Where the forest meets the sea
Framed by the spectacular Stirling Ranges and cloaked by lush grapevines, the Great Southern is as much a feast for the senses as it is for the soul.
One of the country’s most remote wine regions, it offers towering forests, undulating hills and pristine coastline. Some of Australia’s finest Rieslings are produced here and it is teeming with cellar doors, breweries and restaurants. This wine and foodie destination is a one-hour flight from Perth or a 400-kilometre road trip. I decide to take a leisurely few days and explore the region by car.
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Entering the heart of Great Southern, I’m greeted by rolling pastures and vast, open skies. This is sheep and wheat farming territory at its best and Katanning is its homeland. It is here, in this charming country town, the Premier Mill Hotel resides.
It is late afternoon when I arrive at the once decrepit 128-year-old flour mill that’s undergone a remarkable transformation into a 22-room luxury hotel. Stay inside an old grain silo, a packing room, or sleep adjacent to an ancient steam boiler. Of course, there are Aesop bathroom products, luxurious linen on the king-size beds and a Bang & Olufsen sound system.
Downstairs is the Cordial Bar, a rustic space that was formerly the Piesse family winery, whose Shiraz won medals at the Paris Wine Show back in 1900. Today, it features a small cocktail and wine list to accompany a selection of mouth-watering share dishes, ranging from olives, nuts and charcuterie boards to arancini balls, salt and pepper squid, and crispy chicken wings.
From cool to coolest
Next morning, it’s a picturesque one-hour drive to the Frankland River wine region. The most northerly of Great Southern’s five sub-regions is home to exceptional cool climate Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet and Shiraz.
Frankland River’s Rieslings are renowned for their intense varietal flavours and crisp, fresh acidity. But this was not always the case. Back in the 1980s, when Australian Riesling was sweet and cheap (and often in a cask), Judi Cullam and Barrie Smith created Frankland Estate winery and planted Riesling with a view to changing consumer perceptions. This feat has certainly been achieved and many vintages later, Frankland Estate wines are recognised as some of Australia’s top Rieslings.
Another local highlight is the nearby Ferngrove winery, where you can savour premium wines and sweeping views of the Stirling Ranges from its lookout tower.
Heading south-east from Frankland River, I soon arrive in the coolest of the sub-regions, Mount Barker. Here, some of the region’s oldest vines are planted at West Cape Howe, which is renowned for its Semillon Sauvignon Blanc. I also try its newest release, the 2018 Porongurup Riesling – a super-fine wine with amazing complexity.
Further south is Rockcliffe Estate in the Denmark sub-region, where I’m welcomed by owner Steve Hall. He’s keen to show off his winery’s extensive range, which is, he explains, a pure expression of the terroir.
“Our wines reflect our love of the ocean. We are less than 15 kilometres from the Southern Ocean, which allows the sea breeze to cool the vineyard throughout summer, creating the perfect conditions for the slow ripening, cool climate styles that symbolise the Great Southern.”
Rockcliffe’s Single Site range is particularly impressive and I’m taken with the complexity of the Chardonnay.
But it’s the final tasting that really wins me over. “Can I tempt you with something sweet?” Steve asks. Never one to turn down dessert, I take up his offer of a cup of delicious strawberry gelato – it turns out, he studied the art of gelato-making in Italy.
A taste of history
The roads begin to wind and the trees become taller as I travel to Great Southern’s oldest winery, Forest Hill Estate. The first block, including Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon, was planted by the Department of Agriculture in 1965 as an experiment in diversification. Its first commercial vintage was produced in 1972 at Houghton by the pioneering Jack Mann. Not surprisingly, with winemaking pedigree such as this, the following year its Riesling was named WA’s best white wine. Today, the Block 1 Riesling is still produced from this original block and I take the chance to taste some of the exquisite older vintages.
“We are lucky to have plenty of texture and natural acidity in our wines. We work hard to get the vineyard right and hope the vintage plays along. Less is more, whether it’s oak or sulphur use, it should be respectful,” explains winemaker, Guy Lyons.
Upstairs at Pepper & Salt restaurant the seasonal menu features a range of exotic spices to accentuate the dishes. Soaking up sweeping views across the forest to the ocean, I devour seven-spice marron, fish belly palusami and Bengali tomato relish.
The last rays of sunlight glimmer on the distant ocean as I drive to Willoughby Park winery, on the outskirts of Albany. Also home to Boston Brewing, Willoughby Park showcases the Fowler family’s love of wine and beer in its expansive premises. Sit by the fire or bask in the sunny beer garden overlooking the vineyard. Local produce is the dish of the day with marron, woodfired pizzas, steaks and burgers. The IronRock Chardonnay is an impressive drop, as is the Rye Pale Ale. There are even some interesting barrel-aged brews to try.
There’s no shortage of epicurean delights in the Great Southern. Not only are its waters brimming with rock oysters, crayfish and snapper, but its talented food purveyors grow anything from asparagus, blueberries, samphire, strawberries and mushrooms to organic cheeses and meats, avocados and macadamias. You’ll even find its tranquil streams filled with freshwater marron.
Fill your picnic basket with freshly picked produce at the weekend markets. Or sate your appetite at gourmandaise bakery, Reeves on Campbell Road, Frederick’s café and Beck & Call coffee roasters. For an after-dinner drink, it’s a short drive to Rats Bar at Middleton Beach.
Overlooking King George Sound, Garrison’s Restaurant offers impressive views and superb food. Tempura battered okra with charred jalapeño ponzu; charred asparagus with hummus and rocket; and Albany rock oysters are just some of the highlights.
Liberté Restaurant is undoubtedly one of the region’s culinary drawcards, with its French-Vietnamese fusion fare and belle époque décor. Chef Amy Hamilton is a huge advocate of using what she terms the ‘shitfish’. She buys the fish most restaurants don’t deem suitable, creating a dish around whatever comes off the boats each day. The meals don’t just taste amazing, Amy also draws on her visual arts background to create cuisine that encompasses flavour and beauty. For instance, there is charcoal grilled whole sardines, or cured Western Australian salmon with candy striped beetroot and celeriac remoulade.
The restaurants of Great Southern proudly feature local drops on their regularly updated wine lists, often from producers without cellar doors. Some of my favourites were the Xabregas Sauvignon Blanc, Byron & Harold Shiraz, Castle Rock Riesling and Singlefile Chardonnay.
Having tasted some of Australia’s finest Rieslings, on my last night the air is cooler, so I choose a glass of Pinot Noir at Due South restaurant. As I sit enjoying the water lapping gently against the shores of Albany’s harbour, I’m struck by the charm of this remote region, with its abundance of exceptional produce and breathtaking vistas. So, pack your bags and embark on an unforgettable gastronomic journey in the deep south.