The regular readers among you would be aware that it’s been a very, very long time since my last Mess Guide was published (the Mess Guide to: Melbourne). Nine months ago, to be exact. Nine months. That’s the gestation period for a human.
So, why the long hiatus between travel posts? Well, to be honest, we haven’t really traveled anywhere. Other than work, school, the library, the organic food market… that kind of thing. Despite its awesomeness, I figured a whole Mess Guide post on Perth City Farm would be slightly pushing the ‘travel category’, so… I waited. Holidays were discussed. Nothing was booked.
It’s now three-quarters-of-a-year later and we’ve finally taken another holiday, albeit in our home state. Three weeks ago, Aaron and I enjoyed a blissful long weekend ‘down south’ with family in Western Australia’s south west wine and food region, Margaret River.
For the uninitiated, Margaret River is a Western Australian town around 277km south of Perth, the state capital. Set among majestic forests, pristine beaches and horticultural plantations, it’s become a favourite winter holiday destination for many sandgroper foodies who want to escape to the country for the weekend.
Winters in the south west are indescribably beautiful. Lush green landscapes give way to roaring wood fires, locally produced mead (more information below) and hot bread from wood fire ovens. As the seasons change, fields become speckled with fledgling shrubs, newborn lambs, bow-legged calves and wildflowers. It’s beautiful. Art in its most organic, breathtaking state.
In summer, Margaret River moves into its second phase of sunshine, salt spray and wetsuits. Surfer’s Point starts heaving with amateurs and pros alike, eagerly chasing some of the 12-foot main breaks along the coastline. Hot chips, beer and picnic blankets float with abandon around the local park areas before sunset cues the lighting of barbecues, charring of meat and consumption of boutique local wine.
Aaron and I have spent many days in Margaret River since we were small; as children, single young adults, a dating couple then husband and wife. In fact, our first official ‘road trip’ together as a couple was to a beach shack in the tiny town of Walpole in the state’s south west. Walpole lies about 250km south of Margaret River, so one sunny morning, we packed a bag and drove three hours to buy a memorable bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from a boutique vineyard. We drank it slowly, savoring each drop as the sun dipped below the horizon. That was the beginning of our combined love affair with local Western Australian wine.
Our most recent trip was at the end of a cold, wet and blustery July. The sky spattered a little during our trip down the coast, but we enjoyed blissfully good weather for the remainder of our stay: cool but sunny days followed by light rains and frosty nights by the fire. The majority of our days were spent driving from attraction to vineyard, providore to boutique producer, all the while yelling ‘Hey Cow!‘ out of the window (there are lots of cows in the south west. And sheep. But mostly lots of cows).
I intended to take comprehensive food and wine tasting notes during our trip down south, but instead… well, I just had a holiday. As a result, this post is a bit of a mish-mash of notes from this trip and previous south west experiences (at all times of the year). So, settle down and have a read… then book a trip to my part of the world. You’ll be glad you did.
Margaret River is the the largest wine region in the south west of Western Australia, with over 5,000 hectares under vine and around 140 established wineries. If you’re interested in a south west wine tour, I’d encourage you to start at the Margaret River Regional Wine Centre located at 9 Bussell Highway, Cowaramup WA 6284.
The Centre holds samples from every winery in the south west region (for both sale and tasting) so if you’re in a hurry, you can swill, spit and buy all of the region’s wines in one convenient location. If you’d prefer a drive, the Centre’s friendly staff can also provide maps and tips on some of the region’s best cellar doors.
Margaret River tends to enjoy a very Mediterranean climate in terms of temperature variance, humidity and rainfall. Overall, the climate is similar to that of Bordeaux (France) during a dry vintage. Although the region produces just three percent of total Australian grape production, it produces over 20 percent of Australia’s premium wine market. The principal grape varieties are fairly evenly split between red and white, with vineyards producing single origin and blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz (Syrah), Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Chenin Blanc and Verdelho.
