A weekend in WA's Swan Valley

The Swan Valley is a wine and food region about 30 minutes from the Perth CBD. It’s the second oldest wine region in Australia and sits on the Gnangara mound, which means that pretty much anything will grow there. It’s curiously named, given it isn’t a valley at all. But what it lacks in ‘valley’, it makes up for in great produce, good wines and friendly, passionate locals.

Here are some ideas on how to spend a weekend in the Swan Valley.

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Tastebud speed grazing tour

The concept of speed grazing is brilliant: you get driven around the Swan Valley at a pretty cracking pace, eating and drinking as much as you can in a fairly short time, while learning about the produce you’re sampling and watching demonstrations. It’s the brainchild of Loris Harding, who’s been a tourism operator for more than 17 years and seems to know pretty much everything about everything that happens in the Valley. Here’s a rundown of her tour:

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We got picked up from the Swan Valley Visitor Centre in Guilford, but there’s also a pick up point in the Perth CBD. Loris drove us into the Valley, pointing out landmarks and talking about the history of the region all the way. The first stop was Yahava KoffeeWorks (which was just as well since it was 8:45am on a Saturday morning). The philosophy of the place is “life’s too short to drink bad coffee” and I couldn’t agree more.

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First up, we did a coffee tasting, which included three different coffees from different regions around the world. All through the tasting the tour guide gave us really interesting information about coffee, as well as demonstrating several different contraptions for brewing it. We also got a quick explanation and demonstration of roasting coffee and got to throw some chocolate coated coffee beans in our mouths before we headed out the door.

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Next up was the Windarra honey shop, where the owners had a chat with us about the importance of bees to the world’s ecology, as well as an explanation of how they harvest honey. We also got to taste several different types of honey, which all had very unique flavours. The showroom also contained a hive with glass on both sides so you could watch the bees at work.

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Next we moved on to Maalinup Aboriginal Art gallery, which is one of WA’s only Aboriginal owned and run art galleries. As well as a large showroom of beautiful and colourful art, we also got to taste a range of ‘bush tucker’, including sandalwood nuts and bush tomatoes, which, in my opinion, were not delicious!

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Next was Oggie’s ice cream, where Loris rushed out from behind the steering wheel of the bus to head behind the counter to scoop us out tastings of all the different flavours of ice cream, including mascarpone and wild fig, snickernut and whiskey cream. Note: the serving sizes here are huge!

Loris then drove us up to have a quick look at the All Saints church. Built in 1837, it's the oldest church building in WA, and was built near the site where Captain Stirling first camped on the banks of the river.

From there, we arrived at Edgecombe Brothers, the home of one of the original families in the Swan Valley. Here, we got to try fresh asparagus that had just been picked that morning, which enticed us to promptly buy a tray to take home.

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Next we finally got to try some wines, at the picturesque Windy Creek Estate, which Loris informed us has the largest selection of wines in the Swan Valley. The wines we tasted were all really good, and came with delicious cheeses and chutneys to compliment them.

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Next it was on to Mondo nougat, where we saw the nougat makers at work in the factory before getting to taste some of the fruits of their labour. Then it was straight next door to Morish Nuts where we sampled several varieties of nuts, with the highlight definitely the wasabi macadamias.

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To cap off the tour, we went to Whistlers chocolates, who are third generation chocolatiers. They had a little sample pack waiting for us and the favourite for me was the chocolate-coated raspberry licorice.

Four hours after we’d been picked up, we were back at our car, stuffed full and with a new appreciation for all the amazing producers in the Swan Valley.

Winemaker for a day, Sandalford winery

The next day, we were off to Sandalford winery, one of the oldest wineries in the Swan Valley, established in 1840. After changing hands a few times, it’s now privately owned by the Prendiville family. The property is beautiful, and features a huge outdoor concert venue, a restaurant, cellar door, movie theatre and several function rooms.

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The winemaker for a day package takes about 3 ½ hours, during which you do a tour of the winery, learn heaps about wines, have a go at blending them yourself, taste lots of wines and finish it off with a five-star meal.

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The tour started in the movie theatre, where we watched a short video on the history of Sandalford winery. According to the movie, 95% of the grapes for Sandalford wines come from their property in Margaret River and are trucked up to the Swan Valley, where the wine is fermented and barrelled and then trucked out again to be bottled.

The next part of the experience was a tour through the winery, where we got to see the sorting equipment, fermentation vats and oak barrels and learned all about the wine making process.

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The next part of the tour was sitting down with Jakob, the cellar door assistant manager, to learn all about blending wines. I didn’t know that the blending was done right before bottling, so I had heaps of questions for the poor guy. It was actually really helpful to be able to sit down with someone and ask all the dumb questions that I don’t normally ask during posh wine tastings where I might reveal my ignorance!

After a thorough explanation of blending, next we got to actually blend our own wine in a test tube before doing a taste test, and finally, Jakob judged which blend was best. I don’t want to brag or anything, but let’s just say, it was mine.

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After winning the greatest blend of all time (I’m pretty sure Jakob said something to that effect), we headed off for the serious business of tasting wines. Sandalford has a huge range to choose from, so we selected a few rather than trying a whole lot, because to be quite honest, after I’ve tried more than 54 or so wines, they all start to taste the same.

After wine tasting came the final part of the tour, a three course lunch. In my opinion, the restaurant at Sandalford is the most beautiful in the spring, as you can sit outside under the green leafy vines. The food was fantastic, and there was much more of it than we could have ever managed, although we gave it a pretty good go!

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Staying – the Novotel Vines Resort

We chose to stay at the Vines, an icon of the Swan Valley featuring 103 rooms and suites and built on a golf course. Despite the fact it’s only about 35 minutes from Perth, you feel like you’re miles away from it all, and we slipped into holiday mode as soon as we got there. It was lovely to sit out on the balcony, order a cheese platter and bottle of wine from room service and just chill out while watching kangaroos bound around the grounds (and snack on the rose bushes).

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The Vines has everything you’d expect from a resort – an outdoor swimming pool and heated spa, tennis courts, indoor squash courts, gym (none of which I tried since I chose to sit on the balcony and drink wine instead, but it was reassuring to know they were there). It also has two 18 hole championship golf courses (which I also didn’t try as I suck immensely at golf). There’s also a bar, restaurant and café on site (these I did try!!)

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The rooms at the Vines were refurbished in April 2015, and they’ve done a really nice job. The bathroom was big, well lit and clean with a rain shower, while the bedroom was nicely decorated in greens and neutral tones and ours featured a big, comfy king sized bed. The room also had a coffee pod machine, which always scores points with me!

Notes: The Swan Valley is about a 30 minute drive from Perth, Western Australia.

See: www.swanvalley.com.au