Margaret River

Several years ago when we were dining alfresco under a full moon at the Daintree Wilderness Lodge (more recently named one of the top ten eco-tourism sites in the world), we were served for the first time a fish called barramundi (still one of our favorites, only one notch behind North Carolina grouper) and an ambrosial Semillon Sauvignon Blanc from the Margaret River region.  An unforgettable experience for many reasons.

However, looking for Margaret River wines in the U.S. (or even wines from anywhere in Western Australia) can be a fruitless search (pun probably intended).   Mo’s (a much-better-than-average wine provender near our son Michael’s home in Fairfield, Connecticut) stocks a few, maybe as many as a dozen on a good day.  Most wine stores have none.  My guess is that the Australians don’t export them for a very good reason – they drink them themselves.   We came to a similar conclusion about the wines from Zell-am-der-Mosel, my family’s ancestral home.  The wines we tasted in my great-cousin Josef’s keller were much, much better than the commercial products we get on the supermarket shelves under the label Zeller Schwartz Katz.   They too keep the good stuff to drink themselves.

We have a couple of weeks off school (a week before and a week after Easter – very civilized) so we decided to take bus down to Margaret River to see what they’ve been hiding.   I thought about driving, but it’s 300 miles or so and you see more of the countryside from up high in a bus anyway.   We had to be up extra early for an 8:30AM bus, because it leaves from East Perth.  That meant we had to walk the half-mile or so to the train station here and take a local train three stops up the line to East Perth to board the long-distance bus.   I hadn’t brought my computer, but I was surprised to note that they had power outlets at each seat.

The ride down took 5.5 hours with a few stops along the way; comfortable enough, but there wasn’t a lot to see.   The countryside didn’t get interesting ’til we reached the Margaret River area itself with all the vineyards surrounded by bush.  It reminded us a little of the McLaren Vale we’d visited the first time we came to Australia ten years ago or so, except that the area here is less tame.

Our hotel, which we’d booked online, turned out to be right in the middle of town, less than a block from the bus stop.  Couldn’t have been more convenient.   We were also lucky in that only one night had been available when we’d booked (this is one of Australia’s busiest holiday periods) but the lady was able to confirm two nights when we checked in.  Whew.  Nice place, pleasant room, nice people.

The town is predictably tourist-y with lots of souvenir shops and places to eat.  It was a bit chillier than I’d expected, though, after the heat of Perth, and I’d only packed shorts, a short-sleeved shirt and my Albert Winestein tee shirt.   Fortunately there was a Target just down the block, so I was able to pick up a flannel shirt and a pair of black sweatpants quite cheap.

Mission number one was to book a wine tour; that’s what everyone comes to Margaret River to do.  The tourist information office was less than two blocks away too, so we headed there.   The girl at the hotel had recommended one tour to us, but the information lady gently suggested a different one that she thought would be more “suitable” for us with a sit-down lunch at a vineyard restaurant instead of a bush tucker picnic.   She was probably right.

Then we wandered the few blocks that constitute the town to see what we could see.  One thing Sylv saw was a fire in a trash bin outside an antique store.  She sounded the alarm and got the lady in the store to bring water and eventually a fire extinguisher to put it out.   The lady had had the fire extinguisher for years, but had no idea how to use it.  I did, so the fire was soon out.  Good thing; the fire department never did come, or at least not as long as we were there.   Something that caught our eye in the antique shop window was a miner’s lantern exactly like the one we have that belonged to Sylv’s great uncle, a coal miner back in Wales.  It was a real one, not a replica, and the price on it was $495!   Wow, if we could ship all our accumulated memorabilia over here we could have quite a profitable business.   That reminds me, I don’t know if I mentioned in a previous blog entry about seeing a Penfold’s Grange bottle of wine the same vintage as one we’ve got in our cellar at home locked up in a case in our local Perth wine merchant’s shop marked $695 or something like that.   Double wow.   We’re richer than we thought!

