Refined Reds from the Wild West

The labels say “product of Australia,” but red wines from Western Australia are about as un-Australian as you can get. Those expecting super ripe flavors and 15 percent alcohol so common in Australian wines are in for a major–and pleasant–surprise. These wines, whether made from Cabernet or Shiraz, have elegance, finesse and complexity.

The factor explaining this is, not surprisingly, the weather. The two major wine growing areas of Western Australia, Margaret River (about 3 hours by car south of Perth) and the Great Southern (another 5 hours southeast of Perth) are strongly impacted by the cooling effects of ocean air. Abutting the Southern and Indian Oceans, this remote wine region has warm and sunny days during the growing season, but cool–even cold–nights.

All large bodies of water tend to moderate temperatures and slow the ripening of grapes. But a quick look at the globe reminds us that the Southern Ocean also bathes the shores of Antarctica. The major wine areas of Western Australia are as close to that continent as they are to Sydney.

Western Australia’s focus is on the premium end of the wine market. Accounting for only about 5% of Australia’s wine production (compared to 50% from South Australia), Western Australia produces about 20% of Australia’s premium wine, defined as products selling over $20 a bottle. This is definitely not an area for mass-market economy wines. Most producers are on the small side, which explains the limited and spotty distribution of their wines in the United States. Nevertheless, you can expect to see more widespread penetration of the US market as wine drinkers discover their unique style and excellent value offered by wines from Western Australia.

In this column, I’ll focus on some of the Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux blends from the Margaret River region. In subsequent columns, I’ll complete my survey of Margaret River Cabernets (there are too many noteworthy ones for a single column!), report on red wines from other areas, such as Geographe, and explore the distinctive style of Western Australian Shiraz.

The Margaret River

Margaret River is the name of a town, a wine area, and a river–though the river is actually more like a stream. The region was planted with vines during the last 30 to 40 years. From 8 wineries in 1976, it has grown to about 150 currently. There is still plenty of room for growth, and, judging from the quality and style of the wines, vineyard expansion will probably occur rapidly. Currently there are roughly 10,000 acres of vines (compared to Napa’s 40,000) with another 10 or 15,000 acres that could be developed, according to Roger Hill, owner of Juniper Estate, one of the area’s leading producers. About half of Margaret River’s 6,100 acres of red plantings are devoted to Cabernet Sauvignon.

In the Margaret River “Cabernet is King and Chardonnay just follows,” according to Mark Messenger, Juniper’s winemaker. Based on the Cabernets from Juniper Estate and other Margaret River producers, I find it hard to argue the point. To me, great wine is not just about fruit notes. The flavors of the best, most interesting wines unfold and multiply in one’s glass. How did those chocolate, leather and herbal hints sneak in, and why do the flavors evolve during a meal? A hallmark of Cabernet-based wines from the Margaret River and other prime locales in Western Australia is an alluring herbal nuance that complements ripe black fruit flavors. Entirely different from the green, herbaceous flavors stemming (no pun intended) from under-ripe Cabernet, this herbal component lends an intriguing complexity to the wines. Here is a rundown of some top producers and bottlings:


With Cabernet Sauvignon plantings that date from 1971, Cullen is one of the original estates in the Margaret River. Vanya Cullen, who succeeded her mother Diana as winemaker in the 1980s, told me that the popularity of Cabernet in Australia is a relatively recent phenomenon. In 1959, there were only 69 tons of Cabernet Sauvignon crushed in all of Australia. In 2004, there were over 10,000 tons crushed in the Margaret River region alone. Vanya’s focus has been on transforming this non-irrigated estate into a biodynamic one. It received organic certification in 2003 and biodynamic certification the following year. A vocal advocate for biodynamic farming, she believes it has resulted in noticeably healthier vines as well as better wines.

