Margaret River’s new wave of wine

When Josephine Perry entered the Margaret River Wine Show in 2014, her ‘Skinnie’ was met with confusion.

“Someone pulled it out and said ‘this is faulty’ and I said, ‘no, it’s an orange wine’,” Perry recalls.

“It is 100 per cent sav blanc but it is bright orange, fermented on skins in an amphora for up to five months, with no sulphur. It stumped them. They didn’t have a category they could put my wines in.”

And so the competition’s “alternative styles and emerging varieties” categories were born.

“That first year it was just my wine but now there are a few people, beautiful names down here, that are making those kind of styles because they can see it’s a style people want to drink.”

Perry is one of a new wave of winemakers in the Margaret River region who are turning the tide on tradition. Over the past decade, a thriving counterculture has emerged in a place primarily heralded for its chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon.

Machines and mass production have been traded for small batch and sustainability. There is a prevailing attitude of making wines accessible and drinkable, rather than award-winnable. And while they may cover a variety of shades on the winemaking spectrum, these producers all have one thing in common: they are making wine they want to drink, using the method they think is best. And what they are delivering is proving incredibly popular.

From utilising ancient and natural winemaking methods to exploring lesser known grape varieties and experimenting with different combinations, the next generation of wines from the South West are different and delicious.

Dylan Arvidson – LS Merchants, Cowaramup

Try: the 2020 Vermentino. A zippy Italian white grown near the ocean in Margaret River.

Dylan Arvidson is passionate about flavour. Everything the young winemaker does at LS Merchants comes back to whether the drop is delicious.

Sure, he uses low intervention methods and works predominantly with organic growers, but they are part of his philosophy of packing as much natural flavour into his wine as he can.

LS Merchants winemaker Dylan Arvidson with his dog Flash.Credit:Dion Robeson

He makes picking decisions based on first tastes in the vineyard and bottling decisions on how the wine tastes in the tank or barrel.

“Nothing’s really done to a strict timeline or a strict analysis, it is just ‘does it taste good, well then let’s put it to bottle’,” he explains.

“Flavour has always been a driving force for me and wine is so subjective, everyone enjoys different things but I really think we shouldn’t try to over-make wine.

“So many wineries really try and force these wines to be what they traditionally have been out of France, like cabernet out of Bordeaux or chardonnay out of Burgundy. You always look to those wines and they are the shining light I guess in terms of world wine, but at the same time, I want a local wine I can open and say ‘man, that’s delicious and it tastes like these grapes from this place’.

“So we make wine by feel, try and work as sustainably as possible and, I guess most importantly, we pay a lot of attention to the right variety planted on the right soil in the right area.”

At the LS Merchants Cowaramup cellar door, visitors are greeted by a sign that reads “taking the wank out of wine since 2015″.

For a boy from Geelong, inspired by the natural wine coming out of South Australia, Arvidson thinks WA is now leading the charge with interesting, well made, minimal intervention wines.

“Whereas some of the eastern states are a little bit more tied to that idea of natural wine, in WA we have said, ‘we’re just going to do what we do’.

“Wines are delicious, we make them with love, we make them by hand, we don’t have to fit into this, you know, tight definition … we’re all doing something different because we’re sick of the standard so there is no right or wrong, it should just be about what’s delicious.”

Sarah Morris and Iwo Jakimowicz – Si Vintners, Rosa Glen

Try: the 2020 Sophie Rose. A light skin contact pinot noir rosé matured in concrete eggs.

Si Vintners’ Sarah Morris and Iwo Jakimowicz at their property in the Margaret River region.

For partners Sarah Morris and Iwo Jakimowicz, it’s all about the land.

At Si Vintners, they craft small-batch wines from estate-grown grapes in Rosa Glen, just east of the small town of Witchcliffe. Chickens and ducks roam the property and babydoll sheep are used to control grass among the vines and provide a natural fertiliser.

Since buying the mature vineyard in 2010, they have used organic and bio-dynamic farming principles and gently produce wines that are naturally fermented in a range of vessels.

“When we started we knew we wanted to farm organically and we don’t want to use any additives in winemaking,” Jakimowicz says.

“Now this place has had 10 years of biodynamic love and it’s so much healthier and more resilient.”

The couple, who met while studying at Curtin University is “really obsessed with acidity” and work with chardonnay, cabernet and pinot noir grapes, among others, to produce bold, avant-garde wines.

“We love natural acidity and we love the tension that creates in a wine,” Jakimowicz says. “We spent a lot of time in Europe and love making wines that seek to compare to the French wines we drink.”

Morris says those wines are popular with city drinkers too. During the time we chat at the winery, one young couple roll through for a tasting and leave laden with cases.

“We are blown away by how well educated this younger crew are about food and wine. They are hungry for knowledge and so many of them know so much about our philosophy, it’s quite impressive,” Morris says.

“There’s a lot of people, especially in their late 20s, loving those fully funky wines and then there are people who like our wine because they want to consume products with less additives and things … that’s who we are making wine for and we are excited there are increasingly more producers down here doing the same.”

Nic Peterkin – L.A.S Vino, Wilyabrup

Try: the 2018 Pirate Blend. A unique blend of three traditional port grapes.

L.A.S Vino’s Nic Peterkin working with an organic cabernet.Credit:Tess Ingram

The pirates of fables are rule-breaking outlaws pursuing their personal desires with passion.