For dinner the young lady at the hotel suggested either the hotel or a nouvelle cuisine place down the block called Must or the Settler’s Tavern, which she described as “the best value for money.”   We checked out Must, but it seemed a bit sterile to us.  The Settler’s Tavern was a hopping place, much more our style, and we got very good steaks for a reasonable (for Australia) price.  The young lady was right.
We’d begun our wine tasting at the bottle shop behind the hotel.  I’d asked the woman there for a reasonably priced, locally produced, full-bodied Shiraz that would go with cheese and chocolate.   She recommended a bottle from Brown Hill, a label I’d never even heard of.   It was as good as anything we’d ever tasted.  Later we learned that Brown Hill had been named Australia’s best small producer of the year or some such for the past two years running.  Well deserved, in our book.  There was a Coles supermarket behind the stores across the street, so over we went to buy a sharp aged cheddar and a box of crackers for an aperitif as well as a little something for dessert later.

The wines available by the glass at Settler’s Tavern were also impressive and relatively (compared to Perth) inexpensive.  I guess they’d have to be; people around here know what it costs to produce a bottle of wine and they can buy it at a discount at the vineyard if they so choose.   Several of the restaurants in town are BYOB, which makes particular sense here where diners may have spent the day wandering from vineyard to vineyard and come back with a case or two of something they fancied.   (In fact, we did bring our own to the place where we ate the next night.)

Next morning the small bus picked us up out back in the hotel parking lot and we were off.  There were 18 of us and the driver/guide was funny and good.   The busload looked like a mini-United Nations – two Irish couples, a German couple and their daughter, a New Zealander and his daughter now living in Borneo, an English couple, a few Australians from the other side of the continent and of course one American and one Welsh woman.  (Sylv proudly claims her Welsh birth here.)

The first vineyard we visited was Adinfern, north of town towards Cowaramup – an Aborigine name that I couldn’t resist mispronouncing as “cow rump.”  Speaking of cows, there’s a syndicated promotional event on right now in the Margaret River region called The Cow Parade.   Eighty-five businesses including most of the wineries have paid handsomely to get a big white plastic cow to display on their premises and either they or various local artists have painted them up distinctively, usually with some relevance to the business.   I heard that the syndicator gets something like $277,000 charities get whatever’s left over from the fees and donations patrons might make.  Here’s a link to the event:    My favorites were the one in front of our hotel called Brahman the Barman (I’ll try to upload a picture in here) and another at a craft brewery we visited later that was painted like a beer – the lower three-quarters amber-colored, the top of the cow simulated white foam like a head on the beer.

Back to Adinfern, but only for a few short sentences.   We didn’t like either the woman serving us, who seemed begrudging, or her wines.   We tasted eight, pouring any we didn’t like after a sip into a receptacle (which happened a lot – maybe that’s why she seemed begrudging).  My tasting notes from Adinfern have words like “dry,” “thin,” “narrow,” and “sharp.”  Her best was a late harvest Semillon that tasted a bit like Leibfraumilch.  There’s a lot of Semillon grown in Margaret River; the soil and climate must be perfect for it.  What they do best with it though is blend it with Sauvignon Blanc, which makes a very nice wine indeed.  Sauvignon Blanc on its own from this region lacks body compared with the perfect SB’s from the Marlborough area in New Zealand.   She also poured a ruby port for us, which I again thought too light.   A lot of vineyards in MR do port, but none of them that I tasted will have Portuguese growers worried.

The best thing about Adinfern was the story that went with it.  It had been a 70-acre sheep ranch (a ram’s head is in their crest and their signature wines are named Shepherd’s Rhapsody, Shepherd’s Serenade, and so on) but wool prices plunged ruinously at the end of the 1990’s so they sold off most of the sheep, plowed up the pasture and planted grape vines.  Maybe they should have stuck with the sheep.

The driver/guide had to tell us a sheep joke.   A Pommie gentleman farmer (Aussies love to take the Mickey out of the English) visiting a sheep ranch in WA told the bush rancher a bit haughtily that his sheep needed to be sheared.   “I ain’t shearing them sheep with anybody,” the Aussie farmer replied.  It’s funnier if it’s told with the proper accent, of course.  And after tasting several wines.

