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The wineries of Margaret River in Western Australia produce a startling proportion of the country's finest wines. Hamish Anderson puts the Mercedes-Benz CLC 200 Kompressor Sport through its paces in his quest for the best
Long gone are the days when Australia was viewed simply as a producer of reliable plonk for everyday drinking. Look at a wine-producing map of the country and the fine-wine regions jump out: the Barossa Valley in South Australia, Hunter Valley in New South Wales and the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, to name but a few. Western Australia accounts for only a miniscule proportion of total production, but it is home to the tiny area of Margaret River, where some of the country's finest bottles are produced.
To reach Margaret River you must fly to Perth, a delightful city dominated by the mighty Swan River, which in places looks like a giant lake rather than a flowing body of water. One of the best spots to appreciate its size and magnificence is from King's Park, 400 hectares of public land, much of which is native bush.
At the weekend you can indulge in boat spotting as locals show off their latest yacht or cruiser. Before heading to Margaret River I took a 20-minute drive down river to look at some of the boats close up. This gave me my first opportunity to get acquainted with the muscular and sporty CLC 200 Kompressor, and it didn't disappoint. With the purr of the performance engine for company, I had no distractions as I headed to Fremantle. Though it feels like a laid-back, arty suburb of Perth it is actually another city. This is the spot for an early evening stroll along the marina, before dining in one of the many restaurants. I visited the restaurant attached to the Little Creatures microbrewery. Started by a bunch of winemakers, Little Creatures is the brew of choice for those in the wine business; after a hard afternoon tasting you are likely to have a bottle thrust in your hand.
The drive to Margaret River takes about four hours. Don't be tempted to get there any quicker - speeding is frowned upon and the local police are strong on enforcement. The coastline is wild and rugged and once the dual carriageway out of the city ends, the roads take you through a mixture of green pastureland and native bush. The drive gave me plenty of time to enjoy the CLC 200 Kompressor. The sport seats with Artico leather upholstery felt luxurious, while the double-length cattle lorries I encountered afforded the opportunity to test the coupé's sporty credentials. The engine produces an extra 21hp compared to the previous generation 200 Kompressor engine, yet has reduced fuel consumption and emissions, and the Direct Steering technology allows for easy manoeuvrability at low speeds and stability when cruising.
The town of Margaret River is in the centre of the region, which stretches 60 miles from Bunker Bay in the north to Augusta in the south. Wine tasting here couldn't be easier, as nearly all the top names have cellar doors with no appointment needed, and distances between estates are negligible. The only major decision is which one to visit at lunchtime. Many of the best restaurants are attached to wineries and most are only open during the day, so if you want to sample the region's best food, lunch is an important consideration.
For a route that takes in a number of wineries, head towards the coast on Wallcliffe Road. Almost immediately you arrive at Cape Mentelle, an estate that has done more than most to put Margaret River on the map. Founded in 1970, its Cabernets in the 1980s helped convince the rest of Australia and the world to take Margaret River seriously. I drank a bottle of the legendary 1984 at Winos later that evening, and it was still looking in very good shape. From here strike north on Caves Road, and within 10 minutes you are in the thick of winery country - Vasse Felix, Howard Park, Moss Wood and Pierro, to name but a few of the region's world-renowned producers.
Leeuwin Estate should be on the hit list of any white wine lover, particularly white Burgundy fans. For more than 20 years it has produced a Chardonnay that has consistently rivalled the great wines of the grape's spiritual home. The winery is in a particularly breathtaking spot and a fine choice for a lunchtime stopover.
I made a detour to see one of Margaret River's pioneers. After studies in the early 1960s showed that the climate here is very similar to that in Bordeaux, the first vines were planted in 1966. This was Cullen Estate, where Vanya Cullen, daughter of those early winemakers, now holds the reins. Cullen is very different to the modern, brash side of Margaret River. You are greeted by a wooden sign, which frankly has seen better days, and an understated winery where a friendly Labrador guards the entrance to the visitor centre. Laid-back and charming it may be, but Vanya is renowned for her fastidious and exacting standards in both vineyard and winery. Cullen continues to be a pioneer, championing sustainable agriculture, and the vineyards have been certified biodynamic since 2004. The wines themselves are stunning.
