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The Ultimate Australian Wine Tour

Samuel’s Gorge winemaker Nairn Webb in the winery’s tasting room, in McLaren Vale.

Photo: Hugh Stewart

Australia is vast: grandly, imposingly, continentally vast. That should be no surprise to anyone who has ever spun a globe, but it never hit home for me until I crossed it from ocean to ocean and back again, flying and driving nearly 6,000 miles in search of the best wines and most interesting wine regions the country offers.

The well-trod paths lead to the Barossa, Hunter, and Clare Valleys, but Australia’s wine-producing areas are incredibly varied—which makes sense when you realize that the whole of Western Europe’s viticultural landscape, from Crete to Champagne, could fit inside it. Looking back now, my most memorable experiences were in remote but accessible corners, where the scale is too modest for tour buses. I met winemakers in wet suits riding waves off Margaret River’s Prevelly Beach, ate kangaroo steak at McLaren Vale’s raucous Victory Hotel, and sipped Darjeeling at Yarra Valley’s Giant Steps, a winery that serves as its town’s community center. I drank wines that rivaled the world’s best, and ate meals to match.

The regions I’ve uncovered range from dry to lush to beachfront. In them I found winemakers with oversize personalities eager to show me their vineyards—and have me try wines I’d never find anywhere else. If you’re in Perth, Adelaide, or Melbourne, these make perfect side trips and are certainly worthy destinations on their own. Read on to learn about the best of Australia—uncorked.

Margaret River: Surf ’n’ Turf

Margaret River is a surf town, Venice Beach without the silicone. Its one-street commercial district, at the far end of a deliriously dull 170-mile drive from Perth, in Australia’s southwestern corner, features shops with mildly offensive names like Wet Dreams and other manifestations of surfing culture. But woven into this Beach Boys song is a thriving wine scene. Leaving Prevelly one day, I spotted a van advertising Wine for Dudes, a local tour company that seemed to epitomize the place. “A lot of people in the industry surf,” says Nigel Harvey, who cooks sophisticated meals at the Restaurant at Voyager Estate, a Cape Dutch mansion of a winery by the Indian Ocean. “Then they come to work and create this amazing stuff.”

It took me about five minutes in Margaret River to realize that I’d never seen a wine region like it. I could spend the morning tasting and the afternoon lolling at the beach, and I had no shortage of enticing restaurants to visit at night. But what makes this thin stretch of coastline a mandatory destination is the wines themselves, Chardonnays and Rieslings but also cool-weather Cabernets. As it turns out, many of the same climatological elements that make for good surfing—brisk ocean breezes; a mild climate—and the silty soil that comes with any oceanfront create wines that are measured, minerally, and packed with complex flavors.

Back in 1965, an agronomist concluded that Margaret River’s struggling dairy farms might actually be sitting on the country’s finest land for wine grapes. The locals took him at his word and established an industry. “They used to say, ‘Why are those funny people putting sticks in the ground?’” says Cullen Wines Estate’s winemaker and managing director Vanya Cullen, whose parents founded the property in 1971. These days, the winery’s top releases are world-class, particularly the vibrant Diana Madeline Cabernet-based blend. When I tasted several at the estate’s friendly, folksy tasting room with Cullen—who now makes wine biodynamically, gauging the progress of the grapes by the schedule of the tides—I recognized the flavors of black olive and forest floor that almost always lead to the Old World, but a rush of bright fruit brought me right back to Australia.

Then I went to Leeuwin Estate, which has an entirely different feel. Owner Denis Horgan arrived from Perth in the mid 1950’s to surf. He invested in land, and set down roots with Robert Mondavi as his mentor. I’d drunk his sleek and lemony Chardonnays, which have been called Australia’s best. But I wasn’t prepared for the winery, which reminded me of a modern country house, albeit a vast one; it overlooked a bright green lawn used for cricket matches and concerts by the likes of Ray Charles, Julio Iglesias, and the London Philharmonic. Or for the gallery, which houses some 100 paintings and sculptures—many by famous Australian artists—that have appeared on Leeuwin’s Art Series wines since 1980. Or the lunch—briny local oysters, a parfait of foie gras and quail egg, kingfish sashimi, then French and Australian cheeses—that was served to me on the winery’s terrace.

My dinner at an outdoor pedestrian mall in Dunsborough, a half-hour to the north, had a more intellectual appeal. Food Farmacy’s Simon Beaton announces his iconoclastic approach to life by wearing a single long sideburn down his boyish face. He favors main ingredients made in multiple versions, such as “scallops five ways” and “venison fillet, venison liver, venison sausage.” Far from gimmicks, these are as intricate as Brueghels, tiny masterpieces in which each element has been painstakingly rendered. That night, I returned to Margaret River’s Constellation Apartments: twin penthouses with huge terraces, iPod docks, gas fireplaces, and kitchens stocked with Calphalon pots, Riedel glasses, even an array of local wines, including the delicate Vasse Felix Chardonnay I drank with the omelette I made the next morning.

Later, I spent a night in Yallingup at a wellness retreat surrounded by old-growth jarrah trees. Words like vortex and nourishing were used unabashedly, and a cultural custodian of the Wardandi Tribe was available to perform a didgeridoo meditation. In the morning, I headed out for a swim. The ocean conditions weren’t surfing-worthy, alas, but driving back to my hotel I felt like a local: relaxed, refreshed, and ready to report to work and make wine.


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