Ahead of this year's Margaret River Gourmet Escape, Victoria Moore enjoys the tastes and tipples of Western Australia
Long before this place became a wine region, the surfers found it. The 260km drive south from Perth would have been a tough one in those days, but here, where the Indian and Southern oceans meet, you find some of the most spectacular surf on Earth. And so they came, and still come, with their boards and their vans, to catch waves on some of the 75 breaks along this section of coastline, and admire the beauty of this remote wilderness.
Because whether you like to surf, walk (there are some great walks here) or just drive around looking out of the windows of the ute, Margaret River is spellbinding. By the shoreline, the sea swells, reflecting the changing sky. Waves break on pristine beaches, and the sand runs up to rocky, green scrubland. In other bays, the cerulean blue of the water contrasts with the red boulders on the shore; at Wilyabrup there are craggy granite cliffs. Inside the cape, there are forests of pale-barked karris — trees that can grow up to 60m tall. Sometimes, you see kangaroos loping through the dusk.
The first time I visited Margaret River — the name of a town as well as the larger wine region — I was completely unprepared to be so blown away. The second time I was prepared, but it happened again.
And of course, between the sky, sea and gum trees, there are vines. The modern era of wine-growing was ushered into Margaret River half a century ago, in the late 60s and early 70s. Here are a handful of the stories: Denis Horgan was a businessman and surfer who bought a plumbing company that happened to include a property in Margaret River and ended up founding Leeuwin Estate on the land. Kevin John Cullen was a doctor, who was posted to nearby Busselton (where he initiated the Busselton Health study — one of the most important longitudinal studies there has ever been) and with his wife decided to plant grapes at Wilyabrup. And Dr Tom Cullity was a cardiologist who had become interested in wine while studying in London, and planted the first vineyards of Vasse Felix.
Today, Margaret River doesn't quite get the vinous acclaim it deserves for its world-class cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, and very good semillon-sauvignon blends. This is because in 21st-century terms the region is almost too established to recapture the limelight, and perhaps also partly because high land prices, combined with its remoteness, have made it less attractive to a younger generation, and given it a rather unfairly staid reputation.
It's a cracking place to visit. The food is good — have a wander around the hippie farmers' market in Margaret River on Saturday morning, and see if you can spot winemaker David Hohnen on his meat stall, the man who was behind Cloudy Bay and Cape Mentelle and who, these days, is just as happy talking about his pigs as he is about his current wine ventures. The wine is good — we've got that covered. And the landscapes are magnificent. Just be careful if you do decide to venture into those blue waters: it's not just that the currents are strong (and accidents do happen), there are predators, too — earlier this year a pro-surfing event was cancelled because of a fear of shark attacks. One good reason to do nothing more than mess around in the shallows before finding a shady table and unwinding with a glass of wine.
Where to eat
, a huge annual food and drink festival, returns from November 16-18. Chefs and cooks fly in for it from all over the world — this year's guests include Nigella Lawson, father-son duo Rick and Jack Stein, New Zealand's Monica Galetti, Guy Grossi, Luke Mangan, Tetsuya Wakuda, and many more. The programme includes tastings, events and dinners.
Tickets are still available for some events.
Cullen Wines Restaurant
Tables look out across the vines. Food is immaculately done. Expect dishes such as smoked kangaroo with parsley, radicchio, mulberry and wattleseed granola.
Mains from around $35. Lunch Fri-Tues.
Vasse Felix Restaurant
Slick but outdoorsy setting, and modern Australian food — think emu, quandong and black garlic or pork, eel, eggplant and miso. Mains from around $35. Daily lunch.
Margaret River Farmers' Market
A feature of the region for more than 13 years, the market is a Saturday morning institution, playing host to 50 stalls.
Only producers from the local south west region are eligible for a spot, and the stalls must be operated by the people who grow or make the produce. Each market features a breakfast bar run by a local charity, school or sporting organisation. Find the market at the Margaret River Education Campus on Bussell Highway.
