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MARGARET RIVER, WA, AUSTRALIA

POSTCARDS FROM MARGARET RIVER OF WINE
So many vineyards, so little time ... and so many amazing people to meet, as Andrew L. Urban discovered in between screenings and parties at CinéfestOZ. Margaret River is not just a river, not just a town, not just a destination – it’s a way of life.


CRAIG OF THE CAPE 
Every one of his wines gets a gold medal (James Halliday gave his 2010 shiraz 95 points), but Craig Brent-White wasn’t always a wine maker and his Cape Naturaliste Estate in the Margaret River region wasn’t always a vineyard. “I was in pearling for 10 years, and before that I was a barramundi fisherman,” he says, as he surveys his 23 acres of vine. Oh, yes, and he also surveys ships, big ones like the Princess Cruises liners, one of which he will pilot into nearby Busselton Bay for its first ever visit in April 2015. That was his idea.


Craig Brent-White
Cape Naturaliste Estate
(Photo by Andrew L. Urban)

And before all that, he was a furniture maker, winning the 1982 Australian Craft Award, which he only had to give up because he got bilateral tennis elbows. “So I sold the business, bought a boat, The Invincible and went fishing ...”

Craig is not like any other Margaret River winemaker, but it’s true that none of them are like any of the others. We are sitting at a table at the back of his cellar door, overlooking some of his domain, tasting some of his wine (well, drinking it to be accurate) and he’s interrupted by a couple of visitors. He shows them into the rustic cabin that serves as his cellar door and calls his wife Jennifer for help so he can come back and yarn with me and commune with his wine.

He retired a few years ago ... half heartedly. The day before we meet he was surveying a ship, which means “getting on board and pulling it apart.” He’s one of only 600 registered ship surveyors in the world. “I’m retired but I’m back into marine surveying ...” he works for OCIM Forum, of which all oil companies are a member.

He bought his vineyard in 1980, under fortunate circumstances. “It was owned by a mineral sands company who had offered the previous owner, Badin Gibbs, 10 times its value – he took it. It was under $500,000, but I got it for $50,000 after it was rezoned.”

He was going to put in a lake, but when they started to dig up the land, they started finding old barrels and other artefacts; “Whalers used to come by many years ago and the coach inn was eventually turned into a milk shed – I used to see cows here – and that shed is now our cellar door.”

Stories and anecdotes tumble out of Craig in fascinating succession and there is always a way back to talk wine. “I love the ocean and going to sea, but I love it when I’m in the vineyard peacefully pruning and hearing the birds singing, the smells … and the sense that you’re actually making something.”

Craig tastes every row of grapes and picks in a weird pattern according to the fruit – it’s not really a pattern. “I’m very intuitive, I’m about difference, not ‘giving people what they want’. The more you pay attention to detail the more you affect the outcome.”

I’ll drink to that. Again.

NOT JUST A PRETTY FACADE
There are 153 cellar doors in the Margaret River region but a few wineries don’t operate one, like Forester Estate. Ironically enough, this estate is one of the most impressive in Margaret River, with its French Renaissance style façade – hiding the winery, reception and 20 seat private tasting room and offices - built out of local sandstone blocks from Mylup. Owner Kevin McKay and his wife Jenny had it built (started in 2005, finished in 2007) inspired by their honeymoon trip through the Loire Valley in France. “We love it every day,” he says. Other than Estate staff, the only people who see it are visiting business reps – or the occasional visitor; it’s by appointment only.

Small in output but with a solid reputation, Forester makes reds and whites – and the unique Georgette, their superior, dry and creamy sparkling rosé. I could never bring myself to spit out the tasting mouthfuls.

The 2008 Forester Cabernet was ranked best in the world at the London Wine Show – not bad for a winemaker whose first attempt at making wine was using a Solarhart water system with legs welded onto it. 

Uganda-born McKay grew up in Perth, his father an electronics engineer. He gravitated to the bush with a degree in agribusiness management and after 2 years in wheat he got a job planting grapes in Yallingup, and met Jenny, who was a vet nurse. Luckily for his future, his parents owned property in the area, and in due course he planted 75 hectares of vines. That was the beginning – but he wanted to make wine and to have control over every aspect, from planting to the end product. 

McKay says he doesn’t operate a cellar door because he wants to concentrate on wine growing and making. It’s worked well so far!

IN CLIVE WE TRUST
Clive Otto of Fraser Gallop Estate, is another world beating winemaker who avoids the distraction of the cellar door. After 17 years at Vasse Felix, he was let go. He was quickly snatched up by vineyard owner Nigel Gallop, and his first Fraser Gallop vintage, the 2007 Cabarnet, won the International Decanter Award as well as the prize as the best Australian entry. Otto, like McKay, was born in Africa – Tanzania – but he is every inch an Aussie, with a deceptively quiet manner that hides dogged determination. But then all wine makers are obsessive.

