The Swan River is everywhere you look in Perth, Australia, so at some stage you need to get out on the water. If you’re a wine lover you’ll want a taste of the Swan Valley and a Swan River wine cruise is one way of sampling Western Australia’s oldest wine region.
When most people think of Western Australian wine, the Margaret River wine region is the first that comes to mind. Yet right on Perth’s doorstep, just a 25-minute drive from the city centre, the picturesque Swan Valley is the oldest wine region in Western Australia, having celebrated 180 years of wine making in 2014.
It’s strange how we often ignore the things in our backyard. We’ve rented apartments in Fremantle a few times over the years while writing up Perth and Western Australia guidebooks yet we whizzed through the Swan Valley ticking stuff off. My mother also lived in nearby Midland, home to a fantastic weekly farmer’s market where Swan Valley producers sold their beautiful fruit and veg.
While a Fremantle cruise is a must-do, on our recent Western Australia trip we were determined to get a taste of the Swan Valley wine region and as we were staying at Adina apartments, just a block from Barrack Street Jetty, we decided to take the slow route and try the Swan River wine cruise.
Our Slow Swan River Cruise to the Swan Valley Wine Region
The Swan River wine cruise isn’t the only way to reach the Swan Valley. You can also do wine tours by bus or you can self-drive. If you’re going by road then you need to get to Guildford, the departure point for exploring this delicious food and wine region.
Just down the road from Midland, where my Mum lived, is historic Guildford, where the wide streets are lined with gracious colonial buildings and grand old pubs. If you’re going to do a bus tour, this is where most depart from, so take the train from Perth CBD to Guildford on the Midland line.
The gateway to the Swan Valley, Guilford was one of the first three towns established, along with Perth and Fremantle, when the Swan River area was colonised in 1829. While Perth was the administrative heart of the new colony and Fremantle was the port, Guildford was the market town and the Swan Valley the colony’s fruit bowl.
Now, Guildford’s leafy streets are peppered with heritage-listed buildings housing antique stores, craft shops, art galleries, quaint cafés and restaurants, and those wonderful old pubs with their pretty, wrap-around, wrought-iron balconies. And in the old courthouse, there’s the excellent Swan Valley Visitor Centre (corner Meadow Street and Swan Street; +61 8 9207 8899). The friendly tourist office should be your first point of call if you’re self-driving to pick up a Swan Valley Food and Wine Trail map.
Swan Valley Food and Wine Trail
If you’re driving, follow the sign-posted Swan Valley Food and Wine Trail. This 32-kilometre loop takes you through picturesque countryside with its lush vineyards, fruit orchards and farms, to 150 points of interest, many offering complimentary tastings.
Stops include some 40 winery cellar doors; distilleries and microbreweries; 90 cafés and restaurants; roadside stalls overflowing with fresh local produce; artisanal bakers, olive oil producers and cheese makers; workshops specialising in handmade chocolate, truffles, nougat, fudge, and ice-cream; and providores selling relishes, pickles, preserves, and dried fruits.
The valley’s Mediterranean climate and fertile soil are responsible for the terrific fresh local produce. Make sure you drop by at least one farmer’s gate, especially if you’re staying in an apartment and doing some cooking, or you’re planning on putting together a picnic hamper.
Buying straight from the source means it’s as fresh as it’s going to get because you’re eating just-picked produce straight from the farm, garden, orchards, or vines. That’s not the case with supermarkets where a lot of ‘fresh’ produce has been in a freezer for weeks or months, which changes the flavour.
What you find at the farm gates obviously depends on the season in which you’re visiting, but do look out for things like plump asparagus, vine-ripened tomatoes that really taste like tomatoes, luscious strawberries, and sweet watermelons.
Don’t miss sampling the crisp, juicy table grapes – which have been grown in the Valley since 1829! – from one of the 150 growers who are producing some 20 varieties. You’ll find different grapes available from December through to April, including the seedless Flame, Dawn and Crimson; the seeded Red Globe, Sultana, Perlette, Italia, and the Ribier, a big black meaty variety that’s a favourite of locals.
Make sure to visit the Cheese Barrel, located at Olive Farm Wines, the oldest winery in the Swan Valley, where you can sample award-winning Western Australian cheeses and imported cheeses from around the world. There is also a selection of cheese boards to buy which have been designed to match Olive Farm Wines. You can also create your own cheese boards. There’s also a resident cheese-maker who offers cheese-making classes, but these must be booked ahead.
Another essential stop is the House of Honey, home to the Sticky Spoon Café, an apiary where you can see bees making honey, and The Honey Shop, where you can do tastings of their raw, pure, unpasteurised Jarrah Honey. This comes from the native Jarrah tree, which is unique to the state. Western Australian honey is intense in flavour due to the type of tree and wildflower species found there, and Jarrah Honey is no exception, boasting a full bodied, nutty, malt flavour that’s loved by beekeepers.
The Swan Valley Food and Wine Trail map also has ideas for you to create your own delicious experiences, from picnics between the vines or by the river to self-guided craft beer tasting tours.