Over the years, we’ve been to a fair few vineyards in Margaret River and surrounds. Here are a few of our favourites, in no particular order:
Coward & Black Vineyards: Childhood friends Patrick Coward and Martin Black began establishing their namesake vineyard in 1998, but took over five years to slowly coax their dry-grown vines into a state fit for wine production. As a boutique vineyard, Coward & Black now produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Chardonnay, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc for sale. Their first vintage won five medals at the Perth Royal Show before going on to earn national recognition. The Coward & Black cellar door is integrated with another of their businesses, the Margaret River Providore (see below) so it’s easy to stop in for a taste whilst also sampling the finest of Margaret River’s produce.
McLeod Creek Wines: McLeod Creek is a family owned and run vineyard overseen by Erminio (Mario) Iannarelli, one of the most down-to-earth, generous winemakers you’ll ever meet. On the day we visited, he was out tending to his vines and vegetable patches in the midday sun. After sounding our car horn (as requested on the winery’s signage!) he emerged from the garden sporting a huge smile and a blue fisherman’s cap. Mario ushered us inside, then we drank and chatted like old friends before Aaron and I left with a dozen 2009 Cabernet Merlot cleanskins. We also bought a 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon after sharing a glass before Mario left for lunch (good man, Mario. We’ll be back).
Arlewood Estate: This single origin boutique vineyard was established in 2009 by an Italian migrant named Garry Gosatti. It’s predominantly run by Stuart Pym, a seasoned winemaker, alongside Russell Oates (who oversees the vineyard) and Terry Chellappah (who works in operations and marketing). On the day we visited Arlewood, the cellar door was being overseen by Natalie, a warm and knowledgeable host who was happy to tell us all about the winery, its wines, the resident horse (Al, photo below) and the owner’s new range of farm-pressed olive oil. A beautiful experience. We left with three bottles of Arlewood red.
Firetail Wines: This beautiful winery is nestled amongst the lush vines of Rosa Glen. On the day of our visit, Silkie hens scuttled across the footpaths, fluffy plumage waving in the wind as they pecked seeds from the grass. Once in the cellar door, our host was Jessica, one half of the winery’s ownership. Despite a rather busy afternoon, Jessica’s enthusiasm, passion and love for her product was obvious throughout the entire tasting. This winery makes rather delicious ‘Cane Cut’ Semillion and a fruit driven oak-matured 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon.
Sandalford Wines: I’ve mentioned Sandalford a few times on this blog before (such as in this post) with consistently positive praise. To reiterate, I’m a big fan of this Western Australian vineyard, which was established in the Margaret River in 1970 as a close runner up to Vasse Felix (1967). Sandalford is now owned and run by the Prendiville family, who make some of the most beautiful examples of south west Cabernet Sauvignon you can buy. Try their Prendiville Reserve series, Estate Reserve series (2009 in particular), the fresh, fruit-driven Element series and the delicious fortifieds. Fantastic value for some of the region’s best.
Wise Wines: Wise vineyard is a 60 hectare property situated near the picturesque coastline of Eagle Bay. Under the tutelage of Larry Cherubino, winemaker Jeremy Hodgson has created a wonderful catalogue of distinctive, fresh and vibrant wines such as the Sea Urchin series (bargain fresh, fruity whites), Eagle Bay varieties and one of my favourite value-for-money drops, Lot 80 Cabernet Sauvignon (2010 is currently on sale and will cellar well for the next 5-7 years). Definitely worth visiting.
Leeuwin Estate: Leeuwin Estate is a beautiful vineyard. It was established as one of the first wineries in Margaret River during the early 1970′s (third runner up to Vasse Felix and Sandalford). It’s now one of the most recognizable Australian producers of ‘Bordeaux blend’ Cabernet (moderately astringent during youth, with notes of blackcurrant, blackberry and plum. It mellows well with cellaring but can challenge the palate, for those more used to Californian or South Australian Cabernet). Both the cellar door and restaurant are jam-packed full of wine enthusiasts for most days of the year. For an introduction to Leeuwin wines, try the Art Series 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon (my absolute favourite Leeuwin wine) and the Siblings Shiraz (a fresher, early drinking type of Shiraz that is fantastic value for money).
