South Pacific Articles & Reviews
The Ultimate Australian Wine Tour
T+L uncovers Australia’s hidden wine regions.
By Bruce Schoenfeld
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 vortexand 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.
McLaren Vale: Hot Days, Cool Wines
Set on Australia’s southern coast a brief drive from Adelaide, McLaren Vale is a prototypical wine region. Its gentle slopes are so densely covered with plantings that, strolling from one vineyard directly into the next one morning, I felt like Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer. Rows of hills shield the valley from the gusts whipping north from Antarctica, and summer days can have that Huck ’n’ Jim, nap-under-a-tree feel. The temptation exists to make full-throttle wines; one McLaren winemaker I met proudly referred to his own Shirazes as “Baby Barossas.”
Yet hidden among the leafy hillsides are also some of the crispest, gentlest wines on the continent. “We tread the hard road,” says winemaker Stephen Pannell, who does it perhaps better than anyone else. Throughout Australia, I encountered winemakers who revere Pannell’s wines like emerging jazz guitarists do the sketchy, scratchy recordings of Django Reinhardt. (I coveted Pannell’s Grenache, which smelled of cranberry sauce and licorice.) I met Pannell at the Victory Hotel, a glorified Australian roadside pub that has everyone from winemakers to rugby revelers spilling onto the lawn holding a drink. The food—schnitzels and soft-shell crabs; cockles with spaghetti—is amazingly diverse, and the cellar includes not only all the renowned local bottlings but also plenty of classified-growth Bordeaux.
D’Arenberg, the region’s best-known winery, is manned by a fully outfitted crew of eager enthusiasts. Nevertheless, try to visit when Chester Osborn, the fourth-generation proprietor, is on the grounds, because he may take you around himself. Osborn is one of the great ambassadors of Australian wine, and one of the industry’s great characters. With his flowing blond curls and flower-print shirts, he’s not hard to spot in a crowd. He’s currently launching a clothing line and writing a science-fiction novel about a future in which dogs rule the world, and his winery is an extension of his quirky, inviting personality. While managing his other interests, Osborn introduced several dozen of the winery’s colorfully named wines onto the world stage, from the Footbolt Shiraz and the three-grape Stump Jump red to the limited-release Dead Arm Shiraz. I’ve had them around the globe, but never so enjoyably as on the terrace of d’Arry’s Verandah Restaurant, while eating braised duck with kimchi and pickled cherries.
For his next act, Osborn is planning a tasting room constructed to look like an unsolved Rubik’s Cube; the model could itself stand as a work of art. I wish he’d included guest quarters, for hotel options in the area remain limited. I stayed at McLaren Ridge Log Cabins, a mile and a half away, and enjoyed my hilltop cottage with a panoramic view beside a paddock full of braying alpacas. But the amenities of its four tranquil cabins are rather basic, and it fills up quickly in high season.
I wish, too, that I’d had another bottle of Osborn’s wine at hand to pair with the chile-and-squid pie I feasted on outside the storefront Pik-a-Pie Bakery south of the town of McLaren Vale early one morning. The pie, a local specialty, was flaky and crunchy, a tour de force of the genre, but even denser than Victory’s kangaroo steak. It cried out for the sweet fruit and hardy structure of a d’Arenberg Ironstone Pressings or Coppermine Road. “Bring a bottle next time,” the man behind the counter told me, and I don’t think he was kidding.
Yarra Valley: Giant Steps, Measured Leaps
As soon as I walked into Giant Steps, outside Melbourne, I smelled coffee, which is not something that’s ever happened to me in a winery. The vast building, which resembles a huge wooden crate, serves as a combination front porch and town square for local residents. They sip tea, drink coffee imported from five countries, and eat freshly baked pastries while checking e-mail. Then a lunchtime crowd arrives for pizza, or single-pot entrées like steamed snapper with gai lan in a lemongrass broth. Regulars come for handmade chocolates, beers from Spain, Yorkshire, Bavaria, and throughout Australia, or any of a dozen house-matured cheeses. You can also buy wine, of course, from Giant Steps and Innocent Bystander—notably a Chardonnay that tastes like nectarines and the slightest touch of cream—and plenty of people do. They just don’t think of it as anything exalted, which is the point. “We want it to feel like you’ve come to a friend’s winery,” says owner Phil Sexton. “We get people saying it’s too noisy. Listen, it’s deliberately noisy. The idea is to democratize. Change the model.”
In the Yarra, Sexton has found the right place to democratize wine. The region is just a short drive from the city, and its gentle landscape invites casual tourists. There are no major architectural achievements here, and no rarefied terroirs that foment cultish devotion among wine geeks. As I drove country lanes lined with stringybark gums, I was reminded of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, which is about finding beauty in understatement and imperfection. Healesville itself is pleasant but not quaint, and hardly twee, as wine towns from St. Helena to Stellenbosch have tended to become. It has no showy cathedrals, no glossy shopping districts. The Healesville Hotel, which houses the town’s best restaurant, is a seven-room reclamation project without en suite toilets.
Yarra wines, too, are replete with wabi-sabi. Even the largest producer, De Bortoli, strives for wines that taste of their place rather than their grape. “My goal is to lose varietal characteristic altogether,” says owner-winemaker Stephen Webber. That means he’d prefer that I couldn’t tell his Viognier from his Sauvignon Blanc. I could, but barely. Both had soaked up enough sun to get where they needed to go, but were equally at home beside roasted skate, which is how I had them, alfresco, at De Bortoli’s Italian restaurant, Locale, which looked big-city formal but turned out to be as casual as everywhere else I’d been. Vocal and opinionated, Webber is fueled by an urge to discuss, debate, and revisit that seems utterly at odds with the prevailing “No worries, mate” attitude. It’s all worries with Webber—Will his Shiraz get too ripe? Will I eat at the right restaurants in Sydney?—but ruminated over with such passion that it’s hard not to take to him immediately.
I knew Bailey Carrodus would be another story. Famously prickly, he was approaching 80 when I met him (he has since died) and had little time to educate visitors. His Yarra Yering ranks among my favorite Australian wineries, but I waited until my final morning in the area before driving up a dirt path and finding him standing at the end of it, bundled in a barn jacket despite the summer warmth.
Carrodus’s life and the modern vinous history of the Yarra are basically equivalent. Into the 1900’s, the valley had made wines that were highly regarded. Then the industry vanished. Carrodus had studied botany, but decided to try wine making. His debut vintage, the 1973, marked the Yarra’s first commercial wines since the early 1920’s. He wasn’t certain how various grapes might take to the area’s soil, so he retained flexibility by calling his Cabernet blend Dry Red Wine No. 1 and his Shiraz Dry Red Wine No. 2. Those generic names have remained, as have the overtly plain labels that seem tied to the Model T era, and a production style that is profoundly amateurish, in the finest sense. When I visited, he was still doing some of the wine-making (though he’d relinquished much of the physical work to Mark Haisma) and manning the austere tasting room, which consisted of just a few tables and chairs.
After some grumbling, he set out a small sampling of remarkable wines. Soon after, he told me he had work to do, in a tone that wasn’t without warmth but made clear that this was all of his time I was getting. “Close the door when you leave,” he said. I glanced up several sips later and realized that half an hour had passed. I couldn’t believe I was alone in the tasting room, that the world wasn’t beating a path to its door. As I took a whiff of Chardonnay and noted the late-arriving presence of honeysuckle, I heard some noise outside. I feared my idyllic time was ending but soon it was quiet again. I turned my attention to the Pinot Noir.
Bruce Schoenfeld is Travel + Leisure’s wine and spirits editor.