People wear fewer clothes in a beach town. Margaret River is a place where T-shirts and board shorts rule. The cabernets of this surf culture share the same aesthetic: dressed down, physically pragmatic, their beauty tied to motion, equilibrium and grace.
What does motion have to do with wine? You might think of it as kinetic energy plus direction, two concepts that don’t often enter discussions about cabernet sauvignon. In Bordeaux, château proprietors often talk about the difference in the soil beneath their vines, the ratios of river stones, clay or sand that distinguish their wine’s expression from their neighbors’. In Napa Valley, there’s talk of soil, fog and prodigious ripeness, along with the grain of the oak barrels that aerates that ripe fruit to succulent grandeur.
In Margaret River, there is the wind, direct from the sea, separated from some cabernet vines by less than two miles of jarrah forest, a coastal landscape sustained by saturating winter rains and temperate, dry summers. Save for the winds, the competition from invasive plants, the hungry birds and the errant kangaroos, cows and other uninvited guests at harvest, there is no more copacetic place to grow great cabernet than Margaret River.
Bill Minchin planted the first vineyard in what is now the Margaret River region. Like most of the pioneers, he was based in Wilyabrup, a three-hour drive south of Perth, in the northern third of a blunt promontory of land that juts out into the Indian Ocean on Western Australia’s coast. It’s 62 miles from north to south, bisected in the middle by the Margaret River, a creek running through the small town that shares its name; the region extends inland for 17 miles from the sea, but most all of the great cabernet vineyards fall in two neighborhoods: one west of town, in an area defined by Stevens Road (Cape Mentelle and Leeuwin Estate settled here early on, followed by Xanadu and Voyager), and Wilyabrup, west of Cowaramup and north of Margaret River, where the original vineyards clustered around Caves Road, barely two miles from the sea.
You won’t likely find any of Minchin’s Merrifield cabernet. According to a history by Peter Forrestal and Ray Jordan published in 2017 (50 years after the earliest vineyards went into the ground), Minchin lost his first crop to possums and, later, after he’d given up on the vineyard, lost his stocks in a fire that destroyed the family home.
Cullity, who was out digging soil pits on the weekend wherever anyone would allow it, found a parcel near Caves Road in Wilyabrup, but the owner wouldn’t sell. He got an assist from the local GP, Dr. Kevin Cullen, who was optimistic that vineyards might jumpstart the economy and raise the land values in the area. The intransigent owner of the land happened to work on Cullen’s cattle ranch, and Cullen convinced him to trade the eight-acre parcel Cullity wanted for 16 acres of the Cullen ranch. Then Cullen sold those eight acres to Cullity, who established Vasse Felix on the site.
Pannell found 26 acres just to the north of Cullity; the Jupiters, Cullity’s new neighbors, planted vines on their ranch; and the Cullens eventually planted as well, forming the early nexus of Wilyabrup cabernet vineyards. The plant material came from Jack Mann and his son, Dorham, who tended cabernet sauvignon at Houghton in the Swan River Valley, northeast of Perth. Fifty years on, successive generations of those original selections have become a distinctive asset of Margaret River cabernet.
Schrauth drove us to Moss Wood for first aid. Inside the winery, a simple insulated steel structure with a cavernous door on the west side, Keith Mugford was by the tanks, wrestling with some hoses on the floor—which is pretty much the same place I found him when I returned this past November, except the hoses were attached to a mobile bottling line that had backed up to the door.
Expressing some relief that he didn’t need to bandage me up this time, Mugford led me out to the vineyard, a sheltered hillside facing north, toward the sun, and east, away from the wind. Within the 29 acres of vines, he still tends some of the original vines the Pannell family planted in 1969. He’s been here since 1979, staying on with his wife, Clare, to lease the property from the Pannells in 1984 and then buy it a year later. The relatively warm, sheltered site ripens cabernet more reliably than a parcel the Mugfords purchased one mile south. “When we bought Ribbon Vale in 2000, the tannins in the cabernet were often hard,” Clare told me as we drove to see it. The parcel is a long, narrow strip of vineyards with a grove of trees in the middle, which they planted to alleviate some of the wind stress on those vines. “Now that the trees provide some protection, we are getting better ripeness and softer tannins,” Clare said.
