Exploring an Elite Winemaking Region at the Edge of the World

australia wine environment viticulture climate economy
An Elite Wine Region at the Edge of the WorldPETER PARKS - Getty Images

Imagine a place where you can taste some of the finest wines in the world, enjoy delicious gourmet meals, hike on sea-sprayed oceanfront trails, explore deep ancient caves, surf world class waves, and meet some of the friendliest people anywhere on earth. There is such a place, located in a faraway corner of the world. I highly recommend making a trek there if you want to indulge in a feast for your five senses.

Welcome to Margaret River (known by the locals as “Margs”), a wine region nestled deep in the stunning southwest corner of Western Australia (WA). The area is home to nearly two hundred vineyards of exceptional quality. While they only produce 2 percent of the Australia’s total wine output, the wineries in Margs account for up to 25 percent or more of the country’s premium quality wines. Margaret River’s superb Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons have earned worldwide recognition among wine aficionados. But the region is still not well-known to the average global wine drinker.

Australia has a huge wine producing industry (ranking fifth in the world) with sixty-five wine regions located across the country. The South Australia wine area leads in production with six wine-growing areas, including Barossa Valley, Coonawarra, and McLaren Vale. According to Wine Australia, the country sold more than a billion liters of wine in 2022-23 and more than half of the sales were exports. Shiraz is the most popular grape across Australia's wine world.

In the U.S., Yellow Tail, produced in New South Wales, is one of the top everyday wines imported from Australia. Other Aussie wines widely available and popular in America include Penfolds and Jacob’s Creek.

I’m one of those people who likes to visit local vineyards when I’m traveling to different parts of the world. (Full disclosure: I’m part owner of a vineyard in the UCO Valley of Mendoza in Argentina). On a recent trip to WA, my adventure travel group of six planned to spend most of our time exploring the outback in a rugged region called The Kimberley. (For more on that adventure, see this story.) But I was intrigued by what I had read about the coastal wine region of Margaret River. I convinced the group to spend four days there before we headed to the bush.

What we learned is that there is a whole lot more to Margaret River than the wine business.

The three-hour drive south from Perth, one of Australia’s most livable cities, to the town of Margaret River is on wide-open roads with scenic views that become more rural once you get closer to the area’s varied landscapes of sand hills, forests with huge karri trees, and rich, verdant terroir.

Sue Warry, a Perth-based travel advisor, rented us a four-bedroom modern house with ocean views in Prevelly, a residential area about ten minutes outside of town. The local network of oceanfront trails gave us easy access for early morning walks and runs in the clean, fresh air in Margaret River on the crisp autumnal May days we were there. (Every season is reversed in the Southern Hemisphere, which also means that grape harvest is February to April.)

The world-famous Western Australia Margaret River Pro surfing championship had just wrapped up when we arrived, but we were still able to catch some incredible athletes at work. Surfers had come from all over the world, and we mingled with them at breakfast at the White Elephant Beach Café, a spot that felt like old Malibu, perched on a hill with views of the ocean and playful dolphins in the water below.

On another morning, we went to the funky Margaret River Bakery, a landmark spot since the 1960’s in the charming downtown to hang out with more surfers and locals, while we oversampled their scrumptious homemade pastries.

Margaret River is one of the world’s newest and finest wine regions. It all started when the agronomist Dr. John Gladstones wrote two seminal research papers, in 1965 and 1966, identifying the area as having conditions very similar to the winemaking region in Bordeaux, France. After reading the research, Dr. Tom Cullity, a young Perth-based cardiologist who had a love of wine, planted Margaret River’s first vineyard, Vasse Felix, in 1967. The vineyard continues to be one of the top wine destinations in the region.

