaret River has made into its own signature, a Semillon Sauvignon Blanc blend.
Here are some of the best wines from the region.
If you have decided that you don’t like Australian Chardonnay then you need to rethink your strategy. The days of yellow, over-oaked wines are long gone and Chardonnays from Margaret River have vibrant freshness and elegant flavours and are supremely food friendly.
Clone is the key word here and Gingin is the particular one used here. Top winemaking is usual and the talk is all about selection, hand picking, oak quality, wild yeasts and battonage. “There are 15 steps between grapes and wine and they all have to be right,” said Virginia Wilcock, winemaker at Vasse Felix.
Phil Hutchinson at Leeuwin makes exceptional Chardonnays and for an absolute taste sensation try Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2011 (The Wine Society, £45). Harmonious, with a clear, clean freshness of style, it has layers of citrus, nashi pear and apple with a touch of spice and a long, complex elegant finish.
Vasse Felix Chardonnay 2012 (Hoults, £16.99) has a slightly fuller style, with rounded peach and lime fruit.
• Sauvignon Blanc Semillon Blends
Referred to as SSB, these can be Semillon or Sauvignon Blanc dominant, and they are the signature of Margaret River whites. Think Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and then add a little more texture, a shade more fruit, a minerally backbone and a distinct food friendliness.
This wine requires the right site to get those fresh, crisp flavours; bigger fruit flavours from the north of Margaret River, more acidity in the south. Most wineries source grapes from across the region, picking by machine at night, when the grapes are chilled or by hand in the early morning by teams who work only until the sun starts to warm the fruit.
Voyager Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2013 (Field & Fawcett, £15.35).
Vasse Felix Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2012 (Hoults, and Harrogate Fine Wine, £14.99).
McHenry Hohnen Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (Bon Coeur, £12.49).
Cape Mentelle 2013 Sauvignon Blanc Semillon (Bon Coeur, £13.99).
• Cabernet Sauvignon
“There are four great Cabernet regions in the world: Napa, Bolgheri, Bordeaux and Margaret River,” said Fredérique Perrin, winemaker at Cape Mentelle. It is a bold statement but as a winemaker for the great Moet Hennessy group she has experience of making wines in many parts of the world. The Margaret River style of Cabernet gets clean away from the usual full flavours of Australian cabs. Here the emphasis is on elegance of style, with a lift of freshness on the finish and an ability to settle around a lamb chop or slice of beef without dominating the palate.
Start with Vasse Felix Cabernet Merlot 2010 (Hoults,£14.99). Then move on to Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 (Halifax Wine Co, £23.95) This scored top marks for its fabulous cassis and chocolate fruit, dusted with savoury herbal notes.
Leeuwin Estate 2010 Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon (Harvey Nichols has the 2009, at £43) Sensational flavours, totally harmonious and complex.