With over 150 wineries, breweries, chocolate factories and honey houses, exploring the Valley of Taste is probably one of the most indulgent things to do in Perth. Following a scenic 32km cycling trail, Rough Guides writer Greg Dickinson took on the summer heat to discover Western Australia’s oldest wine-growing region on two wheels.
Perth has its fair share of reputations. Sydneysiders and Melbournians talk about it like the awkward cousin they’ve never met, and guidebooks introduce it as “the world’s most isolated city”. The most popular thing to have emerged from Perth in recent years is the psychedelic-rock band Tame Impala, and even their latest album is called Lonerism. Among Western Australians, however, Perth is becoming known for its burgeoning culinary scene, with a growing network of vineyards, breweries and gourmet food outlets quietly cropping up in and around the city.
The region’s wine-growing heritage dates back to the early 19th century, when botanist Thomas Waters noted that the climate would be perfect for planting vineyards. Some 180 years later, the Swan Valley, or Valley of Taste as it’s known locally, has developed into something of a gastronomical theme park. Ten miles east of the city’s centre, it’s the focal point of Perth’s foodie revolution.
My body clock still in disarray after the 24-hour flight, I had barely touched the ground before I caked myself in sun cream, picked up a map and borrowed an oversized mountain bike to explore the region.
The first stop on my self-guided tour was Sandalford, a behemoth of a winery whose 500 metre long driveway almost demands that cyclists practise their ‘no-hands’ technique. Despite being the most exclusive vineyard in the Swan Valley – alongside Houghton – the tasting menu here is pleasingly affordable, starting at AU$2.50 for eight samples (a spittoon is available for responsible cyclists). As well as selling internationally popular wines, Sandalford has styled itself as a mecca for New Romantic revivalists, with Duran Duran, Tears for Fears and Spandau Ballet all crooning at the estate in recent years.
Ready for something a bit lower key I pedalled to Ambrook, a family-run winery just a few hundred metres down the West Swan Road. Rather than a squeaky-clean waiter I was greeted by Bella, a black Labrador whose coat has taken on a rusty hue from the ubiquitous red earth. Italian owner Mickele Amonini followed shortly after and proceeded to ply me with wine samples, each accompanied by a generous wedge of fine cheese. What Ambrook lacks in finesse it makes up for in charm by the barrel.
Next on my whistle-stop winery tour was Lancaster Wines, whose alfresco bar is tended by a knowledgeable young staff. It’s worth visiting here to see the menu alone, which helpfully describes each variety in layman terms. Some standout examples being: “Sitting next to the pool with this one is a sure cure of any global financial crisis” and “Palate is simply huge, big fruit, big tannins and big alcohol”.
Ready for a break from wine I made my way north to Mash brewery. Here a series of mammoth 1,200-litre beer containers loom behind the bar while the hipster bar staff dish out pints of home-brewed IPAs, ciders and lagers. By this point I was starting to pick up on the camaraderie that exists between businesses in the Valley of Taste, best exemplified when – rather than offering me another drink – the barman at Mash urged me to cycle to the Feral Brewing Company to try their award-winning Hop Hog pale ale. It seemed rude not to oblige.
Once you get used to the heat (and the face full of flies), cycling around the Valley of Taste makes for a delightful escape from the city, and it offers a degree of independence not possible when taking part in a guided tour of the valley. The bike path is well paved and separate from the fast-flowing main roads, with plenty of wiggling detours available to keep visitors entertained in between the gluttony. And what gluttony. Where else in the world would you be inclined to cut short your time in a chocolate factory in order to check out the nearby nougat factory, ice creamery or honey house?
This isolated part of the world may be the butt of the jokes among Eastern Australians, but with gems like the Valley of Taste on its doorstep it’s clear that Perth is having the last laugh, over a large glass of vintage wine.