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February 17, 2024

Discovering the sublime wines of Margaret River

Although Margaret River produces barely 2 per cent of Australia’s wine, it produces 20 per cent of its premium wine

By Jonathan Ray

Margaret River, both town and region, are in the very south-western tip of Western Australia. Here at Cape Leeuwin, three hours south of Perth, the mighty Indian and Southern Oceans meet, and the area – famous for its wild, crashing waves – has long been a surfer hangout.

[See also: London restaurants win big in Michelin Guide Great Britain & Ireland 2024]

More importantly to wine-lovers, the area is also the home to some truly spectacular wines – that and the treasured, oft-quoted fact is that although Margaret River, one of the youngest and most isolated of wine regions, produces barely 2 per cent of Australia’s wine, it produces 20 per cent of its premium wine. It’s all about excellence and family-owned boutique wineries. This is about as far removed from jug-wine country as it’s possible to be.

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When the International Wine & Spirit Competition recently went to judge the wines of the region, they were taken aback by the quality they found, doling out 24 gold, 94 silver and 119 bronze medals. Indeed, Freddy Bulmer, IWSC judge and buyer of Australian wines for the Wine Society, said: ‘I have never given so many silvers and golds over three days’ judging.’

The growth of Margaret River

It wasn’t until the 1960s that vines were first planted seriously there, with Vasse Felix and Moss Wood leading the charge, followed in the 1970s by Cape Mentelle, Cullen, Sandalford, Leeuwin Estate, Woodlands and Wrights.

[See also: Le Gavroche’s ‘lovingly curated’ collection of rare wines, champagne and artwork to be auctioned]

More recently, the likes of Voyager, Cherubino, Deep Woods, Xanadu, Howard Park, Fraser Gallop and Lenton Brae have been catching the eye, many of which I lapped up at the IWSC highlights tasting in London. Most famously of all, Cloudburst came out of nowhere in 2010 with Margaret River’s most expensive ever wines (they sell for up to A$500 a bottle) and got collectors and connoisseurs in even more of a tizz of excitement about the region.

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You can find entry-level Margaret River wines in the supermarket, yes (the rounded, supple 2021 Vasse Felix ‘Filius’ Chardonnay is an absolute steal at £14.99) – but it’s at the top end that Margaret River is really world-class, with powerful yet elegant Cabernet Sauvignons; spicy, peppery, fresh Shirazes; bold yet sophisticated Chardonnays and increasingly classy Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blends. These are multi-award-winning wines to enjoy in their maturity and to invest in before Cloudburst takes the prices even higher.

Three of the best Margaret River wines

Margaret River heroes: 2020 Cullen, Diana Madeline Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot, 2019 Leeuwin Estate Art Series Shiraz and 2020 Cloudburst Chardonnay

2019 Leeuwin Estate Art Series Shiraz

(£32.50; Private Cellar)

It’s the Chardonnay and Cabernet in Leeuwin’s fabled Art Series that always excite collectors, but the Shiraz is also a belter, albeit more modestly priced. With a splash of Malbec and malolactic fermentation and maturation in barrel, it’s engagingly approachable when young but age-worthy too, full of ripe, dark fruit and a dusting of pepper.

2020 Cullen, Diana Madeline Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot

(£87; Brunswick Fine Wines)

Kevin and Diana Cullen were among the pioneers of Margaret River winemaking, founding Cullen Wines in 1971, and this, their flagship red, recognises Diana’s role as head winemaker until 1989. A blend of 92 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon with splashes of Merlot, Cab Franc and Malbec, it’s full, rich and intense and crammed with ripe mulberry fruit.

2020 Cloudburst Chardonnay

(£125.75 in bond; Farr Vintners)

If ever there was a cult wine, this is it, despite being planted barely 20 years ago. Handmade, biodynamic, minuscule production, award-strewn, adored by critics, famously high price and agonisingly tricky to get hold of. Only 275 dozen bottles were produced, and its depth and concentration will knock your socks off.

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