I'm ashamed of myself. I dart around Western Australia, ever keen to explore more of my backyard, but neglect to appreciate what's on my porch. Swan Valley is that place. Just 25 minutes from the Perth CBD, it is the state's oldest wine region and Australia's second oldest, with vines first planted in 1829.
Another title the region relishes is being the only wine region in the country within close proximity to a capital city. How's that for an upmarket bottle shop run? And yet, sometimes, it gets overlooked by the lure of the south, Margaret River and the Great Southern wine regions. But those same temptations — eatable indulgences, those full-bodied drops — can be had right here without the need to refuel. Now that's convenient.
Getting back to basics
We arrived at Discovery Parks Swan Valley late on a Friday autumn afternoon, and what a sight — and site. The park neighbours a vineyard, with sundown presenting it as a field of golden grapes. Some caravan sites sit opposite these straight lines, a thirsty reminder of what's in the region: wine — and plenty of it.
But before getting into the finest drops, I'll get into the history books. The Swan Valley intertwines life's pleasures with local heritage. Its hub, Guildford, dates to the establishment of the Swan River Colony in 1829, established as the rural centre and inland port. The town was founded alongside Perth, the administrative centre, and Fremantle as the port.
Our first port of call in the region was the Swan Valley Visitor Centre. The centre doubles as an immersive experience housed in a former 1866-built Courthouse. Besides providing plenty of inspiration, the centre features interpretive displays of the region's history. It is also the starting block to four heritage walking tours with 50 interpretive panels splashed across the region.
So too, is 19th-century colonial architecture. Guildford is one of six towns in Western Australia on the National Trust. The town has roughly 700 dwellings under local government authority, including the tiny weatherboard house, Taylor's Cottage, now a museum. Other major historical attractions in the charming precinct include Guildford Gaol and Padbury Store.
But Guildford's flashy builds would have their heyday. Despite steady development, Guildford's importance started to shift with the railway development in the area. Towards the end of the 19th century, its commercial hub status waned, with the town's focus turning elsewhere.
Before we shifted focus to its flourishing wine industry, we visited the state's oldest pour house. Built in 1841, the Rose & Crown Hotel is one of a few Georgian-era pubs in Australia — and includes an infamous tunnel. A few ambiences are offered — whether you sit inside for a more fine-dining affair or dig into pub grub outside. We sat by the firepit to catch free live music despite temperatures warranting a puffer jacket. The fire would do more than soothe the soul; the same goes for a glass of red — something the region hardly lacks.
Sweet sweet wine
It's important to consider who will be the designated driver journeying through the Swan Valley. The region is a patchwork of thirst traps; there are over 40 wineries alongside 10 breweries, five distilleries, three cideries and a lone meadery. Between the drops are producers, honey farms, markets, restaurants, antique shops and displays, art galleries, wildlife parks, golf courses; the list goes on.
Most vineyards are on West Swan Road and the Great Northern Highway, with roads parallel to each other. It's easy enough to go back and forth between the two. Lancaster Wines would be the first drop of the day. Beautiful autumn trees line the long white gravel road entrance; perhaps it's the most grandeur entrance to an exposed tin shed. But that humble shed is where all the magic happens. Known for its unpretentious approach to wines, the vineyard offers free and paid tastings for premium wines — refunded if a bottle is purchased.
It was just after midday, and already the outdoor tasting shed's long bar tabletop was heaving with people sipping wines. Making the wine tasting go down a treat is the vineyard's make-your-own grazing boards with a dedicated fridge filled with antipasti favourites.
Although the region is most renowned for its Chenin Blanc, I was hooked on Wissanger (a blend of Grenache, Shiraz and Mataro). Making the most of the alluring scenery, we perched around the old wine barrel tables opposite the vineyard, savouring sips, cheese and dips. On weekends, freshly shucked oysters are available ($30 for a dozen), making the unassuming shed an indulgent visit without the expensive price tag.
Brews and cider
Drinks continued to flow with a stop at Bailey Brewing Co. Established by a father and two sons — Steve, Dan and Geoff Bailey. The family-friendly brewery is a magnet for the young and old. Kids are amused with a large playground featuring timeworn vintage utes, while adults can take their pick; join the masses in the beer garden with a cinema screen to catch live sports or sit alfresco or in the restaurant. Everyone's entertained here.
