One of my smartest moves has been to snag an Australian as my other half. Apart from some moaning about the London weather, “Is this amount of rain usual?” and a dodgy back collection of albums (‘Hunters and Gatherers’ or ‘Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs’ anyone? No, don’t look them up, just let them drift by you) you do get to visit the extended family back home. Sweet!
That’s how I ended up in December in sunny Western Australia with the prospect of 40C for Christmas Day. Of course, to a freckly fair Irish lady that didn’t fill me with complete joy but I have to admit that after a poor summer in London I’ve been enjoying airing my summer linens and feeling the sun on my skin. And then there’s the food and wine.
At the end of my first week we went ‘down south’ from the capital Perth to the wine growing region of WA. To be precise we spent a few days around Dunsborough, a laid-back little town full of coffee shops, restaurants, bars, bakeries and surf wear while my aussie in-laws gathered for a family wedding which was celebrated in one of the many beautiful vineyards this region boasts. It hardly seems surprising but the combination of great people, food, wine and place all added up to a memorable day. So love and best wishes to lucky groom Phil and his beautiful lady Cath.
We tacked on a few more days in the region after the wedding staying in a campsite close to the main town of the region, Margaret River after which the region is named. There are 120 plus wineries in this area and a few days break cannot do the region justice but armed with some preferences and some recommendations we managed to visit a few and taste a drop or two. All in the name of research you understand.
Anyway the find of the area for us was Brown Hill Estate wines. Unlike many of the wineries in Margaret River, Brown Hill offers a fairly low key cellar door experience. The ‘cellar’ being the huge shed housing the wine vats and the tasting area is a small corner presided over by owner Jim Bailey (shown above). As Jim explained to us, they do little marketing but word of mouth recommendation has meant that they struggle to meet demand. With 80 acres of planting he would dearly like to plant more but is unsure if he can find time to do that. Their wines score highly on the wine ratings by WA experts Ray Jordan and James Haliday with 91 the lowest score and the majority over 94. And when you taste them you can understand why. Even the low entry ranges are excellent wines at great value but the star wines of ‘Perserverance’ (Cab Merlot 2008) and ‘Bill Bailey’ (Shiraz Cab 2009) are wonderful examples of elegant wine making. Rich and complex, intense in flavour but both with the smooth finish of all the Brown Hill wines. We also tasted ‘Fimiston’ (Reserve Shiraz 2010) ‘Ivanhoe (Reserve Cab Sav 2010) and Coesus (Reserve Merlot 2010). All are smooth and while good to drink now we were advised all the wines will cellar well. Jim’s son Nathan is the manager and wine maker so it’s a true family wine business. Not available in the UK so if you want to try, you need to buy. They will ship abroad and most of their orders are online or mail.
Other favourites where we tasted and purchased were Cape Mentelle (some of their range available in the UK), Knotting Hill (lovely lakeside setting where we lunched on platters of local olives, meats and cheeses), Woodlands (I really liked their more european style blended wines, the 2009 Cab Sav ‘Alma May’ is stunning), Becketts Flat (tasting marred by some old samples but later we had a bottle of their merlot and it was really lovely), Vasse Felix (wonderful lunch there, as always) and Brooklands Valley (that’s the image with wee faun playing flute). We simply ran out of time to visit some wineries we already know and enjoy; Eagle Vale (memories of a great Shiraz!), Ashbrook Estate (an unassuming winery making great whites), Clairault, Xanadu, Voyager and Cullens. Most of these also boast excellent restaurants or cafes but I knew I’d get to taste most of their wines over the following weeks while staying in WA so there was little need to rush around too much. And it was hot. In fact all the time we were there the whole country was experiencing a heatwave and by heatwave I’m talking temperatures of 40C+. Melting hot for me and humid too which is unusual. At least Margaret River is a couple of degrees cooler than the capital of WA, Perth, so we manfully struggled on with our wine tastings. The Margaret River region is the best I know for an all round wine holiday, as apart form bristling with vineyards there are the added attractions of nearby beaches, bush trails, berry farms, chocolate factories, olive groves, galleries (some awesome art & furniture on show), luxury retreats, spas and child friendly restaurants. And all within a 3 hour drive of WA capital Perth. Bliss.
Oh and the surfing is excellent too if you’re so inclined. I – surprisingly I know – am not.