Cullen, Margaret River (Western Australia, Australia) “Mangan” 2004 ($42, Young’s Market): A fascinating blend of 60% Malbec and 40% Petit Verdot, this purple, inky wine looks huge, but actually is more like an intense, juicy Dolcetto with fine tannins and great character. 88

Cullen, Margaret River (Western Australia, Australia) “Diana Madeline” 2004 ($70, Young’s Market): A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Cullen’s flagship wine is named in honor of Vanya’s mother. Intense but balanced and layered, it has great complexity and finesse. Floral notes and aromatic hints of herbs and spice get this wine off to a great start, and nicely interwoven ripe fruit flavors finish with supple tannins. It’s a marvelous tribute. 95

Deep Woods Estate

Peter Fogarty is committed to making high quality wine. He recently purchased and is upgrading Deep Woods Estate, located in the northern–warmer–end of Margaret River. Planted in 1986, the estate focused for years on quantity over quality. Fogarty changed that philosophy almost overnight.

Deep Woods Estate, Margaret River (Western Australia, Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 ($25, Outback Red Imports): The relatively warm location of this estate probably explains the wine’s abundant cassis character and its more subtle herbal elements. Length and supple, ripe tannins make it an engaging wine even at this young age. 90

Deep Woods Estate, Margaret River (Western Australia, Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot 2004 ($35, Outback Red Imports): Fogarty says that this is their best wine. Made entirely from their estate-grown fruit, the Merlot component imparts an attractive herbal character that complements the overall juicy impression. It has an impressive, silky texture. 91

Hay Shed Hill

Hay Shed Hill, located in the heart of the Margaret River area, has three levels of wines. The proprietors call their Pitchfork line “everyday” wines, while the Hay Shed and “Etched Label” offerings are more up market.

Hay Shed Hill, Margaret River (Western Australia, Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 ($26, Artemis Wines International): The usual–for Margaret River–delightful combination of ripe fruit and herbs buttressed by excellent structure marks this very nice wine. 88

Hay Shed Hill, Margaret River (Western Australia, Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon “Etched Label” 2003 ($55, Artemis Wines International): This is a resounding success for the first vintage of what is sure to be this producer’s flagship wine. The quality and complexity comes from 35-year old vines, low yields (two to three tons per acre), and the talent of winemaker Nigel Kinsman. The small amount of Cabernet Franc amplifies the usual Margaret River herbal character without overwhelming the ripe, lush fruit profile. It’s a big wine with fine tannins, but its balance is excellent, as it carries14.5% alcohol effortlessly. Sadly, production was limited to two barrels–50 cases–but the wine is worth a search. 92

Howard Park

A family company celebrating its 20th anniversary, Howard Park was established initially to produce great Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon. They have succeeded.

The Howard Park single vineyard or regional series allows you to taste the difference between the Margaret River and Great Southern regions. The owners, Jeff and Amy Burch, simultaneously planted the same clones of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz in the Leston Vineyard in the Margaret River and in the Scotsdale Vineyard in the Great Southern region. Since the winemaking is the same and the age of vines is the same, the difference in taste is due solely to the location.

Howard Park, Margaret River (Western Australia, Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon Leston Vineyard 2003 ($20, Commonwealth Wine & Spirits): Lovely cassis fruit, hints of chocolate and fine tannins combine to make this a juicy, fleshy wine. A great $20 value! 90

Howard Park, Great Southern (Western Australia, Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon Scotsdale Vineyard 2003 ($20, Commonwealth Wine & Spirits): This wine’s ripe fruit flavors balance the herbal and floral notes, which are more pronounced here than in the Margaret River bottling because the Great Southern region is notably cooler. This is an elegant, layered wine, and another great value! 92

Juniper Estate

With 6.5 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon planted in the 1970s, Juniper Estate has some of the oldest Cabernet vines in Margaret River. Roger Hill, an attorney from Perth, vacationed in the area for years and jumped at an opportunity to buy an unirrigated vineyard with old vines–especially one located in the historic center of the Margaret River. He is searching for importers and distributors within the US.

