Margaret River accounts for only 3 per cent of total grape production in Australia, but 20 per cent of the premium wine market.
Principal grape varieties of cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and semillon have dominated recent major wine shows and the region’s shiraz is one of the country’s best-valued.
But certain sub-regions within Margaret River are more consistent for particular grape varieties than others.
In 1999, Dr John Gladstones, who first wrote in the late 1950s of the region’s propensity for growing Bordeaux-style varieties, released a paper suggesting the area be split into six official sub-regions due to the different soil types and climates within it: Yallingup, Carbunup, Wilyabrup, Treeton, Wallcliffe and Karridale.
That process has since begun, with Wilyabrup wineries including the famed Cullen Wines and Fraser Gallop Estate applying for the area to become a registered geographical indication within Margaret River; just as Albany, Denmark and others did within the Great Southern wine region.
But the bid has been halted in its tracks.
On Wednesday last week, the Geographical Indications Committee decided not to make a final determination on Wilyabrup.
Presiding member Dennis Mutton said part of the reason was there was still no agreement on the exact boundaries, or attributes, of the proposed region.
He also referenced the ongoing Margaret River Wine Association project, an expensive expedition that involved the CSIRO, soil scientists, climate analysts, academics and experienced viticulturists and winemakers.
“The project could potentially identify discrete viticultural areas within that GI that may meet the criteria for determination as separate GIs,” Mr Mutton said.
“It will also include trained panel sensory analysis to identify areas which are distinct in climate or soil characteristics that could set them apart from the remainder of the Margaret River region.”
Long-time Howard Park owner Jeff Burch has been in Margaret River as long as anyone and owns vineyards in Wilyabrup and other sub-regions of the South West wine mecca.
He said Wilyabrup’s push was a bit premature, given Margaret River was only 50 years old and the Margaret River Region Project study to evaluate links between landscape, climates, soil types and other variations with wine produced in the region was ongoing.
“I don’t think they have gone about the right way,” Mr Burch said.
Pioneering Margaret River wineries Vasse Felix and Leeuwin Estate were not consulted or engaged about the possibility of official geographical indication changes in the formal 2017 application to Wine Australia from Cullen Wines, Fraser Gallop, Lenton Brae, Moss Wood and Woodlands Wines.
Marketing is a major sticking point for the region’s industry, with some arguing sub-regions would help promote brands globally, like Moss Wood’s Keith Mugford, whose family-run Wilyabrup winery has consistently produced some of Australia’s most exceptional cabernet.
“One of the issues we find with international consumers interested in those sorts of things is they don’t have the clarity,” Mr Mugford said.
But Mr Burch, whose winery has been operating in Margaret River since 1986, said the region was still comparatively young on the international wine scene.
“I’m not opposed to [geographical indication] but for marketing reasons we are only 50 years old globally … Burgundy is 1000 years old,” he said.
“You’re destroying 50 years of work to build up the Margaret River name … no one’s even heard of Wilyabrup.
“If you’re going to do it, do it properly, and gather all the scientific data, which is what the project is currently trying to gather.”
It should be done for everyone, all the sub-regions, or we’re creating elitism … when it’s about individuality.
Margaret River winemaker Ryan Walsh
MRWA chief executive Amanda Whiteland said the region was not yet able to scientifically validate where, or to what extent, uniqueness or uniformity occurred.
“It is with much relief the GIC has reached this decision,” she said.
“It gives us time to complete the necessary scientific work and for any GIs within Margaret River to be granted on a thorough scientific basis.”
For a region to earn its own geographical indication, it must produce at least 500 tonnes of grapes per year and include at least five vineyards that are not of common ownership.
A wine that claims to be from Wilyabrup would also need to be made from at least 85 per cent of grapes grown in that region.
Wine producers in Wilyabrup can continue to label their wines with ‘Wilyabrup’, provided the origin of the wine is not misleading.
Local winemakers Ryan and Freya Walsh’s label Walsh & Sons produces wine from vineyards in Wallcliffe in two locations, Burnside and Osmington, which are kilometres apart.
“Much is yet to be discovered in style and soil, so we label our wines on their locality as opposed to the generalised sub-regions,” Mr Walsh said.
“We much prefer local names as they better represent the small communities that exist within Margaret River.
“How do you decide on boundaries? In Wallcliffe, for example, you can be 2 kilometres from the coast, or 22 kilometres.”
Mr Walsh also suggested Wilyabrup’s push for independence was more about marketing and valuation purposes.
The application for Wilyabrup’s geographical indication will now be suspended pending further scientific research on the region.
David writes about sports and lifestyle for WAtoday.