Paradise found Down Under
September 5, 2010
We arrived a little late for our 5 p.m. tasting at McHenry Hohnen’s freshly opened cellar door. Not to worry as our host, winemaker Ryan Walsh, was a tad late as well, giving us time to check out the offerings from the Farm Shop, which included locally raised lamb and pork, and homemade cakes and breads.Ryan soon came bounding in with a box of wines and a hearty hello. “Uh, I hope you don’t mind if we go through the wines quickly,” I stuttered. “We are hoping to catch the sunset.” Ryan simply grabbed three glasses and said “No worries. Follow me.” And we were out the door. Ten minutes later, we were sitting on a grassy knoll and gazing out over a dozen surf breaks where the Margaret River flows into the Indian Ocean. As Ryan poured glasses of Zinfandel, a novice grape for the region, he pointed out some of Australia’s most notorious waves – spots with names like Guillotine, Suicides and the Box. The waves, which had been born 1,000 miles or so to the southwest in the Roaring Forties off Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, crashed over the reefs and onto the beaches as surfers slid down their prodigious faces. As I rolled the wine in my mouth, I knew that this was a singular place in the world. A paradise for surfers and wine-lovers alike. ••••Perhaps the most enticing thing about wine travel is that wine regions are in some of the most beautiful places on earth. The Sonoma Coast, the verdant hills of Burgundy, Canada’s Okanagan Valley, all have their charm. But this past spring, my wife Linda and I traveled halfway around the world to Australia’s Margaret River and discovered what might be the most distant but powerfully beautiful wine region I have ever seen.The Margaret River wine region is in the very southwestern corner of Australia, about two hours by car from Perth. On our flight from Adelaide to Perth we were amazed by just how big and sparse the southern Australian countryside was. There was literally no civilization for 1,000 miles below us, and then, suddenly, Perth. Hard by the beach, it is the Dallas of Australia – a town built on energy resources and the wealth that comes from same. Originally, timber was the resource but today Perth is home to many of Australia’s most prominent mining and natural gas concerns.With wine and waves on our minds, we began our trip with stays at two magnificent and charming hotels. The Smiths Beach Resort is a sophisticated, contemporary collection of 60-or-so apartments that overlook a stunning stretch of sand with four or five surf breaks. At first light I got a close-up view of these big and powerful waves; the beach break was intimidating enough to send me drinking, so it was off to the wineries.Our first stop was at one of the region’s seminal wineries, Cape Mentelle, where we were greeted by the young winemaker Tim Lovett. Cape Mentelle is owned today by LVMH, the French Luxury goods collection, and is part of Estates & Wines, so these wines are distributed widely, including Aspen. As Tim poured us through the wines, ranging from a crisp 2008 Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend to a large 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon that was just coming into its own, he told us a bit of the history of the region and Cape Mentelle.In the late 1960s, Margaret River was an undiscovered “backwater.” Dairy farmers, hippies and surfers had the 70-mile stretch from Cape Naturaliste in the north to Cape Leeuwin to the south largely to themselves. But around that time an agronomist from the University of Western Australia named John Gladstones saw a study from California’s UC Davis that noted similarities between the soils and climate of Margaret River and that of Bordeaux. Gladstones encouraged a few locals to experiment with grapes and an industry was born.One of those who took Gladstones’ advice was David Hohnen, who planted Cabernet, Shiraz, Semillon, Chardonnay and a little Zinfandel (He had discovered the grape during a stint in California at Fresno State.). Today Hohnen is seen as a true pioneer and one of the Southern Hemisphere’s most successful winemakers. After establishing Cape Mentelle, he went to New Zealand and, from scratch, built the iconic Cloudy Bay winery, basically changing the future of two distinct wine regions.After a final taste of Shiraz, we headed out from Cape Mentelle, up Caves Road, the scenic main drag through the region, to our home for the night, the Injidup Spa and Retreat. Developed and owned by the same team that created Smiths Beach Resort, Injidup was entirely different. The quintessential luxury beach digs, the resort sat high on a hill but was literally built into the dunes. You could hardly see the sandy gray wooden structure as it was tucked so well into its surroundings. Inside each self-contained unit was a kitchen, fireplace and softly colored eco-fabrics on the scrumptious beds. Each unit had a spa and plunge pool overlooking a crescent-shaped beach. Our stay was enhanced by a late fall (remember this was May, fall in the Southern Hemisphere) shower that left in its wake a full, panoramic double rainbow. Magnificent.••••It was tough to leave the beach, but we had set appointments with an affable and charming public relations guru named Peter Rigby for tastings at two more of the region’s first wineries, Cullen Wines and Leeuwin Estate. As we drove with Peter back down Caves Road, which was lined by towering Karri trees, we noted how many large and extravagant wineries there were. Peter described an ongoing boom in wine tourism, which has spurred close to 100 wineries in Margaret River. Perth entrepreneurs have discovered the former dairy farms and hope to establish not just reputations but future fortunes as winery operators. There are parallels to Napa.Our first stop showed us that there is still a soulful side to Margaret River. Vanya Cullen is legendary, not just for her great Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, but also for her stewardship of vineyards planted by her parents in 1971. Vanya has overseen the transformation to a biodynamic structure that honors the intrinsic value of the Margaret River terroir. After a tour of her vines, where we all scooped up handfuls of the earth she so reveres, we convened on the patio of the Cullen Wines restaurant for a wholly organic lunch.Vanya grew up on this property and learned to both surf and make wines with equal intensity. She welcomes visitors who appreciate Margaret River wines, but she also worries about the rapid changes taking place. Both a promoter and a steward of the region, Vanya Cullen sits as the fulcrum between Margaret River’s recent past as a rural area with artisan winemakers and its still-evolving future.The first Margaret River wines I ever tasted came from Denis Horgan’s Leeuwin Estate. I had met Horgan a few years back at a luau in Hawaii where we pulled pig, sipped a spectacular Chardonnay and talked about surfing. More than an hour into the conversation, he announced that he had made that very Chardonnay in Western Australia, and since then I had wanted to visit Leeuwin Estate. I was not disappointed. The Estate lies down a long driveway bordered by immense lawns. In front of the cellar door is a vast pitch used for concerts. Everyone from the London Philharmonic to Sting to Chris Isaak have played the outdoor venue. Flanking the great lawn is the winery’s highly regarded restaurant with a spectacular veranda overlooking the grounds.Here we met Paul Atwood, senior winemaker at Leeuwin. Paul has been with Leeuwin for 26 years and is just the second winemaker in the Estate’s history. He was happy to pour a selection of the Art Series Chardonnay that has made Leeuwin famous. The recent vintages were wonderful, but the highlight of the tasting was a golden yellow 1989 Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay. These wines are made to age, Paul explained, and he finds the Chardonnay normally reaches maturity after eight to 10 years. This wine was 20 years on, but had held up astonishingly well. The viscous, slightly musty liquid was like nectar and, as I sipped it, smelled it and talked with Paul, I felt like I was tasting two decades of Margaret River’s history.Our final night in the region took us to the boutique Cape Lodge. Known globally among wine country travelers, the Cape Lodge sits on 40 pristine acres. Designed in Dutch Colonial style, the Lodge is recognized for both its serene setting and fine dining. Our dinner there by chef Tony Howell was simply elegant, with dishes such as grilled barramundi on a warm asparagus and bacon tian, a perfect complement to the local wines. After a peaceful night’s sleep under the Karri trees it was back to Perth. And reality.A paradise past, but one I hope to revisit one day.