Brown Hill Estate: This family owned and run vineyard is situated about 12km from Margaret River town centre, in the picturesque village of Rosa Brook. Winemaker Nathan Bailey creates mellow, fruit-driven reds and fresh, vibrant whites in partnership with his father, Jim Bailey, who runs the cellar door. Brown Hill Estate ‘dry harvest’ their crop. This basically means that the vineyard isn’t irrigated, resulting in smaller, intensely flavoured fruit. Try their mellow, softly oaked 2008/2009 Bill Bailey Shiraz Cabernet and the 2009 Fimiston Reserve Shiraz. Aaron and I also liked the 2008 Perseverance Cabernet Merlot; partly due to Jim Bailey’s tasting comment: “What does a great marriage need after five years? Perseverance. This wine is a tribute to that”. Ah, I love winemakers.
Vasse Felix: The beautiful Vasse Felix vineyard has the honour of being the first established in the Margaret River region, planted by Dr Tom Cullity and his team in 1967. The vineyard is now owned by the Holmes à Court family, most notably Janet Holmes à Court, who manages a notable art gallery on site. The winery restaurant is headed by Executive Chef Aaron Carr and has received rave reviews for its innovative seasonal menus. Winemaking is led by chief winemaker Virginia Willcock, and some of my favourites include the 2010 Heytesbury (a Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot blend) and the dry harvested 2010 Shiraz. Deliciously fruit driven and spicy, with hints of oak.
The Berry Farm: It was a pleasant surprise to discover that The Berry Farm produces sticky fortifieds, small batch ports and fruit driven sparkling wines. Everything we sampled at the friendly cellar door was delicious, in particular the (ridiculously good) syrupy Muscat, the No.1 Dark Plum Port, No.6 Apple Vanilla Port and the Strawberry Sparkling. As expected, most of the fortified wines from The Berry Farm are rather sweet, however the oak barrel maturation process has delivered a beautiful, full flavoured complexity that surpasses many other sticky fortified wines. We left with a bottle of No.6 and some sticky hazelnut (noisette) liqueur… the latter of which knocks Frangelico for six.
Blackwood Meadery: This unique establishment is based in Karridale, around 40 minutes from the Margaret River town centre. As a family run business, Horst and Alex Bernhagen (apiarists and meadmakers) combine the latest wine making techniques with historical recipes to create unique mead, or wine made from fermented honey rather than fruit. Horst’s wife Martha runs the cellar door in a warm and friendly manner, conveying an honest passion for her family’s products. We sampled Honey Mead Wine 2002 (dry, medium and sweet), the Traditional Honey Mead Liqueur 2003, the syrupy Blackberry Nip and a Honey Boysenberry Liqueur. All of the Meadery’s products are beautifully unique, but rather on the sweet side (if you love syrupy caramel and fruit flavours you’d be in heaven). The Meadery also produces a beer-style Honey Mead Brew that tastes intriguingly similar to sweet bubbly champagne. Blackwood’s products have recently been uploaded for online sales via Margaret River 1st (also check out their facebook page for cellar door information). Worth the trip.
*Note: As you’re probably aware by now, both Aaron and I are both red wine, port and liqueur drinkers; in particular, spicy, woody Shiraz, aged port and mellow, fruit-driven Cabernet Sauvignon. Consequently, these tasting notes are definitely written for red wine drinkers. For a more objective overview of Australian wines including summer whites and blends, I’d recommend that you visit the wonderful James Halliday’s Australian Wine Companion. He knows his stuff.
Aaron and I are very, very selective when it comes to coffee. In fact, I’d rather abstain altogether than drink a bad, bitter cup (Aaron is a little more tolerant but drinks with a grimace). Bear this information in mind when I say that the beanie-clad baristas at the Margaret River Bakery are pretty darn amazing. The house-ground, medium bodied, soft and aromatic coffee was consistent throughout the weekend… we drank about six huge mugs over three days and none required sugar (perfect, right down to the antique collectable spoons).
The Bakery food is also fresh and generous in terms of both quality and flavour. This is their vegetarian breakfast, piled high with balsamic field mushrooms, plenty of spinach and soft scrambled eggs atop organic seeded toast.