Cullity’s daughter Veronica remembers traveling down to the area with her parents and three sisters as he set out on his pioneering mission. They would pass through sleepy towns like Bunbury and Busselton, which have now become thriving destinations. The region’s build-up as a center for tourism has been bolstered by new nonstop flights from Sydney and Melbourne.

this photo taken on january 3, 2010 show
The Vasse Felix Winery is the oldest winery in the Margaret River region.GREG WOOD - Getty Images

The town of Margaret River and surrounding region are named after the river that flows through it, which in turn was named after Margaret Whicher, the cousin of John Bussell, founder of the nearby beach town of Busselton in 1831. For tens of thousands of years, the Wadandi and Pibelmen Boodja people have lived there, and the local government acknowledges their ancestors and their descendants as the traditional owners of this area, known as Wadandi Boodja to the Aboriginal community.

“In the 1960’s the Margaret River area was a sparsely populated dairy and timber region,” recalls Veronica Cullity, adding that the magnificent beaches hadn’t even been discovered by the surfing world yet.

Each day, before we headed out to an afternoon of wine tasting and fine dining, we would do a brisk mid-morning, two- to three-hour hike along the Cape to Cape Walk Track, which runs 125 kilometers along the Western coast. The undulating trails took us through a changing geography of wide white beaches, rock formations, hills and cliff tops, as we breathed in the fresh salt air, while taking in views of the glistening Indian Ocean.

Signs that read CAUTION SHARK ACTIVITY reminded us that it was peak salmon season (March through May). Schools of fish often swim close to shore, attracting the sharks that can be in full view for those on the beach. This is not your typical visit to wine country!

Our favorite hike started in the Injidup Natural Spa. As we headed north, we took in different natural aromas from local plants and bushes, waded through seagrass meadows, and climbed rocks before arriving at the pure white sand of Smiths Beach, one of the most beautiful we had ever been to. We then headed into the town of Yallingup (“place of caves” in the Wandandi dialect), ready to meet our prearranged driver who would take us to our first wine tasting.

A visit to the Leeuwin lighthouse, a few kilometers at the end of the trail, constructed in 1895, is still a working lighthouse and worth a visit—especially since it is where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet in a symphony sound of clashing waves at this most south-westerly point on the mainland of the Australian continent.

Throughout Margs, there are more than a hundred ancient caves deep beneath the surface of the Leewuwin Naturaliste Ridge that runs along the area’s Western edge from Cape Naturaliste to Cape Leeuwin, but only seven of them are open to the public. When was the last time you combined wine tasting with spelunking?

We joined a small group at the popular Jewel Cave, walking forty-two meters down into the the massive chambers, which were filled with whimsically shaped stalagmites and stalactites, coral, and hematites. While you will feel the damp, cool subterranean air on your skin, if you have any sense of claustrophobia, I wouldn’t recommend a visit. However, a visit to a winery beforehand might help you overcome your fears so that you can witness this geological wonder.

a cave with many layers of rock
Stalactites hanging from the ceiling of the Jewel Cave. Author

Our favorite was the Ngilgi Cave, named after an Aboriginal legend describing the battle between a good spirit—“ngilgi”—and an evil one. Believed to have formed nearly two million years ago, the cave is forty-five meters deep with some low labyrinthian walkways.

We had the place to ourselves with Josh, an Indigenous guide who played the didgeridoo, a wind instrument that creates a hypnotic pulsating sound and has been a part of aboriginal music for at least a thousand years. Before heading down into the cave, Josh acknowledged the spirit there through his music, assuring us that we would be safe in our experience.

Aside from enjoying the hiking and other outdoor activities, our goal was to visit established vineyards, as well as to meet some “winetrepreneurs” who are a part of the next generation of winemakers in Margs. What impressed us on both fronts is the deep knowledge and love of the craft that inspires so many of them. In fact, the transparent enthusiasm of the locals for being a part of this winemaking region combined with their welcoming nature made us feel right at home.

Some of the well-established vineyards that followed Vasse Felix in 1967 include Moss Wood (1969), Cape Mentelle (1970), Cullen (1971) Leeuwin Estate (1973), and Pierro (1979) among others. Yet only 2.7 percent of the region is “under vine”, according to the local stats, suggesting that there is still a lot more growth to come.

Our most memorable experience was at Vasse Felix, primarily due to Evan Gill, the resident estate sommelier, who stopped by to say hello as we did a wine tasting in the cellar there.

