Margaret River Winter Warmers
Nowhere else does soulful red wine meet epic surf conditions, a truffle festival like no other and 10 hedonistic days celebrating all things foodie and fireside. Welcome to winter in Western Australia’s south-west region.
Picture your ideal winter’s day. No, not just cuddled up on the couch, swaddled in a tartan blanket with a glass of red wine reflecting the crackling fire. Think big!
For me, it’s about shavings of black truffles wilting over steaming risotto, roasted chestnuts still hot from the grill, swirls of icy fog and gently sunlit hills radiating an invigorated green. It’s the smell of spritzed earth, the warmth of cosy cellar doors and convivial winery restaurants ringing with laughter. And it’s brisk farm walks and slow ocean strolls in air so fresh my cheeks flush rosy hues.
Winter in Western Australia’s southern zone – particularly the forested farming regions of Margaret River and Manjimup – brings deeper, darker flavours to the table and the glass. It’s a time when I get just as much dirt on my soles as sand between my toes. I can’t help myself when the farmers markets fill with vibrant produce fuelled by the rains, roadside stalls are stocked with freshly picked fruit and farmers open their gates.
With the car overflowing with apples, potatoes, cheeses, wine bottles and maybe even a truffle, I make my way to the coast. Gabbing a jacket, I perch on the car bonnet to gaze at the year’s biggest surf conditions. If I’m lucky, I might spot more than just surfers bobbing in the ocean – the annual whale migration is on, and the humpbacks love to dance on the horizon. I share these periphery-pushing views with only a handful of people, all of us happy to huddle in a scarf in exchange for such a sight.
As the mercury falls, a duo of winter festivals provide the excuse devotees like me are looking for to fuel the drive south. Each June, Manjimup’s Truffle Kerfuffle heralds the black nugget harvest by holding pulse-quickening truffle hunts and dining experiences starring the locally grown goodies. Meanwhile, in July Margaret River’s new Cabin Fever festival is all about letting the good times roll inside the region’s lauded wineries, microbreweries, cheese mongers, organic farms and art galleries.
The sheer volume of truffles that are grown in Western Australia is astounding – it’s the biggest producer in the Southern Hemisphere. But you only need to breathe in one of the pungent, earthy and highly valuable delicacies to fall head over heels.
Truffle Kerfuffle shines a spotlight on truffles while making them easily accessible, and I think that’s the secret to this home grown festival’s popularity. There’s none of the pretention you might expect. Rather, people rug up in jumpers and gumboots and follow truffle dogs through the trees as they sniff out the rare fungi, or sample grated truffle on something as simple and affordable as a cheese toastie (trust me, they’re good).
The festival hub is at Fonty’s Pool, a lush campground and park with a huge manmade lake created by an Italian fruit grower more than a century ago. There, I roamed past a grid of picnic rugs set out for family gatherings and into a huge white marque of stalls where I snapped up brown paper bags of kipflers, dried local apple chips and heirloom pumpkins, all while chatting to growers. Next door, I sat in on long table lunches and dinners of poached marron (freshwater crayfish) sprinkled with truffle, fermented pork sausage with lemon sorrel (and more truffle) and rare-cooked local beef with béarnaise and baby kale (fear not, there was truffle there too).
Meanwhile, Manjimup becomes truffle town, its cafes and restaurants all putting on truffle-inspired menu items. My tips are for Tall Timbers (a bistro-meets-regional wine hub), Two Little Black Birds (city-standard lunches) and The Kingsley (an excellent hotel-restaurant with warm, polished service).
On properties surrounding the town, packing sheds and roadside stalls sell produce for loose change. Fontanini Fruit and Nut Farm is a good one for chestnuts, hazelnuts, walnuts and feijoas, or try Lyster Orchards for just-picked apples. I love talking to the farmers about what’s in season and what’s tasting good – no one knows better than them.
Proffer the words, “cheesy fondue by the fire,” and I’m looking for the door. Follow them up with whispers of secret speakeasies, a five-course wine matched degustation, and Guy Grossi working his Italian magic in the Voyager Estate kitchen and I’ll have keys turning in the ignition.
Over 10 days in winter, bonfires are lit, wine poured and long tables set. Blues bands filter live music through microbreweries, organic farms welcome curious visitors in to roam the properties and wineries invite budding vignerons behind the cellar door to learn how to make the region’s favourite tipple. Oh, and there’s nightly ping-pong.
In Margs, food and wine are easy bedfellows. Courses are matched to five-year vertical tastings of museum cabernet; wine is suctioned direct from the barrel and locally grown organic produce is licked by flames and served to share.
Having recently spent an entire winter in Margaret River, I feel a sense of camaraderie among those relishing its cooler charms. Whether watching the raging ocean from the comfort of the White Elephant café in Gnarabup, warming my toes by Vasse Felix’s lounge fire with a glass of cabernet and tall tree glimpses, or darting madly between farmers market stalls in the rain, I’m simply glad to be there. Cabin Fever just adds to the allure, acting as a helpful reminder that Margaret River isn’t just a fine weather friend.
In 2018, Cabin Fever runs 13 to 22 July