Nic Peterkin, you could argue, is somewhat of a modern-day winemaking pirate, chasing his winemaking dreams with gusto and individuality. As the son of Mike Peterkin, who planted the family’s Pierro vineyard in 1980 and is renowned for the chardonnay it produces, he has a strong wine heritage but he refuses to conform to tradition.

“Chardonnay I find kind of boring because it’s been done,” he says with a grin.

“I want to make wines that build on what’s already happening in the region.”

His Pirate Blend, for example, is unlike anything produced in Margaret River. It contains three Portuguese varieties – touriga nacional, tinta cao and sousao – traditionally used in port.

“I couldn’t resist giving them a try as a blend,” he said. “There’s a really small production over here, I think only three or four vineyards in WA. I wanted to put it into a port-style bottle as an ode to the varieties and it occurred to me this was such a pirate wine, and so the name stuck.”

Along with a few others in the region, he is also working to revive chenin, offering a crisp, dry organic and biodynamic version.

L.A.S stands for luck, art and science, which Peterkin says you need a strong combination of to make good wines. The first wines under that banner were made in 2013 but Peterkin says it was a bit of luck a few years earlier, that gave him and some of his regional peers an opportunity in the competitive wine industry.

“When a few of us got going there was this perfect storm of external factors that I think set us on this course,” he recalls.

“We had just had the GFC and so there were a lot of excess grapes down here, we had a really high Australian dollar and no jobs for winemakers because of all of that. It presented an opportunity for a young winemaker to go out on their own and try something different.

“We are not treating wine like a big industry thing. We are all under 100 tonnes, and big commercial wineries are doing that in a day, so it’s a very different ethos.”

Josephine Perry – Dormilona, Margaret River

Try: the 2020 Clayface cabernet. Made in an Italian clay amphora, this wine was plunged daily by feet and hand then left to macerate on its skins for five months.

Dormilona winemaker Josephine Perry with her dog Humphrey at her Margaret River winery.Credit:Tess Ingram

Dormilona means lazy bones in Spanish. It was the nickname given to winemaker Jo Perry during a stint in Spain “because I was always tuckered out and looking for somewhere to sleep” but to the contrary, her winemaking methods, while hands-off, are all about effort and attention to detail.

Perry’s wines are made from familiar varieties like chardonnay and cabernet but they are not typical of the wines of the region.

“Cabernet and chardonnay are the royal family of the area,” Perry says.

“I do love tradition and I don’t like to mess with it but I do put my play on it.”

From picking early, to using clay amphoras to ferment and mature wine, Perry is focused on handling the grapes as little as possible to allow the fruit to express itself.

Behind Ben Gould’s Blind Corner, which Perry cites as one of the pioneers of natural and organic wines in the region, Perry and her partner Jim Crespin bottled the first Dormilona wines in 2013, making them among the first of the ‘new wave’ of producers in Margaret River influenced by changing drinking trends and European winemaking approaches.

While her wines can be found in Perth bottleshops and bars, it’s the region’s community that Perry is increasingly intent on servicing. She has moved her operation to the centre of town and hopes to open a cellar door and bottleshop, with options for locals to fill and recycle one litre “flasks” of her wine.

“That sense of community is really important to me,” she says.

“And while what we do has always been at the smaller end of town, I feel like there is a shift coming, with some of the bigger wineries coming in and doing pet nats [a rustic sparkling wine] and orange wines.

“I’m so for it, because they have the money and infrastructure and they are going to put us more on the map. It’s just a matter of whether it is going to be sustainable. I remember when I first started everyone was bagging me saying, ‘natural winemaking is such a phase, it will go out of fashion’ and it just hasn’t.”

Livia Maiorana and Mijan Patterson – South by South West, Cowaramup

Try: the 2020 Chardonnay. A contemporary Margaret River chardonnay that has been hand-harvested and whole bunch pressed.

Mijan Patterson and Livia Maiorana hard at work on their 2020 vintage with their dog Meeka.

They have only been making their own wine for five years, but Livia Maiorana and Mijan Patterson have already noticed a change in the way people are consuming wine.

“There has been a shift to people being more aware of what they’re consuming, what goes into wine and how it’s made. I also think younger people especially have different perspectives now in terms of wine and food and are treating wine with a little bit more respect,” Maiorana says.

“When we first started, we made a shiraz but we called it syrah because we made it more at that lighter end of the spectrum. This was back in 2016 and people couldn’t get their heads around syrah and couldn’t even really pronounce it… now we are finding that the weirder the name is, the more people want it. It is like people’s minds have opened up.”

Their label, South by South West, was born near Lake Tahoe in California when Maiorana and Patterson were on a global wine safari, where they studied (and drank) wine from different regions of the world.

The pair returned home to Australia and set up in Margaret River in 2016 with a view to putting a contemporary spin on classical winemaking methods, while really honouring the South West region. Maiorana studied winemaking but also has a degree in organic chemistry and engineering, while Patterson is a graphic designer by trade.

“We learned so much about how small-batch wines can tell a story about their region of origin and wanted to come here and use the great grapes in this region to just make wines that we like, in styles that we like to drink, it’s pretty much that easy,” Maiorana says.

“We are passionate about food and like to make lifestyle wine … we don’t make any big reds, we try and make lower alcohol wines and be more on the savory spectrum as opposed to big fruit bowls. They’re the wines we like to drink.”

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