Greg Sherwood MW: Wine industry lessons from a visit to Western Australia

By , 12 June 2024



The entrance to Vasse Felix, Margaret River’s oldest winery.

Over my almost 30 years working in the wine trade, I have had some incredible opportunities to travel to many of the world’s most beautiful wine regions including vineyards across Europe and the United States of America, both on the east coast and the west coast. But like many wine trade professionals, I still have a fairly long bucket list of countries and wine regions I would love to visit, and as my own palate and personal preferences have evolved over the years, the running order on that list has changed continuously. Coming close to the top is probably Patagonia in southern Argentina as well as Mendoza further north, followed closely by New Zealand’s north and south islands.

Coming in at third place, has always been Australia. Now, if you consider Australia is about the same size as the USA, one soon realises that getting a proper fulfilling experience of the various wine regions from east to west is quite a tall order for one or even multiple trips. But one must start somewhere and in early June, I was invited to judge at the International Wine and Spirits Competition (IWSC) in Margaret River, which is probably one of Australia’s most desirable wine competitions alongside The Wine Show of Western Australia and The Perth Royal Wine Awards.

Perth, the capital of Western Australia, is synonymous for having one of the largest South African communities outside of South Africa itself. Indeed, the trend for Saffers’ to ‘Pack for Perth’ has been in the wider cultural vernacular of South Africans for many decades already. But it is only when you get there that you realise why South Africans have been so drawn to this incredibly beautiful and pristine oasis on the west coast of Australia with its unspoilt white sand beaches and wild scrubland bush interior.

For me as a wine professional, it also happens to be the home of the Margaret River Wine region, arguably one of, if not the most premium wine producing region within the whole of Australia. It is certainly one of the most pristine and geographically secluded coastal wine regions I have ever visited anywhere in the world. With its breathtaking ancient landforms, lush forests and distinct Ironstone gravel soils, it also happens to enjoy a textbook perfect growing conditions for vines and making fine wines with its consistent Mediterranean climate and intense maritime influence from both the Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean.

If the above descriptive language resembles another beautiful wine region, you wouldn’t be wrong. Indeed, the similarities between the rugged beauty of the Cape and the Western Australia winelands is marked, and undoubtedly a significant factor that draws so many South African’s to this neck of the woods and makes them feel so instantaneously at home while still being so far away from the Cape.

Also, I do of course love Australian wines, so it has been with great interest over the past decades that I have read all the various wine competition results covering at first the Tri-Nations Wine Competition between South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and more latterly, the expanded blind international wine competitions that have emerged to include both South American and North American wines – see 2023 results here. So, after my recent week of judging in Western Australia, I have admittedly discovered annew degree of jealously for grandee Michael Fridjhon’s long term historical involvement in all these competitions over the past years.

Margaret River Wines may only represent 2% of the greater Australian grape crush, but their elegant and classical Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnay expressions are some of the most noteworthy in the world combining an elegant light touch approach with perfectly ripened fruit that displays not only a superb balance, refinement and structure, but all done so at normally respectably low alcohol levels thanks to the tempering coastal influences.

The similarities to the Cape winelands don’t end there. Like the Cape, with its fractured estate system that has led to a great amount of individual character between neighbouring wineries, Margaret River is awash with small artisanal and family-owned wineries that dominate the landscape, and their preference for handcrafted winemaking and respectful creativity certainly shines through compared to many other Australian wine regions on the east coast.

Like South Africa’s own premium wine making regions of Stellenbosch, Paarl, Elgin and Constantia for example, the Margaret River region and its 100+ cellar door operations have always tried to focus on premium quality at premium prices, complimenting their winery practices with a wide range of gourmet culinary experiences, stunning nature and a spirited arts and crafts scene that helps attract over 1.5 million overnight visitors per year. Being over three and a half hours or 300 kilometres south of Perth, this is quite an achievement when you consider that Stellenbosch is only a mere 45-minute drive from Cape Town city centre.

