I never thought I would say this, but I’ve started drinking Chardonnay. It’s taken the Australians almost 40 years to explode the myth that all New World chardonnays are undrinkable, looking and tasting like pee, over-oaked and over here (ie in England). Of course we all drink French Chardonnays without batting an eyelid – who’s going to say no to a lovely glass of Meursault or perfectly chilled, crisp Chablis?
Our two days’ wine-tasting in Western Australia’s Margaret River was certainly an eye- opener. My education started on our first evening with our tasting menu plus accompanying wines at our fabulous hotel, Cape Lodge. With food cooked by renowned Fat-Duck trained Swedish Chef Michael Elfwing, and regional wines paired by French sommeliers, I was soon quaffing away at glasses of Riesling, Chardonnay, Semillon Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and the regional speciality Cabernet Sauvignon.
Driving from Perth takes about three hours (thank goodness for satnav) down excellent roads. Once we reach the Margaret River area, the vineyards pop up everywhere, many with extraordinary names such as The Howling Wolves at Rivendell, MadFish and Cheeky Monkey.
The countryside is attractive, farmlands and fields full of cows and the occasional roo giving way to viticulture, surrounded by gum trees and abundant wild flowers. It is spring and there have been heavy rains, so everything is green and bursting with colour. It reminds me of pre-Mugabe Zimbabwe, when it was the breadbasket of Africa, and a mixture of Devon and the Cape in south Africa.
Over two days we visit at a number of vineyards recommended by our fellow guests from Sal Salis, Graham and Helen. We take in small boutiques like Jupiter Estate and the largest vineyard Howard Park, and have gourmet lunches at Leeuwin Estate and Vasse Felix, the latter over 40 years old, and the oldest of all vineyards, started by California’s Robert Mondavi. Everywhere we go we are impressed and delighted by the friendliness of the Australians at the cellar doors – surely they must be bored of their mantra on how Chardonnays have changed, in response to us ignoramuses saying we don’t like it.
We are terribly disappointed by the highly recommended and attractively landscaped – to the point of being manicured in the old Cape Dutch style – Voyager Estate, where we not only have to pay to taste, but are kept waiting for 15 minutes – as result our fees are waived! It’s pretty over the top and set up for large groups of Chinese tourists, who we see everywhere. And the wines we tasted were mediocre.
At the tiny Woodlands winery we bump into one of Ross’s colleagues from Singapore, visiting with his family and quaff a few glasses of extremely fine wines, buying one called Thomas, for our dear son (it was the most expensive wine we tasted so he had better like it!).
We intersperse our wine-tasting with some shopping – Margaret River has a host of galleries, artisan providores and chocolate factories, all selling delicious olive oils, olive oil cosmetics, chutneys, beautifully presented and packaged.
Ross by the way took copious tasting notes and we noted all the wines available in the UK; you can read our recommendations here.
Just in case you are worrying about our waistlines with all this wining and dining, on both afternoons we take post-prandial walks of approximately 5 kms; the first is an inland circuit, Blackboy Hollow, renowned for its orchids but we were too early, although the eponymous bushes give a primeval feel to the walk, as do the screeches of all the various parrots.
The second walk is circuit around the Willyabrup coast line, affording stunning views of the surf crashing on the rocks below, as well as wonderful wildflowers and shrubs. The arum lily is everywhere, great white swathes, an unwelcome foreign invader. There are mimosas, brooms, a kind of gorse, wild geraniums, blue and purple pea-flowers and bright red bushes just coming out. The scent is heady and quite overpowering in the sunshine.
This is an ancient aboriginal region and the names reflect it – tongue twisters like Indijub, Gunyulgup and Gnarabup (all names seem to end in ‘up’, must be the equivalent of ham or ton); the Leeuwin gallery has some fine example of aboriginal art which they have used on their labels.
The area is also renowned for surfing and we are amazed to see surfers braving the water – ‘bloody freezing’ according a dude we chatted with ‘but,’ he added, ‘it’ll be ok after a couple of beers’. In fact, the first day is chilly, grey with a biting wind; and the second sunny and bright, but still with a nip in the air. I am layered up as ever, having underestimated what clothes to bring!
This was a truly memorable way to end our three and a half years in SE Asia. Our wish was explore a region unknown to us, and we certainly have. We have loved it all, making new friends and discovering new places, but we are looking forward to coming home.