Margaret River's short-yet-meteoric rise onto the world stage of wine reveals a history of extreme isolation and scientific rigor.
The Wadandi people have been here for 50,000 Years
A cave south of Witchcliffe called the Devil's Lair is an important archaeological location. It is one of the earliest sites of human occupation in Australia. Evidence includes tools and cultural artifacts such as smoothed bone beads and stones.
Indigenous peoples, including the Noongar, Wadandi people, and Torres Strait Islanders, have been recognized by the Shire of Augusta Margaret River as the first inhabitants of Southwest Australia. To the Noongar, this region is called Wooditchup.
First sighting of Western Australia by the Dutch ship "Leeuwin"
Leeuwin was a Dutch galleon and part of the Dutch East India Company and was the first to map a portion of the Margaret River coastline. A missing record book means the details of this voyage are lost.
First grape vines planted in Western Australia
The first colonists in Western Australia planted vineyards in neighboring Swan Valley.
We find the famed Houghton clone Cabernet Sauvignon from the first commercial plantings. The origins and exact arrival of this clone remain unclear (although local history suggests it came from South Africa between 1836 and 1895).
In the 1930s, Houghton Vineyard in Swan Valley planted cuttings of old bush vines in Middle Swan. This 1.6 hectare block was used as the source material to establish vineyards in Margaret River with plantings at Moss Wood, Cape Mentelle, and Vasse Felix.
First settlers in Margaret River
The Lieutenant-Governor convinces a group of white settlers to establish a community in the Southern part of Margaret River. They quickly discover the benefits of local hardwood, Jarrah, for repairing sea vessels. The difficulty in clearing farmland (because of Jarrah) and the region's remoteness caused the settlement's abandonment in 1849.
First commercial vineyards in Margaret River
Elijah Dawson established the first commercial plantings in northern Margaret River in Vasse. His key clientele at the time included American whalers and local timber ventures. The homestead was originally erected in 1844.
Margaret River townsite established as timber mills vanish
The town of Margaret River was officially established during the height of deforestation in Western Australia. The city is established and in three years, three timber mills close. Inhabitants look to agriculture and dairy farming to re-establish the economy.
By the way, there is still no electricity throughout the region at this time.
A viticulturist and Fulbright Scholar writes of the potential in Western Australia
UC Davis viticulturist and Fulbright Research scholar, Harold Olmo, recommends Western Australia as a prime location for high quality, dry table wines to boost the region's economy.
“Quality table wines are best produced in cooler regions where higher development of color and flavor, high acidity and only moderate sugar content can be achieved.
Comparison of the degree days indicates that there is a wide band of territory in the south-west ideally located from the temperature standpoint… the area is equivalent or better than other areas to be found in the present quality wine districts of Australia or California.”
The arrival of Gingin Chardonnay clone to Margaret River
In 1957, 24 canes of "Pinot Chardonnay" arrived from the University of California Davis which was likely overseen by Professor Harold Olmo. These plantings were used to propagate a vineyard in Gingin called Moondah Brook Vineyard (formerly Valencia Wines).
This clone is significant because it was used to plant Leeuwin Estate, Moss Wood, and Cullen in 1976 and 1978. Grapes from these vines went on to win international awards during the 1980s.
A Scientist hones in on Margaret River for its wine quality potential
Dr. John Gladstones writes specifically about Margaret River and Busselton (by Vasse) as exceptional locations for grape growing. He suggests the areas of Cowaramup-Bramley and Witchcliffe-Forest Grove as the best locations.
The first wave of wineries arrive
After attending a meetup of about 100 locals led by Dr. John Gladstones, Tom Cullity and Bill Pannell hunt for their ideal vineyard plots which establish Vasse Felix (1967) and Moss Wood (1969) respectively.
Other notable attendees start Cape Mentelle (1970), Cullen Wines (1971), Sandalford (1972), Leeuwin Estate, Woodlands, and Wrights (1973).
Margaret River lands on the international stage
A bottle of Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon from 1982 wins the Jimmy Watson Medal at the 1983 Melbourne Show. This is Australia's most prestigious wine trophy. They won it again the very next year.
In 1986, Decanter holds an international Chardonnay tasting competition and Leeuwin Estate's "Art Series" 1981 vintages wins. At the time, it's the most expensive Chardonnay in Australia.
The appellation Margaret River is officially established.
The Australian Government's Geographical Indication (GI) is registered for the boundaries of Margaret River.
Dr. John Gladstones proposes six sub-regions for Margaret River
Dr. John Gladstones writes a research paper suggesting the creation of 6 sub-zones within Margaret River based on climate and soil differences: Yallingup, Carbunup, Wilyabrup, Treeton, Wallcliffe, and Karridale.
50 years in winemaking celebrated by 164 producers
The event was attended by over 60 guests and led by a panel featuring Jancis Robinson OBE MW, James Halliday AM, Andrew Caillard MW, and Virginia Willcock (of Vasse Felix).
After tasting classic wines from the region, Jancis Robinson said, “I think what most impressed me overall was the age-ability of the wines. It was a real joy to taste these two wines from the 80s.”
♦ Dortch, Charles. “Devil’s Lair, an Example of Prolonged Cave Use in South-Western Australia.” World Archaeology, vol. 10, no. 3, 1979, pp. 258–79. JSTOR,. Accessed 7 Jul. 2022.
♦ Margaret River Press, "An Inside Look: The Way It Was". Accessed 7 Jul. 2022
♦ Olmo H, “A Survey of the Western Australian Grape Industry.” Vine Fruits Research Trust Inc, Western Australia, 1956.
♦ Gladstones J, “Soils and Climate of the Margaret River-Busselton Area: Their Suitability for Wine Grape Production”, Western Australia, 1966