Nestled just beyond the edges of Melbourne’s leafy outer east, Rob Dolan’s winery and cellar door is no half-hearted affair. The winery is a big thing (like Rob), and the cellar door, though casual, friendly and warm (like Rob), is still super-professional (like Rob).
If you’re thinking ‘Do I know that name from somewhere?’, let’s just run through a quick potted history of the Yarra Valley legend that is Mr Rob Dolan. Brands he’s launched have included Yarra Ridge, Punt Road, and Sticks. He’s managed Mildara Blass (Victoria). He’s the winemaker behind a bunch of success stories in the Yarra Valley. So many winemakers have worked for him or with him at some point that the region should really be called ‘The Dolan Valley’. If that still doesn’t ring any bells, Rob ‘Sticks’ Dolan played in the ruck for Port Adelaide.
The cellar door is the perfect setting for a casual sampling of wines from Rob’s three ranges. All are well targeted and great examples of the generosity of flavour and spirit in his winemaking approach. The platters offer a selection of regional produce and are a perfect way to indulge with some time on the lawn or sitting at the tasting bar. Jack from Stone and Crow makes cheese in a corner of the facility out the back, and OHO’s own Caro makes jams and preserves under Rob’s label, too. A platter with a few of these extraordinary delights is worth a little trip to Warranwood. Keep an eye on the Facebook page for special events and after-work drinks.
Amongst the hundreds of winemaking families in Australia, there are the ‘First Families’ – those pioneers who shaped the way Australia makes and drinks the nectar of the gods. All have generations of grape growing, squishing, fermenting, bottling and drinking to their names. Think McWilliams, Tyrrells, Tahbilk and De Bortoli.
Leanne De Bortoli brought the family name down to Victoria from Griffith in the late ’80s; she and her partner and the business’s chief winemaker Steve Webber have been living the ‘good wine, good food, good friends’ mantra. Three unique vineyards supply distinct fruit which expresses its sense of place. Steve has a passion for making wines that taste like where they’re from. For the lesson in terroir alone, you should book a private tasting experience.
The restaurant on site, ‘Locale’, sings from the same mantra song-sheet. Local produce (some of it grown just out the window next to the vineyard) combines with a slightly formal but definitely casual atmosphere. It’s like going to your fancy Nonna’s house for a big family meal with loads of great Italian food, more wine than you probably should have had, and laughs aplenty. Except Nonna is a chef. And has staff. And a cellar door down stairs. Oh, and a cheese shop. Dear Lord, do not forget the formaggio. There’s a great selection of extraordinary cheeses, matured right there, available as platters, tasting plates to go with the wine tastings at the bar, or for taking home.
A winery with a name is not unusual. Most are named for families, properties, or a geographical feature. In France, wines are named for the place – the region, the Chateau (winemaking house) and the quality of the vineyard. It’s refreshing to find a placed named simply for the names of the two people who own it. Helen and Joey have hit the ground running since purchasing the Fernando vineyard a few years back. In short order, Helen has made a passionate lunge at carving out a corner of the Yarra Valley wine industry.
The cellar door is a simple building perched on the hill with amazing views across the valley floor to the ranges beyond. Keep an eye out for a few unicorns between. The focus is squarely on the wines, made skilfully by Meg Brodtmann. The range is extensive, but the core is always the Alena, Layla, and Inara wines, expressing the strengths of the valley in chardonnay, pinot, syrah and cabernet. Take a look at the ‘Wayward Child’ labelled wines, too. The skin-contact pinot gris is rosé pink, and textural.
Simple local produce platters can be taken out onto the deck, and with a few glasses of vino, you can while away an afternoon with friends, watching the light change across the valley.
The Mitchell and Harris families grew up in the Ballarat region. You could argue that they were early instigators of the food revolution off the main drag (Sturt St) in town. The last few years have seen the likes of Catfish, Meigas and the Mitchell Harris cellar door/bar open up and make Ballarat a foodie destination.
The Mitchell Harris style is of relaxed industrial and historic chic, and is at once familiar and fun. It’s a place you can spend a whole Friday night getting lost in a detailed exploration of your friend’s holiday recommendations over several bottles of whatever it takes to make that sound interesting. It’s a place for meeting up with your best friend to laugh about that time you couldn’t remember that thing you did together, and order the Sabre sparkling, complete with the actual sabring of the bottle. All the Mitchell Harris wines are of course made in the company’s own winery. They’re good. Really good. There are some fabulously sessional wines in there, perfect for the formerly referred-to Friday evening.
If you’re not content with just drinking the wine someone else made for you, you could enrol in the Curious Winemaker workshop. Over the course of several visits through the season, make your own wine: from grapevine to bottle. Don’t worry, you’re not left to your own devices. You’ll be under the expert guidance of winemaker John Harris, and with him make all the critical decisions along the way to produce a decent drop you can call your own.
Mitchell and Harris is also a place to eat. A bloody good one. The food is comfortable and brings on all the requisite ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhhhs’.
