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A Sommelier’s Gourmet Escape in Virgin Australia

Among the world’s top-rated international wine and spirits festivals, the Gourmet Escape treats attendees to three-days of first class vinos, superb food and breathtaking vistas in wild western Australia. An indulgence to the senses, it is a dream getaway for anyone with a penchant for both natural and gastronomic splendor

Let me start by saying Margaret River in Western Australia is simply beautiful. I’m actually trying hard to critic the region but just can’t come up with anything. It’s yet to be discovered by the throngs of people who come from all over the world to Australia and as I write, part of me doesn't want to reveal all its hidden secrets. Imagine that if you were to head south from Margaret River you would reach Antarctica, if west you would hit South Africa. Nothing would come in between you and those destinations. A five-hour flight eastwards would get you to Melbourne. This is how secluded the region is.

Opening night at Castle Bay Beach Gourmet Escape Australia

My journey started with a flight to Singapore and then a five-hour flight from there to Perth. I wolfed down copious amount of Penfolds Bin 28 and delicious pork in the business class of Qantas and headed off into slightly vinoed luxurious slumber. Perth is a deceptively large city with the Swan River cutting through it. I wasn't there for too long but I would definitely recommend spending a couple of days there. The Central Business District and the neighborhood of Northbridge offer a lot of dining and drinking options in a pretty relaxed environment and the city almost always has some festival or event happening around. 

The relatively new Como The Treasury Hotel is certainly the place to stay at, not just because of the luxury of the rooms but also because of its myriad beverage and food selections. I had lunch at The Wildflower where Chef Jed Gerrard has created magic using the indigenous six seasons as his muse. The menu is limited in options but offers incredible flavors no matter what you eat. Their Sommelier poured me a glass of Grenache that I immediately fell in love with. Just outside of Perth is Freemantle (Freeo to the Aussies). I liked the super relaxed vibe here a lot and if you get the chance you should visit the insanely busy Little Creatures Brewery for a couple of glasses of delicious craft beer, octopus and clams.

From Perth, a three-hour largely straight road takes you down to Margaret River. I've been to Margaret River before and this time I was here to experience Gourmet Escape held mid-November, a massive food and drink festival that not only takes place in one location – the Gourmet Village at the iconic Leeuwin Estate, but also has numerous events at wineries, breweries, gardens and beaches for a period of three days. These smaller happenings, termed satellite and fringe events, are all ticketed.

Gourmet Village Australia

The events are collaborations between local wineries and breweries, bringing together the region’s best wines and produce, and homegrown and international culinary talent in the likes of celebrity Chef Nigella Lawson and Ashley Palmer Watts of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. There are just too many to attend them all, but if you book early enough, you can get what you want. Rates per event differ depending on what Chef, which winery, etc. They can range from AUD 180 (USD 135) to AUD 300 (USD 225) and more per person, per lunch or dinner. The full Gourmet Escape experience itself is going to cost you over AUD 1500 – 2000 (USD 1,125 – 1,500) per person. Gourmet Escape doesn't come cheap by any standards but is well worth it. It is big. Voted-one-of-the-top-international-wine-and-spirits-festivals-in-the-world kind of big.

We started off with the launch party at Castle Bay Beach where star chefs from Australia, winery owners and wine and food media descended for an evening of revelry. It’s real easy to have a good time. You've got crystal clear water, huge teepee tents on the beach, the temperature in November is cool and becomes colder as we get into the night and the beach itself could be from one of Tourism Australia's TV commercials. A free flow of a range of wines from the region and iconic Chefs putting on a barbecue in epic style using top local produce; you just couldn't go wrong. 

Opening night at Castle bay beach australia gourmet escape

I stayed at the luxurious Bunker Bay Resorts, which is right on Bunker Bay beach. I didn't see any, but I was told that at select times of the year you can spot whales going past the resort at regular intervals as they come up for air from the sea. I loved the spacious accommodation and would recommend it highly to anyone who wants a peaceful and luxurious stay. At night I'd come back from the festivities and enjoy a glass of wine or three at the bar terrace watching a million stars in the night sky, twinkling in the sea below. I saw the largest moon in 70 years rising from the sea – what a spectacle! I'd take a flight all the way to Margaret River just to see that again.