Gill, who reminded us of a younger version of the Australian actor Bryan Brown, has been at Vasse Felix for nearly ten years. He studied and worked in the French wine industry and has also completed his diploma through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), the world’s leading provider of wine and spirits knowledge.

Vasse Felix has three vineyards, known primarily for Cabernet and Chardonnays, as well as a vineyard further south called Idee Fixe, which is focused on producing Chardonnay solely in the traditional method (a secondary fermentation to produce a sparkling wine). Starting in 2025, Idee Fixe will open to the public for tastings and dining.

As Gill guided us through a tasting, we discovered the 2022 Heytesbury Chardonnay, a savory, delicate, and beautifully structured complex wine with a super long palate. It was our favorite.

However, the Tom Cullity Cabernet Sauvignon, an homage to the founder, was superb, as was the Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon. (An interesting note is that most of the Cabernets are blended with malbec, a grape that we grow in Argentina). Since we had met Veronica Cullity during our visit to WA, it made our tasting even more special.

According to Gill, many of the Vasse Felix wines, including both Cabernets and Chardonnays are sold in America through U.S.-based Winebow Fine Wine & Spirits. While other Margaret River wines like Leeuwin and Cullen can also be bought in the U.S.—I acquired several cases upon my return home—many of them don’t make it to the states. Hopefully that will change in the next few years.

After we savored the Vasse Felix wines, Gill escorted us to the restaurant, where we enjoyed a six-course lunch with wine pairings. A Kingfish, rhubarb, ginger, pink pepper course with Sauvignon Blanc and Toothfish, potato, daikon, and tobiko with a Chardonnay were a part of the taste sensations of the meal, as we peered out over the beautiful mature vineyards below us. I wondered if Dr. Cullity ever dreamed that this casual sophistication would become a part of his enduring legacy?

Mr Barval (which stands for Margaret River and the Italian regions of Barolo and Valtellina) is a small vineyard of twenty-five acres that is owned by Rob Gherardi and was a delight to visit, primarily for his absolute love of what he does for a living (and for his great wines).

A second generation Australian with dual Italian citizenship, Gherardi grew up in a family that produced wine, but for their own consumption. It led him to pursue a degree in viticulture and oenology. He spent years working at established vineyards in Barolo and at Conterno Fantino in Italy, as well as at Moss Wood and Cullen in Margaret River, before launching Mr Barval.

Situated in an open, sun-kissed setting along a perimeter of grevillea trees, his first production was in 2015. From the beginning, he has employed old-world vineyard and winemaking techniques. In particular, the Chardonnay Riserva (produced at the Wildberry Estate in nearby Wilyabrup) and Cabernet Riserva (released from the cellar three years from the month of harvest) were our favorites. However, the Mistral, a unique Rhone Valley white-blend style of Viognier and Marsanne, was a very unique taste to our palate. It’s sold through Gherardi’s wine club and through local distribution; our group bought several bottles that we took with us to drink during our stay there.

A visit to Mr Barval has an added benefit. His wife, Kellie, a nurse who has spent time in many remote indigenous communities, has created a charming Indigenous art gallery on the premises. The proceeds of the native works of art that are sold go to the artist as well as to fund an art program and health and wellness initiatives in the Aboriginal communities, according to Gherardi.

a man standing on a beach
The author on the beach near Margs.Author

In Margaret River, many of the gourmet food experiences are at vineyards like Vasse Felix and Voyager Estate, but we also wanted to try different venues, including the Japanese cuisine at Miki’s Open Kitchen. As we sat at the U-shaped counter, we watched the chefs prepare a stunning multi-course dinner that included Kimchi, Miso Gaspacho, and Masago Point Samson Rankin Cod with Cucumber Surinagashi. Their locally sourced food feast is a must visit for anyone who goes into town, but book early, as the two seatings for twenty people each fill up weeks in advance.