Back in his aging cellar, Mugford filled a glass from one barrel, the fruit of the short rows at the top of the hill, part of the 1971 planting at Moss Wood, then another from the long rows down the hill, the 1970 planting; the Pannells propagated those vines from the “super selection” of cabernet that Dorham Mann had developed, narrowing his father’s original selection of 29 vines down to five. The wine from the short rows tasted meaty and sweet, with long, graceful tannins. The cabernet from down the hill gave more cassis-driven fruit. And a blend from the “old block,” the original planting (including Jack Mann’s selection and Dorham’s super selection), was rich and spicy, with more openness to the tannins and beautiful red-berry fruitiness.
I was thinking about these young wines the next day, at a retrospective tasting of Margaret River cabernet hosted at Vasse Felix. Moss Wood showed the 2005, a cabernet just hitting its stride. The ripe currant tones apparent in the barrel samples had gained resonance, while the wine still carried the energy and freshness of fruit grown on the Margaret River coast, the warm-cool of the sand and the surf, red spice and black fruit, complete and delicate.
Several miles to the south, Vanya Cullen farms the vines her parents planted in 1971. They had started with a gravelly rise above Caves Road; according to Forrestal and Jordan’s book, it was a parcel Bill Jamieson had suggested Cullity purchase when he was initially looking for a site, but Cullity declined. The Cullens have since expanded to parcels on both sides of Caves Road. Vanya, the youngest of Kevin and Diana Cullen’s six children, grew up on the ranch where her mother made the wine; she took over winemaking in 1989 and later worked with Diana to convert the land to organic farming (Cullen gained biodynamic certification in 2004).
I met with Cullen’s viticulturist, Matt Dermody, one spring morning in November, walking the gentle slope where the family had planted cabernet sauvignon in 1971. The vine rows were spread wide for the tractors of that time, and the space between the rows was covered in grasses and flowers. I pointed to one that I’d seen blooming in other places as well and Dermody let out a quiet groan. “Capeweed,” he said, a pest, though not as big a pest as kikuyu, an invasive grass, native to East Africa, with roots that mat and suck water away from the vines. Though Dermody and Cullen don’t like to cultivate the soil—they find it can lead to compaction, crushing the soil structure and creating challenges for the creatures they want to shelter there, everything from earthworms to the microbes that help sustain their vine—he makes an exception for kikuyu, using the spinning tines of a power harrow to rip its shallow root systems like forks gathering spaghetti.
The cabernet vines at the top of the hill, coming into the peak of flowering, looked absurdly healthy. When I commented on the intensity of the green of their leaves, Dermody held a leaf and snapped his index finger at the center of it. “We call it the flick test,” he explained. “If it tears, it’s diseased. But if you have a strong silica cell wall, fungus cannot penetrate it.” During the course of the season, he works with Vanya Cullen to get enough sunlight into the grapes, shifting the tannins from green to ripe. In cabernet, Cullen finds that green tannins pull the flavors to the front of the palate, creating a hole in the middle of the wine that she and Dermody work to fill through viticultural work.
I’d gotten the chance to taste that 2012 earlier in the week, late one night at the Settlers Tavern in Margaret River. Mike Gadd, a local winemaker, sometime journalist and rep for barrel-maker Seguin Moreau, was sharing a beer with a group of visiting journalists, and blind-tasted us on a couple of wines. One turned out to be Dormilona Clayface, a single-vineyard cabernet made in amphorae by Josephine Perry; the other was the 2012 Vanya, a bigger, more voluptuous, more fully oaked wine, as if Margaret River had birthed its own version of a Napa Valley cult cabernet.
Gadd’s pairing began to make sense when I tasted the 2015 Vanya at the winery. Vanya Cullen explained that, in 2013, she worked with a local artisan to produce amphorae from the clay soils at her vineyard, then experimented with fermenting cabernet in the vessels. She described the local cabernet as being strong in the aroma and in the end, but weak in the middle. And while there are many ways to bulk up the texture and flavor in the middle of a wine—blending in other varieties, or enriching the texture by aging the wine in new oak—she had found that fermenting cabernet in amphorae was a solution that worked beautifully for the style of wine she wanted to grow in Margaret River. “The amphora adds another type of structure and detail—that texture,” she said, “so you don’t get mid-palate weakness.” So her second vintage of Vanya, in 2015, fermented in amphorae, two-thirds as whole berries, the balance crushed, then she left the juice on the skins for three months. Compared to the 2012, the yields were 40 percent lower, and the wine spent five months in new oak barrels, rather than 19 months for the 2012. The younger vintage is finer, a sylvan, coastal Margaret River beauty.
