Wine | Margaret River milestone | John Lewis

WESTERN Australia’s Margaret River wine region this year is celebrating its 50th anniversary – an event that links a prescient agronomist, a persistent Perth cardiologist and a French sailor who drowned in 1801.

The agronomist was Dr John Gladstones of the University of Western Australia, who in 1965 recommended Margaret River as a suitable new WA winegrowing area to compensate for declining grape production in the established Swan River district. His suggestion was taken up by Perth heart specialist Dr Tom Cullity, who had previously dipped a toe into winegrowing by planting a small vineyard north of Bunbury on land owned by his sister and brother-in-law.

TOUGH: Dr Tom Cullity with Margaret River’s first wine grape vines he planted in 1967 in the Vasse Felix vineyard.

TOUGH: Dr Tom Cullity with Margaret River’s first wine grape vines he planted in 1967 in the Vasse Felix vineyard.

Tom Cullity bought land at Cowaramup and in 1967 planted Margaret River’s first wine grapes. He later recounted that this was achieved by rising on Saturdays at 3am in Perth, driving on largely unsealed roads to begin work on the Margaret River vineyard at 8am. He would sleep in a tiny iron shed, work through Sunday, drive home by midnight and be back doctoring on Monday morning.

In naming his venture he turned to the story of French sailor, Thomas Vasse, from the French exploration windjammer Naturaliste, who drowned in the Geographe Bay surf in 1801. “Unhappy Vasse” was already recalled in the Vasse River and Vasse Highway and Dr Cullity called his vineyard Vasse Felix, Happy Vasse, hoping the venture would fare better than the man. It certainly brought an influx of other, mostly medical, winegrowers - Moss Wood in 1969, Cape Mentelle in 1970, Cullen Wines in 1971, Sandalford in 1972 and Leeuwin Estate, Woodlands and Wrights in 1973.

Today Margaret River is one of Australia’s most prestigious wine regions with more than 165 wine producers and cutting edge winemaking and viticulture. Vasse Felix was acquired by the Holmes a Court family’s Heytesbury Group in 2008 and Paul Holmes a Court now is owner and CEO.

At Vasse Felix on November 16 there will be the $600-per-person Fifty Years in the Making tasting of Margaret River cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. The tasting and lunch will go from 10am to 4pm.  Bookings: Margaret River Wine Association 08 9757 9330 or mrwa@margaretriver.wine. The $250-per-person Margaret River Grand Cabernet Auction and Dinner will be on November 18 at Eight Willows Retreat, Wilyabrup. The five-course menu will be matched with gold-medal wines from the Langton’s Margaret River Wine Show. Tickets: trybooking.com/RNRA. Details: gourmetescape.com.au.