Photography: Tony Lewis
It's isolated, far west and way down south; where farmers are winemakers and everything comes in one big size; great. Here we make the journey to the Great Southern wine region of Western Australia.
Western Australia feels like it looks on a map; boundless, great, flat, open, and like the rest of Australia, a little wild and barbaric. The Great Southern Wine region is every bit of this and more.
It doesn't take more than a few clicks out of town to realise just how remote it is - you're living out there, a little remotely and a little ruggedly. You know you're in serious country when retired folk pull up in town in a beige four cylinder sedan, stained with red dust and kitted out with a 'roo bar.
Belt along any of the highways in the region and you see bush that's so thick, tight and rough that roads kind of stuff up the landscape. Like someone's sliced through the bush and peeled back a layer to reveal the red raw flesh, the guts so to speak, of Australia. Patched up with tar, the red dirt at the edges of the road seep out, like blood at the edge of a bandaged wound. Take it to the coast and you're on the wild edge of Oz; where winds tear off the Southern Ocean and belt onto the coastline; where deep, cold, arctic swells thunder onto beaches; and where the beach only ends when the horizon disappears into the mist that floats off the waves.
This rugged slab of Australia also has a history that evokes brutal and unforgiving images. There's the whaling station and the slaughtering process which was barbaric for both man and beast; the settlers who came here to clear the land that broke their backs and wounded their spirits; the wool and dairy industries that boomed before sending families broke. Even the sadness knowing that this was the last place the ANZACs left Australia from. Many, as we all know, for good.
But we Aussies are a resourceful bunch and when faced with woe, know how to pack up our troubles and shove them you know where. And that's what happened here in the Great Southern; when faced with a downturn in the primary industries that the land once thrived on, they found another: wine. It was helped along by a couple of insightful chaps, Jack Mann, Harold Olmo and Dr Gladstone, who at different times suspected the land was ideal for more than animals. So as the last sheep were being shorn and the final teats milked, paddocks became vineyards and sheds became wineries.
Now the region is the second largest producer of wine in the state and is turning out some of the most distinctive styles of wine in the country. Dr John Gladstone made a right name for himself in the '60s when, in his famous Gladstone report, he recommended Margaret River as an area with enormous potential for grape growing. And look what happened then. Dr Gladstone just reviewed his report and this time, the money's on Frankland. This place is about to explode.
When you travel down south, what you see now is just the predecessor of the Great Southern wine region to come.
The Great Southern as a wine region encompasses a large area; Denmark, Albany, Mt Barker, the Porongurups and the Frankland River area. It's a whopping slab of wine country and because of this it can accommodate a bit of everything. It has a spread of varieties though most success with cabernet sauvignon, riesling, pinot noir, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and shiraz. This much space also covers varying climates - places like Albany and Denmark which are closer to the sea have more temperate weather patterns (called a maritime effect). Those places tucked further inland, like Mt Barker, the Porongurups and the Frankland River area are all subject to cooler climate temperatures and so make wines that reflect this.
The Great Southern is getting people giggling over a lot of things, but it's the riesling, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir that are igniting passions the most. You see, where many rieslings are often pretty little things, those made down south are fabulously hard, taut, super-buffed, steely little things, loaded with acid kicks and mineral hits. It's as much about sensation as it is about taste. Because of all this acid, they age well, but if you can't wait that long, at least give them a year or so to open up a sniff. Although there are many, you should at least have a go at those from Howard Park, Wignalls and Castle Rock.
Cabernet sauvignon is another from this region that's making people a little toey. It's the most planted red grape and busts out with intense, elegant wines. Try those from Alkoomi, Plantagenet, Howard Park and Frankland Estate. Pinot noir was spearheaded in the region by Bill Wignall who, with his son Rob, has been turning out sensational spicy and gamey versions of the wine ever since.
A lot of fruit grown in the Great Southern leaves the region to be crushed and packaged under other West Australian wine labels so don't be surprised if you see these flavours rock up in a wine from another region.
The Great Southern is about more than just wine. Like most holiday spots, it's a place to check out for while. And being five hours drive from the most isolated city in the world, you get the feeling down here that you're checking a little further out than normal.
For those whose idea of enjoying the great outdoors is not al fresco on Sydney Harbour, you may very well have died and floated straight into outdoor heaven. It's riddled with national parks and stretches of lonely coastline. There're easy short walks where you can keep an eye on the car and the kids as well as more serious hikes that require more of your time and a lot of your energy. There's even a walking track that goes all the way from Albany to Perth. I dare you.
