On the rugged western coast of Australia lies a sleepy little surfing community that makes some seriously fine wine. Margaret River, or “Margs” as it’s fondly called, is a 3.5 hour drive south of Perth on the Leeuwin Peninsula in the SW corner of the country. It’s still pristine land with little industry but surfing, wine, weekend homes, and arts and crafts. Most logging has been banished due to the public outcry on behalf of the old growth Karri Tree forests. Even though the forests are second growth here, unlike the monstrous trees 3 hours east around Albany, they are still impressive, straight and tall, and a luminous natural light filters thru them on par with the Edward Hopperesque light of the Hamptons out on New York’s Long Island.
In contrast to the natural beauty of the area is the serious money being spent here. The majority of the wineries are pretty swank. Most of the big money is from wealthy Perth businessmen wanting to get into the wine game, and there’s a lot of that. Driving south down Caves Road, where most of the wineries are clustered, you begin to pass the grand, ornate entrances with long driveways like Vasse Felix, Clairault, and Laurance. Laurance, owned by a Sea World founder, has an enormous golden statue of the “freedom lady” poised on the tip of an angled 30 ft dark blue steel girder jutting out of a small lake. At night the dark blue steel is invisible to the eye and with artful lighting it looks as if the sculpture is airborne. It definitely grabs your eye and the locals call her the “chick on a stick”.
However, amidst the garish, nouveau riche gestures, there are a few low key, third generation operations built on hard work, good vineyards, and skilled winemaking. Moss Wood is one such place. We had a private appointment there and were treated to a 1989 semillon, one of their specialties. The palate was bee’s wax and lemon oil with a 2 minute finish of roasted chestnuts; in a word, spectacular. It wasn’t a flashy operation, and neither were the wines; just strong varietally correct “chardys” (as the locals call chardonnay), long lived Cabernets, and obviously splendid semillons.
Our friend at Moss Wood recommended we stop at Woodlands next. I had never heard of Woodlands and was surprised at how simple a set up they had. It’s a winery run by the Watson family, formerly full time grape growers turned producers. And when I say “family”, I mean it. One of the nieces was running the cellar door which was actually a conduit between their home and the barrel room. Word got out when Mother passed by that I was in the business and all of sudden her son, Stuart, who’s also the winemaker, was before me. The niece disappeared. We talked for a while and tasted some gorgeous Bordelaise style cabernets and merlots. Eventually the Father, younger brother and mother all joined us. These guys were good, real good. We were invited to stay and drink 90 Batard-Montrachet from Domaine Leflaive with mushroom and truffle risotto. I can still taste the flavours in my mind today. Seek out their wines if you can find them and afford them. They are generous wines, lovingly made in the way that Chateau Pichon-Lalande can be when it’s on.
The food was also very good at some well regarded wineries. We ate very well at Leeuwin Estate and enjoyed their benchmark 2001 Art Series chardonnay. It’s not quite the 90 Batard, but a very opulent drop no less. Also purchased was a magnum of ’03. Voyager Estate also has a top notch restaurant in a Cape Dutch style farmhouse. The steak I had there might have been the best I’ve ever had. We had a good bottle of their 99 reserve cabernet , as well. In fact, if you wanted to try the older wines, you either had to go to Wino’s or Vat 107 in Margs or eat at the estates. There is a really cool little joint owned by a typically skeptical French guy named Pascal called Ze Arc of Iris which is BYOB. The food at Arc has a Middle Eastern flair to it, thanks to the Lebanese chef, and the food is local. Plus they have an an open kitchen, which generates a lot of energy in the place. You can also see they’ve got nothing to hide.
The best bottle of the trip went to Cullen’s 1995 cab/merlot which was like being in a forest, soft with rot on a warm sunny day. Maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but you’ll never forget this wine if you get to try it.
There’s plenty of sunshine, and also plenty of rain over here on the West Coast. The cooler temps make shiraz more akin to the Northern Rhone and herbaceous style cabernets. Chardonnay is king here, try Pierro’s, but we witnessed upstart McHenry-Hohnen making soft and texturally wonderful Marsanne/Roussanne blends. They were also doing great things with zinfandel, tempranillo, malbec, graciano, and barbera. David Hohnen, the chief everything there, founded Cloudy Bay and Cape Mentelle (who also make a stonking good zin), so you bet he knows how to build a brand and make good wine. This will be one to watch.
And when you get tired of all the good wine and food, there is the surf. Is there anything finer than listening to the roar of the Indian Ocean as you go to sleep? The coastal climate around the peninsula is as mercurial as my ex-girlfriend and the winds bring in relentless, twisted swells that pound the shoreline. To surf here must be something to experience, but lying down on the soft, white sandy beaches watching the waves roll in ain’t so bad either.