Friday, 1 May 2009

Grape Expectations - South West Australia's Wine Region

To the South of Perth and beyond Fremantle, the majority of visitors head for the World-renowned Margaret River wine region in the far bottom left-hand corner of Australia.

The township of Margaret River itself is a three hour drive from Perth, but there are a number of places along the way that, whilst not necessarily constituting worthy day-trip destinations from the city in themselves, are nonetheless interesting diversions while heading South.

First among them is Mandurah, a seaside town of rapidly increasing scale and importance.

Formerly a small, country trading post and then weekend coastal retreat from Perth, Mandurah has in recent years been the scene of rampant property development, particularly on the banks of newly-canalised inland waterways. It lends the town, in parts, a distinctly Floridian feel, with sleek motorcruisers moored at the foot of lawned gardens which glide down from sparkling villas and townhouses.

When this development began, and indeed for sometime afterward, access to this millionaire’s lifestyle came relatively cheap, as the 70km distance from Perth and congested road links limited the market severely.

All that began to change with the coming of the railway from Perth in December 2007, which dramatically reduced the journey time and suddenly catapulted Mandurah from sleepy isolation to commuter magnet and, in doing so, made the town one of the least affordable places to live in Australia. It’s a boating, fishing and bathing haven, with high-end shops, restaurants and cafés springing up to serve the new residents of not just the waterside villas, but the light and airy marina apartment blocks too.

The design of the railway itself is worthy of note. Despite some serious industrial relations issues during construction, the route was completed in a little over three and a half years, the work having started in February 2004.

It’s an almost text-book example of intelligent urban transport planning. Firstly and before construction even began, the route was revised to take a more direct and therefore profitable alignment, albeit at greater up-front cost. For a significant distance, the tracks run between the carriageways of the Kwinana Highway, with those carriageways diverging slightly at stations to allow for platforms and associated infrastructure.

The stations are located at major intersections, with access to them gained from the flyovers above. These flyovers also host bus stations which laterally link the surrounding residential and commercial districts to the rail line. This system is, to a certain extent, replicated in some of the Northern Perth suburbs also and together, they support what’s been described as one of the World’s most successful rail renaissance projects.

Continuing towards Margaret River however, the next major city is Bunbury. Being that much further away from Perth, Bunbury survives far more on its own natural and built environment. The deepwater port serves the timber and farming industries of the region and the city – third largest in WA – is connected to Perth by twice-daily rail service as well as by road.

For the visitor, most of the attractions are subtle at best – apartments converted from former grain silos for example, or a beachside café that was slowly developed from the unlikely starting blocks of a public toilet and a kiosk. More stunning is the beach that this latter watering-hole directly overlooks.

Next along the road is Busselton, far more of a tourist destination in itself than either Mandurah or Bunbury. Chief amongst its attractions is its jetty which, in true Antipodean size-matters fashion, asserts the claim to being the longest wooden jetty in the Southern Hemisphere. It formerly also supported a rail line which would ferry freight, then passengers, to the pier end, but these days it’s an exposed walk in the fiery sun.

Of course, the only place in Busselton from which you can’t see the jetty is from the jetty itself, so there’s another reason to enjoy the beachside cafés and parks, or the sands themselves. The iconic sheds at the jetty wharf lose something through the hanging of modern signs on the outside of them, but it’s a pleasant enough vista nonetheless.

Beyond Busselton, the state becomes increasingly rural and sparsely populated. Conversely, the concentration of the renowned vineyards, wineries and olive groves increases. Of the vineyards, one of the newest and most interesting is that of the Saracen Estates.

Firstly, it should be noted that there’s a distinction between a vineyard, where grapes are grown, and a winery where they’re made into wine. It sounds obvious, but you’d be amazed at how many folks rock up at a vineyard expecting to see the whole process in front of them, and instead find merely lines and lines of bushes.

Secondly, when deciding which vineyards/wineries to visit, try and check which reputation you’re basing that decision on. The best wines come from the best winery, but that says nothing about whether that winery’s restaurant happens to be any good, of course.

And thirdly, for the inexperienced in such matters, just enjoy. Tastings are rarely stingy and if you don’t like something then say so. Firstly, the staff have probably heard it before but, if they haven’t, they need feedback to guide future tastings.

So, for a mid-morning visit with coffee and a tasting, Saracen is an excellent choice. Indeed, not only is the estate a vineyard and winery, it’s also home to the Duckstein Brewery as well as a stunning new café, restaurant and tasting complex, overlooking their lake and landscaped bush.

There’s plenty of room for a larger party to do their own thing, the highlight being the tastings of course, which are undertaken at either a bar or, for the weak of feet, a fireside lounge area. Top pick on this occasion was the 2007 Sauvignon Blanc Semillon (SBS), which suited a sunny Australian late morning perfectly.

Long time visitors to the region lament that the town of Margaret River, 280kms South of Perth, has grown beyond its intimate collection of houses, art galleries, boutiques and unique drinking and dining options, into an overly-busy honey pot of chain outlets and traffic.

The fist-time visitor is unlikely to think so however and, by comparison to say Ambleside or Windermere in England’s Lake District, Margaret River remains a sleepy backwater – albeit one under vivid blue skies and Antipodean sun.

Just outside the town, quite apart from the myriad vineyards and wineries, are superb surf beaches and expansive woodland, along with several hundred caves within the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park. Travelling back North along Caves Road, the landscape is idyllic with rolling hills and forests, vineyards and groves, sometimes augmented by sculpture and art, lakes and fountains which have been installed as estate centrepieces or entrance adornments. It’s a beautiful part of the World and one which rewards those who’ve travelled to see it enormously.

Clinging to the cliffside of Cape Naturaliste is the tiny town of Yallingup, almost every house in which has the most stunning view out across the Indian Ocean and down to the top class surf beach below. There’s very little to do there otherwise, except to find a real estate agent and investigate the practicalities of moving there immediately.

On the other side of the cape is the township of Dunsborough, which seems to have recently exploded in size without any obvious catalyst. There’s a good selection of shops and dining options and a pleasant beach. Far better, however, to head a little further West from the town, towards the cape itself and seek out the beautiful beaches at Mealup and Eagle Bays.

In the latter case, don’t even think about looking in an estate agent’s window. If you have to ask, you can’t afford it. There’s one more beach along this little hook of land jutting out into the ocean. This large, North-facing, perfect crescent of white, gently-shelving sand and crystal clear waters is Bunker Bay and, ever so helpfully, there’s a hotel right behind the dunes.

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