Edwards, the next vineyard we visited, was also better remembered for the story that goes with it than for its wines.  (To be fair, they’re deliberately striving for a grassy, French style of wine as opposed to the more robust wines the Margaret River is known for and our taste buds were expecting.)   Edwards is clearly a prosperous business, with worldwide distribution.  Their facilities and promotional materials are first-rate.  Their wines, however, simply weren’t to our taste.  We tasted at a table outside and the lawn was well wined by the time we finished – everyone else on the bus seemed to share our lack of enthusiasm.  Even the piece de resistance – a just-released Bordeaux Blend that will sell for $60 – failed to impress.   They do a lot of blends around here, the driver/guide explained.  Not all years are perfect and so they’ll blend wine from the good years with wine from the not-so-good years to achieve a consistency.  The great years, of course, get bottled on their own as reserve wines.

The just-released overpriced red was to commemorate the great story that makes this vineyard unique.   Twenty years ago the founder of the vineyard, Brian Edwards, set out on an odyssey.  An amateur pilot, he got the idea to commission the reconstruction of a Tiger Moth biplane and fly it solo to Perth from the RAF base in England where his late father had gone missing on a Lancaster bombing mission over Cologne in 1943.  Overcoming many difficulties, he did it.  He even wrote a fascinating book about it, which Sylv bought me for my birthday.  Edwards died not too long after his historic flight and his sons now run the vineyard.  The bright yellow plane is there on display and of course it’s featured in their promotions and on the wine labels.  The signature wines have names like Tiger’s Tale.  What’s that song from “Gypsy,” “You Gotta Have a Gimmick”?   They all seem to.

The gimmick for the next winery, Lavender Hill, is that all their wines – otherwise undistinguished – are “infused” with lavender (which I could neither taste nor smell in the wine, perhaps blessedly).   The place is painted in shades of lavender.  There’s lavender growing everywhere and they sell all kinds of lavender tschotschkies.  The fragrance is lovely.  We had lunch in their dining room with a nice view over their beautiful property.  Lunch was very good – imaginative food, well prepared.  This was the sit-down lunch the tourist information office lady had in mind when she touted us onto this tour.  She was right.

We’d saved enough time, moving expeditiously through the first couple of wineries, that the driver had time to take us on a detour out to the coast before lunch.   Spectacular views.   There were porpoises popping up out near a reef where the waves are breaking.  This spot features in famed local author Tim Winton’s great little book about surfing, “Breath.”  Where we are is about halfway between the two capes, Naturaliste to the north and Leeuwin to the south.  Gorgeous.

I’ve forgotten to mention that we were being filmed for a travel documentary to be shown on ABC (the Australian Broadcasting Company) Channel 9 in late May.   A film crew has been meeting us at various venues along with the two hosts, a large, loud, florid guy who looks like a heart attack on the way to happening (nice guy, though, and funny) and an attractive blonde former Olympic gold medalist in the breaststroke, whose name if I caught it right is Brooke Shields.

After lunch we hit the last vineyard, a small producer called Bettenay Wines.   To say that the wizened little old winemaker was a character would be a massive understatement.  This guy was far funnier than any of the professional comedians on stage at a big-time comedy show Sylv and I had gone to back in Perth a couple of months ago.  Squinting an eye at the Olympic swimmer, he told her about a famous cross-bay breaststroke race where a couple of blondes – looked a little like her, he reckoned – were lagging well behind.  When the boat went out to see if they were OK, one of them complained that the other girls were cheating.  “They’re using their arms,” she said.  The other one got a little more than halfway across, he said, then decided it was too far and turned back.  Think about it.   Have a couple of glasses of wine and think about it!

His wines were pretty good, too.  His 2007 Chardonnay was the most interesting wine all day.  It had a totally different character than any chard we’d ever had before.  I couldn’t place what I was tasting; perhaps a different kind of oak.  His 2008 was nothing like it, though.  We spent a long time there and had a lot of laughs.  He was really performing for the TV crew and they were lapping it up.  He’ll get the most time of any of the vineyards when they edit the program, that’s for sure.  His routine sold a lot of wine to our fellow passengers – though again, not to us.

The guide gave us a little insight into why wine costs so much in Australia.   He rattled off a lot of numbers about the production process and costs at each stage faster than I could jot them down.  One number I do remember though is that it takes a kilo of grapes (about 2.2 pounds) to make one bottle of wine.   The number that matters most, however, is the 40% “wet tax” the government slaps on every bottle at retail.  That explains why we can buy these very same wines in Connecticut or North Carolina for less than people who live right here in Margaret River have to pay at their local bottle shop.   Outrageous.