Amazing, as was their home baked organic fruit bread: dense, chewy and flavoursome, encrusted with crunchy sesame seeds and speckled with plump vine fruit. Slathered with butter and The Berry Farm jam, it was my version of fruit toast heaven.
Aaron and I often eat at ‘home’ during cottage holidays, and this trip wasn’t much different. We ate local bread, tender Angus beef steaks, Margaret River Dairy cheese and salad for two nights in (with some local boutique wines, of course) before splashing out on a single night at the Muster Bar & Grill (the sister restaurant to Must Wine Bar in the metropolitan suburb of Highgate, Western Australia).
Both Must and Muster are owned by Russell Blaikie, a Margaret River raised, award-winning chef who has worked under London-based Anton Mosimann and at the two-Michelin-starred Terrace Restaurant at the Dorchester Hotel. Muster has a fantastic wine list and a hearty, satisfying menu of revamped grill favourites such as pork ribs, steaks and hamburgers.
I happily grazed on sticky pork ribs with hand-cut potatoes, sour cream and a fresh rocket salad. Aaron had an Arkady lamb shank, fall-off-the-bone tender, with Moroccan pearl cous cous, preserved lemon and fresh greens. So, so good. Definitely recommended (they even have vegan options, which is rare in an Australian grill restaurant).
Back to the Bakery. Everything at this quirky little cafe is fresh, homemade and beautiful. My first breakfast at this establishment included home-baked granola packed with macadamia nuts, seeds and oats, topped off with thick organic yoghurt and a raspberry compote.
Strangely, Aaron the carnivore actually went for a vegetarian breakfast on both of our visits to the Bakery. On the second occasion, he chose a fresh tomato salsa with free-range fried eggs, chunks of salty herbed feta, fresh avocado and sourdough bread. It was delicious (yes, I stole some); ripe, soft tomatoes dressed in red wine vinegar with sea salt, herbs, Spanish onion and a slick of extra virgin olive oil. Simple, honest goodness atop the Bakery’s divine sourdough bread.
Whilst visiting caves along the spine of the Leeuwin Naturaliste Ridge, we also stopped at the Lake Cave Tea Rooms, 20 minutes drive from Margaret River town centre. This place was promising in its location and external facade, but the internal ambience was sadly empty, characterless and awkward.
As for the food, it was expensive, limited and average. Think hot dogs with manufactured red frankfurts, toasted cheese sandwiches, fried fish and chips and packet potato wedges. Now, don’t get me wrong… I enjoy hot chips and tomato sauce on occasion. However, in consideration of price ($8 for a frankfurt in a bun) and time (25+ minutes to arrive, with only five hungry people in the cafe) I was more than a little dissatisfied.
I’m awarding extra points for the friendly, warm and genuine service. But despite the lovely people, this cafe gets a thumbs down from me.
Now for the fun part: let’s move on to the amazing array of farm cafes, organic food stores, providores and markets in the Margaret River region. With homemade pickles, chutneys, jams, wood fired organic bread, cheeses, chocolates, organic meats and olive oils on hand, it’s a food lover’s paradise (particularly if you’re into locally grown, sustainable, pesticide-free organic produce. Locavores unite!).
Margaret River Gourmet Meats: This butcher shop is staffed by some of the friendliest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting (I think there’s something in the country air; everyone seems nicer 200+km out of the city). Every time we’ve visited the south west, we’ve visited this shop to stock up on fresh, local hormone-free meat, organic free-range chicken, Arkady lamb and locally caught fish. The butchers have always been happy to cut steaks to our exact specifications, which is great if you’re traveling with a group of insatiable carnivores like I usually do. This place dispenses traditional quality with a smile.
Margaret River Bakery: Now, I think I’ve said enough about this little bakery already but if you’re in the mood for baked delights, this is your one-stop shop. Just think pastries, cakes, muffins, croissants, macarons, organic seeded loaves… pretty much anything your stomach or heart could dream up. Eat in or take away, this place is baked and kneaded bliss.