What struck me most after a week on the Indian Ocean coast, tasting mature cabernets and young juice out of barrels, was how consistently the Margaret River identity showed in the wines, whether made by careful, pragmatic oenologists working sustainably in the vineyards—the likes of Cape Mentelle, Xanadu, Leeuwin, Vasse Felix and Moss Wood—or by naturalists like Cullen, Dormilona and Cloudburst (the latter from Mike Berliner, a New Yorker with 100 acres of forest and pink granite quarries west of Caves Road, where he practices some of the most radical intensive farming on barely two acres of vines).
The wines share a similar musculature, their tannins cool, with none of the barriers formed by water stress or heat stress. Their fruit plays in variations of fresh currants, often red, sometimes black. It may be their ability to age with grace, continuing to offer pleasure as they pass from their first decade into their second, that places them on the world stage of great cabernet sauvignon. And it may be their transparency that distinguishes them from most any other long-lived cabernets.
Virginia Willcock, the winemaker at Vasse Felix, defined it clearly. “The Houghton clone gives these little berries and these beautiful see-through tannins,” she said, speaking of the selection of cabernet Jack Mann had developed and shared with the young doctors planting vines in Margaret River. “It’s the serendipity of the Houghton clone and the Margaret River climate—extreme maritime, the cold ocean with a belting sea breeze in the afternoon.”
Today, the stone-and-timber buildings at Vasse Felix include a winery restaurant, part of the thriving tourism trade that has become a major focus for the region. And if Willcock’s taste in clothing and husbands (Mike Gadd) lean toward punk rock, her wine is definitely classical. At the retrospective cabernet tasting she hosted at Vasse Felix, Willcock showed her 2013 Tom Cullity and the 1982 made by David Gregg, both produced from early cabernet plantings at the estate. The 2013 was tight and oceanic, with mineral depths and the energy of a wine early in its life; the 1982 was delicate, with gentle notes of tobacco and cedar, and a wave of generous freshness in the end. It hadn’t moved from home, and showed no ravages of age. Breathing the Margaret River air while tasting the wine, it was hard to separate the contemporary winds off the Indian Ocean and the breezy freshness of a 35-year-old cabernet.
For the Margaret River wine region’s 50th anniversary, Vasse Felix worked with the local wineries association to present a retrospective tasting of cabernet sauvignon. Here are some standouts among the older cabernets.
Vasse Felix 1982
Delicate scents of tobacco, cedar and mushrooms give this a mature tone, and then a wave of freshness comes up in the end. The wine feels gentle and generous.
Leeuwin Estate 2004 Art Series
At an optimal moment in its evolution, this wine starts out bright and fresh and continues to gain length and finesse. There’s flesh to the fruit, and the tannins have a savory fruit-skin flavor that opens with a bloom of spice. It’s robust and structurally firm.
Cullen 2004 Diana Madeline
Deep floral scents and some greenness sustain the brisk feel of this wine. The tannins are present, but the structure is transparent; there’s no barrier to the gentle fruit flavor even if the wine feels firm, with a graceful shape.
Moss Wood 2005
Warmer than the 2004s, this wine’s black fruit still has a contrast of cool, coastal savor, as if the flavor of the ocean, the sand and the surf is captured in the wine’s energy and freshness.
Woodlands 2005 Colin
Tense and fl oral, with touches of warmth from the alcohol, this is clean with a lasting red-fruit fragrance, almost strawberry in tone. It’s showing some maturity at the edges of the color.
Juniper Estate 2010
Rich and bright, this has the salty, oceanic character of brisk Margaret River cabernet. Its depth of fruit and dark scents of licorice fill detailed tannins. Those tannins carry some sandy abrasion, suggesting a long life ahead.
This story was featured in W&S February 2018.