Where to taste
There are bees and flowers; radishes and radicchio in the vegetable patch; a table and chairs on the lawn. I have a reddish-brown smear on my nose because Vanya Cullen — the daughter of the founders — has led me into the vineyard, picked up a handful of earth and thrust it under my nose, saying, "here, smell that. You'll remember that smell forever now". For me, a visit to Margaret River isn't a visit to Margaret River unless I've called in at
. The place is one of the original handful of producers that set up here in the late 60s and early 70s and Vanya has taken the wines on to another level. A Mother Earth figure who believes in working with nature, rather than brutalising it, she works both the vegetable garden and the vineyards biodynamically (biodynamics is a system of agriculture that works with the phases of the moon and the planets) and keeps an extremely good restaurant. The vibe is relaxed, but very high quality.
Don't miss: The Spiral Garden on the lawn, which talks you through biodynamics and the seasonal calendar of the Wardandi people. In the restaurant, the rabbit pots with soft egg gribiche, pickled cucumber and celeriac is delicious. It's hard to pick just one wine, but the Diana Madeline is pretty special. Open 10am-4pm daily.
Fraser Gallop Estate
The approach to Fraser Gallop is like something out of a TV mini-series: a sweeping driveway takes a turn and before you is a small lake with a neo-Georgian mansion at its head, the pale reflection of the building dancing on the water amidst a rolling landscape of vines. The 67--hectare estate was founded in 1998 by former IT entrepreneur Nigel Gallop, and it reeks of ambition. Happily, the wines live up to it: classical in style, and very good. Think chardonnay that in a blind tasting might almost be mistaken for chablis, beautifully structured cabernet sauvignon (winemaker Clive Otto honed his cabernet knowledge during a stint at Pichon Baron in Bordeaux) and an elegant semillon-sauvignon blanc blend that tastes of white currant and lemon sorbet.
Don't miss: Tasting the Parterre range gives a good introduction to the estate.
Open 11am-4pm daily.
Stella Bella is one of the newer wave of Margaret River producers. It began in 1996 when Stuart Pym (then winemaker at Voyager Estate) and Janice McDonald (now chief winemaker at Howard Park in the Great Southern region) took over the Suckfizzle vineyard. Suckfizzle? The name is borrowed from a character in Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel novels but an internet search will find more mentions of the sauvignon-semillon blend made here at Stella Bella. The Suckfizzle vineyard is the most south-westerly on the continent, sitting on the very tip of the region, where it is cooled by winds that come in from the Southern Ocean, and its fruit makes delicious wine. There's a sense of play and exuberance about this set-up, which comes backed with experience and talent but unfettered by tradition.
Luke Jolliffe talks about the regions with energy and detail.
Don't miss: The Suckfizzle sauvignon blanc-semillon, of course. And bring a picnic to enjoy in the grounds, with wine by the glass from the cellar door.
Open 10am-5pm daily.
Established in 1967, Vasse Felix is one of the Margaret River pioneers, and still one of the region's most acclaimed names. It has a very slick approach to wine tourism, with a shiny tasting room, large restaurant and even its own art gallery. You can choose to taste in a focused way at the cellar door; linger over a glass, bottle or flight in the Wine Lounge; or eat in the modern Australian restaurant — it frequently features in Best in Australia lists.
Don't miss: The Heytesbury chardonnay has won more awards than you can shake a stick at. It's made from the most striking chardonnay parcels, and has a flashy, energetic personality with some struck-match characteristics and lots of flavour.
Open 10am-5pm daily.
David Hohnen is the taciturn (and sometimes downright miserable-looking) genius behind both Cloudy Bay and Cape Mentelle, both of which are now owned by the international luxury goods firm LVMH. He founded McHenry Hohnen with his brother-in-law Murray McHenry, and the wine is made by the energetic Julian Grounds. The emphasis here is on sustainability — vines are worked organically, and there's minimal intervention in the cellar.
Don't miss: Try the chardonnays, and buy some of David Hohnen's cold smoked meats, which are for sale in the shop at the cellar door. Open 10.30am- 4.30pm daily.
flies direct from Auckland to Perth with one-way fares from $554.