Around Margaret River, the wines came first, then the food. Anna King Shahab relishes every tasty mouthful.
Here's the pattern with great wine-producing regions around the world: plant the vines and good food will follow. The Margaret River region in Western Australia's southwest territory is a prime example.
In wine years, Margaret River is a debutante. In the 1960s, propelled by vine disease in Swan Valley, scientists scoured the state for another vine-loving spot and found it around the Margaret River, with its maritime influence and Mediterranean clime. Things famously kicked off in 1967 when cardiologist Tom Cullity planted the first vines at Vasse Felix. Production here is still mostly boutique, and disproportionately world-class. Born from this success is a fabulous food culture, the region littered with great places to eat and to be watered.
It can be a little confusing to newbies like me that "Margaret River" as a tourism region refers to the 100km-or-so strip of land running from Cape Naturaliste to Cape Leeuwin, between the sea and the towering karri forests inland. The township named Margaret River lies at the heart. Within the region there's variety in the weather patterns and terroir; warmer to cooler, clay to gravel to sandy loam. The region is famous for fruit-driven wines, including the finest cabernet and chardonnay in Australia, shiraz that is closer to our Kiwi syrahs than the brash South Australian examples, as well as popular blends cabernet merlot, and semillon sauvignon blanc.
Try a Top Drop tour if you're in any way interested in wine, or even if you're not, because you'll come around as soon as you hit the road with owner/guide Chris O'Hare, who hits the right balance of informative and hilarious. On a tasting with the winemaker at Fraser Gallop we learned that in the Wilyabrup sub-region, with its rich gravelly loam on a bed of clay, you'd be, in Chris' words, bleeding hopeless not to be able to produce a good cab sav. But in reality of course you need smarts to produce a downright fantastic one, which they do here. At 1.5-3m below ground level, the clay stores water, so even in the dry summers the vines are able to quench their thirst and this vineyard is dry, requiring no irrigation.
At Fraser Gallop, like so many of the wineries here, the approach is of nature-driven viticulture and minimal intervention in the winery, which helps the natural fruit flavours shine through.
If you prefer grain to grape then head to Eagle Bay Brewing Co. The land here has been farmed by the d'Espeissis family for more than six decades, but in the past several years the livestock have been joined by grapevines, a hefty craft beer brewery and a behemoth of an eatery that spills on to a terrace overlooking the farm and out to Eagle Bay. Brewer Nick d'Espeissis cut his teeth at the Dux in Christchurch before building this hopped-up heaven.
The food is casual but designed to pair with the beer and wine, and it's hard to go wrong with a Ploughman's Platter and a tasting flight of all the brews.
SOME FOOD WITH YOUR WINE?
Make sure you save a date to dine at Muster, on the main street of Margaret River township. It's filled with locals and oozes a casual, buzzy vibe that belies the very smart service and the stunning food: they've been famous for a long time for doing an amazing steak (aged onsite), but a new chef has given the menu new life and this is definitely the place to come to taste things made with the best local meat, poultry and produce, and of course local wines to match.
It was great to hear young sous chef Matt Black talk passionately about food and how he'd moved from the city to the country.
Lamont's Smith's Beach is a favourite with locals, with friendly service, smart but not fussy food and a fabulous wine list. It's joined by a wine store and deli, great for stocking up for a beach picnic or more energetic wander on the stunning Cape to Cape walk that passes by this spot here on the coast.
Hay Shed Hill, the lunch stop on Top Drop's full-day tour, is the opposite of a stuffy formal vineyard restaurant - light, airy and relaxed but with brilliant food and wine from the vineyard, plus a cellar door for tastings.
NICHE TO MEET YOU
The broader southwest area is growing a reputation for small scale producers and their premium goods. In Pemberton, 130km east of Margaret River, we visited Pemberton Fingerlimes. For Rob and Jill Baker, retirees looking for a project, Google came in handy and they cleverly honed in on this native citrus as a crop. Although their orchard is tiny in the scale of things, they're busy supplying high-end restaurants in Australia and luxury-loving places like Hong Kong and Singapore. Finger limes are a strange fruit, indeed. The trees are spindly and unremarkable, bearing finger-shaped, rusty-coloured fruit known as "citrus caviar" because of what's inside: a cornucopia of little pearls that pop on the tongue in a burst of tart and sweet. Also in Pemberton is a marron farm producing the freshwater crayfish similar to our koura.
In nearby Manjimup you can trust your nose to guide you to the Truffle & Wine Co., where 50ha of oak and hazelnut trees provide the right conditions for black truffles to grow, very healthily, too - this is the largest producer in the world by volume.
As the name suggests, wines are also made here. You can taste all the produce at the cellar door and in the cosy, casual bistro, where everything on the menu (even the desserts) has a lick of the truffle about it. At $30, the tasting menu is great value: four wines paired with four small truffle-loaded dishes.
REST YOUR HEAD
Just steps away from the main street of Margaret River township you'll find the equally charming Margaret River Guesthouse, run by Debbie and Peter Noonan. There are hundreds of bed-and-breakfast operations in the area now but Margaret River Guesthouse was the first, opening in 1969. This 1920s wooden cottage was built to accommodate Anglican nuns and aspects of the original chapel can be spotted while breakfasting.
In the north of the region, Cape Naturaliste provides a great buffer for the white sand-blessed Bunker Bay, and behind the dunes lies Pullman Bunker Bay Resort. Clever landscaping means you'd never guess there are 150 villas on site. The infinity pool, fringed by native bush, looks out to the bay, and breakfast on the terrace with the same view is a must. Other Side of the Moon offers
Getting there: Air New Zealand offers almost daily direct flights between Auckland and Perth. Seasonal non-stop flights are available between Christchurch and Perth from December 12 to April 29. You can also fly with partner airline Virgin Australia via Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Perth.
For more information: Visit margaretriver.com
The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism WA and Air New Zealand.