Gallop built a Georgian mansion on the estate, with his first wife Heather Gallop (she died of cancer) and he now lives there with his wife Dorothy. This impressive building is also the HQ for the estate. He gave Otto a budget of $3.5 million to build a new winery, which boasts the latest equipment and is built to Clive’s personal specifications – which include a metal mesh mezzanine that provides access to the stainless steel barrels (not tanks) from above. These give him more control in making his wines.

Clive was first married to one of the female winemakers in the region, Jodie Opie, winemaker at the splendid Aravina Estate, major sponsors (along with Forester) of the annual CineféstOZ film festival (late August). His current wife, Bridget, is a publicist for the Festival. Clive’s place at Vasse Felix has been taken by another female winemaker, Virginia Wilcox, and Kate Morgan is assistant winemaker to Clive at Fraser Gallop, while Janice McDonald makes the wines for Howard Park. 

The Estate’s premium line, labelled Parterre in reference to the parterre gardens in front of the mansion, is modelled on Bordeaux wines, spending 10 months in specially sourced oak barrels. (The Estate range gets 8 weeks.) And Clive uses stainless steel barrels instead of tanks, “to get more control”.

Clive’s focus and enthusiasm is endless; he even opened up the winery on a Sunday morning to accommodate my visit, showing me around and letting me taste his babies … wines. Before I left he also introduced me to his newest sweetie, the ice pressed chardonnay, his first dessert wine, made on Nigel’s request. 

But at home, Clive and Bridget tend to drink New Zealand pinot from Central Otago. 

HAY SHED HILL WINERY & DELI CAFÉ 
A surprisingly contempo mood, unexpected menu and arresting art on the walls sets Hay Shed Hill deli café apart from the routine wine tour café/restaurants. I am instantly impressed by fresh chillies on the counter, next to the Tabasco sauce. This is my kind of place. The Mexican-inspired breakfast is excellent. I could stay for lunch and try their tempting pizza but tour of wine duty calls.

There are 100 acres of Hay Shed Hill, 50 of them under vine. They make Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. Their Block Series wines are made from single parcels of fruit from designated blocks selected as the best grapes on the property. I tear myself away.


Busselton’s The Goose at the mile long jetty
(Photo by Andrew L. Urban)

BUNKERS BEACH CAFÉ
Another breakfast, another great start as we watch for passing whales at the ideally located Bunkers Beach Café, facing the sea from its slightly raised position at, yes, Bunker Bay – so named because it was the last place for sailors to bunker down along this part of the Western Australian coast. Off the beach directly in front of the café are three of their own buoys which customers coming by boat can book in advance. 

Hamish McLeay and Tracie Marston run the place, and as well as breakfast (recommended way to start the day) and lunch, they have weddings and corporate functions, making full use of the 70 seater café (with a working wood fireplace) as well as the timber terrace outside, with steps leading to the sweeping, crescent shaped 2 km beach. Wedding planners love this.

NGILGI CAVE – BEWARE WOLGINE

Edward Dawson was searching for wild brumbies in the Yallingup region of southwest Australia in 1899 when he discovered the amazing cave system once known as Yallingup Cave, now the Ngilgi Cave. Although the cave is full of remarkable crystal formatiopns built up over 500,000 years, the most amazing thing to me is the sight of 19th century visitors in formal high tea attire exploring the cave.


Ngilgi Cave

And in those days the access and walkways were not as sophisticated and well designed as they are today. Oh, and they had to use candles to break through the pitch black. Extensive lighting now offers a rainbow of colours sparkling off the many crystal formations. It’s still remarkable.

My favourite features are the helictites, straw-like crystals that defy gravity, twisting and curling in all directions. 

The cave, near Cape Naturaliste in the northern end of the Leeuwin Naturaliste Ridge, is close to the lighthouse, which is unusual in that it’s a bit stumpy; only 69 steps to the top. That’s because it’s up high on the ridge, and it’s a great contrast, going from the underworld of the cave to the top of the lighthouse.

Just one thing: the story goes like this: a long time ago the entrance to the big cave was near the ocean where a little brook comes out. Food was plenty and the Aboriginal people used to collect their water from the entrance to the cave. Then an evil spirit called Wolgine began lurking in the cave. Wolgine caused the water hole to dry up, food to be scarce and drew unwary people into the great holde of darkness – never to be seen again. I went down (very deep) and came back out again – but you’ve been warned.


MRDT’s Sean Bocksidge with marron friend
Margaret River Discovery Tours

MARGARET RIVER DISCOVERY TOURS
Sean Bocksidge offers ‘tours for people who don’t do tours’ around the region, from the cellar door day to the cape-to-cape trek day or days... this wine-smart (worked at Voyager for five years) one man band of eco guide, river canoe captain, cultural insider and information treasure chest knows just about everyone in the area. His clients range from captains of industry to captains of their own barbecue around Australia.


Canoeing on Margaret River

Published September 26, 2013

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Photos by Andrew L. Urban


Kev & Jenny McKay
Forester Estate

 
Clive Otto of Fraser Gallop Estate


Hay Shed Hill breakfast
Hay Shed Hill

 
Leeuwin Estate pine plank table  







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