The Swan Valley wineries that can be visited range from small, generations-old, family-owned businesses still operated by the grandkids of the European migrants (most from Italy and Croatia) who planted their vines in the early 20th century to big, slick operations with hundreds of acres of vines, cutting edge technology, and sleek cellar doors.
Many wineries have cellar doors that you can drop into and chat to the staff, and possibly the winemaker, sample the wines, buy some bottles, and even do a hands-on activity, from a wine appreciation class to a blend-your-own experience.
Some wineries can be visited by appointment and all that might mean is a quick phone call to let them know you’re coming. These wineries are generally very small and artisanal, which means the winemaker probably does everything, might also be the owner or partner, and will probably be on a tractor when you call. So do buy some bottles because you’re taking him/her away from his work.
If your idea of visiting wine country involves visiting numerous cellar doors and tasting dozens or even scores of wines, then the last thing you want to do in Australia is self-drive – unless you have a designated driver.
The Swan River Wine Cruise
A Swan River wine cruise not only takes away the worry of driving under the influence, it gives you a taste of the Swan Valley wine region while allowing you to experience the tranquil Swan River on the way there and back.
There are a number of guided Swan Valley wine tours, some of which involve taking a cruise in one direction and a bus in the other. The advantage of these is that they visit several wineries. Some also take in microbreweries and cider houses, as well as food producers.
We liked the idea of travelling there and back by water and experiencing the river in both the morning and late afternoon light, so we opted instead for one of Captain Cook Cruises Swan River wine cruises instead.
The disadvantage of doing the cruise in both directions of course is that while you do get to do a guided wine tasting on board on the way there (served with a cheese plate), and get to sip more wine and bubbly, which are generously poured on the return journey, you only get to visit one winery. However, it is a rather special winery: Sandalford Estate.
Like all Perth cruises and ferries, the Swan River wine cruise departs from Barrack Street Jerry, handily just a couple of blocks from the centre of the Perth CBD and the apartment we were staying in.
It’s a slow, leisurely cruise that winds its way along the still Swan River – which the indigenous Noongar people call the Derbarl Yerrigan – snaking its way to the sleepy upper reaches of the Swan Valley.
The Noongar believe that in the Dreamtime a snake-like creature called the Wagyl or Waugal meandered over the land, carving out creeks, rivers and lakes as he went, thus creating the Swan River. As the boat twists and turns along the waterway you’ll be thinking that makes a lot of sense.
While the lower reaches of the Swan River are wide and deep, the upper reaches are narrow and shallow, bringing the single-deck boat quite near to shore so you get a close insight into the everyday life of the people on the river.
Most of the seating on the boat is indoors so make sure you snag a spot in the sunny outside area at the front of the boat. On the day we did the cruise, most people bewilderingly stayed indoors on the way there, but on the return trip everyone wanted a place in the sun.
This tranquil section of the Swan River couldn’t be more different to the lake-like expanse that skirts the Perth CBD, and the busy estuary between the city and Fremantle and river mouth, which is always abuzz with activity.
On shore, in the morning, we saw locals walking their dogs along slender sandy beaches, fishermen throw in a line from rickety piers, and retired riverside residents reading the newspaper from a wooden bench by the water.
On the water, during our return journey in the late afternoon, we passed a few kayakers, paddle-boarders, a couple of leisure cruisers, and kids learning to sail a catamaran.
We also spotted plenty of birdlife, including pelicans, herons, cormorants, ducks, pink and grey galahs, rainbow lorikeets, the rare red-tailed black cockatoos, and Perth’s eponymous black swans.
But the highlight for everyone was a playful bottlenose dolphin, which we stopped to watch for a while. Our captain, who gave an interesting running commentary throughout the journey, said it was unusual to see them so far up river, however, he did say that there was abundant marine life beneath the surface of the water, including scores of fish species – bream, flatheads, leatherjackets, and herrings – as well as bull sharks and rays, and delicious blue manna crabs and freshwater prawns.
The cruise was an eye-opener. There were riverside sports-fields and race tracks, quiet residential areas with comfortable houses with big established gardens that backed onto the river, picturesque parks and green spaces with shady picnic tables, wetlands alive with the chatter of birdlife, and, as we neared the wine-growing region, historic cottages and colonial villas, and vineyards with buds that had just begun to burst.
I, for one, had no idea how much of the riverside was public land and how much of it was there to be enjoyed by Perth locals. I wondered how many people know these parks and reserves are there. I also didn’t realise how many Perth residents were so lucky to have this quiet section of the river in their backyard.
Sandalford Estate Winery Tour
When the boat eventually arrived at Sandalford Estate, our group was met by a guide at the wharf, from where it was a 5-minute stroll from the dock to the winery.
Our visit began with an introductory video covering the history of the winery to the present day. The Swan Valley wine region is the second oldest wine region in Australia, after the Hunter Valley, celebrating its 180-year old birthday last year, and Sandalford Wines, established on the banks of the Swan River in 1840, is one of Australia’s oldest wineries.
