As I write this, it’s just after four in the afternoon. I’m sitting in the common room at our bed & breakfast in Cowaramup – I don’t know why I decided we should stay here, but I suppose it was partly because we haven’t actually stayed at any B&Bs in Australia so far, and all of the hotels and motels I’d looked at online in the Margaret River area were asking exorbitant sums of money for their rooms. [Of course, after driving down here, it turns out that there are a few new places not in any guide books or online, all of whom are apparently struggling for custom, and as such have heavily discounted their rooms down to as low as A$60 a night.] It’s pleasant enough – a big wooden dining table with a nice hot wood fire going just a few feet away. It’s been storming all day; right now, it’s overcast, but not raining for a change – and still cold. Dan’s asleep in our bedroom; he didn’t sleep well last night due to all the noise made by the big winter storms that swept through last night [knocking down quite a few trees – we couldn’t get through the major karri forest drive this morning as it was blocked by trees (storm-tossed trees block your path!)].
Anyhow: This is a list of where we went, what we tasted, and how good or bad it was, in no particular order.
Capel Vale. This was the first winery we visited. The parking lot was completely full with cars, which was kind of strange for a Wednesday afternoon. As most of them had WA plates and a lot of dirt, we guessed that they must be locals – which turned out to be correct. The winery has one big combination restaurant and tasting room, and when we entered, there wasn’t anyone there to help us out. After a few minutes, someone came out of the kitchen, just as I’d made up my mind to leave. He introduced himself as Glen, but before we could taste anything, he asked me where Big Bear national park was. I’d put on one of Brad’s Big Bear polo shirts in the morning, and I guess Glen kind of picked up on it. I explained that it was near Los Angeles – I didn’t want to explain exactly what the shirt meant – and we kind of chatted about what Dan and I were doing in Australia. I explained that we’d flown down in February to start a long road trip, which of course prompted Glenn to ask if we’d chosen February for (ahem) any particular reason. Now, that reason would of course be Mardi Gras, and at that point things got pretty funny. Glen was happy to meet a couple of bears – I guess that doesn’t happen in Capel very often – so he promptly invited us to cancel our reservation at the B&B and spend the night at his place, with dinner thrown in. Well… I didn’t know. That seemed kind of weird to me, but what the heck, right? Who knows, he might have a lot of juicy insider wine gossip to share, so I figured it would be a good idea.
Anyhow: back to the wines. Their standard riesling was nothing much to write home about; no off flavors, but not much flavor at all, really, and decidedly watery. They also do a connoisseur riesling, which sells for nearly $20, but that wasn’t significantly better, just less watery. Not really my thing. I also tried their port (OK, but very glycerine-y and without those old rancio kind of flavors I like in port) and their shiraz (which was perfectly good but nothing special). I felt kind of bad, basically dissing their wine selection, but Glenn was fine with that – after all, you can’t argue taste. Still, everything was competent if not inspired and the packaging was OK as well. Not my favorite place, but at least we wound up with a free night’s stay on a comfy air mattress and an excellent dinner. I opened a Grosset 2002 Watervale riesling (from the Clare Valley in South Australia) for dinner, which was breathtakingly good: very dry, restrained, and with a very German kind of minerally something or other. I’d say it’d be even better in ten years’ time but I doubt I’ll get to find out for myself. Glenn opened a bottle of red – I don’t remember exactly what it was – for dinner, that also turned out to be very good. [Dan says it was an E**** cabernet blend]. It was apparently a one-off project done by one of the winemakers at Xanadu, I think; it had a horse on the front of the label (ick) and some bullshit about Celtic mythology on the back (again: ick). It was however exceedingly tasty and apparently good value (A$15, if you can find it). I need to go figure out what the wine’s called, someday…
The next day, we headed off to NgILGI cave (yup, that’s how they spell it – must be ex-Apple marketers). That was OK, not great, and expensive at A$14 a head. (Little did we know that over caves charge A$15 in the region – this would be the last cave we’d visit.) The best part of the cave tour was leaving the cave and driving down the road a bit to a picnic table in a field of wildflowers, where we had Turkish bread with some teriyaki chicken wings, courtesy of Glenn and the Capel Vale restaurant; they were great! A bit further down the road, I turned off to Woody Nook winery, where I parked, got out of the car, and started to wonder why I’d stopped. There was a tacky little art gallery thing with a few pictures of whales – one thing I really hate about wine is the sometimes overwhelmingly tacky middle-class-ness, and this place had it in spades. Their wine labels were ugly, with cheap fonts, and they were selling something called Hot Nooky (I think) that had a bad faux-Art Deco drawing of a couple kissing on it. Um. I left without tasting anything; I just couldn’t hack it.
