Margaret River Wine Tour

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I would class myself as a wine appreciator, although someone who can only say “I like,” or “I don’t like this wine.” I used to say that I don’t like Chardonnay, or really any white wine for that matter. I couldn’t even articulate why! It was tolerable, but certainly not preferable. I professed this to a wine lover, and was immediately instructed to try a Margaret River Chardonnay.

Now this changed everything…

Given that same wine lover stole my friend from Melbourne, and whisked him away to Perth to live, I saw a golden opportunity to visit this mythical wine paradise. And so it was that I found myself in Margaret River on the Wine for Dudes tour bus last week. There were 4 wineries on the itinerary, as well as an olive grove and a brewery.

First cab off the rank was Edwards Wines. Now I rarely hold back in being critical, and this is no exception. First impressions were not encouraging. My memory is of a slightly tacky trellis arch, leading to a tired, peach coloured building. They have a unique narrative at Edwards; the winery’s founder, Brian Edwards, flew a Tiger Moth from England to Australia in 1990 to raise funds for charity. The winery has since been inherited by his two sons.

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I certainly wouldn’t want to take anything away from this achievement – and it is a great achievement! But, it felt like they were clinging to this out of some obligation to the memory of their father; or perhaps because they lack a fresh narrative to take it’s place in a new era. For me this really spoiled the whole experience. They just seemed to be stuck in a 90’s time warp. Of course, it is entirely possible that I am just not in their target market. Perhaps the greater cross section of visitors to this region would really appreciate this little piece of nostalgia?

As for the wines, I really didn’t take to any of them. I stupidly convinced myself to buy at least 1 bottle from each winery we visited, so I grabbed a bottle of their Cabernet Merlot Malbec, as this was the one I liked the most. This decision was one that I am still regretting now. I almost don’t want to drink the wine, and would feel bad taking it to someone’s house to share – I would be compelled to tell the story in great detail too.

I must confess, that having just checked their website, I am tempted to soften my criticisms of this particular winery. Such is the power of marketing on my impressions and decision making. Online is obviously a space that they have designed to appeal to my demographic more closely. I wonder if this would change my opinion of the wine too?

Next stop was Olio Bello for some olive oil tastings. I loathed this experience. Another venue that just did not suit my tastes, and the olive oil, dips and sauces were not really all that exciting for me. I couldn’t wait to leave…

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Now to a more positive experience, Hay Shed Hill winery. This was like an oasis in the desert after the first two stops, and also proves that I am not negative about absolutely everything!

Coming up the driveway, you could see and feel the history of this place. The 30 year old vines were clearly amongst some of the first planted in this region; their heavy stems leading to delicate shoots of the new season’s crop. The buildings had a classic feel, but once you walked inside, it was obvious that they were moving with the times.

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The restaurant – or cafe as they call it – had a casual feel, with some quality food offerings. The chef also has the claim to fame of once appearing as a guest on Masterchef. I spoke to him about this, and he was very keen to play it down, saying that it was years ago. A true chef; I love it! The main draw card here for me was the cheese cabinet. Oh my god, my eyes pretty much popped straight out of their sockets! Nothing really local in there, although I think that is with good reason.

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I promptly fixed my gaze on the bottom shelf, and ordered 3 of their finest blues, one of which was greedily consumed in my tent, strangely paired with beer – an IPA from Feral Brewing called “Hop Hog.” What can I say, it worked for me, and I do love beer. I did enjoy the cheeses as a selection with some fine Swan Valley bubbles on a later occcasion.

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The wine here was impressive, and the vast selection showed both the size of this winery’s interests, and their ability to move with the times. The knowledge of our lovely NZ host from the winery was very impressive indeed, and I felt that I learned a thing or two here. I did pick up a couple of bottles from the cellar door: a Hay Shed Hill Block 1 Semillon Sauvignon Blanc (or SSB in WA speak), and a Hay Shed Hill Voignier dessert wine from McLaren Vale. Sadly they had run out of Chardonnay, although I managed to find it in my local Dan Murphy’s, ready to be enjoyed on my upcoming birthday.

Next visit was to Laurance winery. The grounds here were so impressive, as were the buildings. Someone has invested a lot of money here to get things looking just how they like it.

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Unfortunately, behind the style, there really was very little substance. The wine was very palatable, but nothing stood out from the crowd as a winner. I absolutely hated the bottles they came in, so quickly abandoned my intention to buy from each winery.

The last winery on the tour was House of Cards. I really fell in love with this place. The owners are in their early 30’s, with a young family, and have put it all on the line for this risky venture. They also have a point of difference, in that their wines come only from the vines on their property. This adds substance to the name, as wine making can be like a “house of cards” if the harvest does not come in. For these guys, this is amplified by not being able to buy-in grapes from elsewhere if there is a tough season.

The wine was really good here (see how I still have so few ways to describe why I like wine). There was a certain authenticity to the presentation during the tastings, and I left really impressed. Also left with a bottle of their Chardonnay (which was thoroughly enjoyed) and a Cabernet Merlot from their “The Joker” series.

My photos from House of Cards are poor and sadly lacking. Perhaps an indication of how much wine had been tasted at this point?

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Final stop on the tour was to a brewery. Now this is more my speed! Cheeky Monkey is another large Margaret River venture, with very impressive grounds. This would be the perfect place to have a function, and the spaces were immense. The beer here was not out of this world, but tasty none the less. Certainly made a refreshing change after a day of wine tastings. My favorite was the Pilsner, slightly surprising for me, but a nice palate cleansing, refreshing brew if I do say so. I skipped the ciders, hence the 2 empty spaces on the paddle. Only beer for this little black duck!

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The tour itself was well run, with our knowledgeable guide John providing us with information and entertainment along the way. Perhaps not all the wineries he chose were to my taste, but the tour operators tread a tight rope when it comes to running these tours. There was a few backpackers in our group, who clearly felt that the $95 they paid was justification enough to get drunk for free. I am fairly certain the wineries dispensing free wine tastings do not appreciate this attitude. John tried to encourage us all to buy wines, to support each winery. No doubt he feels obliged to try his best to help the sales, especially if he wants to continue to bring his paying guests along to the wineries for free. Apparently some of the wineries have started charging for tastings… I wonder why?!

The next day I went out on a mission to find THE perfect Chardonnay. My visit to Howard Park winery achieved this goal. This was a big site that clearly had invested heavily in their Margaret River operation – a vast space for tasting, bottling and cellaring amongst their acres of vines. They have vineyards in many of WA’s popular growing regions, and use this to their advantage to create some amazing wines. I chose the Howard Park Chardonnay from the Margaret River property, as well as a Howard Park Flint Rock Chardonnay, produced from their cooler climate vineyards in the south-east of WA.

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There are definitely some impressive wineries in Margaret River, but the true attraction for me was the beaches and the flawless weather. The coastline is long, and the countless bays and beaches are simply breathtaking. Cue obligatory beach vista image… now.

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