Wine Travel: Margaret River, Western Australia

May 29, 2015

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This week, we kick off a new series on wine travel by TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen. He’s just launched a new website called Cluster Crush, which features all kinds of useful (and fun) information about the world of wine, from basic education to travel tips to advice from chefs about how to pair wines with food. All in the spirit of fun, the motto is “Stomping out the pretension and getting to the good juice.”

Today, Eric takes us to one of his favorite wine regions: Western Australia’s Margaret River.

Check out Eric's new wine site, Cluster Crush.
Check out Eric’s new wine site, Cluster Crush.

Though most people associate Australian wine with big-name regions such as the Barossa Valley in South Australia, the Yarra Valley in Victoria and the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, the little, off-the-beaten path region of Margaret River in Western Australia is one of my favorites (though those others are great, too!).

Getting There

The closest city to the Margaret River is Perth — the most isolated major city on Earth. Don’t let that deter you, though. Qantas, Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand all fly there, as do Cathay Pacific, Singapore, Garuda, Malaysia and more — which means you can use all manner of miles to book award tickets. While business-class awards on Qantas and Virgin tend to be in short supply (and non-existent on Air New Zealand), it’s not impossible to use your miles to fly here.

I actually booked not one, but two separate itineraries here this past year using my American Airlines AAdvantage miles for a Qantas business-class ticket. I booked the first last July for travel in December, when I thought I would come over the holidays. The total came to 62,500 miles and $27 in taxes and fees, though because I have the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Mastercard, I got a 10% mileage refund, so it ended up costing me only 56,250 miles!

I booked JFK-LAX-SYD for 62,500 miles and $29.70 in taxes — but that was before my 10% mileage refund!

But then in November, I decided to change my ticket to coincide with the whale shark season up at Ningaloo Reef (April to July) and had no trouble finding a new itinerary from Los Angeles (LAX) to Perth (PER) via Sydney (SYD) in Qantas business class, and simply changed the ticket (I didn’t have to pay a fee since travel was more than 21 days out) for another $16 in taxes and fees.

LAX Perth
My final ticket to Perth (PER) via Sydney (SYD).

I only booked my ticket through to PER while I worked out my Ningaloo Reef dates. You have to fly to an airport called Learmonth (LEA), but there are several flights a week on Qantas with decent availability if you want to use either American AAdvantage miles or British Airways Avios.

From Perth, the Margaret River region is about a three-hour drive down the coast past some beautiful beaches and charming little towns. The region lies on a spectacular stretch of coastline where red-rock cliffs cascade into the Indian Ocean, with nothing between you and Africa except an expanse of water. It truly feels like the end of the Earth.

Where to Stay

This is a big vacation area for Perth-dwellers, so there are a variety of accommodation options, from budget beach shacks to full-on epicurean escapes. Your best bet is to do a little research through the Tourism Western Australia site to find something that suits your budget and needs.

Cape Lodge, one of the classic luxury lodges of Australia.

I really like four properties in particular. Based on its architecture, Cape Lodge actually looks like it should be in South Africa, but it’s one of the best-known hotels in Western Australia thanks to a phenomenal food and wine program, and —bonus! — it’s near many of the wineries.

On the beachy side of things, Smiths Beach Resort is luxurious but casual, and Bunker Bay Resort is good for families and part of Accor, so you could use some of your Le Club Accor points. Finally, for a splurge, Injidup Spa Retreat is a true retreat with just a handful of cliff-top villas offering panoramic views of the Indian Ocean and hiking paths lined with wildflowers.

Where to Taste

But you didn’t come here just to luxuriate in a hotel — you came to taste some wine (and possibly some chocolate, olive oil and cheese, as well). What makes Margaret River different from other Australian regions is its focus on Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc (rather than the more typical Aussie varietals of Shiraz and Chardonnay).

That’s because back in 1965 an agronomist named Dr. John Gladstones made a study of the geology and climate of the region, and determined that it most closely resembled Bordeaux thanks to a maritime influence and gravelly soils. It wasn’t long before people were planting vines right and left, though the region still makes just a tiny percentage of the country’s total wine production.

Vasse Felix
Vasse Felix, Margaret River’s first commercial winery.

Cullen Wines was one of the pioneers here, both because it planted its first vines back in 1971 and because it spearheaded biodynamic farming in the area. Among the flagship wines to taste are its barrel-fermented Kevin John Chardonnay, and the Diana Madeline red blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Cabernet Franc that varies by vintage, but is known for a fine balance of fruit, minerality and complexity.

Established in 1967, Vasse Felix was Margaret River’s first commercial winery, and remains a big name to this day. This is a great spot to stop for lunch thanks to its gourmet restaurant, which specializes in pairing seasonal menus of local produce with its wines. Try the current Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend that hearkens to Bordeaux’s Entre Deux Mers region, the barrel-fermented Heytesbury Chardonnay and the latest vintage Cabernet Sauvignon to get a good benchmark of the wines this region is known for.

Vineyards at Cape Mentelle. Photo courtesy of Cape Mentelle.
Vineyards at Cape Mentelle. Photo courtesy of Cape Mentelle.

If you’re a fan of white wines, try Moss Wood’s Semillon, which is citrusy and crisp thanks to its finely balanced acidity (though the rich but bright Pinot Noir is also a delightful idiosyncracy for the region). You might also stop by Leeuwin Estate to try its famous Art Series wines including a Sauvignon Blanc with alluring tropical and floral top notes and a spicy, berrylicious Shiraz.

Among the other big names, Cape Mentelle is a heavy hitter and well worth a visit if only to orient your palate to the flavor profiles of the region. The boutique Fraser Gallop is an under-the-radar star that has racked up wine awards for its red blends but still sells them at a very reasonable price point.

What (Else) to Do

Hiking along the Cape to Cape Track during wildflower season. Image courtesy of Tourism Western Australia.
Hiking along the Cape to Cape Track during wildflower season. Image courtesy of Tourism Western Australia.

Besides the wine, there’s plenty to do in Margaret River. This is one of the world’s top big-wave surfing destinations, with over 40 breaks and an annual competition that draws famous names from all over the world. On the foodie side of things, try to make time for a visit to the Margaret River Chocolate Company for sweet treats, the Margaret River Dairy Company for delicious local cheeses and Olio Bello to taste the staggering selection of olive oils.

You can also spend a few days hiking along the Cape to Cape Track between Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin (though best save this for wildflower season from September to November).

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