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Denis (left) and Tricia Horgan at the winery with daughter Simone Horgan-Furlong and son Justin Horgan. Photos: Frances Andrijich

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ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL: From sleepy country town to international tourism destination, wine has been vital to Margaret River’s growth, but there’s much more to it. This article is part of a special series to mark Business News' 25-year anniversary.

The Margaret River region has grown to be one of Western Australia’s top tourist destinations.

The region’s popularity has been, to a large extent, driven by the development of the wine industry.

Margaret River produces 20 per cent of the nation’s premium wine from just 3 per cent of Australia’s total grape crush, with the quality of this offering gaining international recognition across the five decades since the first vines were planted.

It is a remarkable story of success from those entrepreneurs willing to gamble on a relatively unknown slice of farming land in the 1960s.

One of the five founding wineries in the region, Leeuwin Estate, has gone on to produce wines ranked among the finest in the world.

Founders of the family-run winery, Denis and Tricia Horgan, said it was not a love of wine but rather an unexpected phone call in 1972 from Mr Horgan’s solicitor that initiated the shift into grapes.

“Two American gentlemen had been enquiring as to who owned this little pocket of land in Margaret River,” Mr Horgan said.

“They tracked down my solicitor and asked to purchase my land, which, like most of the estates down here was being used for cattle at the time.”

One of those interested parties was renowned Napa Valley vineyard operator Robert Mondavi, the other his attorney.

“One of the world’s most influential men in the wine industry wanted to buy my land. He had looked over it thoroughly and believed it had the possibility to produce exceptional wine. I didn’t sell to Mondavi, but meeting him changed everything,” Mr Horgan told Business News.

Mondavi closely mentored the Horgans, helping them establish the vineyards and winery direction, leading up to Leeuwin Estate’s first commercial vintage in 1979.

“So many of our fundamental operational decisions came from his assistance,” Mr Horgan said.

Leeuwin Estate is one of five founding wineries in the Margaret River region.

In 1982, Leeuwin’s Art Series chardonnay received the highest recommendation in the UK’s Decanter Magazine. Overnight, Leeuwin Estate achieved international recognition, and so had the (then) sleepy town of Margaret River.

“We had no idea our chardonnay had made its way over there. That was a milestone for the Margaret River wine industry,” Mrs Horgan said.

“Backed up with the 1983 and 1984 Jimmy Watson trophies awarded to Cape Mentelle, those moments really impacted the wine industry here and started putting Margaret River on the map.”

Australian expectations around wine culture were more rudimentary in those early days, with Mr Horgan remembering that 60 per cent of wine was the cask variety when Leeuwin Estate was founded.

“We grew the industry together – the Cullity brothers, the Cullens and the rest of the founders down here. It was through our solidarity that the industry grew,” he said.

“We shared our knowledge, we weren’t competing against each other; we were building Margaret River up together. There is an excitement in the next generation of the wine industry now that has that same energy; it is wonderful to see.”

Tourism options

Despite its growing international recognition, the Margaret River region remained isolated and unknown to many east coast Australians.

To rectify this lack of awareness the Horgans went looking for a drawcard, and found it in the Leeuwin Concert.

“The Leeuwin Concert was without a doubt the single most important thing that has happened to Margaret River,” Mr Horgan said.

After several attempts to entice the West Australian Symphony Orchestra down for a performance, it was an expensive underwriting of the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s national tour that led to the first Leeuwin concert – and launched Margaret River on the fast track to becoming a tourism destination.

“We never thought they would say yes to a concert in the bush,” Mr Horgan said.

“It was a mad thing to do, but it worked. Tickets sold out within 24 hours and it opened up the doors for our wine distribution in the eastern states. It also started bringing people to the region. A lot more people.”

As welcome as the influx of guests was to the region, they were met with an acute shortage of suitable accommodation.

As much as the sector has grown in recent years, further opportunities are available in high-end accommodation, according to Michael Whyte, wine sales manager for Burch Family Wines and co-proprietor of luxury retreat La Forêt

Enchantée.

Mr Whyte said the sector was far more sophisticated in Margaret River nearly three decades on, with many of the original businesses and people still in town, but having developed and created world-class tourism experiences.

“Gastronomically you can now enjoy such amazing cuisine and smart service – sommeliers and staff who are very understanding of wine when looking after you,” Mr Whyte told Business News.

“We have shifted from a country town experience to an international destination. The great opportunity now, is that we see the space for ‘six-star’ lodges and boutique hotels. Travellers know our wines, understand what their quality is and the dining offering is there. The next step is accommodation. I think it is going to be an amazing decade ahead of us.”

Tour operator Helen Lee is another to have grown her business in parallel to the growth of the region’s reputation. She said when Bushtucker Tours started in 1990 there wasn’t really anything to do in the region.

“Margaret River had one major street,” she said.

“It has grown from 2,000 people to 12,000 people.” Offering tourists a ‘soft adventure’ option, her tours are a drawcard for more discerning international tourists and family travellers, with online bookings and social media opening up huge new markets and providing direct-to-customer contact.

The planned expansion of Busselton Airport will have a key part to play in Margaret River’s future, particularly in terms of tapping into markets in Asia and the eastern states.

“Long weekend tourism will be available to those flying direct from the eastern states and, not long after, South East Asia. Imagine leaving home on Friday [in Sydney] and being here with glass of red by 6pm,” Mr Whyte said.


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4th-WA Symphony Orchestra$19.7m
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