Saturday, February 16, 2013

Margaret River Underground

Margaret River is a beautifully unique area of the world. It is home to a myriad of species indigenous only to here, amazing wine, great beaches and surf, and unique geology. Contained entirely within the Margaret River region, Leeuwin-Nauraliste National Park is home to several hundred caves. The majority of the region's caves are highly protected by the Australian government, and either cannot be accessed or are accessible only by experiences cavers and scientists holding permits.
Fortunately, six have been opened to the public.

I've been fortunate to tour through several caves around the world. It's such a magical experience entering into these structures that have been slowly growing for thousands and thousands of years. So, visiting Margaret River's caves was definitely on my pre-vintage to-do list; I opted to purchase an Ultimate Pass from the Margaret River Tourism Association; this gives entry to 3 caves and a tour of the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse anytime during a seven-day period, all for just $85. Since everything is so close,  I decided to get an early morning start and make a day of it.

Mammoth Cave - This is the first cave reached when traveling south from Margaret River township along the aptly named Caves Road. This was also the region's first cave discovered in 1850 and has been open to the public since 1904. You can explore the cave via a self-guided tour using an MP3 player. I was least impressed with this cave, though it was beautiful and is the only one where explorers have discovered fossils from animals and humans (aboriginals used the cave as a safety from poor weather, etc.). Actually, the highlight of this cave for me was the adjoining Marri Trial; the cave's exit drops you off right at the trial head that leads through a really nice Jarrah-Karri forest before looping back to the car park.
Lake Cave - Just a few kilometers south of Mammoth Cave can be found Lake Cave. I scheduled on the next tour and had a half hour to spend enjoyying the CaveWorks information centre here; this provides a history of caving in the region, the geology of caves, and a nice view into the massive doline (cave entryway). When it was time, I descended the long staircase dropping past massive Karri trees; the doline is estimated to have open only 1,000 years ago and some of these trees inside our hundreds of years old. Lake Cave is the smallest but most stunning cave of the three I toured; it is the most active cave in Margaret River and is the only one home to a permanent lake. Its 'suspended table' is the largest of only a few examples of this type of formation in the world; several tonnes of rock are suspended above the lake floor by 2 columns.
Jewel Cave - This the largest cave open to the public in Margaret River and composed of four massive chambers. It was only a 15-minute drive down from Lake Cave, so I enjoyed the adjacent Karri Trial before the next tour began. Jewel Cave's main claim to fame is one particular pencil-thin structure called a straw; it is one of the longest in the whole world and has been actively growing for over 55,000 years. Along with this, a myriad of amazing structures compose this cave.
 After my caving adventure, I continued south from Jewel Cave to the small town of Augusta. I'll discuss my afternoon there in a following post.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Harvest Update - And It Begins

I had my first few days of work at Vasse Felix last week here in Margaret River. It seems like only yesterday I was finishing vintage in California, but here we go again!
We received our first few lots of hand-picked Chardonnay this past Thursday and Friday, allowing us to ease into vintage a little bit. Hot weather over the past several days, including today's forecasted high of 40° C (104° F), will be creating some rapid ripening here. This means we will be seeing an influx of white varietals starting this week and the beginning of 24-hour operation at the winery; myself and several others will be starting the night shift (6 PM - 6 AM) tonight.

While it's still pretty early in vintage, everyone seems pretty excited about another stellar year for Margaret River wines. Since 2007, the region has enjoyed great growing seasons. Forecasts show a cooling trend after today, which will help slow ripening for better flavor development (and better daytime sleeping conditions!), so fingers crossed.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Wine Region - Margaret River

Appellation/Region - Margaret River
Sub-region(s) - Carbunup, Karridale, Treeton, Wallcliffe, Wilyabrup, and Yallingup
Location
- Australia (South West Australia Zone; 34th south parallel)
Size -  5,500 hectares planted to vineyards
Rainfall - 1,130 mm/yr (44 in/yr)
Growing Degree Days - 1,597° C
Varietals- Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Malbec, Merlot, Mourvedre, Petit Verdot, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Shiraz, Tempranillo, Verdelho.
Claim to Fame - World-class Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux varietal red blends, not to mention stunning Chardonnays.

Margaret River is a relatively small region, located in Southwest Australia and running just over 100 kilometers from north to south and reaching 40 kilometers wide in parts. It is bounded to the north by Cape Naturaliste, the west by the Indian Ocean, the east by the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge, and the south by Cape Leeuwin. The region is named after the town of Margaret River, founded in 1831 and situated almost exactly in the middle of the region. Its past economy was based on agriculture and hardwood, though now relies primarily on tourism and the wine industry.
The potential of Margaret River as a world-class wine region was first noted in a Journal of the Australian Institute for Agricultural Science article written by John Gladstone in 1961. Six years later, Tom Cullity planted the region's first vines on eight acres located on Harman's Road; the property, which he named Vasse Felix, has since grown into one of the region's top wineries. Today, the region is home to over 140 wineries producing wines from 5,500 hectares of vineyards. Primarily boutique producers, the largest may crush only 4,000 tonnes in a given vintage. Providing just three percent of Australia's total grape tonnage, Margaret River wines represents approximately thirty percent of the country's premium wine market.
Surrounded by ocean on three sides, Margaret River enjoys a Mediterranean climate due to the strong maritime influence from the Indian Ocean. Its average rainfall of 1,130 millimeters (44 inches) falls almost exclusively between May and August (winter). Summertime weather is rather warm, though sea breezes help moderate temperatures and provide perfect humidity throughout the growing season. It is home to a wide array of interesting native flora and fauna, not to mention a quickly growing wine industry.
Often compared to Bordeaux during a dry vintage, Margaret River is an ideal grape growing region that delivers consistently high quality wines. Its run of vintages over the past seven years has not been matched anywhere in the world, and Margaret River wines have increasingly been recognized as benchmarks. The region is best known for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux-style blends, Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blends, and Chardonnay.

Margaret River's grape varietals, wine styles, and sub-regional distinctions will be discussed in a following post so check back.