Afterwards, driving down to Cowaramup, where I’d made my B&B reservation, I decided on a whim to pop into Palandri, just off the highway. Now, I’d had a bottle of Palandri riesling a couple of weeks ago in Kalbarri, and it was pretty ordinary stuff, marred by an overwhelming taste of green olives. But what had fascinated me was the obvious target marketed fakeness of the whole affair – they’d teamed up with the restaurant in Kalbarri to promote the wine as a serious lifestyle accessory, not just a beverage. Later, in Perth, I’d picked up some of their brochures, and the pervasive corporate fakeness just didn’t quite – lots of soft-focus shots of attractive thirty-something women having a smart glass of chardonnay while looking at their handsome boyfriends through stylish designer eyeglass frames. ***HORK*** Getting a glimpse of their lifestyle accessory shop through the big glass panes in the front of the winery, I decided that was enough, and left without going on – I didn’t need a Palandri-branded set of golf tees or a faux-Coach leather wine cooler bag. Ugh. [Later on, I got the locals to admit that Palandri really cheese them off as well – it’s a big venture capital funded project run by a bunch of outsiders.]
Just down the road, we checked in to our B&B and walked down the street to the Margaret River Wine Centre, which sounds like something official but which is really a glorified bottle shop. I’d been hoping to find a bottle of Vertumnus pinot noir, which is a one-off project run by the winemaker at Cape Mentelle – he and his wife bought a small vineyard, planted only to pinot noir, and this is the only thing they produce. Success! At A$25 a bottle, this is pretty good stuff. Unlike a lot of pinot, they get the basic feel of the thing right, but I was disappointed that there wasn’t much more there. In Tasmania, we’d had a very small production pinot that was surprisingly good – I don’t remember what it was called right now – but this one was merely OK, nothing special. I suppose it might get better with bottle age, though.
At the bottle shop, I got to chatting with the woman running their small tasting area – I’d made the mistake of asking how much it would cost to ship a case of anything back to California. At A$480 a carton, I’m not going to be shipping a damn thing home. I can’t believe it’s that expensive – that’s nearly triple what it costs to send 15kg at the post office, and nearly six times as much as it costs to ship 15kg of books – but I guess there’s a lot of extra customs hassle or something. Or, you know, it just might be profit. I guess anyone who’s going to ship cases of wine back to the USA is probably dripping in money in the first place. I did notice that she had a wine with some malbec in it – a 1999 (I think) Flinders Bay cabernet sauvignon – malbec – merlot blend. We tried that, and it turned out to be super yummy, and not bad value at A$25 a bottle. This was our first actual purchase of something we’d tasted.
Well, that was basically it for the day… no, wait, I almost forgot. Given that I didn’t feel comfortable dragging my tuna sandwich fixings into the B&B, I agreed that we should head into Margaret River (about 12km away) to find either pizza or pasta. So, over a wood fired pizza, I did order a glass of Cape Mentelle wine, their CM dry red. This is only sold in magnums, and goes for about A$20 a pop. As far as I can tell, it’s a cabernet sauvignon – shiraz – zinfandel blend, and is obviously designed to be drunk right now. As such, it’s extraordinarily successful – it had basically everything I would want in a red wine. Yummy fruit, good balance, a little oak but not too much. I think it’s probably the best value red wine I’ve had so far in Australia. (The Penfolds $12 red comes pretty close, but is variable from year to year.)
