Words Ian Parmenter Photography Christian Fletcher
Published Spring 2011
I find it curious that one can live in a region for a long time yet miss out on many of its attractions. For instance, as a grown-up living in London, I never once visited Hampton Court, the Tower of London, or HM the Queen at Buck House – though I did manage to take in most of the city’s pubs.
Similarly, while I’ve been ensconced in Margaret River for the best part of 20 years, until recently a lot of this region’s attractions had been ignored by me and, therefore, unappreciated. However, I’ve been making amends and spreading my wings to the north of ‘Margarets’, venturing into the Geographe region.
Geographe Bay and more
The Margaret River wine region is one of Australia’s biggest, stretching 120 kilometres from Augusta in the south to Naturaliste in the north, and 30 kilometres from west to east. The Naturaliste and Leeuwin lighthouses, both still working and worth visiting, are landmarks top and bottom of the Cape to Cape region.
And what a precious wine region is it. It only produces around three per cent of the nation’s grapes but boasts 20 per cent of our premium wines. It is amazingly varied in its terroir, coastline and landscape. If you were to draw a line at Wilyabrup, north of the Margaret River township, Vasse Felix winery would sit right on the border where the southern section of Margaret River changes to become the distinct northern part of the region, which then edges into the Geographe wine region.
North of the border, the landscape – and seascape – is a whole different scene. Geographe Bay and its neighbouring Eagle Bay (nicknamed Legal Pay because of the number of multi-million dollar ‘shacks’ there) have tranquil clear waters and sheltered beaches that are in sharp contrast with the giant surfs and winds on most of the southern and western coast.
Until recently, the Geographe region, which starts somewhere between the small town of Dunsborough and its ‘capital’ Busselton, has often played second fiddle to the strongly branded Margaret River region. However, that’s all changing.
New wine, beer and hospitality businesses are springing up and visitors are coming to recognise this vivacious region nestled up near the top of the Cape for its great gastronomic delights, brilliant accommodation and fine art, to say nothing of its fabulous natural attractions.
And there are plenty of them: from the Ngilgi Cave beneath the limestone ridge which forms Cape Naturaliste, to the north ridge facing beaches on Geographe Bay and some of the most attractive parts of the Cape to Cape Track, recently voted one of Australia’s top ten walks.
For the fervent trekker, the 132 kilometre walk can be done in six days, but for the less robust and adventurous, such as yours truly, it’s the short stroll that is preferred. There are many circular walks at Cape Naturaliste, some of which are even pram and wheelchair friendly.
Incidently, my partner Ann and I are proud members of a group of dedicated Friends of the Cape to Cape Track who, armed to the teeth with secateurs, loppers, and chainsaws (except in my case – I’m not allowed), make sure the track is kept open for the tens of thousands of walkers who build up their appetites along this spectacular perambulation.
Then there’s the wildlife. The many birds include the splendid red-winged wrens, parrots such as western rosellas, red-tailed cockatoos and 28s, so-called because of their bird song, or rather squawk, which I think sounds more like they’re saying 64. There are reptiles, many of them safe, and a couple of snakes, the dugite and the tiger snake, which should be given a wide berth.
Spring is the time to watch the whales migrate south to Antarctica and enjoy the more than 600 species of regional wildflowers, including rare orchids unique to this part of the world. All this to see and so much to eat and drink.
Wining, dining, and beering…
The area offers plenty of locations where one can sample both natural wonders and a nice drop. A short detour east of Bunbury will find you in the picturesque Ferguson Valley, home to Willow Bridge Estate, Geographe’s largest producer. In 2000 Jeff and Vicki Dewar were the first to add a winery to the area’s vineyards, and their location means they get the benefits of cooling ocean breezes, higher altitude and plenty of sun. They also border Wellington National Park, home to some of WA’s most magnificent eucalypt forests as well as spectacular gorges and waterfalls.
If you continue south via the inland route you’ll find another cluster of Geographe wineries around the town of Donnybrook – the ‘Apple Capital of the South West’, no less! They also grow a mean grape here and a lot of the wineries are set to step into the big league. For a case in point, look no further than Barton Jones Wines at Blackboy Ridge Estate. Things have developed well enough that owners Jackie Barton and Adrian Jones are soon to open a brand new tasting room this spring. With sustainability as its focus, the facility has straw-bale walls and high-tech solar photovoltaic laminate on its striking curved roof.
Of course it is not all about wine here. Makers of amber goodness have been making inroads into the vines of this region with boutique breweries. One of the latest arrivals is Eagle Bay Brewing Company, which opened late last year.
The brewery and restaurant are in a super-smart modern building on a well-established, family-owned and run estate. The D’Espeissis family has farmed on this property overlooking Eagle Bay since 1950. Now three descendant siblings, Nick, Adrian and Astrid, are running operations with Nick D’Espeissis brewing up a storm. Having previously worked for breweries in New Zealand, Sydney and Fremantle, Nick sticks to German purity law, using only rainwater, malted barley, yeast and hops to create five brews, among which the most popular is a kolsch: a light, bright, cleansing drop.
Purity too is part of the food delivery; much of the produce comes from the brewery’s gardens or is locally sourced. The restaurant’s menu is overseen by chef Rupert Brown and his sous-chef Jason Davenport, both of whom have cut their teeth in neighbouring restaurants including Aaron Carr’s kitchen down the road at Vasse Felix Winery.
Their fare is gastro-pub mixed with a good range of vegetarian options and woodfired pizzas such as sage, garlic and red chilli; field mushroom, gorgonzola and pine nuts; and bresaola, artichoke, rocket and parmesan. And in common with many of the region’s eateries, there are many gluten-free options.
