Given the Margaret River produces 20% of Australia’s premium wine from just 2% of its grape production, you’d think Margaret River wine has a long history.
But the truth is more accidental than by design.
Perhaps the history of the Margaret River wine region is best captured in the name of its founding winery – Vasse Felix, established in 1967. The name Vasse comes from the French sailor Thomas Timothee Vasse who was lost overboard, presumed drowned, in the Indian Ocean before washing up on the Margaret River coast in 1801.
Felix, of course, comes from the Latin meaning ‘happy’ or ‘lucky’. Lucky Felix – lucky us, too.
Below you can find a timeline that traces a brief history of Margaret River wine.
Margaret River History Pre-1960s: American whalers, ‘Red Dynamite’ and Harold Olmo
The wonderful resources at margaretriver.wine tell us that Margaret River first saw European settlement in the 1830s.
By 1851, a settler named Elijah Dawson planted the region’s first commercial vineyard at Vasse to support ‘significant number’ of American whalers working off the Western Australia coast.
Between 1920 to 1950, the Italian Giacomo ‘Jimmy’ Meleri owned plantings of Doradillo at Yallingup which measured four hectares. Meleri is said to have sold his wine under the name ‘Red Dynamite’ at local dances.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that the history of Margaret River wine really began to get serious.
The American viticulturist Professor Harold Olmo spent eight months in Western Australian on a Fullbright Research Scholarship in 1955 to examine problems in the Swan Valley wine industry (northeast of Perth).
While there he travelled south to Great Southern and produced a report recommending the region to produce ‘high-quality, light, dry table wines and boost Western Australia’s economy’ – according to margaretriver.com. Olmo believed the southwest, where today lies Margaret River, would be better suited to growing grapes.
Just one problem remained: Olmo believed the winter rainfall was too high in Margaret River, which delayed the history of Margaret River wine for another decade.
Margaret River wine history 1960s: Dr John Gladstone, Tom Cullity and Vasse Felix
While Harold Olmo pointed the way, it was Dr John Gladstone who really kickstarted the history of Margaret River wine.
Dr Gladstone was an agronomist at the University of Western Australia who challenged the assumptions of Olmo. Dr Gladstone had grown up in the Swan Valley and suggested that Margaret River would be even better than the Great Southern region for wines – so long as they were planted on well-drained soil.
According to margaretriver.com, Dr Gladstone published a paper in the Journal of the Australian Institute for Agricultural Science in 1961 which said an in-depth study of the Busselton-Margaret River region ‘definitely warrants consideration’.
By April, 1966, that study made the following conclusion: “...suitable viticulture country should carry redgum or marri trees, rather than jarrah, banksia or sheoak, it should have no swamps or their denizens such as paperbarks, a brown or reddish-coloured soil and gentle slopes to provide drainage but not erosion.”
Dr Gladstone went so far as to say the Margaret River wine region could be compared to the French wine-producing area of Bordeaux – one of the most famous in the world.
Dr Gladstone encouraged a Perth cardiologist, Tom Cullity, to create a vineyard in Margaret River. The Vasse Felix estate was planted in 1967 and still exists as the founding vineyard of Margaret River with Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec plantings still producing stunning wines today.
You can watch a well produced video series from 2017 which commemorated 50 years of Margaret River wine history on margaretriver.wine. In the documentary one of the Margaret River pioneers – David Hohnen of Cape Mentelle – explains how there was ‘no infrastructure’ for winemaking and hence it was a time of ‘great inventiveness’.
Vasse Felix in 1967 was quickly followed by Moss Wood (1969), Cape Mentelle (1970), Cullen (1971), Sandalford (1972), Leeuwin Estate, Woodlands and Wrights (1973). UMAMU Estate wines are produced from a vineyard with pioneer plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz dating back to 1978.
Interesting fact: the founders of three of the first and well-known Margaret River wineries (Vasse Felix, Moss Wood and Cullen Wines) were all doctors, says australianwine.com.
Margaret River Wine History 1980s to today: award-winning wines and a national tourism icon
By the 1970s there were 20 new vineyards all making Margaret River wine history.
The Margaret River wine region first entered the world stage in 1982 when the second vintage of the Leeuwin Estate ‘Art Series’ (1981) was named the ‘best Chardonnay in the world’ by Decanter magazine.
Then, from 1983-1984 two Cabernet Sauvignon vintages from Cape Mentelle won back-to-back Jimmy Watson trophies for best one-year old dry red at the Melbourne Wine Show. In Australia, the Jimmy Watson award is the pinnacle of the Australian wine industry. And we at UMAMU estate were thrilled when our 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon was one of the runners-up.
By 1995, there were more than 40 vineyards operating in Margaret River – and all but one were owned by local winemaking families.
By 1996, Dr Gladstone helped Margaret River wine producers draw up boundaries for the Margaret River wine region. These became enshrined in law as one of the country’s geographical indications in October of that year.
Today, there are over 200 producers in Margaret River producing the overwhelming share of premium Australian wine – 20% from just 2% of total grape production in the country.
According to this comprehensive pdf from Australian Wine the Margaret River wine region is best known for five varietals:
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Sauvignon Blanc
- Semillon (you can read more about the difference between SBS and SSB wines here)
The reasons why Margaret River wine produces such amazing wine is thanks to the soils, weather and being flanked by the Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean. The warm ocean breeze current helps moderate winter temperatures – reducing risk of frost – and in summer brings sea breezes that lead to a long, slow and gentle fresh ripening season.
This is what helps Margaret River heroes like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon reach their full potential and make for high-quality, award-winning wines.
Our Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay vintages at UMAMU Estate have won gold medals; 96 and 97 points from James Halliday in the past, and are among our best-rated Margaret River wines.
Thank you for reading our timeline of the Margaret River wine history. If you’d like to sample award-winning Margaret River wines from pioneer plantings, do visit our UMAMU Estate wine online.