Oct 31, 2020
Once dominated by hippies and surfers, Western Australia’s premium wine-growing region of Margaret River still attracts the eco-conscious—but now they own vineyards. Carolyn Beasley drives the new organic wine trail and blisses out on biodynamics.
Lifting the crisp glass of Chardonnay to my lips, I’m trying to taste stone fruits, brioche, pears and cinnamon. I’m not sure I’ve found them all, but this subtle and complex expression of Margaret River Chardonnay is certainly delightful.
Looking beyond my glass and the low-key tasting room at Stormflower Vineyard, I see the grapevines meet the forest. Turquoise “twenty-eight” parrots flash by and tiny local honey-eaters entertain picnickers on the lawn.
Perhaps it’s because I know how this wine was produced, but I fancy I can taste the vibrancy, feel the life force of the grapes, and I’m grateful.
Western Australia’s Margaret River region produces just three percent of Australia’s wine, but accounts for around 25 percent of Australia’s premium bottles. In 2019, an average wholesale price for a liter of Australian wine was A$3.21, while Margaret River wine averaged A$12. Back in the 1960s, before wine was established here, Margaret River was a community of surfers and tree-huggers.
Although no longer a hippie town, Margaret River’s forests and beaches still attract nature-lovers, and some of its best wine producers are, in line with what a lot of us are looking for in food and travel these days, back-to-basics minimal interventionists. On a road trip along newly plotted organic wine trail here, I am filling my glass to the brim with oenophile intel—and, as it turns out, my cellar with expressive vintages.
Australia-wide, the organic wine industry is experiencing unprecedented growth. In the three years that ended in March 2019, Australian organic wine export volumes increased by 51 percent, while value increased by 78 percent according to a report by Wine Intelligence.
The rebel little sister of organic wine is biodynamic wine, which in its simplest explanation uses organic techniques, adding an astrological calendar. Biodynamic wine exports here increased by 58 percent, while the value of that sub-industry increased by 70 percent in three years. These trends reflect a growing consciousness by consumers about what they eat and drink.
Extraordinary times may further boost this sector, with Covid-19 giving people time to reflect, and consider their relationship with the planet.
David Martin grew up on a sheep and wheat farm in Western Australia. “We sprayed thousands of gallons of chemicals, and put on heaps of chemical fertilizers, and it just didn’t feel right,” he says. In buying Stormflower Vineyard, David sought a different philosophy, passionately pursuing organic wine production. Under an organic philosophy, no chemical pesticides, weed killers, fertilizers or other chemicals are used.
Photos by Danica Zuks.
But confusion and green-washing are ever present, and David worried that visitors to Margaret River may struggle to decipher which wines are really organic. “You get so many people claiming to use ‘organic principles’ or ‘biodynamic practices,’” he says.
The best way to ascertain if wine is organic is to check for a certification label. There are several certification accreditations, and in Australia they mean stringent organic processes have been met and audited. (Do note that this in no way a global rule-of-thumb; standards and metrics vary by country, if they exist at all.) To further improve transparency, David developed the Margaret River Organic Wine website, listing whether the vineyard (meaning who grows the grapes) or the winemaking process (who ages and bottles them), or both, are certified organic. A complementary self-drive trail outlines five wineries in the region that are fully certified organic.
Keen to explore for myself, I jump in my car and from the town of Dunsborough, I tootle down Caves Road, through overhanging marri trees, tall white karri forests, farmland and vineyards.
I start my organic wine discovery at David’s own nine-hectare Stormflower Vineyard, which attained organic certification in 2016. “Once you’ve got your system converted, it becomes largely self-sustaining,” David says. “If you take away all the chemical inputs, encouraging the natural system, the plants are actually stronger for it.”
Completing my tasting, I leave Stormflower with a bottle of that crisp Chardy tucked under my arm.
The Moon and the Stars… and the Cows
The next stop is Cullen Wines, conveniently next door. The Cullen family were among the pioneers of the Margaret River wine scene, planting vines in 1971. Vanya Cullen grew up here, and achieved organic certification in 2003. In 2004, the winery became the first in Margaret River certified as biodynamic.
“Essentially, pure microbiological life is put onto the soil at an auspicious planetary aspect and that’s what drives the balanced healthy soils, which drives balanced healthy grapes,” Vanya explains. “When it’s not balanced, you end up with very sugary, alcoholic wine, that has to have water, acid, tannin, and flavor added back to it.”
Various homeopathic preparations, developed by scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner, are buried or made into liquids as a spray. For example, Preparation 500 is a female cow horn, stuffed with cow manure and Preparation 501 is a cow horn stuffed with quartz crystals. “Connection to nature is important,” Vanya says. “Because we don’t add anything, you’re getting a very pure representation of place and nature in the glass.” Not to worry; no tasting notes of cow byproducts to be found here.
The hard work is paying off. Cullen has recently collected a slew of awards, rising to the top against conventional wines. Vanya is Australia’s 2020 Winemaker of the Year in the Halliday Wine Companion Awards, and her Cabernet Sauvignon received the Best Cabernet award. Cullen even nudged Penfolds from the position of top winery of the year, as judged by the Real Review.
Impressed, I continue down a rural road, finding Burnside Organic Farm, where Lara and Jamie McCall produce biodynamic wine, capers, avocados and honey. Guests can stay onsite in newly renovated rammed earth bungalows and enjoy a real farm experience, harvesting from Lara’s vegetable gardens, and feeding pigs, chickens and geese. Lara includes a private wine tasting for all guests, and non-guests may also book a tasting.