Cullen concentrates on Margaret River's three signature styles. A grassy, herbaceous Sauvignon/Semillon blend is very much a serious, age-worthy example. While the Diane Madeline, Cullen's most famous wine, is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, although it often uses all five of the varieties permitted in Bordeaux. But my favourite of the lot is the Chardonnay, which if anything has got better in recent years, as witnessed by the taut, powerful 2006.
While wine is integral to Margaret River it is not the only reason to visit. This is an area of outstanding natural beauty and a haven for those who enjoy outdoor activities. Even if you don't feel up to tackling the full distance of the Cape-to-Cape trail from Cape Naturaliste to Cape Leeuwin, a walk along any part of the 80-mile route will take you through remarkable coastal scenery. However, you need to take to the water to experience the region's second most famous asset behind wine - its surfing. The sea is treacherous along much of the coast, so take some advice before braving the waves. But if the whole thing looks too terrifying, drive to Prevelly and watch in awe as the locals take on the might of the Indian Ocean. Less adrenaline filled, but equally fascinating is a trip underground to one of the many caves that dot the Cape. Kitted up with helmet and caving lamp you can scramble around underground feeling like a true explorer.
Wine, food, caves and surf - a combination you are unlikely to find in many other places in the world. It is this diversity that makes Margaret River such a compelling place. I returned to the UK relaxed, with a suitcase full of wine and a smile of contentment on my face.
A stunning boutique hotel that's regularly voted as one of the world's top 100. A huge wine cellar and renowned restaurant add to the attraction. From £190 a night for a double room.
An elegant retreat with a spa, where you can indulge in a range of treatments to counter the effects of indulgence on the wine trail. From £150 a night for a double room. www.moondancelodge.com
Stylish, self-catering apartments in the middle of town. Perfect for cooking up your own meal to go with the fruits of a day's tasting. From £85 a night for a studio flat.
The best food is undoubtedly to be found at the wineries; the two I particularly enjoyed were Vasse Felix and Leeuwin Estate. Most are only open for lunch, but in high season some open for dinner at weekends. Also remember BYO is common in Australia - even at top restaurants.
Arc of Iris
151 Bussell Highway, Margaret River; +61 8 9757 3112
Generally regarded by those in the know as having the best food in town. A French chef serves dishes from his native country with an Australian twist. It is BYO, and you will often see large tables of young winemakers sampling each other's wares.
114 Bussell Highway, Margaret River; +61 8 9757 2398
This place might look suspiciously like a traditional Aussie watering hole from the outside and it can get rowdy on rugby nights. But the good honest food, an excellent range of beer and the stunning-value, award-winning wine list help to lift Settler's Tavern well above
the level of an ordinary pub.
85 Bussell Highway, Margaret River; +61 8 9758 7155
Here you'll find the best wine list in town, with not only the finest that Margaret River has to offer but also some extremely rare old bins from across Australia that are stunning value. Perfect to wash down the excellent bistro fare.
Kevin John Chardonnay 2006
Burgundian-like precision and minerality allied to its power. Drink it over the next eight years.
Made in the mould of a top-notch dry white Bordeaux. Rich, with flavours of dried herbs, spice and tropical fruit, and a refreshing streak of balancing acidity. Drink it now or stash it in the cellar for five years.
Cabernet Sauvignon 2001
Only the second release from this tiny winery and it ably shows why Margaret River can produce Australia's best Cabernet. Now drinking superbly, it is a mid-weight wine full of blackcurrants and cedar wood. It blows most claret at this price out of the water.
BHP 184 @ 5,500rpm
0-62MPH 8.6 secs
TOP SPEED 145mph
ON-THE-ROAD PRICE £21,145
Hamish Anderson's verdict: 'A great touring car. The long heavy doors feel as if you are entering a car of substance, while the interior is sporty but comfortable. Performance-wise it was as happy cruising along the sedate roads south of Perth as it was hugging the twisting country lanes around Margaret River.'
Square Meal motoring correspondent Bill Thomas's verdict: 'This is the entry-level coupé model Mercedes-Benz, so it's the car to aim for if you've always fancied a Mercedes but you're keeping to a budget. The CLC comes with a range of excellent petrol and diesel engines - and don't discount the smallest one. The 129bhp CLC 160 BlueEfficiency has enough power for most situations and when you add the "Sport" option (£1,080 and a must for the nice alloy wheels and metallic paint alone) it's only £18,795.'