This Isolated Australian Region is home to Over 100 Wineries
November 15th, 2016
by Ted Loos
If Hawaii and Napa Valley had a love child, it would look like Margaret River— an Australian wine region with epic surfing beaches, a welcoming vibe, and standout Cabernets and Chardonnays.
Aussies like to say that Perth, the capital of Western Australia and a five-hour flight from Sydney, is the most isolated major city in the world. Which means that the Margaret River wine region, which is set on a tab-shaped peninsula jutting into the Indian Ocean—and a three-hour drive south of Perth—must be as remote as it gets.
A grueling 24 hours of travel from New York City, Margaret River was the farthest I’d ever been from home. But flying wasn’t the stressful part of this trip. Driving on the left side of the road was what really made me anxious. I stuck a Post-it note on the steering wheel of my rental car: stay left, it read, with an arrow for emphasis. The agent chuckled as I pulled out of the lot.
I made the trek to “Margs,” as locals call the area, primarily for the wine. The case can be made that it’s Australia’s best wine region because of the sophisticated restraint that vintners pour into its top bottles. (Cabernet Sauvignon is the star grape here, followed closely by Chardonnay.) There are nearly 100 wineries open for tastings, many of which are located north of the town of Margaret River along a 10-mile stretch of Caves Road, where dense patches of forest alternate with honey-colored pastures. Fees are nonexistent—the winemakers are just thrilled you made it to see them.
But Margs has a lot to offer beyond the wine. It’s one of the most free-spirited places I’ve ever visited, and the people here have struck an enviable work-life balance. Because much of the coastline falls inside 145-square-mile Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park—a constantly shifting landscape of granite cliffs, scrubby forests, and golden sands—the beaches are pristine. “Surf culture runs deep here,” said Will Berliner, when we met at his winery, Cloudburst. “If there’s a big swell that day, your plumber might be late to fix your sink.
An expat who fled New York and his film-industry job in 2003 to become a winemaker, Berliner now makes three exquisite bottlings using biodynamic farming practices. (You can find his wines in top U.S. restaurants like Alinea and the French Laundry.) As Berliner drove me in a pickup truck around his 250-acre property, he sent gangs of kangaroos scattering. “There’s a real wildness here,” he said. On cue, Australian ringnecks yakked above us in a karri tree. There’s really no industry—except wine and tourism.”
That evening, Berliner and I shared a bottle of his 2013 Chardonnay, which had incredible apple and lemon blossom flavors, at Morries, his favorite restaurant in the town of Margaret River. The co-owners, Anthony Janssen, Alex Brooks, and Tony Howell (who is also the executive chef) have that singularly Australian knack for creating a familiar, casual atmosphere while quietly delivering major sophistication—here in the form of dishes like beet gnocchi with citrus ricotta and almond-garlic purée.
After dinner, I drove half an hour on Caves Road to the serene Injidup Spa Retreat, which is perched high on a bluff overlooking the cobalt Indian Ocean. (Most of the top hotels are just to the north of the wineries.) When I first checked in and had trouble connecting to the wonky Wi-Fi, manager Lisa Maclaren smiled and said: “Good luck with that.” But I soon discovered that you’re not here to troll Instagram (though I did manage to post a few photos). You’re here to stare at the coast from your private plunge pool. Injidup’s romantic, isolated setting soon made the rest of the world seem irrelevant.
Leeuwin Estate, which is Margaret River’s most famous winery and is renowned for its rich and complex Art Series Chardonnays, also feels worlds away from reality. Set on a former cattle ranch, the wood-and-adobe building with a corrugated-metal roof appears a bit dated at first. The modernized interior, however, has both a farm-to-table restaurant and a gallery showing paintings by Aussie artists.
“People like an adventure—they like to find you at the end of the road,” says Tricia Horgan, who founded Leeuwin in 1974 with her husband, Denis. “And we have more than a hundred thousand visitors a year, so they figure it out.” Many of these guests come for the summer outdoor concert series, which takes place on the lush lawn every year. The two chipper septuagenarians don’t make wine anymore, but are never far away from whatever’s going on at Leeuwin. When I stopped by for a tasting, the Horgans told me that back in the early days, they enlisted the help of a knowledgeable friend. “Neither of us knew anything before we met Bob Mondavi,” recalled Tricia, of the man who put Napa Valley wine on the map. “He told us what to plant and where to plant it.”
Those decisions were made easier by the climate. “We’re a warm region with an air conditioner,” Virginia Willcock, the chief vintner at the well-regarded Vasse Felix, explained to me over a lunch of roasted root vegetables topped with toasted barley and dill at the winery’s restaurant. She was referring to the ocean that provides balance to the warm grape-growing season. Willcock’s Cabernets have what she calls “a savory, floral, earthy quality,” which she attributes to the cool, dry breezes.
Vasse Felix was Margaret River’s first-ever winery, established in 1967—and it still delivers one of the area’s most elegant experiences. The two-story tasting room has walls clad in reclaimed timber, and its concrete floors are painted to a dark gloss. At the restaurant, chef Aaron Carr’s cuisine far surpasses typical winery fare; he offers a $73, Asian-influenced tasting menu that might include kingfish, served alongside eel and wasabi, or a banana dessert with miso, yuzu, and peanuts.
Courtesy of Leeuwin Estate
If Vasse Felix is the region’s established heavyweight, then Si Vintners is its brash upstart. Run by Iwo Jakimowicz, who founded the 30-acre, all-natural winery along with his wife, Sarah Morris, in 2010, Si has a bare-bones, by-appointment-only tasting room. “We’re constantly broke, but at least we have passion,” Jakimowicz joked when I met him one afternoon. The dynamic wine-making couple, who honed their craft while living in Spain, make an exquisite Chardonnay, a standout rosé, and a wonderful blend of Cab, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.
Surprisingly, I didn’t see many tourists during my winery visits, which added to Margaret River’s off-the-beaten-path charm. But that vibe could change when a $46 million airport expansion wraps up in Busselton, a city on the edge of Margaret River, in 2018. Some locals feel that an influx of visitors will change the area’s quiet, quirky character.
For now, though, Margaret River is still a peaceable kingdom—one with an outdoorsy, Australian edge. On my last night at Injidup, Maclaren hosted a barbecue for me. The guests included Berliner as well as Brad and Jodee Adams, the founders of Ocean Grown Abalone. When the couple aren’t at the beach, they’re eco-farming the mollusk on artificial reefs set at the bottom of Flinders Bay, some 45 miles away. Maclaren put some of their fresh abalone on the grill, and we chatted on the wooden deck outside my villa. As the sun set in an orange blaze and the night air turned cool, Berliner uncorked his Chardonnay. I had never traveled this far from home, but I was already thinking about how soon I could get myself back.