Just a Sliver, of Margaret River

by wandering freditor / Jul 23, 2011 / 1 comments

Oh I do love clichés, especially when they are all true! It comes down to a matter of taste. Fine with you if we ‘taste’ some, you know, just for starters! First with the classic ‘writes.’ Glasses ready?


Margaret River may have been plucked out of obscurity, but at this point in time, it is a pace-setter for the production of Bordeaux-type wines. Years ago, a few vignerons did their sums, and it was simply a no brainer! Every Tom Dick and Harry knew that with the Mediterranean climate, the onshore breezes, and the limestone soil, it was in the DNA; this was iconic grape country!


Oh … you’ve had elegant sufficiency of those clichés already! You want to switch to the classic ‘reads’ – no problem! It was as plain as the nose on your face, this place was a goer! Without re-inventing the wheel, the Margaret River wineries simply produced bottled sunshine. The name of the game was a quality drop that would benchmark New World wines, and here they produced it in spades! I mean to say, what is there not to like? And as the dollars kept rolling in, everyone in Western Australia was tickled pink. They were all stakeholders in the sweet smell of success! Oh it was all so divine!


But you’re getting tired, so am I, so let’s give gravity, a try!


Margaret River, in the south-west corner of Western Australia, was in 1831, named after the obscure cousin Margaret, of an obscure explorer named John Bussell, the founder of a coastal settlement on the Geographe Bay, which he called surprise, surprise, Busselton. The Dutch and the French had been in the region too, as Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin show, but they were only interested in naming rights. Alas not at Margaret River! Imagine how much better the wine would taste today, if it came from the Rive Margeaux, or even the Margriet Rivier! So much more exotic! But no, instead it was  good ole cousin Margaret, probably be-bonneted and certainly be-bustled, who now enjoys a world wide reputation.


The Margaret River region lies about 300 kilometres south of the West Australian state capital, Perth, but its reputation as a wine growing region is really only about forty years old. Prior to that, it was farming country, largely dairy, with timber felling in its hinterland. The giant Karri and Jarrah trees, supplied the timber for most West Australian houses, right up to the Second World War. Plus all the railway sleepers, fence-posts, wharf pylons, telegraph poles, picket fences and firewood as well! Fortunately the trees were in abundance, and subsequent conservation programs have seen the preservation of the nearby, majestic, Valley of the Giants, where you can do a tree-top walk (even use a wheel-chair!), 40 metres above the valley floor. Although Australia is one of the most urbanized countries in the world, the bush holds its allure. The orange gravel tracks that run off the highways are like a crooked, beckoning finger, for all hold the promise of discovery, a Pandora at every blind corner, a “Eureka” moment over every rise. To love Australia, is to also love the bush.


In my youth, Margaret River was a sleepy country town, and most people gravitated to the nearby coastal caravan parks or when surfing became more popular, to try and ride the boomer waves at Yallingup. There were some interesting caves, the fishing was good, and most people referred to the region – if you will pardon my cliché – as unspoiled. But hey, just look at it now! Over half a million a year, do precisely that, making the pilgrimage from Perth to stay in splendour, or isolation, visiting many of the 150 local vineyards, the boutique restaurants, and pie shops, chocolate, nut and cheese factories, the jam and pickle places, or to hear some of the world’s finest singer and performers in unreal vineyard settings, with the kookaburras and gloriously coloured parrots, joining in the applause. Imagine a balmy night sky at the Leeuwin Estate vineyard, the stage with a Karri forest backdrop, guests in formal wear or jeans and Polo shirts, drinking in Simply Red, Ray Charles, Shirley Bassey, George Benson, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Dionne Warwick, the complete London Philharmonic or Julio Inglesas. You’d have to be ‘kracee’ not to think you’d died, and gone to heaven!


My brother and his partner live in the attractive estuarine inlet town of Mandurah, so we had a head-start of about 100 kilometres on the road to the Margaret River region. And what a fine road it was too, a brand new dual carriageway crossing languid rivers with surface ripples like tousled hair, purple hills in the distance, beyond the lush paddocks, with the occasionally gnarled grandfather gum tree in its midst, livestock at its feet. In some places, there were still the old post-and-rail fences, all made of wood, by the axe-man’s skill, before the coming of wire turned them into historical architecture. I had played in paddocks like these as a child, as a cowboy, of course, with a six gun and a Five Gallon Hat. Envy sat on my shoulder as I thought back to then, subconsciously crooking my fingers into a pistol shape, the grass fat and lush, with no inkling that it also hid cow-pats which were like mines for the unwary. We cowboys played with one eye cast down, because you never knew when you had to ‘hit the deck’ in an ambush!