The next day, we were signed up for an all afternoon wine tour with a local bush tucker tour company (sounds odd, but it turned out OK). However, I thought it’d be a good idea to sneak out to a winery in the morning before the tour proper got started. (I figured it’d be good to put our time here to good use, right?). So, I picked out a winery that wasn’t on the list of possible wineries the wine tour would visit – Cape Mentelle, again. The winery is in a beautiful spot, off in the countryside, and was very low-key – rammed earth buildings with tin roofs, with windows painted with a blue trim. Very cool. In the tasting room itself, there was a simple wooden bar across the room from a small fireplace, very understated. We tasted their semillon sauvignon blanc (fine, but I really don’t like semillon), chardonnay (very nice, but again, I’m not a fan), shiraz (lovely, but too young), and cabernet sauvignon (again, lovely, but far too young). I’d been hoping to try their zinfandel, but they were down to their last case for sale and (obviously) weren’t pouring any, so we had to buy a bottle (A$34, a good price compared to the A$40+ it costs at retail). We then headed back to the B&B to catch up with the wine tour.
As luck would have it, there were only three other folks on the wine tour, a new record for the tour company. There were two widowed nurses from Victoria, and a mine engineer from Perth, none of whom knew much about wine. Our guide did a fine job at explaining the basic, and used a bottle of the 2001 Redgate semillon sauvignon blanc as a demo – this was well put together, very crisp, and good value at A$18 or so a bottle. Thing is, though, I just wish they’d leave the damn semillon out. Once we were done with our kind of trial run in private, we headed off to visit five wineries.
Our first stop was Adinfern. This is a small winery that is sells wines made from fruit grown by the proprietor, but made under contract by… well, someone else. It’s a sheep farm that’s made the switch to grapes over the past several years. The grower himself poured the wines, and Dan got to chat a lot about exciting topics such as boron deficiency and superphosphates (yeow!). [Dan mentions that their soils are quite deficeinet in copper, molybdenum, and boron, whereas San Jose soils have very high levels of boron. Lack of micronutrients in particular causes weird growth patterns in grapevines, with some varieties much worse than others: merlot, in particular, gets zig-zag and not straight vines if it doesn’t get enough boron. But I (Dan, that is) digress.] We started off with a sauvignon blanc (refreshingly, the grower was of the opinion that sauvignon blanc was too good to blend with semillon), which was good but nowhere near as exciting as a Sancerre or a good Kiwi sauvignon blanc. We then tried his Shepherds Rhapsody, a sauvignon blanc – semillon blend, which I thought was corked. Although the grower didn’t agree with me, he did mention that the only other time someone thought one of his wines was corked was from the same bottle of wine. So… I still think it was corked, but it’s also possible it was just something weird in the wine style or region that made it taste that way. Yuck. We moved on to the shiraz and cabernet sauvignon; the cab was okay, but the shiraz was a great example of a good Aussie shiraz. I didn’t buy any, though, for the simple reason that I didn’t want to buy anything that wasn’t anything short of spectacular.
Next stop was Brookwood Estate. These folks didn’t have any reds to pour – they were in the process of bottling them out back – but they had a lot of whites. Sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, sauvignon semillon, semillon sauvignon, sweet sauvignon. I was very impressed by these folks – all of these wines cost about A$14 a bottle, and all of them were great for what they were: simple, straightforward wine. Sometimes it can be a pleasure just finding ordinary good wine, after all. Again, we didn’t buy any.
Our bush tucker lunch was promised at Treeton Estate, which is one of the older wineries in town. While our tour guide was setting up our lunch, I went ahead and tried their shiraz, cabernet, sauvignon semillon, and liqueur riesling. In a nutshell, this wine was complete ass. Thin, watery, bitter, unbalanced… crap. Bleah. Thankfully, this was the only bad wine we had the pleasure of tasting in the whole of the Margaret River area – you have to admit it’s impressive when you only had one bad experience in the bunch.
Lunch itself was great – we had a few native fruits as an appetizer, and then kangaroo, emu, ham, and venison with wonderful fresh breads, tapenades, sun dried tomatoes, cheeses, and olive oils. Yum!
