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Roaming Australia's Margaret River Region

A teenage American backpacker for whom every penny counts nods respectfully to a middle-aged German with all the money in the world. Both men are crouching silently in Australia's botanically fuzzy and intriguing strip of border country where 20-story karri forest gives way to ground-hugging coastal heath.

After hours of patient waiting, the German finally spots the reason he has come all this way: a long-billed black cockatoo, whose showgirl fan of black and white tail feathers is straight out of the Ascot scene in My Fair Lady. The American, seeing nothing through his field glasses, consoles himself with the previous day's outing. A bush walk had revealed a catalogue of wildflowers whose perfectly descriptive common names were all he needed to identify them: warty hammer, flying duck, pink enamel.

Here in Margaret River, a region in the southwestern corner of Australia, nature is the great, humbling leveler. On this 71-mile-long block of land that pushes bravely into the Indian Ocean and is delineated by two capes, Naturaliste and Leeuwin, eco-tourism puts everyone who is environmentally curious on equal footing.

During a week in this blip on the Australian map, I too tasted the peculiar thrill of pinpointing flora and fauna. I stayed at guesthouses that felt authentically, exhilaratingly Australian. And I tasted wine. Dozens of vineyards lure drivers off Caves Road, the spine connecting the capes, bordered by tangled, infinitely layered bush, lush dairy pasture, and a honeycomb of ancient, visitable limestone caves, at least as terrifying as they are beautiful. The wineries' hope, of course, is that a few free sips will lead to a hefty purchase.

As my stay unfolded, and as I downshifted to Margaret River's languorous rhythm, simple and sophisticated pleasures traded off and piled up, a formula with just the right element of discovery. This is the only formula that has ever really interested me as a traveler. Provence down under?Tuscany in the bush?I could hardly believe my good fortune.

Faced with the overwhelming vastness of Australia, many choose Sydney or Melbourne for their maiden haul, recognizing the cities from datelines in news stories. But I had decided that for my first visit I didn't want a big-city experience. The only other thing I knew was that, to keep flying time down, I wanted to land in the Australian city nearest Paris, my departure point.

That meant Perth.

But Australia is a country that does not take geography lightly, something I learned when planning my trip. I casually suggested to a friend in Melbourne that she might hop over to Perth to see me. "Please, darling," she said witheringly. "It's practically easier for me to go to Fiji."

Still, I thought I was doing a good job of narrowing down the possibilities.

Alas, Perth is the capital of Western Australia, a state that covers roughly one-third of the continent, takes in the entire western coast, and is about the size of western Europe. The state's length north to south is roughly equal to the distance between Chicago and Phoenix.

Like I said, I was narrowing the possibilities.

Then I started to hear about Margaret River, which refers to the plain-Jane town 180 miles south of Perth, to the river, and, more loosely, to the entire wine-producing region surrounding it. (Most towns in the enclave are rather dull and charmless; these are not the Hamptons.) In the late eighties, Australian mappies, or middle-aged professionals, started to descend on the area, igniting a real-estate boom that is far from over. I was less enthusiastic about the older, scented-candle culture that I was told co-existed with the baby boomers. In the end it was Margaret River's natural assets that drew me in, that and the wines. I have no trouble identifying with the priorities of any place that holds an annual wine-and-food festival.

North of Adelaide in the Barossa Valley, Australia's richest and best-known viticultural region, wine has been made since the 1850's. The first commercial vineyards in and around Margaret River were planted in 1967—just yesterday, even in the relatively young world of Australian wine. Nevertheless, these are among the most exciting and promising vineyards not just in the country but in the world. Margaret River produces only 1 percent of all Australian wine but nearly 10 percent of its premium-quality wine.

A study has shown that the region's climate is much like that of France's Bordeaux: frost-free, with high rainfall in winter and warm, dry summers. Margaret River wines are frequently spoken of as fruit-driven, meaning that everything in the wine-making process is done in pursuit of intense, concentrated, fresh-fruit flavor. The Chardonnay made at Leeuwin Estate outstrips most of those made in California and may well be Australia's leading white. (Of Leeuwin it is said that no Australian winery was ever founded with higher ideals, or prices.) Cape Mentelle's is widely considered the country's top Zinfandel. And with its complex fabric of berry, tobacco, chocolate, and oak nuances, Cullen's Cabernet Sauvignon has become a global benchmark. One theory is that volatile-oil vapors emitted by eucalyptus trees in the surrounding bushland (the same vapors that can fuel bush fires) settle onto grape skins and contribute to the earthiness and the mulberry nose typical of Margaret River reds.

American wine kingpin Robert Mondavi acted as midwife when Leeuwin, a former cattle farm, was being converted in the early 1970's. "Robert was fascinating to be around in the early days," remembers Leeuwin owner Trisha Horgan. "We were on a steep learning curve then."

If it's not a glass of wine that's being pressed into your hand in the region, it is bound to be something else that tastes good: the Margaret River Cheese Co.'s handmade Camembert- and Brie-style cheeses; the luscious seven-berry yogurt at Fonti's Dairy Factory; the lemon-cheesecake ice cream at Simmo's; Berry Farm's plum-and-port jam and pear-wine vinegar; the traditional English bitter at Bootleg Brewery, where all the beers are made with rainwater. And if you're still hungry, there's smoked kangaroo meat, wattle seeds, and bunya nuts. The best way to sample this traditional Aboriginal bush food is to take Helen O'Brien's excellent, un-gimmicky, four-hour bush-tucker tour (tucker is a parochial Australian word for food), which also includes canoeing on the Margaret River, cave exploration, and bush walking.

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