Fleur Bainger discovers a dirtier side to Western Australia’s glamorous Margaret River wine region.
Margaret River is two-faced (and it’s a good thing). Turn one cheek and there’s the glossy profile of fancy pants cellar doors, multi-course lunches, noses shoved in fine stemware and vine-etched, surf-lashed lands. She’s a looker, alright. But guide her chin the other way and you’ll glimpse a rosier cheek which is decidedly more homespun. Forget wearing the Hermès scarf here: the other Marg’s devoted to small batch farming, season-worshipping and nature-above-all living. And with the launch of the area’s first food and wine trail, this green goddess is coming out to play.
Between the region’s parallel arterials – Caves Road and the Bussell Highway – lurk biodynamic bakers, dryland veggie farmers, sheep’s cheese makers, snout-to-the-ground pig producers, and tiny wineries where the pick, crush and pour is largely done by hand. You’ll find yourself weaving along dusty back roads and forest-lined lanes stopping in at small, family-owned businesses where you usually have the chance to meet the makers. It’s the antithesis of a boozy wine bus tour and taps into the trend of knowing where your food comes from. Strap in for an altogether different drive.
1. Yallingup Woodfired Bread
Following the wildflower-edged highway from Perth, you’ll eventually pull up at Yallingup Woodfired Bread. (We say eventually because it’s not an easy find – small, ground-level signs sporting a red flame lead the way, but it’s hard not to be distracted by the pretty bushland.) The biodynamic bakery doesn’t have a shiny shop window or even a till: loaves sit on outdoor racks metres from volcanic rock ovens, and a small bowl collects payment in an astonishingly earnest honesty system.
The bakers – German-born Gotthard Bauer, his wife Marion and their team – are too busy meeting demand to attend to the conga line of customers, and because they keep ‘normal’ hours (no dawn starts for them) they’re never far away. We barely make it back to the car before tearing off a handful of crusty ciabatta. Let’s just say their cult following is deserved. Where: 189 Biddle Road, Yallingup
2. Windows Estate
Sticking to narrow roads, the indicator blinks almost continuously until you reach Windows Estate, a boutique winery run by a surfing viticulturist and his wife. Chris and Jo Davies awake to vines each day, living just five metres from their six-hectare vineyard, which, in keeping with Chris’ ocean obsession, is named after a local surf break.
The pair hand-pick and press their grapes, and serve tastings at a beachy cellar door on the property. They stick to organic fertilisers and add nothing more than oak and sulphur to their wines. “It’s really about keeping the wine intact and allowing the fruit to shine through,” says Jo. Local handmade cheese will match their internationally awarded cab sauv and chardonnay by year’s end, when a fromagerie opens on-site. Where: 4 Quininup Road, Yallingup
3. Bahen and Co.
Crossing Caves Road and going bush again, we track down a private warehouse where the region’s hottest chocolate is made, Bahen and Co. Josh Bahen, who looks too young to have formerly been a Moss Wood winemaker, is a new-breed chocoholic who ticks a bunch of hipster boxes. He’s sought out 1930s machinery to grind and roast cacao beans, which he sources from century-old heirloom variety trees growing on Madagascan islands and in Brazilian rainforest (but of course). He also doggedly follows old-school practices, guided by ancient Spanish recipes.
His bars are still wrapped by hand, but that’s only after the deep, dark chocolate slabs are aged for up to three months. “With wine, once it’s one to two years old, it mellows out. Chocolate is the same,” he says. What’s more, there’s no fat added. “Only a handful of people in the world do that,” he says. While Bahen HQ is currently off-limits to the public, Josh mans a must-visit stall at Saturday’s local farmers’ market, and plans to open a visitable warehouse next year. Where: Margaret River Farmers’ Market
4. Bettenay’s Wine and Nougat
The twisting, turning, forest-fringed bitumen leads you to Bettenay’s, a winery-cum-nougat haven. It’s an unusual mix, but the quirkiness of the Bettenay family – or their patriarch, at least – makes it seem more than plausible.
At the cellar door, winemaking veteran of 26 years Greg Bettenay cheekily spruiks the goods while his son Bryce folds nuts, fruits, petals and honey into nougat, visible through a glass wall. His is the French chewy kind, though one suspects Gallic purists would sniff disdainfully at the blueberry, white chocolate and macadamia bar, the salted caramel stick or their limoncello creation. Bryce invents a new style every six months: in all he has created 28 flavours. His latest invention is ‘nougaretto’, a thick, sweet, unusual nougat liqueur. Where: Tom Cullity Drive, Cowaramup
5. Brookwood Estate
“We’re here for a good time, not a long time,” booms the jubilant voice of Trevor Mann, head of small batch winery Brookwood Estate. His cellar door is tucked out of view, with floor space devoted to restaurant tables, but his enthusiasm draws everyone who has stopped in for a good value feed of excellent WA produce. He’ll likely start you on their sparkling, which daughter Bronnley makes with grapes grown in an herbicide- and insecticide-free vineyard. “There’s no velcro in it,” he jokes. “It doesn’t stick to the roof of your mouth.”