One of our favorite meals was when Francesca Gosling, a local private chef came to our house to prepare dinner for us, arranged by Sue Warry. Trained at culinary school in London, the British-born Gosling has traveled around the world cooking for top clients from the Hamptons to Kauai and ended up in Margaret River when she married an Australian.

My mouth is still watering when I think of the smells from the kitchen with the ingredients that she used (all from her seasonal garden), including multiple kinds of basil, mustard leaves, peppery arugula, and more. The main course was Barramundi, a local fish, on a puree of cannellini beans, followed by a chocolate peanut crusted dessert with macadamia and mango custard that blew us all away, as we paired it with Mr Barval’s Chardonnay.

Another winetrepeneur who we met was Charlotte Newton, a friend’s sister, originally from New Zealand, who moved to Margs to work for the Devils Lair Winery. Newton studied chemistry in college, but after being introduced to the world of wine by some friends, she went on to do postgraduate studies in Viticulture and Oenology.

“I had been refining my palette working as a winemaker, but also became a wine judge and educator,” said Newton, who decided to become a small wine producer with her first vintage in 2018 called 18 ChaCha, which stood for Charlotte’s Chardonnay. She explained that there are lots of opportunities to become boutique winemakers through local collaborations.

One evening Newton joined us at home so that we could taste her latest Cha Cha (with the right balance of fruit power, savoury notes, and subtle oak) and her wonderful Cabernet Franc, which she sells locally.

Now nicknamed Cha Cha by her close friends, Newton has become a well-respected wine educator teaching winemaking and sensory evaluation at Curtin University in Perth, as well as with private clients. She also married a local and is now a busy working mother of three children who plans to stay in Margaret River to continue her wine life for years to come. Her love of her work was contagious to all of us.

When Dr. Cullity planted the first vineyard in the area just over fifty years ago, he was met with a lot of skepticism about his wine experiment. “This was a complete departure for my father,” said Veronica, “He often said that he didn’t really know what a weed was.”

Yet his courageous move proved out that the rich ironstone soil there would be conducive to growing plump, perfect grapes.

He inspired many other vignerons like Mike Peterkin, who would build on his legacy to help make Margaret River what it has become today. Also, a doctor, Peterkin learned about Cullity’s wine and was excited that they were very different than anything else being produced in Australia.

After medical school, Peterkin went on to Roseworthy College in South Australia to study winemaking and in 1979, at the age of thirty, struck out on his own to create Pierro Wines. Starting with ten vineyards, today it has more than two hundred and is one of the longstanding wine producers in Margs.

Pierro was the original high-density vineyard planting in the area. And Peterkin introduced two wine styles which have become mainstays of winemaking in the area. He produced the first Semillon Sauvignon Blanc blend and was the first to introduce Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends with a touch of Cab Franc and Malbec, now a mainstay in the region.

Now one of the eminences grise in Margaret River winemaking, Peterkin who had two demanding vocations, one as a medical doctor and one as a winemaker, is kicking back. Today, his son runs Pierro wines, while he plays a role as advisor and enjoys his well-earned lifestyle.

“I think the future of Margaret River is bright,” he said. “The area is vibrant and creative; the climate is wonderful, and the surf is great. What keeps you on your toes as a winemaker, however, is the knowledge that you only get one shot at it each year to make the perfect wine.”

Others would agree that the wines of Margaret River continue to be one of the better kept secrets among both casual drinkers and oenophiles.

Wine Spectator’s Matt Kramer believes that the top rank of Margaret River Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignon is, simply put, in the top rank in the world.

“How often to you hear about, read about or taste Margaret River wines?” said Kramer. “Yet the wines, at their best, rank among the most distinctive, original-tasting and worthwhile of any on the planet.”

Add in the fine dining, surfing, hiking, mountain biking, walking trails, ancient caves and be prepared for the local bombardment of your sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing when you arrive to this remote part of the world.

On our way back to Perth to head to the Kimberley, the thought in my mind was that most people know Napa, Bordeaux, Tuscany, but few know Margaret River.

As Leslie, one of my fellow travelers said, “That is going to change. I think that Margaret River is ready for its global close-up.”

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