Burnside’s wine production is a boutique affair, and the choice of varieties was carefully considered. The family grows Zinfandel, and the white variety, Vermentino. “They are perfectly suited to our warming climate,” Lara explains. “Both are Mediterranean varieties and are very drought resistant.” Dreamily, Lara relates her love of Vermentino: “It’s like walking through a lemon grove with the sea breeze blowing, has a bit of saltiness at the end and goes very well with seafood.”
Looping back along the Bussell Highway, the quirky village of Cowaramup, also known as ‘Cow Town,’ is the next stop. After checking out the life-sized jersey cow sculptures lining the street, I enter the Golden Fleece, a mountain biking and creative hub. Inside, I find the cellar door of Settlers Ridge Winery, the organic pioneer of Margaret River.
Owner, Kay Nobbs says she was certified in 1997 so she could produce allergy-friendly wines. “A lot of wines use egg, fish and milk for fining,” she says, explaining that many people have a negative reaction to these. The journey to find the best production methods has involved trial and error, and Kay now uses sheep and cattle to help: “They’re our mobile fertilizers and lawn mowers!”
Pet Nat, the Bad Boy of Bubbles
From Cow Town, I take scenic backroads, to my last stop, Blind Corner winery, where Ben and Naomi Gould are shaking things up. In front of their understated cellar door, they’ve built a skateboarding ramp, and on the winery wall, a retro-style, ocean-inspired mural shouts: Greetings from Margaret River wine region. Their approach to wine making is similarly bold.
I try Ben’s Petillant Naturel (you may know it as “Pet Nat”) holding the glass up to the light to admire its golden opacity. “We just get grapes and press them, and before they’ve finished fermenting, we bottle it. It finishes fermenting in the bottle, so it has a light fizz to it,” Ben explains. “It’s the closest wine you can get to reflecting the vineyard.”
Health considerations drove Ben and Naomi’s journey to organics. Having worked in conventional vineyards, Ben hated spraying with chemicals. “You have to alert the neighbors and wear a (protective) suit inside the cab, with a mask,” Ben says. “Wanting to start a family—well, kids eat dirt and get bugs in their mouth!”
Ben also believes consumers have a right to know what they’re drinking. He says that in conventional wines, about 58 additives are permitted to be used. Australian wine labels only need to disclose the allergens, such as egg, milk products and sulfites above 10 mg/kg.
“There are so many big dirty secrets,” Ben says. “Copper sulfate—that’s a poison. If you put too much in your wine by accident, you’re allowed to use potassium ferrocyanide to get it out.”
Then there are the issues with labeling for vegans. To be vegan-friendly, conventional wines may substitute traditional fining ingredients, like milk, egg, and fish products, with a synthetic plastic, polyvinylpolypyrrolidone (PPVP). It doesn’t appear on labels, but you can be sure Ben’s wines are vegan by default, using only grapes and sometimes small amounts of sulfur. “We just label ‘certified biodynamic’ and leave it at that,” Ben says.
How to Make Friends and Influence Winemakers
When Blind Corner and others started producing organic and biodynamic wines and different styles, traditionalists worried the premium wine region’s name would be besmirched by these presumed inferior wines. “But now, we have the opposite,” Ben says. Some of the biggest wineries are embracing organics, and Ben couldn’t be happier. “We had some big people calling and asking how we did things. We went from being outcasts to pioneers, I guess you could say.”
One high-profile winery under organic conversion is Voyager Estate, which in 2020, attained certification for one third of their vineyards. The winery is already certified, meaning all Voyager’s wines will be fully organic by 2023.
Similarly, Vasse Felix, the oldest winery in the region, has vines under conversion. Although not pursuing certification for their wine-making processes, all four of Vasse Felix’s vineyards, totalling 330 hectares, are expected to be certified in 2021.
At the end of my drive, I’m checking out Margaret River’s main surf break, watching in awe as the might of the Indian Ocean heaves upwards before pummeling onto a rocky reef, delighting a group of die-hard surfers. As I watch, I consider whether a wine can express Margaret River’s beauty, and I remember something David Martin had said earlier.
“People talk about the terroir, and wine being a representation of the place in which it was grown,” he said. “I can’t see how you can say that under a chemically based system. You’ve killed off much of the biology in your soil, so that it’s not really representative of that locality any more. I think that’s much more credible under an organic system, it’s a genuine way of representing the local ecosystem the fruit is grown in.”
Later, as I crack open my Stormflower chardonnay, I’m no longer looking for stone fruits or brioche. Now I’m tasting towering karri and marri forests, blue skies and green pastures, and wild ocean waves. It’s Margaret River in a glass.
Check out the list of organic wineries in Margaret River (margaretriverorganicwine.com). Drop in to any visitor center for a copy of the Organic and Biodynamic Wine Trail or check out the route here: margaretriver.com/itinerary/organic-wine-discovery
Burnside Organic Farm
Burnside Organic Farm has two-bedroom bungalows from A$350 per night and luxury one-bedroom bungalows from A$399; 61-8/97572139.
‘Picquet’ holiday home for absolute beachfront luxury, with five-bedrooms, swimming pool and jacuzzi on the shore of sublime Eagle Bay. From A$4,795 for a three-night stay; 61-8/97505444.
Cape Lodge for a luxury country lodge experience in the heart of the wineries. Doubles from A$565 per night; 61-8/97556311.