Jo Burzynska heads to Western Australia and uncovers some pleasant surprises in the vineyards of the Margaret River and beyond.
Given that I'd been long-seduced by its sauvignon semillons, was crazy about its cabernet blends, and had been excited by what I'd been hearing about its culinary scene, it was amazingly only last year that I finally made it over to Margaret River. And when I finally arrived in Western Australia there were surprises in store.
Its geographical distance from just about anywhere in the world was the main reason for my somewhat tardy first visit. And after touching down in Perth after a seven-hour flight, revelation number one was that rather than being the quick hop from Perth as I'd assumed, Margaret River was in fact a three- to four-hour drive. Those Aussie distances can sure confound small-country folk!
I found the drive an easy one, however, with the opportunity to take a break at the pleasant seaside town of Busselton to admire its beaches and iconic 2km pier. In no time at all I was driving down the pretty tree-lined lanes that criss-cross the gently undulating wine country of Margaret River.
I visited before the bushfires that hit the region in November. Despite rumours of devastation, only a small area of predominantly national park land was actually affected and no vineyards lost.
Tracking alongside 100kms of dramatic surf coastline from Dunsborough to Augusta and set among pleasant countryside, Margaret River's vineyards cover a similar area to that of Hawkes Bay.
Another draw for travellers as well as vignerons is its consistently temperate Mediterranean-type climate. Winters are relatively mild, while in summer temperatures are moderated by ocean breezes and rarely get over 35 degrees.
This is quality wine country. Though Margaret River may only produce three per cent of the country's wine grapes, it accounts for 20 per cent of Australia's premium wine production. These are crafted by the region's predominantly boutique producers, which makes the region perfect for top flight wine touring.
Although early European settlers planted the region's first vineyards in the early 20th century, Margaret River only took off as a wine region from the mid-60s. This followed a report by the agronomist John Gladstone that identified Margaret River as possessing a similar climate to the renowned French wine region of Bordeaux, which inspired a bunch of doctors to establish the region's first commercial vineyards of the modern era.
Unsurprisingly, it was with Bordeaux's main grape varieties that Margaret River made its name and with which it continues to excel.
Its refined cabernet sauvignon-based blends are some of the greatest in the country, while its semillon sauvignon blancs offer a more restrained and grassy alternative to our supercharged single varietal sauvignons.
Beyond these, my travels confirmed that its increasingly elegantly styled chardonnays were also exciting stuff.
With 120 wine producers and many cellar doors, visitors are spoilt for choice on the Margaret River wine trail.
My first stop was a pilgrimage to Cullen, one of the region's founding wineries and one of my personal favourite Australian producers. Made with meticulous attention to detail from the family's organic and biodynamic vineyard, its fine, pure and fresh wines can be sampled at its rustic cellar door or enjoyed at its acclaimed restaurant, where Kiwi chef Matt Egan sources produce for his organic menu from the winery garden and its local environs.
Sadly, along with numerous great wines from Australia's other regions, many of Margaret River's highlights never make it to us across the Tasman. So when you're there, it's worth seeking out some less familiar names.
With labels such as Suckfizzle and Skuttlebutt, Stella Bella makes wines with highly memorable monikers.
Echoing the eclecticism of its branding, its wines span fine examples of the region's classic varieties to alternative fare such as pink muscat and sangiovese, poured in the unlikely but pleasant surrounds of one of the region's oldest cellar doors situated in an old abattoir.
You may be more familiar with Clairault, after its highly regarded winery restaurant with its seasonally inspired cuisine featured in the last series of Australian MasterChef. The wines of this welcoming family-owned establishment are equally worth sampling at its stylish and airy tasting room overlooking its vineyards.
One of the most stunning cellar doors has to be Voyager Estate, housed within an imposing white rendered Cape Dutch style building overlooking beautiful manicured "werf" (rainwater-only) gardens.
Inside, its wine room offers visitors a taste of this larger estate's impressive range of wines, including cellar door exclusives. It also incorporates a grand formal dining room serving contemporary cuisine, where you can book in for a degustation or even a high tea, both accompanied by the appropriate wines.