Our last two four stops were at a venison farm, a cheese maker, a chocolate factory and a craft brewery.  We tasted four kinds of venison sausage (think salami) where were not bad at all and a venison pate that was out-of-this-world good.  A package of that came home with us.   The cheese was too mild for our taste, but they did do an excellent mixed berry yoghurt that also found its way into the Esky (cooler) on board the bus.  Next, the chocolate shop, where we bought a bar and a brick of 70% dark.  Sinful.  I expressed surprise that cacao trees grow in Australia, was told that they don’t.  The beans come from the Ivory Coast or somewhere; they’re just processed here.  Same as the coffee for the various roasteries in town.   We finished up at the brewery where most of our fellow passengers had the six-glass tasting bar.  I’m not keen on pale ales of which they had two, I didn’t feel like a heavy stout, and I thought the porter would be too sweet.  That left me ordering a half of wit bier (undistinguished – there are lots better at the Belgian Beer Bar across from our apartment) and another half of kolsch (again not very good – I remember the one I had in Berlin last November being much, much more flavorful).   The best part about the stop, though, was that it gave us all a chance to get to know our tour companions as we chatted around long tables.  (Except for the English couple, who’d been standoffish all day.)  The Irish invited Sylv and me to join them at a pub when we got back to the town, but we weren’t ready for the piss-up that promised to be.

We probably dozed on the way home; it had been a long but very enjoyable day.

A little rest and a trip to the back of the hotel wine shop for our dinner wine and we were ready to go again.  We’d decided to eat in one of the better restaurants, a BYOB place at the top of the town called Waves.  Not surprisingly, they specialize in fish and shellfish.  My knowledgeable wine lady recommended a Stella Bella Semillon Sauvignon Blanc and she was right again.  (It sounds silly, doesn’t it, to go to all those wineries and then end up buying our dinner wine at the bottle shop?   But the truth was, we hadn’t tasted anything we liked well enough to want to buy a bottle.  And her recommendation was again spot-on – we liked the Stella Bella much better than anything we’d been exposed to all day.)

For dinner, Sylv had a local delicacy called a Hairy Marron.   (They’d left the “Hairy” part of the name off the menu!)  It’s a fresh-water crayfish right out of the Margaret River, about the size of a lobster complete with claws.  The meat is about the same texture as lobster, a bit softer, a bit sweeter and not quite as tasty.  Good, though.  I chose a barramundi, sort of repeating my Daintree Wilderness Lodge experience, complete with the Margaret River Semillon Sauvignon Blanc (known locally as an SSB).  The fish was beautifully prepared and totally delicious.  Nice evening.  For dessert, we went back the room and drank the rest of that Brown Hill shiraz and ate the whole bloody brick of dark chocolate!   No wonder I’m fatter right now than I’ve ever been in my life.  The gym beckons.

The next morning was Good Friday and everything was closed except for a few restaurants and most of the art galleries, so that’s what we did, toured the art galleries.  Lots of good stuff.  I particularly liked the work of an artist named Judy Prosser who’s from northern WA and does whimsical paintings of Aboriginal life and red desert scenes.  Google her and see if you don’t enjoy her work too.

The tourist information lady had recommended a ten-mile walk around the Margaret River catchment basin.  Sylv wasn’t up for that, so we agree to meet later for lunch and off I hiked.   It was a lovely, peaceful walk through the towering forest along the river.   I passed a couple of young guys early and then didn’t see or hear anyone else ’til I was almost back to the road on the other side.  I didn’t do the whole ten miles.  A bit more than half way along there was a wooden bridge I crossed.  (Not because I wasn’t enjoying the hike or because I was tired.   I could’ve gone on all day, but the time was getting on to when I’d agreed to meet Sylv.)  From the bridge I was able to look down into the water and see nests of Hairy Marrons, one of whose cousins Sylv had had for dinner last night!

After lunch (brunch, really) we ambled over to the bus stop to go back to Perth.  It was a pleasant trip, not a lot of traffic.   Nice sunny day, and we went by the coast road for much of the trip, rather than the motorway.  What a lovely place this would be to live, we keep saying.  I particularly liked a little town called Dunsborough, right on Geographe Bay on the lee side of the cape.  Idyllic.  Who knows?  It’s not totally unthinkable.

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