When I started selling wine in the UK in the early 2000s, Robert Parker was hitting his prime in terms of scoring and influence and he certainly did not turn a blind eye to the big, bold wine expressions coming out of South Eastern Australia. But as a wine merchant more akin to selling the restrained classical styles from South Africa, wines with old world structure and new world fruit, the more classical styles of Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Chardonnay from Western Australia and Victoria certainly resonated with me greatly.

Within the UK fine wine trade, there would be a running joke that every time Robert Parker released his annual reviews on Australian wines, we would automatically seek out the 86-to-88/100-point wines, which more often than not, would come from cooler regional dispositions in Margaret River or perhaps some of the cooler sub-regions of Victoria. Parker, of course, had an obvious penchant for the big, rich, 15% to 16% percent alcohol old vine wines of the Barossa Valley, Clare Valley and McLaren Vale and perhaps influenced many of those regions’ wineries to pursue a more “Parkerised” style than they may have otherwise.

Ironically, the wineries of the Cape were not immune to Parker’s influence and many famous producers also found themselves pushing the hang times and picking ripeness often to the detriment of the final wine quality. I myself have been at countless blind tastings, many of them for the Nederburg Auction wine selection panel, where tasting alongside Winemag’s editor Christian Eedes, Wine Cellar’s Roland Peens and of course Michael Fridjhon, we were all a pains to point out that the wines made in the Cape from between 2000 to 2008 were some of the most disappointing and short lived wines produced in the recent, post-apartheid history of Cape winemaking.

Thankfully, 2009 saw many of the premium producers of the Cape turn the corner and revert to a more classical, tempered styled of winemaking where elegance, minerality, and freshness once again returned to the fore. Indeed, one of the most notable features seen while judging hundreds of red and white wines from Margaret River was their attention to detail, classical purity, freshness and minerality, all facets of quality that would undoubtedly be lessened if not lost altogether if producers merely strived for ripeness over the region’s naturally occurring restraint.

For this reason, the region has been recognised and rewarded annually by the leading wine shows in Australia, with the famous Halliday Wine Companion 2023 results awarding Margaret River wineries more 5-Star ratings than any other region in Australia. Similarly, the Margaret River region has also received the most Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon trophies at the prestigious Australian Capital City and National Wine Shows.

I know many South African wine producers have an enduring fascination with the classical wine regions of Europe and Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône are much frequented. Of course, the close access and lack of time difference makes this an relatively easy and affordable pastime. However, if I owned a budding premium winery in the Cape, that was looking for inspiration and pointers to help up my game in terms of production quality, marketing expertise and winery cellar-door tourism, I would prioritise the beautiful Margaret River Wine Region to visit as the takeaway knowledge and expertise would be invaluable and easily reapplied within the South African context.

  • Greg Sherwood was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and as the son of a career diplomat, spent his first 21 years traveling the globe with his parents. With a Business Management and Marketing degree from Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, Sherwood began his working career as a commodity trader. In 2000, he decided to make more of a long-held interest in wine taking a position at Handford Wines in South Kensington, London, working his way up to the position of Senior Wine Buyer. Earlier this year, he moved across to South African specialist merchant Museum Wines to become the Fine Wine Director. He qualified as a Master of Wine in 2007.


2 comment(s)

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    Owen Mc Donald | 17 June 2024

    Visited Margaret River over 20 years ago and I couldn’t find a bad Chardonnay anywhere. Cab sauv much the same. Also found some great Verdelho and Cape Mentelle had a lovely Zinfandel. Very impressed. Some notable producers back then that I Remember : Moss Wood, Vasse Felix, Cape Mentelle, Leeuwin, Cullen

      Greg Sherwood | 17 June 2024

      Indeed. You are a lucky man. Of course those estates you quote and tasted are what they now call the founding heritage estates. The equivalent to our Meerlust and Kanonkops! They are not cheap anymore but their quality is still exceptional. But, like in SA, there seems to be a new generation of wineries pushing for prominence and my IWSC judging identified a number of these wineries. Time stands still for no man! But it was and remains an icon wine region to visit!

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