Celebrating the abundance of the Great Southern for the Taste Festival

Pam Lincoln with an Oranje Tractor vermouth
Pam Lincoln with an Oranje Tractor vermouth

A bunch of intrepid media types took off for the deep south of Western Australia at the end of February to discover some of the secrets of this less explored Great Southern region of the state.

Comparisons are often made between the Margaret River region and The Great Southern.

After all, they are both highly regarded wine growing regions and they both have a wonderful coastline, although further south everything is a little more rugged and spectacular while Margaret River is more like a well-tended garden.

The plan for our small group was to introduce us to some of the people and places of the region around Albany in a full-on three-day excursion and to provide a hint of what is to come in the region’s big food and wine festival Taste Great Southern to be held in May.

An hour’s easy flight with Rex Airlines from Perth to Albany, around 9am on a Friday morning, had us dropping our bags at Banksia Gardens Resort Motel and sampling the coffee at Bredco micro bakery at the top end of town by 10.30am.

Owners Rhiannon Moon and Sam Dawson gave us a run-through of the operation at the shop, showing off their Austrian-made flour stone mill at work grinding the locally sourced whole grains which go into their sourdough breads.

Baker Sam will be using the flour to create the pasta he’ll be using for Taste Great Southern event SpaGhetto, at Petterssons Arcade in Albany on May 14.

Slightly out of town at Elleker, across the railway line and up a red dirt road a faded sign marks the entry to the quirky Piacun Farm.

The family-run farm is an example of the many small farms in the region producing a wide range of superb produce. Young farmer Steven Piacun is taking on the role of spokesperson for the producers as part of Taste Great Southern.

Steven Piacun feeding a tame kangaroo at the farm
Steven Piacun feeding a tame kangaroo at the farm

The farm has recently opened up for direct sales to the public where they are likely to be greeted by a friendly goat, tame kangaroo, cat, dogs and a turkey or two, but the farm isn’t a petting zoo and Steve and his mum and dad focus on producing eggs, honey, olive oil and fresh vegetables which they sell through their stand at the Albany Farmers Markets on Saturdays, through local restaurants and from the farm gate.

The newly opened Hilton Garden Inn was an ideal Friday afternoon retreat for a happy hour sharing cocktails and sampling some of the region’s stunning wines.

Sales and marketing executive, Jen Chivers and operations manager, Steven Millhouse took us on a tour of Albany’s newest upscale accommodation with comfortable rooms overlooking the water and Albany’s surrounds before we settled into the bar for a quiet drink.

For those wanting a sneak peek at the new hotel a Great Southern Wine Journey at the Hilton Garden Inn on Monday, May 9, from 6pm to 8pm, provides the perfect opportunity with a masterclass celebrating the Riesling and Shiraz from the Great Southern’s five renowned wine subregions.

The hotel would make an ideal up-market base for those wanting to get out and about to the more than 30 culinary experiences over the two-week Taste Great Southern festival from May 5 to 15.

We finished our Friday with dinner at the delightful French bistro Majuba at the bottom end of town. I can thoroughly recommend the bouillabaisse.

Saturday started with a stroll around the Albany Farmers Markets. It’s always fascinating to see what’s fresh and in season, and that produce will certainly give classically trained chef Evan Hayter, from Arimia Estate in Margaret River some interesting options as he roams the market on Saturday, May 14 and then prepares something spontaneous and tasty for visitors on the day.

A 45-minute drive up the road to Mount Barker took us to Plantagenet Meats where owner Josh Liebeck chatted to us about the joys and trials of offering a quality butcher service in a regional town and then we headed off to the Porongurup range and the delights of award-winning winery Castle Rock.

Founder Angelo Diletti took us through a range of tastings from the winery now run by his son Rob. I bought a couple of bottles of their Sauvignon Blanc for our cellar.

Back down the hill at the Mount Barker Visitor Centre we were made welcome by the Shire of Plantagenet who treated us to a barbecue on the old train station platform outside the visitor centre using the superb wagyu beef patties from Plantagenet Meats and then headed back to Albany.

I’ve been to Oranje Tractor Wines a couple of times previously and love what they are doing to maintain a sustainable, organic winery, creating terroir-specific wine, but there is something new afoot at Oranje Tractor.

They have turned their hand to making vermouth and will be showcasing their range at a Taste Great Southern event, La Hora Del Vermut (the Vermouth Hour) on Sunday, May 8, with three sessions, from 11am to 1pm, 2.30pm to 4.30pm and 6pm to 8pm.

Chef Sophie Zalokar, who trained with Australian food icon Maggie Beer, will be creating tapas to match the fortified, aromatised wine being created by Oranje Tractor. Oranje Tractor vermouth is about a million miles away from the sweet vermouth and lemonade I remember from my younger days.

Dinner at Liberté is always a pleasure with the London Hotel dining room’s slightly bohemian furniture and furnishings and Amy Hamilton’s fusion style of French and Vietnamese cooking promoting their Waste Great Southern event on Friday, May 13 where three of WA’s most celebrated chefs, Melissa Palinkas, Guy Jeffreys and Amy Hamilton, will create a feast using the best food waste the Great Southern has to offer.

On Saturday morning we headed out to Denmark where the day started with the eminently knowledgeable Graham Upson from Touchwood Mushrooms showing off the remarkable factory where he grows medicinal mushrooms that can help with a wide range of conditions.

From there it was off to Singlefile Wines for our first tasting of the day where the extremely knowledgeable Tracey Whooley gave us a preview of the Sense of Place Tasting Experience the winery will be offering from May 5 to May 15, from 11am to 1pm and 2pm to 4pm.

Tracey Whooley at Singlefile
Tracey Whooley at Singlefile Wines

The tour through the beautiful vineyard takes in everything about growing grapes and producing wine you could wish to know with tastings in the private tasting room. The tours are exceptional value for money at $59 a head.

The Dam at Denmark is a spectacular new attraction operated by the Birkbeck family which combines a restaurant, distillery, and perfumery on their Raintree Farm property where they also grow cattle and marron, industrial cannabis and truffles.

It’s a delightful spot to spend an hour or two sampling prawns and marron and the seltzers and spirits distilled from industrial cannabis.

All too soon it was time for a quick beer at Wilsons Brewery back in Albany on our way back to the airport and home.

To find out more about Taste Great Southern events go to www.wine andfood.com.au/taste-great-southern/.

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Journalist and public relations specialist Allen Newton has worked across major media organisations in Western Australia and PR locally and internationally. He and wife Helen Ganska operate Newton Ganska Communications. Allen started his journalism career at the long defunct Sunday Independent and went on to become the founding editor for news website PerthNow, Managing Editor of The Sunday Times and PerthNow and then Editor-In-Chief of news website WAtoday. As well as news, he has been an editor of food and wine, real estate, TV and travel sections. He’s done everything from co-hosting a local ABC television pop show, to editing a pop music section called Breakout with Big Al, and publishing his own media and marketing magazine.