The Berry Farm: Nestled in the beautiful Rosa Glen Valley, this wonderful farm is a treasure trove of locally made preserves, jams, dressings, vinegars, ciders, fruit wines, sparkling wines, liqueurs and fortifieds. One visit and I was in love with… well, everything. The preserves and sticky fortified wines in particular. As abovestated, we squirreled home a bottle of smooth, luscious Apple and Vanilla Port (No.6), hazelnut liqueur and various chutneys. The Farm also has a fantastic cottage cafe on site, check out reviews here.
Margaret River Providore: The Providore is hands-down my favourite food store in Margaret River. Incorporating Coward & Black vineyards, an organic olive grove, a fruit orchard and vegetable gardens, the dedicated team at Providore create a spectacular array of home made jams, preserves, olive oils sauces, dressings, spice mixes, wines, liqueurs and desserts on a daily basis. Those of you who admire Maggie Beer will be aware of the benefits of verjuice. The team at Margaret River make both verjuice and vino cotto on-site alongside tapenade and preserved mustard fruits. The team harvest and press their own estate grown olive oil and make fresh egg pasta, cheese condiments and aged vinegars. Complimentary tastings are offered on site. Heaven.
Margaret River Dairy Company: Aaron and I have been big fans of this locally established, locally run (but sadly, no longer locally owned as Manassen Foods was acquired by a Chinese company in 2011) cheese company for many years. They make some of the most delicious, premium quality cheeses and yoghurts I’ve ever tasted. Honest. And I am a big consumer of cheese. From silky smooth soft cheeses such as Camembert and Brie to distinctive port-infused or smoked Cheddar, smooth style feta, baked ricotta and creamy pot set yoghurt, this company is a dairy-lover’s paradise.
The Candy Cow: This wonderful candy store specialises in handmade gourmet fudge in what seems like a hundred different flavours, ranging from sweet lime to chilli chocolate, rum and raisin, coconut and (the most popular) bubblegum. If you take a look at the website, you’ll see a photo of the store’s owner… one of the loveliest, most generous men you’ll ever meet. Pop in and say hello.
Margaret River Chocolate Company: This south west chocolate company was established in 1999 and has since grown to incorporate two factories (in Margaret River and the Swan Valley) and a Perth city ‘concept store’. Alongside chocolate bars, chocolate coated delights (including dried plums and apricots), hand made truffles, novelty chocolates and chocolate sauces, each site also incorporates a ‘chocolate cafe’ (with cakes, sundaes, fondues and more) and the all-important free tasting.
The Farm House: David Hohnen has farmed Wiltshire sheep and Tamworth pigs in Margaret River since 2004. He opened The Farm House in 2010 as a business dedicated to traditional farming and butchery techniques. General Manager Matt Gilray has a background in both cooking and butchery. He’s readily contactable to ensure that chefs and cooks alike can purchase perfect Arkady lamb, natural grass-fed pork, smallgoods and free-range chicken, cut or smoked to specifications. The Farm House sells products cellar door at the premises of McHenry Hohnen Vitners, a wine producing business co-owned and run by David and his brother-in-law, Murray McHenry (review their online wine catalogue here) in partnership with winemaker Ryan Walsh.
Margaret River Farmers Market: If you don’t have time to drive around to many of Margaret River’s independent producers, just take a Saturday morning stroll around the Margaret River Farmers Market on the Old Hospital site (corner of Tunbridge and Farrelly streets, town centre). This fantastic market hosts vendors from all around the region, selling everything from Leeuwin grass fed beef to Merri Bee organic honey, Mika muesli, Tapalinga homestead, Bahen & Co chocolate, Forest Grove olive farm and many, many more. Take a look at the market website for a full list of vendors. Definitely worth a look when you’re in the region.
I can’t speak highly enough of this beautiful town, both as a holiday destination and a weekend escape. Whatever time of year you visit, there will always be plenty to discover in terms of food, wine, entertainment, activities, nature and scenery.
This shortlist contains most of my favourite food and wine destinations in Margaret River, however I’m aware that it’s just the beginning of what’s available for visitors to experience in the south west area. If you’re a local Western Australian, please let me know if I’ve missed anything you recommend from the list above. I’d love this to be a collaborative, evolving post as time passes; both as a personal reference guide and as a resource for visitors heading to Western Australia’s south west coast. Thanks, as always, for reading.