Wine — Finding A Great Medium-Weight Drink

Wine between the seasons

Finding a great medium-weight drink

By Tim Protzman []

About as far away as you can get from here, something exciting’s happening.

It’s in Southwest Western Australia, centered around the town of Margaret River, where they’re creating a whole new vacation paradise. About 180 miles south of Perth, in a region that once produced only cows and timber, they’re producing wine and surfing and camping and fishing and lying on the beach. It’s a boomtown, and it started in the ‘60s after being discovered by the surfers.

They came for the big waves. The ones that thundered out of the Indian Ocean and broke on the limestone shelf a few hundred yards off shore.

At first they camped. Then some came in by boat. Then someone started selling sandwiches, and soon the area was like Cape Cod. Then someone planted wine grapes. It was only natural. Wine did well in the eastern part of the country. Wine did well in the Swan Valley outside of Perth. It wasn’t the first vineyard— local farms had arbors for their own consumption since the first homesteads in the 1840s—but it was the first commercial vineyard. And now there are more than 40. And there are restaurants and tasting rooms and bed and breakfasts, all in a uniquely Australian setting.

The winds off the ocean give Margaret River a cool Mediterranean climate, perfect for growing grapes. They grow cabernet sauvignon, merlot, semillion, sauvignon blanc and their famous chardonnays which have been compared to the great whites of Burgundy. 

Two of the biggest producers (and hopefully the easiest to find here in New England) are Cape Mentelle and Leeuwin Estates. Both were started in the 1970’s. Leeuwin is a family-owned winery that creates an outstanding Arts Series Chardonnay and, like Chateau Mouton Rothschild, they put the work of a well- known artist on the label. Robert Mondavi was their wine consultant. I’ve tasted their wines only a few times, and my thought was, “This is Australian?” It was subtle. It was gentle and there was no trace of that sunbaked fruit and leathery ruggedness one finds in lesser Australian wines. I’ve seen Leeuwin Estate wines on many wine lists in restaurants around the state, but it’s rare in package stores.

Cape Mentelle is part of the giant luxury conglomerate of Moet-Hennessey Louis Vuitton, which makes champagne, cognac and handbags. Cape Mentelle also owns New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay Winery, which produces a classic sauvignon blanc. Lately they’ve been experimenting with screw tops on their mid-priced wines. They make a great semillion/sauvignon blanc blend. Other Margaret River premium producers to look for are Cullen, Woody Nook, Moss Wood, Pierro and Rivendall. These wines, though cheaper than a Napa cult cabernet, are expensive because of the quality, prestige and shipping costs. Margaret River wines may be partially responsible for the shrinking French market share in Great Britain, since Europe is a closer destination than California. It remains to be seen if the traditionally French-loving Japanese oenophiles will take to Southwest Western Australian wines, creating an even greater market for the product.

The older wine regions of Swan Valley and the adjacent Perth Hills are quickly becoming suburbs, as Perth, the state capital, continues to grow, It’s much hotter there and the wines are more mass-produced than crafted. Several wineries like Sandalford and Tate and Evans also have properties at Margaret River. Houghton, the largest and oldest winery in Western Australia, produces good blended whites. Talijancich Wines produces a port-and- sauterne-type wine that’s fortified with brandy. The grow mainly white grapes.

It’s ironic that the easy-to-get Western Australia wines come from the most remote wine outpost; an area called Mt. Barker and Frankland. This region is completely around the corner and faces south towards the pole. Cool and coastal, this region has been producing a decent riesling. But the best-known wine comes from MadFish, a new winery that’s cashed in on the Yellow Tail phenomenon.

MadFish, like Yellow Tail, Thirsty Lizard and Little Penguin are mass-produce, fruit-laden, approachable wines for everyday consumption. These wines are great because their names are easy to remember and easy to pronounce (MadFish vs. Echezeaux, a famous Burgundy) and they’re less expensive in price. Madfish is true Western Australian wine and a little more expensive than the rest of the animal-named panoply. But it is tasty. MadFish makes the usual varietals, but the white semillion/sauvignon blend is more indicative of the blending techniques of the region. The MadFish cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc blend comes in as my second favorite.

As Margaret River grows in stature, more of their premium wines will be available. They’ll put their proud and distinctive stamp on pinot noir, that most finicky of grapes. Then, they’ll have truly earned their place on the wine world stage.

Tell Tim your wine stories. You can reach him at

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—Tim Protzman

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