With beer being the preferred after-work beverage of lots of winemakers, this is a place they are lapping up. There are also Eagle Bay wines available, made by some leading local producers.
Just opposite sits another venue with spectacular views and a family history: Wise Winery and restaurant. Biochemist Ron Wise started the winery in 1991 and since 1995, Heath and Melinda Townsend have been operating the restaurant. While Heath is a chef, these days there’s a strong Italian spin to the menu, which is prepared by chef Claudio Tallerico and his brigade.
Getting closer to the water, on the beach in Bunker Bay sits Bunkers Beach Cafe. It’s not just the fact that the water almost laps up to the tables and it’s in one of Australia’s – no, make that the world’s – most beautiful locations, but chef Hamish McLeay – formerly at Cullen Wines – plates up exceptionally good food while his partner Tracie Marston runs the front of house with friendly efficiency.
Not surprisingly, it’s a good idea to opt for seafood at Bunkers Beach Cafe. It’s the perfect place to enjoy spanner crab salad on sweet corn fritter followed by prawns and scallop okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) with bacon, barbecue sauce and katsuobushi (dried fish flakes), which somewhat disconcertingly curl up on the dish while you’re eating, suggesting something’s alive.
The wine selection is small but predominantly features the wines of the operation’s owners, Peter Fogarty and Murray McHenry, both local wine legends. Peter and Murray still have their fingers in a number of pies, and a 20 minute drive from the cafe will see you at Deep Woods Estate, part of the Fogarty Wine Group. With its large spring-fed dam and natural bushland, it is surely one of Margaret River’s most scenic wineries.
Many of the new breed of chefs in this region, and their life partners, cut their teeth as apprentices or sous-chefs in some top established restaurants. This includes Blair Allen, formerly of Voyager Estate, who is pan handling at Studio Bistro and Gallery, and doing a magnificent job of it. His courgette flowers stuffed with mascarpone and goat’s cheese with sauce vierge are sublime, as are his seared Shark Bay (WA) scallops with sweet corn velouté, corn and shaved fennel.
Yes, there’s art as the name suggests, but for me the tour de force at this venue is a fine wine list which, while featuring an array of local wines, also includes an eclectic collection from France, Italy, Austria and Spain.
A grape pip’s spit away, there’s art and fine wine too at Wills Domain. While the gallery and restaurant are a new venture, the family of owner Darren Haunold has some history in wine. Apparently, it can be traced back to a 15th century winemaking domain, the ruins of which can be seen at Falkenstein near Vienna.
Wine writer Ray Jordan describes Wills Domain as “one of the more remarkable operations in the region, run by one of the most remarkable men in the industry.” Aptly put.
While his early life was spent in the state’s northwest, where his family ran a mine site services business, Darren was schooled in Perth. An accident at the age of 13 left him wheelchair bound. He says he owes a lot of his progress after the accident to former cricketer John Inverarity, then the principal of Hale School, for being a great mentor. And another mentor was his father, William – the eponymous Will of the winery’s name – who died four years after buying the vineyard property in 2000, which he had acquired as a part of his retirement plan.
Darren’s early handicap has certainly proved no impediment to his passion for the development of his property and it remains to be seen if his son, Oliver, now aged four, continues the Haunold wine tradition.
With all the exciting new and impending growth in the region, it’s easy to forget that the area has a rich history, and this is still on display at many wineries. Take Cape Naturaliste Vineyard, for example: before it was a five-star winery, it was a staging point on the Perth-Margaret River coach route and then a dairy farm, and the old buildings form a wonderful backdrop to the vineyard.
My advice to anyone contemplating a visit to Margaret River is to allow at least two days and plenty of opportunity to just sit still with a glass of local wine and enjoy the views – or the open fires.
When it comes to accommodation, there’s plenty of choice to suit all budgets. I’m told there are more farm stays in this region than anywhere else. Some vineyards have their own places to stay, including Island Brook, Wise Winery (mentioned above), and Bettenay (which, as well as wine, produces great nougat).
Beach and sea lovers are well catered for with many villas, such as the Bunker Bay Resort and Smiths Beach Resort. One of the newest is the Injidup Spa Retreat. Now, I have to confess to being averse to certain words in names of places. For instance, I won’t eat at a restaurant that’s a ‘Jolly’ something, or has the word ‘Dear’ in it. Likewise, I feel the same about places that are ‘Eco’ something or are a ‘spa’. Retreat can sound a bit too healthy and I regard spas as a huge waste of water.
That said, this place is a real treat. Beautifully nestled near the beach, the retreat features, of course, the ubiquitous massage, body and bath treatments. While the villas are self-catering, a chef is available to cook in the retreat’s main kitchen. And breakfast ingredients are provided. You can take an individual villa or if you’re party minded, you might like to round up 38 people to share with you for just $20,000 for a couple of nights with the chef thrown in complimentarily (in a manner of speaking!).
It’s one of the great challenges for the travelling wine or beer imbiber: getting about. Nobody really wants to be a skipper on a gastronomic safari. And that’s where good, reliable and genial drivers come in.
Sean Blocksidge started up Margaret River Discovery a couple of years ago, providing specialised Cape tours by four-wheel drive. Previously a winery restaurant manager (migrating north from the southern Cape), he launched into this small business with passion and vigour, and hasn’t looked back. His tours combine a wide-ranging look at the region as well as exclusive features such as barrel tastings. For the young and cool, there’s Wine For Dudes, where wine-blending is part of the action. And for something quite different, Bob Clinton's Rolling with Character offers tours in a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow or a vintage bus named Tilly. And there are many limo and chauffeuring services on offer.
The West Australian Government has just allocated a bucket of money for tourism development in this region through its Royalties for Regions program, believing that it has a great future. For once, I agree with the pollies.