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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

Strolling through the spacious grounds of Leeuwin Estate winery, I heard neon green parrots shriek from the canopy of eucalyptus trees. The staff told me they had to plant sunflowers as an alternative food source, or the parrots, which come by "in plague proportions," would eat up the grapes.

In this region you feel close to the Australian "bush" because the wineries are widely spaced apart and forests of tall karri and jarrah trees make you feel like you are secluded from the rest of the world. At Leeuwin, a towering stand of karri forms a backdrop to a natural grass amphitheater in front of the modern winery building. Every year since 1985, the winery has hosted an ambitious outdoor concert featuring artists such as Ray Charles, Dionne Warwick and Diana Ross. The event is so popular that it literally doubles the population of Margaret River.

Cape Mentelle Winery, which produces some of my favorite Australian wines, is just down the road from Basildene Manor. On a trip to Sydney several years ago I fell in love with their crisp and fruity Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc. In 1983 Cape Mentelle's Cabernet Sauvignon won Australia's most coveted wine award, the Jimmy Watson Trophy--a dream come true for a small winery set up in only 1969.


North of the town of Margaret River, strung along a network of back roads, is a cluster of well-known wineries such as family-run Cullen, Pierro, and Evans and Tate. Generally, tastings are free with a small fee for premium wines. Some wineries will ship their product home for you. Otherwise, the Margaret River Regional Wine Center--which features tastings as well--in unpronounceable Cowaramup will package and mail to the U.S.

During my weeklong visit, while driving through golden vineyards, I reached Amberley Estate, nestled among jarrah and red gum in a secluded valley off the main route. The winery building is modeled on an old villa, with deep verandas that create a naturally cool building where I met winemaker Eddie Price who won the West End Trophy for his 1995 Shiraz.

Harvest in Margaret River is from February to mid-April, a fun time to visit any winegrowing region, but a hectic period for winemakers. For that reason the annual Margaret River Wine and Food Festival has been shifted to November--Australia's springtime--so that winery staffs have more time to spend with visitors.

One day, just as dark clouds gathered overhead, I reached the Vasse Felix Winery (another thumbs up from wine critic Parker) for a tasting amid oak barrels. Heading upstairs as rains pound the high wooden roof of the winery, I found a table beside a blazing fireplace set in the center of the restaurant and dined overlooking vines that have turned orange with autumn.

Winery restaurants are a Margaret River specialty, and there are many to choose from. Amberley has an excellent light lunch menu, and over at Brookland Valley Vineyard, set on the banks of a small lake, Flutes Cafe is as well known as their wines. In these restaurants I dined on marron (a local freshwater crayfish), dhufish and local Cloverdene lamb glazed with local honey.

Just inland from Margaret River, a deli called the Berry Farm produces a unique range of table, dessert and fortified wines made from fruit and berries such as kiwi, raspberry and strawberry.

Most of the coastline between the two capes is a patchwork of protected sections belonging to Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park. If you are ambitious enough, you can hike the entire 71-mile length on the coast, a trip that can take up to six days. More than 150 wild caves pockmark this limestone plateau; 15 miles south of Margaret River four of them are open to the public.

One of the wildest stretches of the National Park is in the Boranup area just south of the caves. A secondary road, a 10-mile detour off the main route, winds through wetlands, coastal health and gnarled forests of banksia and tall native trees; a great place for bush walking and bird-watching for such gems as red-capped parrots, purple-crowned lorikeets and the sacred kingfisher.

Heading back toward Perth I checked into the warmth of a bygone era at Newtown House in Busselton at the northern end of Margaret River country. Built in 1851, with antique farm equipment set on its two acres, the original three-room homestead is now a restaurant where inn owner Stephen Reagan is also the chef. He uses as much local produce as possible on his menu that includes Margaret River venison and a personal favorite, smoked Clover Cottage trout.

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