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Taste of Travel: Australia

Unknown but Nose-Worthy

Cork-popping along the overlooked Margaret River wine country on the western coast

July 19, 1998|MARGO PFEIFF | Pfeiff is a writer based in Quebec

MARGARET RIVER, Australia — The surfboards strapped to the roofs of cars parked at the Cape Mentelle Winery were my first clue. That and the fact that the thundering sound I heard in the distance as I sipped a 1996 Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc was the ocean pounding beaches just five miles away.

Then there was the rural town of Margaret River, with its main street lined in an eclectic collection of hardware stores, wine boutiques, surf shops, craft galleries and a hemp store. Finally, sipping a Chardonnay over lunch at Leeuwin Estate Winery, as bright red parrots strutted across the lawn and electric blue wrens swooped out of the eucalyptus grove to peck at my butter dish, I realized that this is definitely no ordinary wine-growing region.

Western Australia has always had an individualist approach to life, a tradition of going its own way. For years an active secessionist movement has been hellbent on separating from the rest the country. Being a resident of a headstrong separatist nation myself--Quebec--I was attracted to Western Australia because individualists, I've found, make a place more interesting.

The Margaret River region, a 3 1/2-hour, 180-mile drive south of Perth, is one of Australia's youngest wine growing regions and one of its best. Though Margaret River produces only 1% of the country's vintage, it accounts for 10% of Australia's premium wines, and Margaret River wines are so popular that most of them never make it out of the country. It's even hard to find many of them in Sydney.

But the region is also diverse, so that someone who isn't a wine buff can still find plenty to do here. Located between Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin--jutting into the Indian Ocean in southwest Australia--this is a premier surfing locale famous for westerly swells that undulate around the bottom of the globe. It's a spectacular eco-tourism destination, known for its hiking, caving and bird-watching. Artists have migrated to this peaceful rural area, and their studios and galleries dot country roads running between wild beaches, native forests and rambling farmlands. And for lovers of food, the Margaret River has more winery restaurants than any other Australian winegrowing region.

Americans have played a role in the development of Margaret River as a winegrowing region. In the mid-1970s Robert Mondavi, from the Napa Valley, helped convince the owners of Leeuwin Estate that their newly purchased cattle ranch should really be a vineyard. Mondavi recognized the potential of the limestone soil, which mirrors France's Bordeaux region; although this climate is free of frost with a high rainfall in winter and warm, dry summers that allows for a longer growing season for fruit to ripen.

Leeuwin's owner, Denis Horgan, with his trademark modesty, said "that makes an average year in Margaret River equal to a great year in Bordeaux." But then Leeuwin did, in 1981, win the prestigious International Wine Challenge in London with only its third vintage. Leeuwin Estate has also caught the eye of Robert M. Parker Jr., America's best known wine critic, who has labeled it as one of Australia's superb wine producers.

In recent years Australian wines have caught on with Americans. New South Wales in southeast Australia is where most of the country's wine exports come from. And Australia's most celebrated red wine is from the shiraz grape. But in Margaret River, cabernet sauvignon is the main red wine produced.

Today there are about 45 wineries sprinkled throughout the Margaret River area, and its cabernets are lighter and more Bordeaux-like than the full, rich Australian reds produced in other parts of the country. The most popular white grape varieties here are very fruity Chardonnay, Semillon and Sauvignon Blancs. Now even the French have their fingers in this obscure corner of Western Australia, with the legendary Champagne firm Veuve Clicquot controlling a sizable chunk of the Cape Mentelle Winery.

*

On my first night I checked into Basildene Manor just outside the small country town of Margaret River, a granite homestead built in 1912 by the local lighthouse keeper. Garry Nielsen, who formerly owned several prawn trawlers off Queensland, bought the house in 1996, and the elegantly decorated Edwardian rooms are up a staircase and off the balustrade; all crafted from jarrah, a luscious native hardwood. Basildene is a romantic delight that serves a delicious full country breakfast in a conservatory overlooking a private lake. Nielsen and his partner, Julie Whittingham, know their wines and each night in the fireplace-warmed lounge they served up a local vintage for guests.

Just outside the manor runs a five-mile cycling and walking track down to the beach and connecting to a former railway line that heads to the north. This is a perfect way to prowl the region's wineries. With its strikingly contemporary winery buildings and an elegance in a solidly rural setting, the Margaret River constantly reminds me of the Napa Valley.

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