After lunch, our next stop was Evans & Tate. They’re one of the big players in the region – they originally started in the Swan Valley, east of Perth, but moved down here when it became clear that only wine branded as Margaret River wine would sell in other parts of the country (and abroad). Their tasting facility was a tasteful behemoth – lots of wood, glass, and vaguely Tuscan concrete. You know, right out of a ‘90s wine-as-lifestyle commercial. After paying the $2 tasting charge, I waded through no fewer than ten different wines – the usual complement, from sauvignon semillon to cabernet with chardonnay and cabernet in between. All of it was competent, none of it was particularly interesting. Still, that’s not a complaint – this stuff was reasonably priced and on the whole it was a fine experience, at least from a marketing appreciation perspective. My big complaint was that they had an experimental cleanskin riesling available on their mail order list, but which they didn’t have for sale at the winery. I was a bit bummed by this, but not nearly as bummed as I was when I had an A$32 bottle of the méthode rosé earlier in the week – I had picked it up in a hurry, without bothering to read the back label. Now, when I hear rosé, I usually expect a blanc de noirs that’s especially pink – but this was a straightforward pinot chardonnay number that had some red wine added to it after the dégorgement. As a result, when you wound up with was a not especially bubbly wine with a freaky, unnatural pink color that didn’t taste like either a normal sparkling wine or a traditional Aussie sparkling red. It was just bad, although it smelled pretty good. A big disappointment.
Finally, we stopped by Sandalford Wines. At the time, I didn’t know anything about them, so I figured it was just another smallish local winery. I did a double-take in the tasting room – they had a bunch of Turning Leaf-brand wine accessories (stoppers an dthe like), which really turned me off, but the woman pouring the wines was really friendly, and the wines themselves were better than average. The ones that stood out were the sauvignon semillon, which was possibly the only sauvignon semillon I would ever have considered buying, and the riesling, which was very good – different than the Leeuwin and Bonny Doon rieslings, which both have a very distinctive smell to them, not as good as the Grosset riesling, but different again and very pleasant. I decided I’d buy a bottle, even though it seemed expensive at A$32. Later, I was extremely annoyed to find out that this riesling costs less than $20 in bottle shops – it may be hard to find, but it’s really not worth more than $20. So, kudos to Sandalford for the wine, but they are cordially invited to go fuck themselves for their cellar door price gouging. Even later on, I discovered that they, like E&T, are originally from the Swan Valley, and have moved to the Margaret River in order to boost their status. Apparently, they’ve turned their Swan Valley facilities into something like a wine tourist trap, charging A$15 just to enter the property and go on some kind of wine-themed dark ride (or something; I’m not entirely sure and I won’t be heading out there to find out for myself anytime soon!).
On the way back to the B&B we stopped at the local chocolate and cheese factories – the chocolate was OK (I bought some honeycomb) and the cheese was OK (I bought some double cream brie). Neither were phenomenally good, but it is always amusing to see how no wine tourist region is complete without these two kinds of business. At least there were free samples aplenty at both shops! *burp*
Saturday morning, I figured I’d better get a move on and see the remaining big names I hadn’t seen yet. In the morning, we braved gale force winds and pouring rain to go see capes Matthew and Leeuwin, down at the south end; afterwards, we quickly went to a few more wineries in succession.
First stop was Leeuwin Estate. I’d only ever tried their Art Series riesling, which I still feel is one of the best rieslings done in Australia, outclassed only by the Grosset rieslings. It was pretty clear that we were in for a completely themed, upscale wine experience at this place; the driveway was long, windy, flanked by water features and ducks, and led to a parking lot with a very cutesy little signpost that pointed the way to the tasting room, Napa Valley, and Burgundy. (Hee!). Inside, it was clear that only the snooty need apply: there was an art gallery downstairs, an exorbitantly priced restaurant upstairs, and at the tasting counter, a charge of A$2.20 per taste applied (!) to their ‘good’ wines, being the Art Series sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir, and cabernet sauvignon. Their ‘marginal’ wines, namely the Art Series riesling as well as their second label chard ‘n blends, were free to taste, but frankly I didn’t want to taste anything else I wouldn’t consider buying – my teeth started hurting really badly on Thursday, and every taste of wine was just aggravating the problem further. So, I coughed up the A$16.60 to get us eight tastes of the good stuff. And… guess what? It was worth it. The sauvignon blanc was absolutely wonderful stuff, although still not as good as a Sancerre. (I had to admit it, but the French really do do some things better than anyone else in the world.) The chardonnay was everything you would expect the most expensive chardonnay in the country to be – actually, to be honest, more, because it was wonderfully restrained. In no way was it over-the-top or ostentatious: it was just beautifully put together from top to bottom. Give it a few more years in the cellar and you’d probably be in heaven if you like Chablis – but, sadly, it’s just not my thing. The pinot noir was remarkably good, and was the only thing I’d seriously consider buying, but after thinking it over for a while, I decided that I’d rather spend my A$35 elsewhere – although it was good, it was just too devoid of any adventurous or funky notes, like that Tassie pinot had way back when. There is such a thing as too perfect – my only complaint with these wines was that they were just too correct, basically. The cabernet sauvignon was a great example of cabernet, but again, just not spectacularly other than other cabernets. So, I declined that purchase as well. Still love their riesling, though!