You could polish off a bottle without noticing, so next we opt for a sensible glass of cab sauv. It matches our plate of fall-apart beef cheek and creamy truffle mash perfectly. A good time, indeed. Where: 430 Treeton Road, Cowaramup
6. Burnside Organic Farm
Lara McCall winces in pain as she manoeuvres her lithe frame around raised beds of biodynamic herbs and vegetables. The mother of three broke a rib surfing just yesterday, she explains. Of course she did. Her cred continues climbing as she explains how she left a finance job in Perth to establish this eco-focused property with her husband, Jamie, 17 years ago. Their rammed earth home gives way to an avocado orchard, grapevines, beds of borage, tamarillo, passionfruit and a small row of rain-fed caper trees, which are prized by local restaurants.
Even if you’ve never been mad for capers, these khaki gems deliver a salty-sweet hit that will weaken the knees. The couple have just opened their property, Burnside Organic Farm, at 10am on Friday for tours (book in advance), sharing their views on self-sustainability – they grow most of what they need and even kill their own animals for meat – with the hope of inspiring others to follow suit. Where: 287 Burnside Road, Margaret River
7. Fair Harvest
You’ll barely reach third gear before arriving at Fair Harvest, a sprawling permaculture farm where Jodie Lane and her partner Dorothee Perez grow an A–Z of seasonal produce. Chooks and geese roam beside crops of kale, fennel, leek and broad beans, while an olive grove, orchard, cattle and a timber plantation hem in the perimeters.
The women have started opening their doors to the lunch crowd on Thursdays, revelling in their passion to eat off the land. Ninety per cent of what they serve is grown on the property; the rest is locally sourced, right down to the sea salt they scrape from the rocks. Where: 426 Carters Road, Margaret River
8. Margaret River Farmers’ Markets
Expect something like a scene from Glastonbury when you arrive at the Saturday morning Margaret River Farmers’ Markets, on the outskirts of Margaret River township. Mud and gumboots are out in force, matching a wholesome, country-chic look that locals pull off unconsciously as they wander between the 50-ish stalls of 100 per cent locally grown produce – grass-fed beef, local potatoes, freshly picked apples and more – while downing a fabulous coffee by Combi Coffee, served from a Kombi van, naturally. Where: 41 Wallcliffe Road, Margaret River
9. The Farm House
When we wander into the hilltop Farm House, David Hohnen is leaning on the bar detailing to a customer how best to slow-cook a cut of his famed pork. The former CEO of Cape Mentelle (Margaret River) and Cloudy Bay (Marlborough) wineries can now be found here four days a week, touring visitors through his small smokehouse and shooting the breeze on his current favourite topic: free-range, forage-fed pigs. “We can talk to our customers, and that’s what I enjoy,” he says. “I call it the high street experience. I’m a winemaker, I’m a home cook and I’ve often shaken my head at the glib responses people get at butchers.”
Hohnen’s ‘Big Red’ pork is sought after by restaurateurs including Neil Perry, and his small goods stable also covers lamb ham, which is exactly what it sounds like, chorizo, merguez, pastrami and more. Try a platter of his smallgoods and his McHenry Hohnen wines on site, or take them with you. “We don’t do a big range; what we do, we do well,” he says. Where: 5962 Caves Road, Margaret River
10. Cambray Cheese
You can see why the bank manager repeatedly refused Jane Wilde’s loan application. “They’d never heard of anyone milking sheep before,” she says. The former nurse – a lactation consultant, no less – has been cheese-making for nearly 20 years, but back when she and her then-policeman husband Bruce chose their career change, they were seen as, well, a bit batty. They began with a mere three rare-breed sheep – the flock is now 180-strong – and created all their own cheese recipes.
Their little shop and tasting table is well off the beaten track, en route to the town of Nannup, but forest corridors and the smelly-sock cheese justify the drive. It’s impossible to choose between the Ashover, blackened with ash from their own jarrah trees, or the French-style, runny Frisette, so you may find yourself buying both (we did). Wonder if the bank manager is kicking himself now? See Cambray Cheese Where: 470 Vasse Highway, Nannup
The details: Margaret River
The Margaret River region is around three hours from Perth. You’ll need at least two full days to do the entire trail, particularly if you want to include the slightly further-reaching venues like Nannup.
A bucket-load of accommodation is available in the region, but Silversprings Cottages are a best-kept secret: a collection of sweetly presented bungalows set on a family-owned farm. Pet friendly, too. From $194 per night, minimum two nights (or from $92 per night, mid-week special). The region’s first B&B (and winner of last year’s Peoples’ Choice Awards ‘Best B&B’ category) Margaret River Guest House is another underrated gem: this rustic guesthouse blends heritage and contemporary with panache. From $200 per night. Both are bookable at margaretriver.com
Phone ahead for the operators who say ‘by appointment only’.
Allow at least an hour at the farmers’ markets – particularly if you want to have some brekky there.