The brewery pays homage to previous owners, the Geer family, with their leftover shed items now rusty relics displayed around it. Also hanging around the brewery are vines. Sitting alfresco suited our vibe to devour pub classics such as burgers, chilli prawns and 1kg chicken wings, enjoyed with a schooner of ginger beer.
To continue the break from grapes, we headed to funk 2.0. Things can get a bit confusing as there is also funk cider house — the brand's original cidery bringing crisp tones to the valley since 2016. The former is classed as a flashier venue serving bistro pub fare, while the latter is more low-key, with burgers and pizzas on the menu. Both venues were established by brothers Dustin and Martin Michael from Toodyay, with a country aesthetic felt in each.
With unusual cider concoctions a core part of funk 2.0's offering, I opted for a tasting paddle. The cidery offers exciting flavours such as rockmelon jalapeno, rose, and blood orange and grapefruit cider. Not a crispy drinker? The bizarre brews factor extends to its craft beer range with Earl Grey pale ale and chamomile saison eccentric flavours. To borrow a line from Kath & Kim: It's nice, it's different, it's unusual.
Let the fun times be-gin!
There are places in the Swan Valley that make you work for pleasure. And vice versa. Local distillers Limeburners and Giniversity in the Valley offer gin blending experiences. Guided by a distiller, the two-hour intimate class gets into the history of the about spirit once dubbed 'Mother's ruin'. The dire name relates to when gin consumption was so rife in 18th-century England that a Gin Act was decreed. Thankfully, things aren't so grim these days, but the class demonstrated that the present gin craze is hardly over.
After history teachings, it was time to add 'mixologist' to the CV. We ran through various botanicals, learning the essence of what makes good gin. The class included tastings of the popular gin brand's range before getting stuck into gin artistry. One by one; we were consuming gin neat, appreciating the warm and fuzzies that come with it before diluting it with tonic.
Then the fun begins. It was time to experiment with botanicals snaked across the table. I felt like a kid in a candy store with native ingredients such as Geraldton wax, lemon myrtle, quandong and Kakadu plum placed alongside chilli, aniseed, ginger, lemongrass, strawberry and other tempting tangs. After a few rounds of experimentation — hits and many misses — I left in happy spirits with my 500mL creation.
A valley of quirks
Not all things in the Valley involve alcohol. Swan Settlers Market celebrates its centenary this year. Open Friday, Saturday, Sunday and public holidays, the marketplace champions the best of the local community. Small food and drink vendors, arts and crafts, independent producers and growers, and food traders fill the massive shed.
The marketplace is also a time warp with Annie's Collective Wonderland. The supermarket-sized antique store is filled with items spanning the lifespan of the building itself. It offers a range of relics, retro, garage, industrial and collectable items. For a good chuckle, head to the magazine section to see past headlines on reads such as 'Women and Home'.
Okay — so maybe you can't escape the booze. Creators of the Perth pink gin, Sin Gin Distillery, also call the marketplace home. The local award-winning distillers offer tastings and tours, with tastings for $10.
If chasing something suited for afternoon tea, head to Swan Valley Station. The family-friendly venue features a café, nursery, gift shop, kid's playground, art trail and marron lake. Most recently, the station has added fishing to its offerings. For less than $20, cast a line into the marron lake to reel in farmed silver perch with fishing gear and bait included. Anglers can take up to three fish home. I wasn't so successful. Luckily, the Valley is hardly short on dinner options.
All seats taken
Pinelli Estate Winery Restaurant is a short 10-minute stroll from Discovery Parks Swan Valley. Surrounded by vineyards, the eatery teleported me to regional Tuscany with the restaurant's Tuscan tones and homely furnishings. The restaurant's tables were all filled, a testament to the delicious Italian-inspired fare on offer. It was a real treat to have a juicy oven-baked chicken breast with melted brie, served with pumpkin puree and seasonal greens for $36 — a price that almost rivals a pub feed these days. I paired it with the estate's full-bodied Novo Nero wine, reinforcing my need to visit the cellar door.
I left the Swan Valley deeply satisfied in more ways than one. Knowing these experiences are just 'down the road' — consider me the region's newest ambassador.
Discovery Parks Swan Valley
P: (08) 9279 6700
Bailey Brewing Co
P: (08) 6192 1830
P: (08) 9377 4884
P: (08) 9250 6461
Limeburners & Giniversity in the Valley
P: (08) 9296 6190
Pinelli Estate Winery Restaurant
P: (08) 9377 7733
Swan Settlers Market
P: 0456 821 133
Swan Valley Station
P: 0432 386 633
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