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Published: April/May 2009The Good Stuff: Margaret River Wines
Photo: Wine bottle

The Vintners of Oz

In remote Australia, unsung grape growers are primed to make waves.

Text by Guy Lawson
Photograph by Frances Andrijich Photography/Courtesy of Cullen Wines

Scrub turkey, codfish, boxcar, squid fart, me—we all piled into an ancient Land Rover and headed out along Caves Road for the vineyards of Margaret River. It was the summer of 1985 in Western Australia, and I was a 21-year-old layabout in a torn Sex Pistols T-shirt, purple board shorts, and Ray-Bans. There was no swell that day, ruling out surfing, and the sky threatened rain. That meant one thing to this pack of larrikins: booze cruise.

Margaret River, or Margs, for short, is a little-known wine region in the southwestern corner of Australia. Also a serious surfing destination, with waves that can run bigger than 30 feet, it’s one of the remotest places on the planet—closer to Singapore than to Sydney, three hours south of Perth, the nearest landfall to the west being Africa. Its distance from everywhere is its biggest obstacle—and greatest attraction.

As we pulled up to the Cullen Estate Vineyard that day, we spotted a man scurrying out the back door and fleeing into the vines. He had seen our kind before, the scroungers of free samples. We pursued him through the fields, calling out, "Oi! Back here, matey." Kevin Cullen, the vineyard’s founder and one of the pioneer winemakers in Margaret River, relented. Walking back to the former sheep-shearing shed where he bottled his wine, he opened one of his signature Cabernet Sauvignons.

"Fruity little number," Scrub Turkey said, downing his sample in one swig.

"Howse about some more, mate," said Squid Fart, holding out his glass.

I swirled and sipped and stopped dead. In that instant I experienced my first transcendental moment with wine—beautiful and unique and maybe even profound. The wine was thick and deep and rich, and contained all the sophistication and lack of pretension that comes in a truly great vintage. It was akin to drinking a handful of Margaret River’s red earth—earth turned to wine, wine turned to earth, the elements in holy communion.

More than 20 years passed before I returned to Margaret River, though I thought about it often. Driving through the jarrah and karri forests, along drought-plagued farmland, the colors came back to me: ocher, scorched brown, white beaches, turquoise Indian Ocean.

Margs’s location on Cape Naturaliste was first mapped by the French in the early 19th century. Had they settled here, wine would have been made from the outset—the climate is like Provence. Instead it wasn’t until the 1970s that a group of local doctors tried to plant vines as a hobby: Pound for pound, it turned out, this was some of the finest grape-growing land in the world.

The real gem of the region remains Cullen’s, the vineyard of my oenophilic epiphany. It’s now run by Vanya, the founders’ daughter and an award-winning winemaker. The land here is about 300 million years old, she says, from the Precambrian era, which informs her mystical approach to winemaking. Organic for years, she now uses biodynamics, a system that treats the soil as if it too were a living organism. Vanya shows me where she’s buried cow horns packed with manure to spread on the land, and explains how astrology plays a role in the harvest date.

No matter how dubious that sounds, the Cabernet she opens sends me back in time. This is the wine that stopped me in my tracks more than two decades ago, what I have traveled to drink. The wine I cadged from Vanya’s father has matured under her hand into something more subtle. Once three bucks a bottle, it now fetches about $60. It is as close to the unvarnished truth of wine as I have come—since I was last here. "You are experiencing the specificity of this place," Vanya tells me. "The wine and surf can only come from here. It’s what makes the long trip worthwhile. The land is in the bottle."

How to Get It
Go: Secluded on a private lake, 22-room Cape Lodge is a good base for oenophiles and surfers alike (doubles from $300; capelodge.com.au). Grab lunch and taste top vintages at the Cullen Estate (cullenwines.com.au).

Try it now: Old Bridge Cellars, in Napa, imports Cullen wines to the U.S. (oldbridgecellars.com). Other names to scout at your local wine shop: Cape Mentelle, Evans & Tate, Leeuwin Estate, and Moss Wood.

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