HAVING heard how difficult it is to pair chocolates with wine, oenologist John Wade signed up for a short course, and within six months, exchanged his 40-year wine-making career for a new one in chocolate.
He migrated over from wines to the "dark side" as it were, and named his chocolate atelier accordingly.
"But there's not a lot of difference between winemaking and chocolate making - it's all about flavour, balance, structure, and using good raw ingredients," shares the grandfatherly-looking chocolatier with white hair and a well-trimmed beard.
Darkside Chocolates, on the main street of Denmark, a coastal town in the Great Southern region of Western Australia (WA), is an unassuming store with a simple shopfront. Glass cabinets are filled with trays of chocolate, and the flavours are very unique with a strong local South Australian emphasis. There's Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc in his wine-filled chocolates, then of course there's lemon myrtle-flavoured chocs (which is very similar to lemongrass except it's fuller bodied and more rounded) and even some filled with blue cheese.
Artisanal stores like Darkside (www.darksidechocolates.com.au), with a strong emphasis on homegrown, homemade products, is one key reason to enjoy a slow drive around Albany and Denmark - just over 400km from Perth or a couple of hours' drive beyond WA's Margaret River, the traditional go-to place for a gourmet and wine-tasting holiday when you're spending a long weekend in Western Australia.
Albany (and that would be pronounced as "el" rather than "ahl") is a worthy contender to Margaret River, even if it's a longish (three to four hours) drive or a short plane ride (one hour) out of Perth.
Our media familiarisation group, hosted by Tourism Western Australia, was flown to Albany and we soon knew we had landed in small town Australia, where places are less design-led but full of heart.
We didn't exactly find out what the main industry here is, but it certainly seems like everyone and their dog is into wine or some wholesome food business and they're all located in picturesque farms, orchards and wineries. When we arrived on a Saturday morning, our Busy Blue Bus (www.busybluebus.com.au) took us straight from the airport to the Albany Farmer's Market held weekly, where I sunk my teeth into a corn cob, at its sweetest and crunchiest when raw.
A visit to the historical Princess Royal Fortress and Military Museum later (mainly for military history buffs, and there's the Anzac Centenary coming up later this year in November), we were trundling along straight and winding country roads to places like the Oranje Tractor winery (www.oranjetractor.com) for a lovely tasting of organic wines and the famed ploughman's platter filled with organic vegetables and products. At Singlefile Wines (www.singlefilewines.com), the feel and look is less rustic, but no less charming as you quaff glasses of wine underneath a portico covered with grapevines.
Winery after winery we visited, the story that emerged was that of Australians breaking away from faster-paced city lives to tap into their inner agriculturists in Albany and Denmark. Former Perth couple, Garry Capelli and Leanne Rogers of The Lake House, had been holidaying for more than a decade in Denmark when they decided to up their stakes and move there, fulfilling their dream of purchasing 100 acres of land and a lake.
With little experience or knowledge, but armed with business skills, they built up a winery, boutique stay, a range of vino dips and sauces, and even a range of winespa products (www.lakehousedenmark.com.au).
We didn't just eat our way through Albany and Denmark of course - we didn't have time - but did the requisite outdoorsy stuff that's available in the area like wandering over a rocky granite outcrop at Torndirrup National Park to witness a natural bridge shaped by crashing waves; an exhilarating, exerting climb at Porongurup Range National Park for the three-kilometre return Granite Walk; and a gentler trek to explore the unique tall tingle forest at the Valley of the Giants's Treetop Walk (http://parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/site/tree-top-walk).
What we thoroughly enjoyed though, after a charming stay at The Dog Rock Motel in Albany (www.dogrockmotel.com.au), is the modern bungalow we stayed in, managed by Cape Howe Cottages (www.capehowe.com.au), which is a real luxurious place in the middle of, well, nowhere with tall trees and bush all around.
Lonely Planet listed Australia's south-west region as one of the world's Top Ten regions in 2010, and it looks like it well deserves the recognition - as places like Albany and Denmark are carving out a niche for themselves as a rustic, artisanal retreat.
Time your visit around:
- The Perth International Arts Festival and the Great Southern Festival (February - March) because you get to catch global as well as local acts.
- The Porongurup Wine Festival (March) because it brings all the wineries to you.
- Whale-watching season (mid-May to mid-October) because the Great Southern Ocean is home to a huge whale population which breeds and feeds in the bays.
While you're in Perth, check out these two off-the-beaten-track tours:
- Urban Indigenous Tours (www.urbanindigenoustours.com) for an introduction to Aboriginal art, stories, culture and food.
- Two Feet & a Heartbeat Walking tours of Perth city (www.twofeet.com.au) that provides you with the historical background and cultural heartbeat of Perth.