After driving out of Leeuwin, we turned right and accidentally blew past Voyager, which is one of the other marginally famous names of the region. However, I decided I didn’t care. The place was opened by a wealthy businessman who couldn’t make wine, but who wanted a fancy schmancy luxury product, so I figured I didn’t really want to stop in for a taste. [To give you an idea, their top end wine is named after a manager of Kaiser Steel, Tom Price. Yup, just like the mining town in the Pilbara.]
I did however figure that it might be interesting to stop by Xanadu. Call me foolish, but I really didn’t want to try their wines – I think the name is cheesy and I really hate their packaging, which is largely blue with a gold embossed Celtic something or other in the middle. They’d just blasted through a new road to get to the winery – the old one approached from the west side of the property – in order to get some of the Voyager/Leeuwin traffic to come their way. After all, they position their products the same way as those guys do… Inside, the woman pouring the wines was very friendly, but the wines were not good. As with Mondavi, the packaging, product positioning, and lifestyle marketing were first class, but when it came down to the wines themselves, they were uniformly too sweet, too flabby, and, frankly, gross. The worst of all was a freakishly white wine made from cabernet sauvignon, vinted in a repulsively sweet style, but not sold as a dessert wine. One flavor note only, enough sugar to get your teeth aching in a new, entirely different way, and… yup, you guessed it, their most popular wine. You may have a boob job and a Volvo, but that doesn’t mean you have a sophisticated palate. Their pink wine was marginally better, but frustrating as it was made from 100% cabernet franc – it tasted of strawberries, but… that taste was the only taste there at all. Grrrrr! Take Bonny Doon’s pink wine – sure, it’s got that same cab franc note, but then it moves on to a range of different tastes before you’re done, so every mouthful is intensely pleasurable. This stuff would sell well as part of an adult-style Happy Meal at McDonald’s, but I want it the hell out of my cellar. The gift shop at the winery did have a classy selection of Laguiole corkscrews, though; wish I could afford one, but (then again) they wouldn’t work as well as the $4 job I bought at Trader Joe’s last year.
Heading north for a bit, our next stop was Vasse Felix. Again, call me a label snob, but there are some things I just don’t want on my labels. Animals, especially horses, are high on the list, and there’s a big daggy looking eagle on the VF label. But, what the hell, they’re one of the oldest games in town, so I thought we should stop. Dodging Volvos aplenty in the parking lot, we headed into their cozy underground cellar for a taste or two. Now, they’ve got two cheapies called Theater Red and Theater White: those were, again, complete ass: thin, sweet, and boring. And the most popular thing they were selling to the real estate agents and radiologists who’d driven in from Perth for the weekend. Their high end stuff was decent enough, but also boring. However, their botrytised riesling was actually pretty good – the only thing that was lacking was bottle age. They had a 2000 for sale, but I think you’d really need to keep it for another five years before it started tasting really good. Dan bought a bottle (I think I may have egged him on a little bit!); we’ll take it home, stash it in the basement, and see if I was right in 2007.
As Dan pulled out of the parking lot, I was madly flicking through my copy of a Guide to TOURING the WINE Regions of Western Australia [sic], making sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. And, wouldn’t you know it, there was one last place I almost forgot: Cullen. According to the book, they did a malbec petit verdot blend that sounded great to me – after the same boring semillon sauvignon chardonnay shiraz cabernet repeated at every place, I thought that I’d happened across my salvation. Wouldn’t you know it, though, they’d sold out of that wine within a week of release back in June. We were shit out of luck. I decided I didn’t want to try their two sweet rieslings, and so we headed back to the B&B for a cuppa and a nap. At this point, I was well and truly done with the Margaret River region.