How to do wine tourism on your own


After making an initial error in Western Australia, David Whitley strikes upon the best way to tackle the Margaret River wine region without a tour guide

It was a diversion taken on a whim. I was in the Margaret River wine country. To not do a bit of wine tasting would be a dreadful sin. And the 3 Oceans winery looked pretty snazzy from the road.

In the past, all my wine-tasting adventures have been on tours. There are fairly obvious reasons for this – there’s only so much wine you can drink before you’re over the legal blood alcohol limit. But trying to pick wineries at random made me realise there’s another reason too – the tour company can act as a filter, picking only some of the more interesting wineries.

The tasting was a disappointment. The mid-range chardonnay was pretty good, and the upper end shiraz was too. The rest really weren’t to my taste. But more to the point, there wasn’t really any insight either. The woman behind the counter just poured the wines, gave non-descript answers to any questions about the region and just asked whether I liked whatever I’d just emptied a sampling glass of.

I should have spotted the warning signs. It was a big, flashy place, with a lot of things translated into Asian languages (a sure sign of going for tour buses). I know from previous trips that the smaller cellar door operations tend to offer a better learning experience. But how to go about finding them?

I drove on, hitting the village of Cowaramup. And there, amongst all manner of sweet shops is a building that basically looks like an off-licence. The Margaret River Regional Wine Centre is more than that, however – it acts as a tasting room for lots of different wineries that are too small to have their own cellar door.



The four they had on offer for sampling didn’t quite hit the requisite spots. But far more important was the fact that the woman behind the counter really knew her stuff, and could tell me where I could find something I probably would like.

It is not, I soon discovered a region that excels at the big, bold shirazes that I tend to default to. “You’ll not get the big, syrupy things that you’d find in the Barossa here. They’re generally softer with lighter tannins, fruitier and more aromatic – it’s a cool region for shiraz.

“But the Cape Grace should be up your street – Rob’s a good winemaker.”

And here lies the difference. That ability to ask the right questions about what you like, explain what you’re probably going to encounter and steer along the right path is absolutely what you’re after if you’re blundering around a wine region on your own. Knowing most of the winemakers on first name terms kinda helps, too.

I was told that cabernet sauvignons are the major reds in these parts, and that Vasse Felix and Cullen are the original Margaret River wineries and thus well worth a visit. I also learned that the sub-region around Caves Road has incredible similarities to the Bordeaux Region in France – and that is the true cabernet sauvignon belt. And that said cab sauvs tend to have a eucalyptus-y quality to them.

By the time I left, I’d got a series of wineries marked on the map, a few bottles to take with me, and a far better understanding of what I was doing. There’s generally somewhere along these lines in most wine regions. If you’re visiting independently, it’s highly advisable to make it your first stop.

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