Winsor Dobbin presents the latest in a series of guides to Australia and New Zealand's leading wine regions.
A 3½-hour drive south of Perth, Margaret River is one of Australia's most stunning wine regions - both visually and because of the quality of the wines produced in a maritime climate that is similar to Bordeaux.
The overall production from Western Australia's most famous wine region may be tiny but it accounts for more than 15 per cent of Australia's premium production. Chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon are the star performers and sauvignon blanc-semillon blends have become the region's signature.
There are dozens of cellar doors worth visiting, many with their own delightful on-site restaurants, including the big names Voyager Estate, Leeuwin Estate, Vasse Felix, Cullen, Cape Mentelle, Howard Park, Devil's Lair, Moss Wood, Pierro, Stella Bella, Brookland Valley and Xanadu, and boutique operations Edwards, McHenry Hohnen, Blue Poles, Flametree, Willespie, Mantra/Wine by Brad, Lenton Brae, Juniper Estate, Woodlands, Fermoy Estate, Saracen Estates, Wise and Fraser Gallop Estate.
There are close to 100 wineries in total, so you'll need plenty of time for a leisurely exploration. The Margaret River township and nearby Cowaramup are at the centre of the winemaking activity but the vineyards extend 60 kilometres north and 40 kilometres south.
This is a relatively new wine tourism region. Vasse Felix, where the first vineyard was planted in 1967, and Cullen were the pioneers more than 40 years ago, but the region's popularity has exploded during the past decade. Today the once-sleepy region attracts half a million visitors a year.
How to get there
Perth is served by all major domestic airlines, including Qantas and Virgin Australia. Margaret River is about 270 kilometres south and all major car-hire companies have desks at Perth Airport.
Best cellar doors
Vasse Felix was the first commercial vineyard and winery in the region and is owned and operated by the Holmes a Court family. The cellar door, restaurant and art gallery are all in a lovely setting and winemaker Virginia Willcock has been making some stunning wines.
Voyager Estate has one of Australia's most spectacular cellar door and restaurant complexes overlooking meticulously tended vines, rose gardens and sweeping lawns. The Cape Dutch-inspired complex offers tastings of several wines that are featured at the cellar door only and self-guided tours are available.
Xanadu is one of the most improved wineries in the region and has some good budget buys as well as top-notch cabernets and chardonnays. There is also an excellent restaurant serving modern Australian dishes with a slight Asian twist.
A venue for regular concerts and home to a top-notch restaurant, Leeuwin Estate is a de rigueur destination for visitors keen on tasting the winery's benchmark Art Series wines.
Once you've visited the big names, check out Edwards Wines, where visitors can take a self-guided tour of the vines.
Also check out the Tiger Moth plane Matilda, in which the brothers' late father made an epic voyage from London to Australia in 1990 to raise funds for charity.
Hamelin Bay, at Karridale in the far south of the region, has a cellar door with a play area to keep children occupied while parents are busy tasting. Gourmet platters are the speciality here. Sit outside and take in sweeping views of the vineyards and dam.
Also try Cape Mentelle, Laurance, Saracen Estate, Brookland Valley, Howard Park, Juniper Estate, Devil's Lair, Wills Domain, Wise, Cape Grace, Sandalford and newcomer Credaro Family Estate.
Where to eat
Must Margaret River, an offshoot of a long-time Perth favourite wine bar, has taken casual dining to a whole new level. This bustling spot's specialities include charcuterie plates and dry-aged steaks. You can have snacks at the bar or a full meal.
Vasse Felix is among the finest of Margaret River's cellar door restaurants. Chef Aaron Carr has been the pan-handler for 16 years and his menu features dishes such as cured kingfish with octopus carpaccio, and lamb shoulder with smoky eggplant, nuts and grains.
One of the most intimate and enjoyable lunchtime destinations is the Cullen winery, where a lovely dining room looks out over the vines and the dishes are all either organic or biodynamic.
Voyager Estate winery restaurant serves serious food in a lovely setting and is acknowledged as one of the top vineyard restaurants in the country. It is open daily and the menu features Margaret River venison and asparagus, estate-reared lamb and Pemberton marron.
Knee Deep's cellar door restaurant is a relative newcomer that has attracted a lot of attention. The emphasis is on fine West Australian produce.
Settlers Tavern is a lively country-style pub in the heart of Margaret River that serves comfort food in a relaxed atmosphere.
Also try Hay Shed Hill, Leeuwin Estate, Providore, Wino's, Xanadu, The White Elephant, Gnarabar, Lamont's, Food Farmacy, Watershed, Aravina Estate and Driftwood Estate.
What to drink
The top wines are almost always cabernet sauvignon (or cabernet blends) and chardonnays. Look out for reds including Cape Mentelle (who also make a blockbuster zinfandel), Cullen Diana Madeline, Moss Wood, Sandalford Prendiville and Vasse Felix Heytesbury.
Leeuwin Estate's chardonnay is world-renowned but Pierro, Devil's Lair, Brookland Valley, Cullen, Voyager Estate and Vasse Felix Heytesbury are worthy challengers.
For good value look for such labels as Wine by Brad, Flying Fish Cove, Juniper Estate, Rosabrook, Fraser Gallop, Bunkers and MadFish.
Where to stay
Cape Lodge is the finest boutique hotel in the region and sits on its own vineyard within 20 hectares of manicured grounds on the edge of a small forest. Chef Tony Howell stars in the excellent on-site restaurant. From $349 a night.
Windmills Break is a luxury boutique resort in a lovely garden setting and has beautifully appointed rooms. There is a swimming pool, heated spa, tennis court, massage centre and licensed bar serving wines by the glass and a good range of tapas. From $279 a night, two-night minimum.
The self-catering Darby Park Serviced Residences (formerly Quest Apartments) in the centre of Margaret River township is ideal for family groups or longer stays. Three nights from $464.
Gilgara Retreat offers two types of accommodation: inside a replica 1870s homestead or Asian-style luxury split-level garden suites with double spa baths. From $200 a night.
Must Margaret River's apartments are perfect for those who want to be right in town. The stylish suites have spa baths and all modern luxuries. Prices vary seasonally.
Also try Merribrook Retreat, Margarets Beach Resort, Grand Mercure Basildene Manor, Margaret River Guesthouse, Quay West Resort Bunker Bay, Wildwood Valley, Nunkeri Fields, Jarrah Grove Retreat, Constellation Apartments, Seashells and Caves House Hotel.
The Margaret River Wine Festival is held each year in April.
The Margaret River Farmers' Market is held on the second and fourth Saturday of each month. There are many surf beaches and national parks in which to relax and the whole region has a seriously laid-back ambience. Mammoth Cave and the Cape Leeuwin lighthouse are among the most visited attractions. The many boutique breweries are also popular.
Augusta, to the south, where the Southern and Indian oceans meet, is renowned as one of the best places to see migrating whales in season.
For more information
Margaret River Visitor Centre is at 100 Bussell Highway, Margaret River. (08) 9780 5911, margaretriver.com.