In the southwestern tip of the vast state of Western Australia is a temperate, fertile land of vineyards, surfers – and The West Winds Gin.
Here we take a look at the home of our January Gin of the Month while feeling a bit jealous of their warmer climes...oh well. They might have their beaches, but at least we've got their gin!
Occupying the whole of the western third of the country, the state of Western Australia covers around 2.5 million square kilometres – roughly the same size as the whole of Western Europe and almost 10 and a half times the size of the UK.
Despite its size, it is very sparsely populated – only 11% of the county’s population (around 2.6 million people) live there. What’s more, 92% of those who do live there live in the south-west corner of the state, in and around the state capital Perth – one of the most isolated major cities in the world.
It is in this corner, a little over three hours’ drive from the state capital, that you’ll find Margaret River, home of The West Winds Gin distillery.
Named after the river of the same name (from which The West Winds sources its water) Margaret River is a small, seaside town, a popular tourist destination and a surfing hotspot. The region around the town is also known as Margaret River, and as if The West Winds Gin wasn't reason enough to want to visit this part of the world, here are a few more marvels it's got up its sleeve.
With over 135 km of coastline and 75 surfing breaks, the Margaret River region is a haven for surfers. Its soft sandy beaches and gin-clear waters have been attracting surfers from as early as the 1920s, but it was in the 1970s that surfers really began to colonize the area.
They were looked upon with suspicion to begin with by the resident farming community “We were considered the rebels, we used to wear different clothes that didn’t fit in” one early Margaret River incomer remembers. But the surfers soon became a part of the fabric of the area, setting up homes, working in the local vineyards – and also helping to raise awareness of what the area had to offer for tourists.
Nowadays, the surf breaks in the region are world-renowned, none more so than Margaret River Mainbreak, also called Surfers Point. Recognised as one of the most consistent big wave locations in Australia, it’s not the biggest wave in the area, but has earned a name as the best of southwest WA’s premium surf spots for those in the know.
Occupying a fertile 100km strip of land between Cape Leeuwin in the south and Cape Naturailste in the north, bordered by the Indian Ocean, Margaret River is the major geographical indication wine region in southwestern Australia. Since the first significant planting of commercial vines in 1967, winemaking in the region has grown rapidly, with approximately 215 grape growers and wine producers active there.
Despite only growing about 3% of Australia’s total grape harvest, the region claims more than 20% of Australia’s premium wine market and is represented on a quarter of all wine lists in the country’s restaurants.
Margaret River is perhaps best known for producing Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay wines, as well as Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. The region’s humid, Mediterranean-style climate escapes very extreme summer and winter temperatures and has been described as similar to that of Bordeaux in a dry vintage – in other words, some top quality wine-growing conditions.
It’s not just Margaret River’s wine that attracts gourmet travellers – the region also recently won the title of Australia’s ‘Must-Visit Food Region’, as voted for by readers of Australian Traveller Magazine. With its combination of high quality fresh produce, top restaurants, food producers and farmer’s markets, it beat some well-known foodie competitors, such as the Barossa and Yarra Valleys.
Every year in November, the Margaret River Gourmet Escape celebrates the food and drink of the region with a wide range of special events, from markets, feasts and tours to a line-up of worldwide culinary stars.
The Indigenous Australian people from the Margaret River region are known as the Wardandi Noongar, one of 14 different Noongar groups who have inhabited the southwestern corner of Western Australia for over 50,000 years. It’s estimated that prior to the arrival of Europeans in the late 18th century, there were tens of thousands of Noongar living across this area.
Colonisation of the region, as in the rest of the country, took a heavy toll on the population, both through violence and the introduction of new diseases. Today, however, there are over 28,000 Noongar people in this region.
The Noongar were traditionally people of the forest and saltwater, living according to a six seasonal rotation system and moving within their traditional boundary lines every two months. Nowadays, while many Noongar are city-dwellers, many of those living more rurally still hunt kangaroo and gather bush tucker. There are a range of opportunities for visitors to the Margaret River area can learn about this ancient people, tasting native foods and hearing stories of the animals, plants and Dreaming spirits at the heart of their culture.
Southwest Australia is one of the top 10 designated bio-diversity hotspots in the world – and the only such hotspot in Australia. It’s a woody landscape, with beautiful forests featuring some rare and spectacular trees.
In the north of the Margaret River region, is the only pure tuart forest in the world. Tuart is a species of the eucalyptus family, Eucalyptus gomphocephala. The tree’s durable hardwood has been sought after for many uses – from construction and furniture to boat-building, and over-logging in previous years has led to its current protected status.
In the south of the region, in the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park third tallest tree species in the world, the karri (another kind of eucalyptus), can be found growing. These trees grow to over 80 metres and are a spectacular sight, beginning with a whitish bark that gradually turns brown and is shed, leaving more whitish trunk below. Its cream coloured flowers attract pollen-gathering insects and karri honey is widely sought after for its light colour and delicate flavour.
Hiding underneath the ground of the Margaret River region are hundreds of spectacular limestone caves. Formed around 1 million years ago, six of the caves, Mammoth Cave, Jewel Cave, Lake Cave, Ngilgi Cave, Calgardup Cave and Giant’s Cave are open to public. Visitors can walk through their labyrinthine interiors, which are intricately decorated with limestone crystal formations.
Ngilgi Cave stakes a claim as Western Australia’s first tourist attractions, with visitors travelling to see its spectacular helictitie, stalagmites and stalactites since 1899. It also has a deep significance in Aboriginal culture – the cave’s name comes from a Dreamtime story about a good spirit called Ngilgi.
Mammoth Cave, first discovered by European settlers in 1850 and lying 21km south of the town of Margaret River, contains fossils dating back more than 35,000 years.