The only thing that'll survive any sort of tourism booms and crashes, the national parks have been entertaining and impressing for millions of years. In fact, many of the plants you stumble across in the parks and forests can be traced way back to the super-continent Gondwana 65 million years ago. A top example of this is the Valley of the Giants in Walpole-Nornalup National Park. A 600 metre long walking track 40 metres above the ground - like a footpath suspended in mid air - has been constructed through the Tingle forest to allow enthusiasts access to the trees with minimum damage to the environment. There's also the Ancient Empire Walk that takes you through the forest floor and right through the hollows of Tingle trees, some up to 400 years old.
Torndirrup National Park has two famous icons, the Gap and Natural Bridge. Two spectacular rock formations which came about from relentless beatings from the ocean. At William Bay National Park you can get wet at Green Pool, Elephant Rock and Madfish Bay. When the sun comes out here the water glows like kryptonite.
The above sights are all just a short stroll from the carpark. For those who'd like to build up a sweat as well a full photo album, the Stirling Ranges and the Porongurups both have walks for punters willing to bite off a bigger piece of the adventure pie.
There're few surprises that, being surrounded by this much water, there's also an abundance of fishing. You can try your hand independently or book one of the charters listed in the local brochures. And because of the monster ground swells that barrel up from the Southern Ocean and thunder onto the coast, there's some great surfing to be had as well.
Too much effort? Rather stay close to the hire car? Play hardcore tourist and take a ticket through some of the local showpieces. There's Whaleworld, the restored whale factory that takes tours, shows interactive media, videos and a restored whale chaser as part of the world's biggest whaling museum. If you're lucky, you may even spot one frolicking in Frenchman's Bay. Mt Romance sandalwood factory is a producer of sandalwood oil and products. You can swing by the shop and stock up on your latest aftershave or cream or kick back in the café for a local wine and a snack. There's also Bartholomew's Meadery where you can sample and buy from a selection of mead (wine made from honey).
EATING AND DRINKING
Food down here is as varied as the region itself. Laminated pizza joints stand by bakeries that rub against fine restaurants and are close to health food shops. Needless to say, there's food and drink for the lot of you.
For those after a cleansing ale with their meal (or those who take the steak in every glass option) Albany's Earl of Spencer is without doubt the watering hole you're after. An historical English pub offering all the right beers, views to the ocean, a beer garden and a menu which includes their famous pie and pint for less than ten bucks. The Esplanade Hotel is a way newer establishment parked on the main strip overlooking Middleton Beach. It serves pub meals, cold beer and dishes up views you can dissolve right into. And it's so close to the water you could almost pull your own beer from the beach.
The Naked Bean is a café and fresh coffee roasters built into a slick, contemporary fit out right in Albany. It serves up a simple, fresh, breakfast andbrlunch menu for around ten schmackers and makes great coffee from the beans they import, roast and blend themselves. Leonardo's, set in the historical Stirling Terrace in Albany, is a restaurant of the white linen table cloth variety. Smart food, top local wines and as it's run and owned by a husband and wife team, you know you're gonna get service with a smile.
In Denmark, try the Observatory at Karri Mia Resort for views and strange but appealing menu options like soup teamed with cheese and vegemite toasted sandwiches and Matilda's Meadow for fresh, hearty meals on the balcony with the vineyard at arm's length. The best meal we had on the trip down south was a freshly barbecued seafood platter at Bellini's in Denmark. But right after telling us wonderful stories about the Greek Isle she grew up on, the host told us she was leaving the following Monday after spending years in the town. All we can hope is that the new owners maintain the same standard. If so, go here.
Accommodation in the Great Southern region is like everything else, diverse. There's plenty of self-contained resort-style places that allow you your independence while still having all the mod cons ready when you need them. Karri Mia in Denmark is a well run resort that has comfortable self contained bungalows with views across the valley and to the ocean. It also has the convenience of the Observatory restaurant on the property as well as plans for a heated swimming pool. On the same property, but run as a separate business, is Chimes - a swankier version of the self contained accommodation with a gourmet breakfast, a reading room and an open fire for soothing winter comfort. Balneaire Seaside Resort at Middleton Beach offers the same luxuries in two or three bedroom apartments a mere stumble from the main street. For those who think of B&B and getaway as the same thing, you could retire down here as there are loads of the things (also good reason to do your research before you book). The Sleeping Lady B&B, set at the base of the Porongurup Ranges and named after the formation in the Stirling Ranges that looks like a sleeping lady, is one of the most peaceful places I've visited since I was last asleep. There's also a string of backpacker accommodation in Denmark and Albany for those after the comfortable but communal sleep over.