Margaret River's Natural Bounties Are Getting Harder To Resist
Australia’s southwest region boasts some of the country’s most uniquely breathtaking escapades, and it often requires an unhurried tour of Margaret River—a food and wine lover’s paradise located a pleasant two and a half hour drive from Perth (or just 40min by chartered plane)—to truly understand the area’s global appeal. Margaret River’s proximity has made it extremely popular among Singaporeans and many travellers across Asia, especially those with a discernment for world-class chardonnay and expressive yet elegant cabernets that share the spotlight with a few other grape varietals that the area’s enviable range of microclimates has embraced.
In fact, because the focus of the winemakers is often on expressing the unique terroir, fans should also look forward to delectably varied expressions of the region's popular wines.
The landscape is just as diverse and breathtaking. Stretching along the coast from Busselton along Geographe Bay to a high point at the Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse, and down to Augusta and the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse at Australia’s most southwest corner, Margaret River boasts a natural beauty that’s impossible to miss. Stealing a quiet moment (or an entire afternoon, for that matter) on a pristine stretch of beach here is easier than one might think; or you could also choose to catch the action at one of the region’s 40 top surfing spots.
Given that most landmarks and points of interest are no more than an hour and a half’s drive from each other, choices for a comfortable hotel or resort as your base are as diverse as they are aplenty. If you happen to be looking for one with a stately country house feel and a kitchen serving local celebrity chef Tony Howell’s French-influenced country fare, then Cape Lodge in Yallingup is where you’ll want to spend a few nights. Nestled alongside rolling vineyards, several of its rooms and its restaurant boast a view of its private lake, which we can attest is a surreal picture at sunrise and twilight.
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Whatever you choose to eat, whether it’s a breakfast of organic eggs over freshly baked sourdough, or a trout fillet paired with eggplant chutney and a bisque emulsion for lunch, the options at Margaret River often champion locally sourced produce that are best enjoyed with the local wines. For a taste of the blissful possibilities, lunch at Arimia Estate located in the heart of the Wilyabrup wine county is highly recommended. Here, talented chef Evan Hayter, who is fiercely dedicated to conscious cooking, serves modern Australian cuisine with some Japanese inflections using prized ingredients grown and reared on site, most notably its freshwater trout and estate-raised pork. The latter is best prepared simply and pairs nicely with the property’s 2015 Mourvèdre.
No doubt, Arimia’s food menu is designed to complement its boutique winery’s varied selection, which boasts interesting picks such as the beautifully aromatic 2017 Verdelho and a 2013 blend of grenache, shiraz and mourvèdre. Of course, should you wish to take a few days to truly immerse yourself in the experience, there’s a self-contained guest house located on the property that overlooks the vines and the escarpment.
Another exemplary celebration of the region’s speciality growers and farmers, fishermen, butchers, cheesemakers and winemakers can be found at Yarri Restaurant and Bar, located in the town of Dunsborough. Led by chef Aaron Carr, who left the acclaimed Vasse Felix after 21 years to open his own place with the team behind the award-winning Snake + Herring Wines in February last year, the restaurant famously pays homage to the region’s earliest aboriginal custodians with a menu that reflects the six seasons of the Noongar calendar.
Even a humble amalgamation of torched marinated kingfish, edamame and mandarin wedges manages to charm the most jaded of palates. It seems that bold, intuitive yet uncomplicated flavour pairings take centre stage here, which would explain the popularity of a side order of burnt cabbage with miso and buckwheat, which has kept its place on the menu since day one. And yes, nearly all the dishes we enjoyed had spent time in a custom wood-fired oven, which definitely helped enhance the ingredients’ natural flavours. This was most agreeably evident with the hefty (550g) but deftly prepared dry-aged sirloin, which was served with butter flavoured with anchovies and capers. Frankly, it all comes down to showcasing simple but bold, natural flavours and pairings with finness, and this new addtition has it down pat.
It’s easy to see why the uninitiated might make the mistake of limiting their experiences to the vicinity of the town of Margaret River. Granted, it’s a charming settlement close to renowned wineries such as Cape Mentelle, Voyager, Watershed and Woodlands.There’s even a new mod-Japanese restaurant, Miki’s Open Kitchen, by chef-owner Mikihito Nagai that’s worth the drive from Yallingup or Busselton. It serves authentic tempura alongside more inspired Japanese dishes using regional ingredients. And if you’re lucky, the menu could include gems such as abalone from Ocean Grown Abalone, the world’s first sustainable abalone ranch located in the seas off Augusta.
But if time permits and wine is on your mind, plan your meals around excursions to icons such as Cullen Wines and Vasse Felix. The former is one of the first wineries established in the region and is certified biodynamic and carbon neutral, and subscribes to 100 per cent natural power. Limited bottles that will likely never be exported from here include the Kevin John Legacy Series – 2014 Flower Day Chardonnay MOSH and the 2015 Mangan Vineyard MOSH Sauvignon Blanc. According to the experts on site, the Moon Opposite Saturn Harvest (MOSH) was observed to attain wines that are “vibrant, mineral and full of life” for the particular vintage, so the grapes were harvested separately on this day. For the 2014 Kevin John Legacy Series, it coincided with that year’s “flower day harvest”. In short, this is a uniquely delicious expression of chardonnay that affirms the quality exceptions Margaret River is known for.
Vasse Felix, on the other hand, is Margaret River’s founding wine estate and it, too, has made extremely good use of the region’s unique two-oceans climate and ancient soils to produce some of its best cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. Speaking of stunning Margaret River chardonnay, some of the most beautifully complex expressions can also be found at another prized stalwart of the region, Pierro Wines. But don’t let that distract you from the winery’s equally attractive blend of semillon and sauvignon blanc.
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Besides the top wineries, do give serious thought to making a stop at one of the region’s newest and brightest, Windows Estate. It’s run by a young family of grape growers and artisan wine producers who have clearly put quality before quantity. They firmly focus on the sustainable production of exceptional wines, such as their estate chardonnay, and more recently, the 2017 Petit Lot Fume Blanc. These are just the sort of wines we can imagine taking our time with over a long and lazy springtime brunch on the balcony of one of the apartments at Smiths Beach Resort in Yallingup, or at a beachside holiday home by Private Properties with sweeping views of Bunker Bay, as we earnestly contemplate a pre-dinner stroll along the beach to catch another sunset—just because we can.
- Images Tim Campbell/Margaret River on Tour and Yarri Restaurant and Bar