If you’re an apple grower, and you see the premium paid for cider apples and the further value-add from making cider, it’s really a no-brainer to have a bit of a look at selling your own stuff. Cheeky Grog have nailed the concept of grower-turns-brewer with their roadside cider house. With orchards everywhere in the surrounding fields, it’s both no surprise and an absolute delight to find that someone is taking the fruit and turning it into the makings of a fab Friday night.
The list of ciders on taste is long, and there’s something for everyone’s palate. Some medal-winning drops are on taste too, and of course available for you to take home.
For anyone after adventurous flavours, they’re doing some funky things with brettanomyces (“brett”), much as beer brewers are doing. It’s not for everyone, but it’s interesting and a bit of fun.
The outdoor lounge area is fantastically created from old fruit bins, with sprawling timber lounge chairs and tables for group tastings, or for enjoying a few slow cold ones and something to eat. The kitchen has a short simple menu, which on the weekends includes wood-fired pizzas. Regular live music happens out there on the lawn too.
Of course, you can just pull in to the roadside stall and, old-school honesty-box style, pick up a bag of apples or pears.
There’s something fun and interesting about visiting a place with a bit of family history. Maybe it’s the respect for that singular family focus, or maybe it’s just the old stuff in the sheds. At Lake Moodemere Estate it’s all of this plus the new generation’s enthusiasm to both respect tradition and move ahead with innovation. It was delightful, but no surprise, to be introduced to one family member after another: all passionate about the property, the vines, the wines, the lamb, and the visitor experience. Seven generations in, vineyard manager Joel Chambers speaks with such passion about his work, the legacy of his family, and the bright future he sees for the wines the family has been producing since 1858.
Rutherglen as a region is traditionally regarded as a producer of big (huge) red wines like durif and fortified muscat. Some old-school outfits are well known for their blow-your-head-off durif at 16% to 18% alcohol. Not so at Moodemere. Whilst respecting the plantings of earlier generations, the current custodians (Joel’s dad Michael and mum Belinda) are making finer, lower-alcohol, flavour-focused wines. There’s cabernet sauvignon, cinsaut, syrah, merlot and chardonnay, to name a few lesser-planted varieties amongst those more common in the area.
Of course, all this is nonsense without a word for the place you’ll visit. The ancient trees hang glorious green-laden branches over a green lawn that looks down a vast, prehistoric riverbank to the lake below. Tables set for maximum view-soaking pleasure are the perfect setting for a platter of locally sourced produce, including lamb from the property (try the terrine, OMG). If you want to talk low food-miles, everything on the platter is from inside the Indigo Shire.
Your next event could well be a divine summer-sunset soirée at this spot. Or, for something more private, book the lakehouse accommodation and sit on the banks of the river. Just soak it in.
Town-based cellar doors are becoming a thing. In the Yarra Valley there’s Mac Forbes’ little Graceburn Wine Room; Payten and Jones have opened across from Four Pillars. In Rutherlen James and Co. are making Beechworth wines and selling them out of their brand-new and rather stylish shop.
People who love recycled timber made into gorgeous things will love the fit-out. But really, you’re coming here for the wines, so let’s talk sangiovese. Ricky loves sangi. Around Beechworth, people are growing some stunning examples of it. Ricky combines his love of sangiovese with the stunning examples grown around Beechworth to make some excellent wines. His sparkling rosé is dry (minimal residual sugar) and beautiful. I’m sure more-established wineries looked upon a sparkling sangiovese rosé with more than a little curiosity, but far out it’s good. In fact, all the wines are flavour focused, elegant, and finely detailed. You’ll walk away with a collection of beautiful wines that really demonstrates Ricky and Georgie’s passion for what they are doing.
You’ll love the Cheese Your Own Adventure fridge, too. Build your own platter of produce from the fridge at the back of the room, take a board, and make a beeline for one of those beautiful recycled wooden tables.
It would be remiss of us to fail to mention Georgie’s photography, which adorns one side of the space. She’s got talent, and it’s on display as you sit and take in both wines and imagery.
With only Google as a guide, it feels like you’re heading into the middle of nowhere to get to Equus Wines. Then the really interesting profile of a modern piece of architecture appears atop a hill, and you find yourself thinking ‘Geez, I hope I’m going there – that looks amazing.’
Arriving at Equus is no let-down of the anticipation. The view is stunning. The modern cellar door overlooks the vineyard and the Pyrenees Ranges beyond.
Wines are typical of the region – intense cool-climate flavours and fine tannins, with winemaker Owen Latta being known for natural, minimal intervention winemaking. It’s worth trusting in Google to take you up the hill for this.
A real surprise though is the discovery of the wooden horse museum through the opposite door. It’s a lifetime’s collection of author and artist, Patricia Mullins. Curated and interpreted with the finesse of any of the great museums, and just a fascinating place to wander. The collection changes regularly to accommodate a particular theme, and is surely worth the trip on its own merits.