The Margaret River wine region has become the finest culinary wine region in Australia. So just how did Margaret River – a former dairy cattle community three hours south of Perth – evolve to earn its extraordinary reputation. WA Good Food Guide editor Rob Broadfield took a trip to the famous wine region to find out why it is punching so far above its culinary weight.
In any other comparable rural community in Australia, you’d be hard pressed to find a half decent café of bakery. Even other celebrated Australian wine regions like Coonawarra, Clare Valley or the Adelaide Hills, have barely evolved beyond quaint café cream teas and roadhouse meal deals.
The rise and rise of Margaret River as a dining destination was always on the cards but it is only in the past few years that its wineries have spawned restaurants, menus and chefs among the best in Australia. The celebrated wine region, is, now, arguably, the nation’s foremost foodie wine region.
So, how did it happen? What has propelled Margaret River on to the national and international culinary scene? How did a sleepy rural community – which arrived late to the Australian wine production party (first vines plated just 50 years ago) – earn its dining chops?
Twenty years ago the culinary offerings in Australia’s premier wine region were ploughman’s platters and pub grub. When you consider that Margaret River is responsible for just two percent of the nation’s wine production, but 25 percent of its premium and ultra-premium wine sales, a platter of pickled onions and dodgy cheese was never going to make the grade, long term.
It became clear that premium brands like Leeuwin Estate, Cullen Wines, Voyager Estate and Vasse Felix would have to evolve their restaurant food offers to meet the brand attributes of their celebrated wines. Anything less could well damage the wine’s brands by what the marketing boffins call brand misalignment. In short, a fisherman’s basket and chips wasn’t going to cut it anymore. Premium begets premium and as the stature of Margaret River wines grew, so too did its menus. Fine dining, so called, arrived in the region but with a unique casual polish.
A key factor in the rise of the Margaret River culinary scene was its “revenue neutral” approach to winery-based restaurants. Although the region’s iconic restaurants are now expected to pull their weight in terms of earnings, it wasn’t always the case. The first restaurants – Vasse Felix, Leeuwin Estate, Voyager Estate and, latterly, Wills Domain and Knee Deep – were allowed, by their owners, to have a higher cost base. Back in the day, winery food was a means to an end, a way to bring visitors to wineries and promote cellar door sales. Food costs were allowed to be higher than industry standard and, of course, winery restaurants didn’t pay rent. This was catnip to chefs, who were able to buy produce and design menus with scant regard for costs. The die was cast. Margaret River restaurant wineries, unshackled from the cost concerns of their city counterparts, were producing food at an extraordinary level and at a reasonable price point. It was no surprise then that culinary creativity flourished in this hot house of low cost/no rent/great produce.
There is also little doubt that a catalyst for the recent rapid improvement in the “Margs” food scene was the annual Margaret River Gourmet Escape festival, now in its seventh year. A slew of the region’s top winery dining rooms – Leeuwin Estate, Vasse Felix, Knee Deep and Wills Domain to mention just four of the region’s star performers – exploited the national and international media attention generated by Gourmet Escape and invested significant sums to improve their venues and employ top-level chefs and floor crew. Their timing was impeccable. At about the same time savvy wine producers were upping the ante in their restaurants, top chefs from the eastern states were arriving to man the stoves, attracted by the increasing vibrancy of the food scene, opportunities for professional advancement not necessarily available to them in their home states and the region’s extraordinary produce. No disrespect to the home-grown stars. Chefs Tony Howell, Dany Angove and Aaron Carr are local lads who’s clever cooking was drawing crowds to the region long before Gourmet Escape was even a glint in the eye of event entrepreneurs IMG.
But it is only in the last decade that all these factors have come home to roost.
Vasse Felix CEO Paul Holmes a Court says the last ten years has been a perfect storm of events and timing.
“Margaret River dining was growing in stature and reputation in keeping with the it’s remarkable fortunes as a wine making region,” Mr Holmes a Court said. “Winery dining rooms were improving organically in terms of reputation, but Gourmet Escape was like a shot of adrenaline for the region’s restaurants. It accelerated everything.”
In 2017 Vasse Felix unveiled its seven-figure restaurant and cellar door makeover. The much-loved building kept its rustic bones (rough-hewn timber poles, local stone walls) but it had been modernised superbly. The kitchen too was significantly upgraded. In a nod to hip urban dining fashions, a long hi-top table was added to the mix for those who like to eat communally or for big groups. Vasse Felix is now a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll (as Donnie and Marie Osmond once crooned).
An even more ambitious bricks and mortar makeover at Leeuwin Estate was completed just weeks before the Gourmet Escape weekend in November. It drew a line across 30 years of higgledy-piggledy development at the iconic winery buildings with the project’s architects instructed to take a holistic approach to the entire winery complex: art gallery, dining room, veranda, undercover deck, tasting rooms, dining room and function spaces.
Leeuwin joint CEO Justin Horgan is rightly proud of the finished result.
“It was an opportunity for us to, primarily, make our famous veranda dining space, weather proof,” Mr Holmes a Court told the Good Food Guide. “Once we began looking at what was needed, it became obvious that to upgrade just one element of the building would be a short-term fix. We’d be back again in a couple of years to continues the work.”
The result is simply magnificent. The former barrel room has been transformed into an art gallery with proper lighting, moveable walls and a stylish ceiling treatment. It houses the original artworks for the company’s 30-plus years of its commissioned Art Series wine labels.
The private tasting room, on the same level, was always a dark corner of the enterprise. It too has been upgraded and now has seating and tables, in the under croft of the restaurant veranda, used for special wine functions and tastings.
“Critically, we’ve solved one of our biggest problems with the installation of a state of the art dumb waiter,” Mr Horgan said. “Large functions downstairs meant we had to bring in an entire mobile kitchen, when we had a perfectly good kitchen just ten feet above our heads. Now we can cater to large groups in the gallery and deliver food seamlessly from the main kitchen.”
But the star of the architectural show at Leeuwin is the veranda with its new glass roof. The deck looks over the lawns of the estate to a line of massive and soaring native trees – made famous in 1985 when the London Philharmonic Orchestra played the first ever Leeuwin Estate Concert to the accompaniment of carolling kookaburra’s high in the ancient trees. It charmed the audience and made news around the world.
All this excellence, realised ambition and renewal, at wineries across the region, has made the job of the West Australian Good Food Guide Award’s reviewers and judging panel members, exciting and difficult in equal measure in 2017. The 2017 awards, announced last November, saw a disproportionate number of Margaret River restaurants – all of them attached to wineries, as it turned out – make the coveted West Australian Good Food Guide Top 50 list. Three of those were in the Top 10. An extraordinary result.
And it seems the roster of dining choices will continue to grow through 2018 with a raft of just completed or on-the-drawing-board projects set to expand Margaret River’s celebrated dining scene. Fishbone Wines has opened on Harman’s Mill Road with a vaguely Japanese offering. Yarri, the long-awaited restaurant with former Vasse Felix head chef Aaron Carr on the pass, has just opened in Dunsborough and in the same, new building in Dunsborough Blue Manna – a casual, stylish seafood based restaurant with broadly Asian flavours – opened earlier in the summer to immediate success.
The WA Good Food Guide tells a compelling story of Margaret River’s importance on the West Australia food scene with eight listings in the coveted Top 50 list.