There's more to Margaret River than just the wine, finds Sarah McPhee.

What's the first thing you think of when it comes to Margaret River?

Chances are, it's wine.

A total of 220 wine producers call the Western Australian pocket home, and they turn out more than a quarter of Australia's premium drops.


The region is so renowned for its wines that viticulture ­- the science, production and study of grapes - is taught at the local high school.

But away from the countless vineyards on the rolling green hills, something is brewing.

And it tastes nothing like shiraz.

A three-hour drive south of Perth, Margaret River has long been a bucket list destination for foodies and wine connoisseurs, but rarely one for those who prefer spirits or beer.

The Margaret River Gourmet Escape festival, held every year for the past five years, attracts the best of the best in cooking across the globe to celebrate the region's food and drinks.

It was crowned Australia's Best Tourism Event at the Event Awards last year.

Nigella Lawson, Rick Stein and two of the world's best female chefs - Dominique Crenn and Ana Ros - all turned up in 2016.

Adam Liaw, Guy Grossi and Guillaume Brahimi pulled up a seat too, while executive chefs Aaron Carr (Vasse Felix), Seth James (Wills Domain) and Dany Angove (Leeuwin Estate) waved the Margaret River flag.

Ros and Stein return this year, joined by Alex Atala (D.O.M. - Brazil), Andre Chiang (Restaurant Andre - Singapore), Curtis Stone (Gwen & Maude - LA) and Peter Kuruvita (Flying Fish - Sydney, Noosa and Fiji), among many others.

Events range from the Gourmet Beach Barbecue, to a Feast in the Forest, to Yoga in the Vines at Watershed Winery.

But while wandering around last year's festival's main attraction - the Gourmet Village, nestled in the grounds of Leeuwin Estate - I was surprised to notice revellers weren't queuing for wine.

I joined them, shoulder-to-shoulder, outside Limeburners' pop-up stall, as the Margaret River distillery sold countless bottles of its single malt whisky before completely running out of its official event gin.

Billy Phillips, who manages Morries bar in the centre of town with executive chef Tony Howell, says the business jumped at the chance to fulfil this customer craving.

"After a day of wine tasting, a lot of people are pretty ready for something else," the 33-year-old says.

"The wines definitely put Margaret River on the map but Limeburners is making outstanding whisky, and I think it is one of the tightest areas for breweries in the country."

Phillips, crowned WA Barman of the Year in 2015 and a WA finalist in this year's The Perfect Blend Australasian contest, says Morries reopened early last year as a darker, smaller cocktail bar after four years as a dawn-till-dusk cafe.

"We went for breakfast, lunch, dinner, cocktails, wine bar, coffee shack," Phillips says.

"That was kind of what the town could've used back then, but a lot of other businesses opened up and places got more specialised.

"It's hard to sell cocktails at 8am. We're all doing what we're passionate about now."

The local institution is packed every night of the week, with tasty small plates of masterstock pork belly, twice-cooked Japanese chicken, "drunken" whitebait and venison carpaccio adorning the menu.

"It's been going great. They added the two cocktail taps when we did the change," Phillips says.

"The plan was really to create an alternative to the wineries in town."

He says the idea of batching cocktails and producing drinks in bulk has made him think "more with a chef's brain".

And it's paying off.

"That was one of the biggest things that opened my eyes. What can we get finished in the drink before the customer even walks in the door?" he says.

"I just see what trends are going on everywhere and I'm always learning new techniques, using nitrogen, shrubs, making my own bitters.

"I guess it's also about having a local approach, trying to use what we have here wherever and whenever possible."


Getting there

flies direct from Auckland to Perth, with one-way Economy Class fares from $523.

Margaret River is a three-hour (270km) drive from Perth.

Playing there
The sixth annual Margaret River Gourmet Escape will be held from November 17-19. Tickets are now on sale.

Morries is open from midday till late daily, located at 2/149 Bussell Hwy, Margaret River.