History of winemaking early days Margaret River

Vines and winemaking are an essential part of the Margaret River Region’s DNA. From pretty much the earliest days of settlement in the Margaret River Region, vines were a part of the area’s history.

Tom Cullity Winemaking History Margaret River
Tom Cullity (aged 43) with the first Vasse Felix vines.

The Bussells planted vines in the 1830s for use as table grapes and to make wine for the family. In about 1851, Elijah Dawson planted the region’s first commercial vineyard at Vasse – three acres of vines to supply wine to the significant numbers of the American whalers who plied their trade off the coast of Western Australia.

Giacomo Meleri had a vineyard at Yallingup from 1920 to 1950 which, at its peak, was four hectares in size. He had a cellar door at which he offered tastings and also sold his ‘Red Dynamite’ at the local dances.

The distinguished American viticulturist, Professor Harold Olmo, spent eight months in Western Australia on a Fullbright Research scholarship in 1955 to examine problems in the wine industry in the Swan Valley. While here, he visited the Great Southern and his report included a recommendation that this area could produce high quality light, dry table wines and boost Western Australia’s economy.


History of winemaking early days Margaret River
Tom Cullity, David Gregg & Bob Holluck inspect vigorous riesling foliage at Vasse Felix, 1975.

The report was welcomed by the local wine community especially leading winemaker Jack Mann, and chief viticulturist Bill Jamieson. When the Minister of Industrial Development, Charles Court, heard of the possibilities for economic growth, he became strongly supportive. The result of all this was the establishment of an experimental vineyard at Forest Hill in Mount Barker in 1966.

In the meantime, Dr John Gladstones, an agronomist at the University of Western Australia, followed up his contact with Professor Olmo both in Perth and California by challenging some of his assumptions. While Olmo had dismissed the likelihood of Margaret River being suitable for viticulture because of its high rainfall, Gladstones drew on his personal experience of the region to suggest that it would be even better than the Great Southern wine region, as long as vines were planted on well-drained soil.

Tom Cullity Winemaking History Vasse Felix Margaret River
Tom Cullity and Jack Mann.

His two papers led directly to the establishing of the vineyards and wineries on which the Margaret River wine industry was founded: Vasse Felix (1967), Moss Wood (1969), Cape Mentelle (1970) and Cullen (1971). Pivotal, too, were the large vineyards at Sandalford (1972) and Leeuwin (1974).

The lack of infrastructure made it difficult for vignerons in the first 15 years or more, but the quality of the early wines attracted attention to the region. The success of Cape Mentelle with back-to-back Jimmy Watson Trophy winners in 1983 and 1984 further underlined the region’s potential.

The number of vineyards and wineries increased so that there were more than 40 by 1995. At this stage, only Cape Mentelle had majority ownership from outside the region.

Gourmet Escape Vasse Felix Wines
50 years on and Vasse Felix is home to a wonderful cellar door, award winning restaurant and art collection.

Stellar cellar doors and picturesque winery restaurants are matched by excellent accommodation and stunning local scenery to make the Margaret River Region an enticing international tourist destination. In recent years, the popular Gourmet Escape has enhanced the region’s reputation as a tourist drawcard.

The 1990s saw a huge lift in the quality of the wines from Margaret River which appeared due, at least in part, to increased vine age. Until this time, Margaret River was the area that fell within the boundaries of the Busselton and Margaret River shires. The Margaret River wine producers invited Dr Gladstones to draw up the boundaries for the region in 1994, accepting his recommendation, which became enshrined in law as one of the country’s geographical indications in October 1996.

Since this time, Margaret River has become firmly established as one of the best wine regions in Australia, and its wines have established a formidable reputation in wine shows both at home and abroad.

Cullen Wines Vineyard
Cullen’s biodynamic vineyard, cellar door and restaurant.
Peter Forrestal
A Thousand Fathers: A History of the Early Days of the Margaret River Wine Industry by Peter Forrestal & Ray Jordan was published by Margaret River Press