My schedule after the launch party on the beach was simple. Get up, get ready, get breakfast and head to a tasting or a Gourmet Escape event. 

You would need to rent a car and assign a designated driver since distances between venues can be large and a taxi ride will be eye-wateringly expensive. Not that there would be too many taxi’s going around either. This is not a hail-a-taxi sort of place.

Gourmet escape margaret river australiaMy highlight of the trip in terms of pure wine pleasure would have to be at the tasting I attended at the historical Vase Felix. I sampled their full range with their head Sommelier. I’ve got to admit I was blown away, especially with their sparkling, the Cabernet Sauvignon from their premier range and the icon Heytesbury blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petite Verdot. These along with a host of other wineries, like Mosswood, Cullen, Howard Park, Woodlands and so many more, produce head-turning Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay and I would put them alongside the world’s very best any day.

The Long Lunch at Fraser Gallop Estate, priced at AUD 305 (USD 229), a satellite event was remarkable. It reminded me of a grand Bordeaux Chateau luncheon experience, Chateau and all. The estate produces excellent Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay from its vineyards in Wilyapabrup and the wines were paired with a four-course grand lunch. Chef Guillaume Brahimi of the eponymous Guillaume in Sydney and Bistro Guillaume in multiple cities in Australia created a brilliant menu for the afternoon. 

The menu included King fish and eel paired with Chardonnay, Wagyu beef paired with three vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon and dessert comprising of Raspberry, pistachio, white chocolate and blackcurrant paired with ice-pressed Chardonnay, all of which put me into a very gentle food-and-wine coma. The lunch even had wine personality Deborah Meirwang who led us through a creatively done wine tasting, which had the audience in splits.

The Gourmet Village in Leeuwin Estate will baffle you with its sheer enormity. The space is filled with large tents that house multiple producers of food, wine, craft beer and cheese. The list of what you can potentially consume is endless. Once you’re in, you walk around and eat and drink your way throughout the day. There are live bands playing music in various nooks and corners. For a more peaceful time I would recommend setting up a picnic spot closer to the vineyards. You could buy a pass to the platinum lounge that offers you an exclusive place and your ticket gets you 2 glasses of wine and unlimited servings of excellent food prepared under the supervision of Chef Dany Angove. I washed down glass after glass of Leeuwin Estate Prelude Chardonnay with plate after plate of Oysters that were being shucked on the spot. I reached the sweet spot of pure bliss as the sun went down and the sky erupted with shades of red and the weather got a touch cooler. 

Yes, I had escaped and done so in the most indulgent of ways. I will definitely go back to Gourmet Escape again.

Nikhil Agarwal Sommelier and CEO All Things NiceNikhil Agarwal is a trained Sommelier who received his degree in London and heads All Things Nice, a leading wine and spirits consultancy that offers specialized services for the wine and spirits industry as well as creates a platform to introduce and educate Indian consumers on wine, spirits and gourmet food. Mr Agarwal won the Wine Australia scholarship in 2012 and became the organization’s A+ Wine Educator in India the following year. In 2015, after a selection of entrants from 90 countries, he was one amongst five contenders short-listed by the International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC) for The Julian Brind Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Wine and Spirits Industry. Mr Agarwal has written for and has appeared on NDTV Profit, Times Now, Bloomberg TV and ET Now. CNBC did a feature on him as part of the show ‘Young Turks’ in 2013. Currently, Discovery Channel features Mr Agarwal in the show The Flying Wine Maker. Mr Agarwal has been invited by trade organizations from around the world to speak about the Indian wine and spirits industry and is considered a thought leader and major influencer in India’s wine and spirits story.