Juniper Crossing, Margaret River (Western Australia, Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot 2003 ($15 at the winery; Bravo Wine Imports, Southern California, for on-premise sales only): Their “second” wine, the Juniper Crossing label offers a ripe, plush feel with herbal elements and supple, fine tannins. A good value. 89

Juniper Estate, Margaret River (Western Australia, Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 ($24 at the winery; Bravo Wine Imports, Southern California for on-premise sales only): Ripe with slightly minty overtones, this Cabernet is succulent, long, and balanced. 91

Leeuwin Estate

Dennis Horgan, who, along with his wife Tricia, own Leeuwin Estate, describes his involvement in the property as “an accident.” A certified public accountant by training, his interest in surfing drew him to the Margaret River where the confluence of the Indian and Southern Oceans creates world famous surfing opportunities. In 1969 he bought a plumbing business which by a quirk included a cattle ranch in the Margaret River. He soon sold the plumbing business, but kept the Margaret River property as a base for surfing. He and his wife have expanded it to about 1650 acres, 20% of which are planted with vines. He notes that the wine growing in Margaret River is the antithesis of the Australian wine business, which is dominated by four companies that control 60% of the volume (and 20 companies that control 95% of the business). Horgan estimates that Leeuwin Estate produces roughly 0.05% of Australian wine and notes that, “the big guys spill that much.” Be that as it may, it would be a criminal waste to spill any of Leeuwin Estate’s Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon.

Leeuwin Estate, Margaret River (Western Australia, Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon “Art Series” 2005 (Not yet released, but eventually available through Old Bridge Cellars): The Art Series represents Leeuwin’s best wines. Although the majority of juice comes from Leeuwin’s vineyards, some of the wine that goes into the blend is made from purchased grapes. Less developed than the 2004, the 2005 awakens your senses with a lovely nose followed by succulent, sweet fruit. With fewer herbal notes than its 2004 stablemate, this juicy wine still has plenty of complexity and power. Its balance and finesse speaks of pure class. 94

Leeuwin Estate, Margaret River (Western Australia, Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon “Art Series” 2004 (Not yet released, but eventually available through, Old Bridge Cellars): This is the quintessential Margaret River intermingling of delicate herbal flavors–a touch of tobacco in the nose–with ripe, sweet black fruit. A long finish, fine tannins and impeccable balance round it out beautifully. 95

Leeuwin Estate, Margaret River (Western Australia, Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon “Art Series” 2001 ($45, Old Bridge Cellars): A harmonious combination of subtle chocolate, herbs, and yes, plenty of fruit, makes you want to drink this now. But resist. Drink the 2000 now and cellar this one for a few years because it will improve as the tannins soften and the flavors continue to unfold. 96

Leeuwin Estate, Margaret River (Western Australia, Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon “Art Series” 2000 ($45, Old Bridge Cellars): I tasted this at a seminar on Australian and New Zealand wines that I led for a group of undergraduate students at Harvard after my return from Western Australia. It was the wine of the night and a perfect accompaniment to roasted lamb. An extra year of maturity beyond the 2001–and perhaps the voyage to the US–mellowed it slightly without sapping any of its power or complexity. 95

Leeuwin Estate, Margaret River (Western Australia, Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon “Art Series” 1999 ($45, Old Bridge Cellars): This succulent wine offers not just fruit flavors but also hints of chocolate. Despite a slightly hot finish, it’s a classy, complex wine. 92

Vasse Felix

Planted in 1967, Vasse Felix was the first winery in the Margaret River region. It remains a leading producer. The Adams Road label is their “entry level” wine.

Vasse Felix, Margaret River (Western Australia, Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot “Adams Road” 2003 ($15, Negociants USA): Rich and supple, with some herbal elements, this wine reflects the interplay of sweet ripe fruit and slightly savory elements. 90

Vasse Felix, Margaret River (Western Australia, Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 ($27, Negociants USA): Some Margaret River wineries had trouble ripening Cabernet in 2002 because it was an unusually cool growing season. Vasse Felix succeeded admirably because they used more grapes from the warmer–northern–part of the region. They fashioned a silky, ripe cassis-infused wine that still retains attractively herbal, but not unripe, elements. 93

March 14, 2006