Travelling around the region, it's obvious that food and wine are inextricably entwined here. Arguably there is nowhere where this is truer than at McHenry's Farm Shop.
This is the cellar door of McHenry Hohnen Vintners, the label co-founded by David Hohnen, who after setting up another Margaret River flagship winery, Cape Mentelle, went on to help establish our very own Cloudy Bay.
These days Hohnen splits his time between pigs and wine, farming the succulent and deeply coloured Jarrahdene pork as well as Wiltshire lamb, both which can be purchased along with delectable smallgoods at the store, or devoured in its informal cafe.
Margaret River's lush pastures are also the breeding ground for great beef, including wine-fed wagyu. The brainchild of a Japanese celebrity chef and Margaret River Premium Meat Exports, these boozy bovines quaff a litre of wine a day in the weeks leading up to production.
A coastal and river location also means seafood is another major item on the menu in Margaret River. The local catch includes snapper, whiting and West Australian dhufish, as well as marron, a deliciously sweet large freshwater crayfish of which the area boasts its own unique "hairy" variety.
Olives also thrive in the region's Mediterranean climes. At Vasse Virgin you can try a number of single variety olive oils, as well as their signature macadamia pesto and surprisingly successful olive oil-based chocolates.
Truffles are another local speciality. These hail from Manjimup, just east of the region, which now produces more of the prized black truffles than the rest of Australia combined.
Many of these delicacies form the main fodder of the region's impressive and burgeoning dining scene.
One newcomer making its mark is the gallery-cum-restaurant The Studio Bistro in Yallingup, which combines an imaginative menu with a wine list of Margaret River classics and bottles from further afield.
Wine lovers are also well served by Must in the countrified Margaret River township, where you're literally surrounded by wine on the racks that line the walls and divides the spaces in this cosy bistro.
Choose from one of the region's most extensive wine lists paired with well executed local food.
On setting out on this trip, my expectations had been high. What I discovered in my odyssey through its foods, wines, landscapes and people was still close to epiphanic. And the final surprise was meeting the man who was to become my partner.
While I can't promise that you'll find this kind of romance en route, for foodies, wine lovers and bon viveurs in general, Margaret River and Western Australia more generally offers plenty to beguile.
Margaret River offers a varied selection accommodation, from town B&Bs such as the welcoming villa Margaret River Guest House, to rural retreats and at the very top end, the renowned five-star boutique vineyard accommodation at Cape Lodge.
A taste of what Margaret River has to offer, through wines which are available here.
Moss Wood Ribbonvale Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2011 $34
Grass, melon and gooseberry meld in this intense but subtle semillon-dominant blend that's supported by a fresh fusion of mineral and citrus. (From Fine Wine Delivery Company, Farro Fresh, Village Winery.)
Ringbolt Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 $23.60
From the region's oldest winery comes this classic cabernet that consistently delivers with its supple, concentrated and juicy blackcurrant fruit, rich savoury undertones and hints of freshly roasted coffee. (From Liquorland, New World, Countdown, Point Wines.)
Leeuwin Estate Prelude Vineyards Margaret River Chardonnay 2010 $47.95
An impressive wine with fleshy stone fruit underpinned by restrained nutty toasty undercurrents reigned in by a line of zesty lemon. (From Caro's, Fine Wine Delivery Company, Wine and More, Scenic Cellars, Glengarry, Point Wines.)
Cullen Diana Madeline Margaret River 2009 $165
One of the area's finest wines, this biodynamically made cabernet sauvignon-dominant blend has amazing purity and poise. Its bright and supple black fruits infused with clove spice and savoury notes wrap around a vibrantly fresh mineral core. (From Kemp Fine Wine Merchants, Caro's, Accent on wine.)
Margaret River Wine Festival: April 13-16
Kicking off with the Long Table Lunch at Leeuwin Estate and moving through a number of venues across the region, including a street fiesta, this vintage celebration is a great way to become immersed in the region's wines and cuisine.
Mundaring Truffle Festival: July 28-29
Fans of fungi flock to this celebration of Western Australia's French black truffle season held 45 minutes outside of Perth. Here local, national and international chefs and food personalities prepare truffle-themed dishes.By Jo Burzynska