We stopped briefly in the port city of Bunbury, and I simply could not recall anything of the place I had last visited over forty years ago. Strange how I could recall the bush of an even earlier time, but not the city! Still, the coffee was good, the main street crowded with eateries, coffee shops and an ‘adult shop’, the architecture Seventies, and in places traffic lights replaced by roundabouts featuring artworks to eschew culture, de gustibus! We climbed an iron lookout tower while a punchy wind raked tufts of hair unkempt, and frothed a brownish sea. There was the obligatory vista photo, before we found comfort in the car, the rain seething at our escape.


Busselton was more like I remembered, single-storey houses and shops, parks, and an ocean front lined with trees, ovals and lawn tennis courts. In the summer of my youth, these areas were filled with canvas and caravans, and on moon-flitting nights, pubescent boys like me, played games of great daring with the opposite sex, then newly discovered. Oh how I loved spin-the-bottle, a sort of early version of speed dating, but only for a kiss, the mob cat-calling when the linger was longer! It was the darkness that made for our daring, that unbridled thrill of holding hands or putting your arm around a female shoulder. Oh yes, there were ‘campfire claims’ of some braggarts about ‘going further’ but then we all looked at each other, and burst out laughing when somebody broke into the old Colonel Bogey tune, with its Da Dum, Da Da Da Dum Dum Dum beat, and everyone feigned shoveling bullshit, over their shoulders. There was of course, and there still is, the ‘drive in movie’ in Busselton, to which the graduates from the spin-the-bottle school gravitated, but in ‘those days’ we were always chaperoned by our parents. Given today’s lifestyle, drive-in’s have resumed their innocence, but in the 50’s and 60’s they were aspirational “dens of iniquity!” Oh yes, I remembered Busselton, with the biting whiting, the skiting, and the nights inviting!


Busselton does tourism well. It is a launch pad for the South West, the Cape beaches and sometimes the winds of the ‘Roaring Forties’ that blew the Dutch East Indiamen up the West Coast, oft spilling wrecks with bullion, on their way to Batavia, in what is now Jakarta, Indonesia. There are great long swards of white sandy beach, where the ‘littlies’ can swim, rocky headlands and jagged reefs where it is still possible to poach a good size crayfish, and of course, find the huge waves which have surfed all the way across the Indian ocean, and bring the intrepid surfers and the frigate-sized, great white sharks! The sky is generally azure blue, and after a morning’s swim, an elegant meal at a winery restaurant beckons, and the chance to taste a few varietals before heading home to watch the sun sizzle into the sea. Now though, it is winter, and Busselton had lost its bustle. That returns, no doubt with the coming of the sun. Then, it was a town as seasonal as the seasons, with the winter for rejuvenation. But now, as the gateway to Margaret River, it is in annual bloom, with all the trappings of the city, chain stores and outlet shops, food courts and watering holes. Yes, Busselton has changed from the town I knew.


The vines started, not far from Busselton, running over the undulations and contours, in row after row of paralleled neatness, often boxed in by the bush. Neat shingles announced wineries and eateries, some with intriguingly non-winey names, such as Howling Wolves, Flying Fish Cove, Knee Deep Wines, Mongrel Creek Wines and Wise Wines. There was also Deep Woods, Knotting Hill, Settler’s Ridge and Woody Nook, with a geographic affinity, and Virgin Block, Xanadu and Swings and Roundabouts, to suggest something more exotic. With typical Australian irreverence, the magnificently presented Laurence Winery, with its marques logo being a bathing-capped beauty, arms swept back like the Rolls Royce symbol, and hefted high above an ornamental lake by a steel girder which grow from her torso, is simply known as the “Chick on a Stick Winery”.


