From the tasting team

Jane Faulkner visits Margaret River

By Jane Faulkner

4 Oct, 2023

Tasting Team member Jane Faulkner was recently in Margaret River for an in-region tasting and was also invited along to the region's post-vintage blind tasting – here's all the latest news (and wines to try) from the region.

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Gee it’s tempting to move permanently to Margaret River, something I consider every time I visit. It seduces like no other. All that rugged beauty of landscape, how the region feels and its charm. Oh alright, it’s really about the wine, and the people too, those who grow grapes and turn them into delicious drinks. Few places can compete with its high-end offerings, namely chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon.

Post-vintage regional tasting

While visiting a few weeks ago, chief winemaker at Vasse Felix, Virginia Willcock, offered an invitation to one of the special regional producer/grower chardonnay tastings. Since 2009, Vasse Felix has hosted a post-vintage cabernet tasting and then added chardonnay as a spring event six years later. It’s a tasting comprising unfinished samples, all tasted blind as there’s no spotlight on anyone other than the region and the variety. There is no fee; the only prerequisite is for producers to fill out a form with information about their sample, including, but not limited to, clones, vine age, type of farming such as organic, orientation of the vineyard, soil type and how the wine is made from fermentation techniques to the type of ageing vessel. Lots of valuable information for all to view. 

It’s generous, egalitarian and community-spirited to host these tastings, all thanks to Paul Holmes à Court, owner of Vasse Felix, and of course Virginia steering it. It’s ultimately about vinous community collaboration. 

Virginia WillcockVirginia Willcock of Vasse Felix. 

“And it’s about bringing everyone together with samples of individual vineyards with technical details about the sites and winemaking so we can all understand our region better,” says Virginia. 

It’s an opportunity to learn from each other, she says. And judging by the turnout on the day, it would seem good will and community spirit lingers large. More than 100 samples were showcased from 44 producers.

Each year, a different winemaker and viticulturist gives a rundown of vintage conditions and offers insights into the tasting. Steve Kirby, group vineyard manager at Howard Park, and Luke Jolliffe (chief winemaker at Stella Bella) took charge on that count. The takeaway was how good vintage 2023 is proving to be for both chardonnay and cabernet – the Wallcliffe samples were deemed a standout. 

Luke JolliffeStella Bella's Luke Jolliffe.

As this is an industry session, digging deeper is important. Virginia decided to place wines across the region from north to south, but also where they sat on the ridge line – the Gladstones Line. The line was named after agronomist Dr John Gladstones whose 1966 seminal research paper paved the way for what is now today’s Margaret River’s thriving wine region. All the wines were also zoned into their ‘sub-regions’, albeit unofficial ones. 

Well, my head was spinning from all the detail proffered. Aside from the excellent vintage, my takeaway on the day was just how fascinating an insight into place this tasting proved. And while many wines are only parcels of what will become final blends, the completeness of each was a surprise. I kept muttering, these are ready to drink. Be patient though, the finished wines are a year to two away from release. 

Tim Shand's first vintage at Voyager Estate

While in Margaret River tasting just-released fresh wines such as rosé, and crisp, easy-drinking whites along with more complex options too, a highlight was the latest suite of Voyager Estate wines, courtesy of Tim Shand. Tim left the Yarra Valley in late 2022 to join Voyager, so vintage ’23 is his first as chief winemaker. While chuffed to be working with such excellent estate sites – 20+ years old and certified organic – he has started to make some refinements, which will come to bear with future releases of cabernet and chardonnay but, the fresh, young, drink now wines are a boon. And he managed to create a new style called Vivid Red. 

Voyager EstateVoyager Estate.

Fans of light, dry reds from the Yarra Valley will dig this and no doubt others. “Yeah, I pushed the boat out with that wine,” he says. “It’s a wine that speaks to a contemporary palate and is a clear communication of the vineyard and style. Classic Yarra!

"The main story however is the wine’s preservative free status. I have been playing around with maturing wines in the absence of SO2 for a while, but this is the first time I’ve followed through to bottle. We are blessed with pristine fruit from the meticulously managed vineyard here, and that allows us a lot of freedom to push the limits.”

His motivation in making the wine is to express the aforementioned and “the purity and rawness of the fruit.” Sure, he understands the vulnerability of making such a wine (they can fall over quickly and oxidise), hence not making much to keep tabs on stock, which he hopes will be sold and enjoyed within six months. That’s the point. “The vivacity and rawness of the 2023 vintage is what I want drinkers to experience.”

Mark MessengerMark Messenger.

Industry news

There have been some significant changes on the Margaret River wine front. Mark Messenger, who has been at the helm of Juniper Estate and its sister winery, Higher Plane, has called it quits after 25 years. He’s certainly left a significant mark as a highly skilled craftsman who put the estate well and truly on the vinous map. Mark intends to take a well-earned break before considering his next venture. Stepping into the vacated role is Andrew Bretherton, who spent seven years as senior winemaker at Deep Woods Estate.

Also, after seven and half years, Trent Kelly has left Credaro Family Estate and is enjoying a family holiday in Europe. Matt Godfrey, who joined Xanadu in December 2022, took on the Credaro chief winemaker role a few weeks ago.