X marks the drop

Following a hand-drawn map, Kerry van der Jagt discovers first-class wine trails north of Perth.

Tell anyone that you want to go wine tasting and you'll be served up all sorts of advice. Words such as "hidden gem", "best-kept secret" and "out of the way" will flow from their lips. The trouble is, I never trust a hidden gem. I can't help but think, if it's so good, why is it hiding?

Better to trust a reliable source. Like the hotel concierge who recently drew me a treasure map detailing three small wine trails in the Perth Hills. His recommendations included: Chittering Valley, with seven boutique wineries and a trail of public art; Mundaring Hills, home to five wineries and also the start of the world's longest freshwater pipeline; and Carmel Valley, with nine wineries, Australia's oldest continuously operating observatory and enough fresh produce to feed a small country.

These trails are not hidden (actually, they're well signposted) or out of the way (less than one hour from Perth) or secret (as Google will confirm). But they are much-loved by locals and that was good enough for me.

On a perfect spring day, equipped with little more than a good idea and a bad map, I set out to see if I could conquer the three trails in three days.

Day 1

CHITTERING VALLEY WINE TRAIL

Most wine trails are all about shirazes, champagnes and chardonnays. But the 76-kilometre Chittering Valley wine trail is also about art; not the "pretend to be interested and stroke your beard" type of art but public art, like hand-painted telegraph poles, giant bird's nests, metal bulls and stone bells.

Problem is, I've found the nest and the bull but I can't for the life of me find the bell. "You can't miss it," says a local farmer, ensuring that I would.

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My wine and art journey began that morning on the Chittering Road near Bullsbrook, less than one hour's drive north-east of Perth. I barely noticed the first few painted telegraph poles but by the time I'd passed a Ned Kelly on horseback, an elf clutching a bunch of grapes and a screeching cockatoo, I was addicted.

I happily followed a trail of poles depicting saints carrying crosses, girls in pink polka-dot dresses and pop-art damsels in distress. I passed a chapel claiming to be the site where Mary (the virgin, not the princess) makes regular appearances, a bird's nest large enough to hatch a Hyundai and a life-size metal monk.

The art trail is a joint venture between the Chittering Valley Wine Trail and the Central TAFE Art School. Along with the poles, there are also five sculptures, each telling a story of the local area.

According to my map, there is also a stone bell but I can't find it. Not even with an "X" marking the spot. Clearly, it's time for a drink. My first stop is Western Range Wines. Renowned Australian wine critic James Halliday gave Western Range Winery a coveted five-star rating in his 2009 Australian Wine Companion. Their signature wine is the Julimar shiraz vognier, a consistent trophy winner, vintage after vintage.

From here, I drive next door to White Dog Farm, a boutique winery known throughout the district for its pale-pink bubbly made in the traditional champagne style. They also make a lovely light red, Z (named after Zorro the dog) and a cabernet merlot.

Before I leave, I ask owner Joanne Gunn if she can direct me to the bell. "It's on the old school site at the corner of Chittering Road and the Northern Highway," she says. "You can't miss it." But the bell can wait. It's time for a late lunch and the Stringybark Winery and Restaurant is calling my name. Stringybark vineyard is one of the oldest in the valley and produces a very limited quantity of hand-picked cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and verdelho grapes. With its delightful a-la-carte restaurant overlooking the vines and wine tasting under the shady terrace, all thoughts of finding the bell evaporate. This treasure hunter is hanging up her boots for the day.

Day 2

MUNDARING HILLS WINE TRAIL

After a comfortable night back in Perth, I set out early for the 45-minute drive along the Great Eastern Highway to Mundaring Hills. Fondly referred to as the "heart of the Perth Hills", Mundaring has been a wine-producing region since the 1880s.

The trailhead starts at Mundaring Weir, home to the No. 1 Pump Station and the beginning of the world's longest freshwater pipeline - the Golden Pipeline. Built in 1903, this engineering wonder was made to provide fresh water for the outback mining city of Kalgoorlie. If I had another three days, I would love to follow its 650-kilometre length.

After a stroll along the dam wall and a squiz at the pump station, I head to Darlington Estate. This pretty winery welcomes visitors to its cellar door and also has a delightful restaurant, gallery and gift shop.

From Darlington it is a 20-minute drive back along the Great Eastern Highway to Lion Mill Vineyards. The vineyards have mature vines of chardonnay, semillon, shiraz, cabernet, merlot and zinfandel.

The cellar door is relaxed and the staff easy to talk to. The beauty of these boutique wineries is the lack of pretension and the fact that the person pouring your wine is probably the winemaker. As a bonus, they don't need to read the label to answer your questions.

After just two wineries my stamina is flagging, so I retreat to the Mundaring Hotel for nourishment. My source informed me they make the best steak sandwiches in Western Australia - and yes, they have the trophy and certificate to prove it.

Day 3

CARMEL AND BICKLEY VALLEYS

WINE TRAIL

The next morning, I take the Great Eastern Highway out of Perth, turn right at the Kalamunda exit and follow the signs to Carmel. I cross a small creek and drive through a village dusted in fruit blossoms. Roadside stalls burst with fruit and flowers and asparagus is king of the mountain.

My first stop is Fairbrossen Estate, a small, family-operated vineyard with a cellar door and tea room overlooking the vines. They produce a gold-medal winning rose made from cabernet sauvignon grapes grown on-site, as well as a vintage cuvee and a cabernet sauvignon from Margaret River grapes.

The owner's family origins are from the Lake District in the north-west of England where healthy living and big appetites are common. A phrase often expressed at the completion of hearty meals was "I'm fair brossen!", meaning "I'm full to bursting". I'm pleased to report that with a menu featuring home-made pies, hearty soups and Devonshire teas, this philosophy is alive and well today.

A big sky opens up over rolling hills as I make my way to the next port of call - Hainault Winery. I spend a very happy hour sampling their award-winning wines; a fresh 2006 semillon, a semi-sweet 2009 gewurztraminer and a young, dry 2007 merlot.

From the shady terrace, I watch as the sun is swallowed by the hills. It is getting late, which is perfect for my next stop - the Perth Observatory, Australia's oldest continuously operating professional observatory. The observatory is open to the public for star-viewing nights and daytime guided tours and tonight there is a dark-sky viewing session on the program. Under a star-spangled sky, the gems are shining for all to see. Nothing is hidden in these hills.

The writer travelled with assistance from Tourism Western Australia and Qantas.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Qantas flies daily from Sydney to Perth, priced from $249 a person, one way. Phone 13 13 13, see qantas.com.au.

WHERE TO STAY

Crowne Plaza Perth is in a good location at 54 Terrace Road, East Perth, opposite Langley Park and close to retail districts. Prices start from $225. Phone (08) 9325 3811, see crowneplazaperth.com.au.

GETTING AROUND

A car is essential. Budget has mid-size cars available from $65 a day. For bookings phone (08) 9480 3130, see budgetwa.com.au.

FURTHER INFORMATION

The wine trails are all well signposted. Cellar door opening times vary, most are open Friday to Sunday but it pays to call ahead. For trail maps see perthhillswine.com or westernaustralia.com.

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