Wordsworth wandered lonely as a cloud, but if he had lived in Australia, he might have drawn the comparison with a bush church. On the way to Margaret River, we saw a few of these tiny little structures, mostly made of wood, often not much bigger than a large outhouse, with a church-pointy windows and corrugated iron roof, the cross like a bared ship’s mast. Stands of trees, surrounded each church like an overflowing, head-bowed, congregation, room inside for maybe twenty people at Christmas or Easter when numbers, swelled. There would be a lonely sermon, and then solitude for another month of Sundays, till the circuit priest came calling once again. Decades must have passed since the bush rang to the lusty strains of Onward Christian Soldiers by the soldier settlers who came to develop the region on their small acreages, straight after WW1. Life was hard, and many left the land, long before Australians found their love of wines. and the region boomed as never before. Now the bush churches stand as epitaphs to a harsher, earlier time.


Kangaroo paws flowers, and the Vasse Felix winery and restaurant
Kangaroo paws flowers, and the Vasse Felix winery and restaurant


We lunched at the beautifully tranquil Vasse Felix vineyard, the cuisine as delicate and beautifully structured as its fine wines, its prices premium, and the service slightly supercilious, but on the whole, an eminently enjoyable experience. And so too, the feast for the senses, by walking into a wine cellar, with its musty, dusty, unhurried feel, the inviting plop, plop, plop of a pouring, and a warming smokiness which reminded me of Caribbean rum shops. All that was missing was pleasing ph-wuk, of a cork being pulled. Screw tops have done for wine appreciation, what television did for romance!


The day brightened just a tad and after a quick kick of the football, a ritual on winter picnic outings, we headed off again on the roads made slow for viewing. This is not a place to be in a hurry, and like a purse seiner fishing trawler, we merely drifted. We wafted in to a lavender farm that smelled of Provence, sampling its wares, for there is much that can be done with lavender. The chocolate factory offered an equally alluring but infinitely tasty scent and there were plenty of free samples for the weak willed!


We stopped at the Fonti cheese factory, and tasted an array of cheeses and yogurts, all served by bouncing young ladies whose warm smiles and “There you go, love” exuded the friendliness that  comes naturally to Sandgropers (As West Australians are colloquially known). And of course, we purchased! So too at the superbly appointed Providore “working farm shop”, with its assortment of the finest foods, olive oils, wines and coffees, so that for a moment, I felt as though I was in an off-shoot of Harrods. I bought some hefty local jams, so full of local fruit, that I was sure my suitcase for Bahrain would need its own special flight, and a Relish that was so full of chili and zesty tomato, that I am sure would have assisted in the propulsion. At the Yahava coffee roastery and tasting house, our superb coffee master, Stephen, gave us a whole new dimension to coffee enjoyment. His knowledge of the bean, and its being, was as lightly conveyed as puff pasty, but as rewarding as the first taste of Sacher Torte! I felt in the presence of the Copernicus of coffee, and yes, my suitcase became instantly heavier with packets of Romeo No 5, that brought me the world of Colombian, Kenyan, Eritrean and Sumatran participants, a blend so rich, that my tongue smacks involuntarily as I write!.


The rammed-earth ‘Providore’ farm shop in its bushland setting

The rammed-earth ‘Providore’ farm shop in its bushland setting


The winds wheeled clouds above us, black as berries, and soon the rain had our wipers tangoing a-la-frenzy, and we turned for home. We had seen but a sliver of what Margaret River has to offer, water sports, sheep shearing, whale watching, farm holidays, bird and beastie reserves, golf and museums, lighthouses, caves and a plethora of studios and artworks. So I end this little homily I started, with some hackneyed clichés, all of them true, of course! Margaret River and the South West, is a place to come back to, time and again, for it is God’s little acres. And for oldies like me, wouldn’t miss it for quids!



Winfred Peppinck is the Tales of the Traveling Editor for Wandering Educators

Comments (1)

  • Timothy Schenck

    12 years 7 months ago

    This post brings back memories of my stay many years ago at the Leeuwin Estate. Not only did I enjoy wonderful wine and such a peaceful setting but the sight of kangaroos hopping in the vineyard as I stepped out of my tent in the early dawn.

    For those who wonder whether it is worth making the trek across the Australian continent from the East Coast cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and others to see Perth and Margaret River on the West Coast, I say Yes.

    It is one of the more peaceful and memorable destinations of my travels. The area reinvigorates the soul. While in Margaret River, be sure to also visit the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet. 

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