A visit to Australia for anyone is almost certain to be about food and wine. And it should be, Australia offers a diverse range of wine styles and culinary experiences that will render you speechless in awe inspiring natural beauty. Luckily for me, I have been on a wine scholarship before where I travelled through out Australia discovering their wine and this time for Gourmet Escape in Margaret River in Western Australia.
I’m actually trying hard to critic the region but just can’t come up with anything. It’s yet to be discovered by the throngs of people who come from all over the world to Australia and as I write, part of me doesn’t want to reveal all its hidden secrets. Imagine that if you were to head south from Margaret River you would reach Antarctica, if west you would hit South Africa. Nothing would come in between you and those destinations. A five-hour flight eastwards would get you to Melbourne. This is how secluded the region is.
To get there I flew Business Class courtesy Qantas from Singapore to Perth. The 5-hour flight went by in a luxurious jiffy as I drank glass after glass of Penfolds Bin 28, a full bodied indulgent wine from a Australia’s most iconic producer and ate multiple courses for dinner before nodding off to kingly sleep.
Northbridge an area in Perth where I stayed is causal and relaxed with enough wine bars, microbreweries and restaurants to keep you busy for a few days and nights. I particularly liked Shadow Wine Bar and the always-busy Northbridge Brewing Co. Their Al Fresco area is perfect specially just before an hour or two before sunset. The Central Business District and Northbridge area offer a lot of dining and drinking options in a pretty relaxed environment and the city almost always has some festival or event happening somewhere or the other.
The relatively new Como The Treasury Hotel at AUD 500 a night is the place to stay not just because of the luxury of the rooms but also because of its myriad beverage and dining options. The Wild Flower, their flagship restaurant will give you a dose of just how innovative and hedonistic Australian Chefs are getting. Here the menu changes as per the indigenous six seasons and Executive Chef Jed Gerrard creates magic with his farmer and forager driven menu. The view, if you manage to get your eyes of the food is spectacular too. Also super is the Petition Wine Bar downstairs.
From Perth I finally headed down to Margaret River, which is about a three hour drive away to attend Gourmet Escape. (http://www.gourmetescape.com.au/). Gourmet Escape has become one of the world’s biggest food and beverage festivals attracting people from all over Australia and the world.
Held in mid November the festival not only takes place in one location – the Gourmet Village at the famous Leeuwin Estate but also has numerous events at wineries, breweries, gardens and beaches for a period of three days. These smaller happenings, termed satellite and fringe events, are all ticketed. Chef’s from Australia’s best restaurants and celebrity Chefs from around the world fly in to host pop up dinners, tasting and master classes in collaboration with the regions best wineries and microbreweries bringing together international and home grown talent. There are just too many to do them all but if you book early enough you can get what you want. Rates per event differ depending on what Chef, which winery etc. They can range from AUD 180 to AUD 300 and more per person per lunch or dinner. The full Gourmet Escape experience itself is going to cost you over AUD 1500-2000 per person. Gourmet Escape doesn’t come cheap by any standards but well worth it. Gourmet Escape is big. Voted as one of the top international wine and spirits festivals in the world kind of big.
The international names included the likes of Celebrity Chef Nigella Lawson and Ashley Palmer Watts of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal to name a few. Honestly the numbers of events are far too many to attend them all and I would recommend booking early to get ticket to the ones you want to go to.
Gourmet Escape’s launch party at Castle Bay Beach was quite an evening. Star chefs from Australia, winery owners and wine and food media descended for an evening of revelry. I had it easy – cool sand, crystal clear water in astonishing colours of blue and green, teepee tents on the beach lit with warm lights and the temperature kept dropping as the evening went on. With an array of food being cooked on a barbeque right in front of you by some of Australia’s best Chefs and wines from some of the best wineries of the region in free flow it was just impossible to not have a great time. The beach itself could be from one of Tourism Australia’s TV commercials.
The Gourmet Village in Leeuwin Estate will baffle you with its sheer enormity. The space is filled with large tents that house multiple producers of food, wine, craft beer and cheese. The list of what you can consumer is endless. Once you’re in, you walk around and eat and drink your way throughout the day. There are live bands playing music in various nooks and corners. I particularly liked the idea of setting up a picnic spot next to the vineyards adjacent to where the village was set up. I had access to the platinum lounge (you can buy access at AUD 250) and my ticket got me two glasses of Leeuwin Estate wine that I washed down with copious amounts of oysters that were being shucked on the spot.
One of the satellite events I attended was called The Long Lunch at Fraser Gallop Estate., priced at AUD 305. It reminded me of a grand Bordeaux Chateau luncheon experience, Chateau and all. They produce excellent Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay from their vineyards in Wilyapabrup, which were paired with a four-course grand lunch. Chef Guillaume Brahimi of the eponymous Guilaume in Sydney and Bistro Guillaume in multiple cities in Australia created a brilliant menu for the afternoon. The menu included King fish and eel paired with Chardonnay, Wagyu beef paired with three vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon and dessert comprising of Raspberry, pistachio, white chocolate and blackcurrant paired with ice-pressed Chardonnay, all of which put me into a very gentle food-and-wine coma.
One highlight of the trip would have to be the tasting I attended at the historical Vase Felix. I sampled their full range with their Head Sommelier who knew the wines from the estate inside out. I was blown away, especially with their sparkling, the Cabernet Sauvignon from their premier range and the icon Heytesbury blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petite Verdot. These along with a host of other wineries like Mosswood, Cullen, Howard Park, Woodlands, Leeuwin and Voyageur and so many more produce head turning Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay and I would put them along side the worlds very best any day.
I would recommend staying in Margaret River town if you like some action. The town centre is small but has a few great restaurants, bars and even a microbrewery and is a great place to spend your evening. On this trip however I stayed at the luxurious Bunker Bay Resorts by Pullman, which is right on Bunker Bay beach. I didn’t see any, but I was told that at select times of the year you can see whales going past the resort at regular intervals as they come up for air from the sea. I would recommend it highly to anyone who is looking to have a peaceful and luxurious stay. At night I’d come back from the festivities and enjoy a glass of wine or three at the bar terrace watching a million stars in the night sky and the sea below. I even saw the largest moon in seventy years rising from the sea, moon rise from the sea, what a spectacle! I’d take a flight all the way to Margaret River just to see that again.
You would need to rent a car and assign a designated driver since distances between venues can be large and a taxi ride will be eye wateringly expensive. Not that there would be too many taxi’s going around either. This is not a hail a taxi sort of place. Visit the regions winery cellar doors and their fantastic restaurants or head to the beach and set up a barbeque or just simply enjoy a glass of vino or two as the sunsets. Margaret River is a beautiful part of the world and the region should be on your list of must visit places for food and wine especially during Gourmet Escape.