Its birth began with the first harvest by botanist Thomas Waters, who in 1829 arrived with cuttings and vines in barrels of soil from South African wineries, including the revered Constantia vineyard, and planted on a lovely riverbank site that became the first winery, Olive Farm. Waters produced his first wine in 1832 and by 1834 it was recognised as the first commercial vintage.
Olive Farm is currently owned by winemaker Anthony Yuricich, whose family have made handcrafted wines there for four generations. His ancestors were part of the wave of early 20th century immigrants from Southern Italy and Croatia who settled in the Swan Valley and have really made it what it is today.
Sandalford Estate, despite its size and scale of production, is also a family owned winery. There are two vineyards, the Swan Valley one visited and another 40-year old vineyard in the Wilyabrup region of Margaret River. In 1991, brothers Garry and Peter Prendiville and Peter’s wife Debra bought the winery and have been at the helm ever since in very hands-on roles – Debra, for instance, was responsible for the design of the cellar, restaurant and wine tasting area – and have worked hard to make it one of the most sustainable wineries in Australia.
After watching the video, we did a behind the scenes tour to see the operations of the winery. As we strolled across suspended overhead walkways our guide described the wine-making process from vine to bottle, beginning with the weighing, crushing and pressing of the grapes in the vintage shed through to the maturation of the wine in French and American Oak barrels stacked to the roof.
Sandalford has a capacity to produce almost one million litres, which it can keep in 600 square metres of underground storage, which we didn’t get to see, but see what I mean about size and scale.
Sandalford Wine Tasting of Swan Valley Wines
After the winery tour the fun really began with a guided wine tasting, followed by a three-course lunch of modern Australian cooking using local produce. The tasting took the form of a beginner-level Wine Appreciation 101 class, with an introduction to how to taste wine and critique wine (tasting forms were provided), as well as an overview of typical Swan Valley styles and the grapes grown at Sandalford.
The Swan Valley is distinguished by a reliably warm and dry climate, making it ideal for growing Verdelho, Chenin Blanc, Shiraz, and Cabernet grape varietals. The long dry summers also allow for extra ripening time on the vine and the high sugar levels needed to make its wonderful late harvest and dessert wines.
In fact, some of the earliest plantings in the valley were Verdelho, Muscat and Pedro Ximinez to make fortified wines. Having made these heady wines for four generations, the region has developed a strong reputation for producing rich, concentrated fortified wines that are considered some of Australia’s best.
The Swan Valley’s dry, fruit-driven Verdelho grapes produce complex aromatic wines, and the grape is also used to make a sweet liqueur. The Chenin Blanc grown in the valley tends to develop ripe fruit flavours and ages well in the bottle, producing an easy-to-drink drop. The area’s wooded Chardonnays are distinguished by their nuttiness and complexity, while the unwooded Chardonnays exhibit tropical fruits and citrus flavours.
It’s the big reds, however, that are considered the kings of grapes in the Swan. Shiraz in the region gets used for wine, as well as vintage ports and liqueurs. The best Swan Valley Shiraz tends to have a lot of structure and depth, and exhibits a full spectrum of ripe to dried fruits and silky tannins, while the deep plum-coloured Cabernets boast generous fruits, spice, and substantial albeit soft tannins.
While the region’s winemaking is distinguished by old iconic Australian grape varietals like Chardonnay, Shiraz and Cabernet, our guide ensured us that the wines coming out of the Swan Valley are increasingly sophisticated and have the elegance and finesse that’s in fashion.
After lunch and an opportunity to taste the glasses we enjoyed tasting most with our meal, we were shown the gift shop and cellar door, for a further tasting and spot of shopping.
Sandalford produces five ranges of wine, from the entry-level Element and Winemakers series, and mid-tier Margaret River range, made from fruit that didn’t make it to the next level Estate Reserve series, to the super premium Prendiville Reserve collections.
It was possible to try all ranges but we opted to sample the outstanding Prendivilles, as well as some stickies, including a sublime Botrytis Semillon, which we ended up buying and is safely tucked away.
I have to say that the cellar door gift shop is impressive with one of the biggest selections of glassware and wine accessories I’ve seen, including all kinds of quirky gadgets to keep your wine glasses cool and stable at Aussie picnics and barbecues. I was disappointed we were travelling so I couldn’t get to do some Christmas shopping.
How to book the Swan Valley Swan River Wine Cruise
Bookings for the full-day Swan Valley Swan River Wine Cruise we did can be made online. The price included complimentary tea, coffee and cake to start, soon followed by wine and cheese tastings on the boat; the Sandalford guided tour, tastings, lunch, and more tastings; and live entertainment on the boat on the way back (I’ll let that remain a surprise). It cost A$165 for Adults and A$121 for children (infants free).
How to book the Sandalford Experience if you drive
If you make your own way to the winery, the Sandalford tour and tasting costs A$16 per person and lasts around 75 minutes. The winery also offers a Wine Blending experience, where you learn to blend then have your blend judged by Sandalford’s experts, and a Winemaker for a Day package that essentially rolls all of that together – the tour, blending experience, tasting, and lunch. Advance booking essential for all experiences. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Captain Cook Cruises