Giant Steps

Giant Steps quickly became the stalwart of the Yarra Valley winery and restaurant scene when Phil Sexton first opened it over a decade ago. The structure has become a reassuring symbol of always-available quality wines and food situated in Healesville’s east end.

Winemaker Steve Flamsteed has an unwavering commitment to making quality wines that express the place they’re from, whether it’s one of the single-vineyard series wines or a regional blend. His commitment to excellence is exemplified in his path to winemaking. First he was a chef, then a cheesemaker, but it was wine that caught his attention. While studying oenology, he paid his way as a chef with Maggie Beer. It’s unsurprising that he emerged with a passion for local expressions of produce.

Steve’s uncompromising attention to detail yields results, from the vineyard to the wine glass, and the experience at the Healesville cellar-door restaurant is a reflection of this same approach. Staff are knowledgeable and genuinely love talking about the wines they’re selling. It helps that the tasting room is behind the glass wall, right in the barrel hall where you’re immersed in the workings and glorious smells of a winery.

After a recent refurbishment, the place is looking as fresh and contemporary as ever. It’s a pleasant place to sit and enjoy the food, and definitely to appreciate the good work of Steve and the team in the winery.

Boat O’Craigo

With a name that harks back to the Scottish ancestral roots of owners the Graham family, Boat O’Craigo punches way above its weight for quality wines. Indeed, Halliday named it as ‘Dark Horse Winery of the Year’ in 2018. The cellar door on the high side of Healesville heading out of town is a perfect place to sit and lose a couple of hours trying wines and eating platters of local produce, or the simple traditional pizzas expertly turned out of the tiny kitchen.

Wines are made by the legendary Rob Dolan at his Warranwood facility, from fruit grown on the two estate sites at Kangaroo Ground and Healesville. Quality is high, with an emphasis on wines made for drinking and enjoying. Rob is known for his generous winemaking style, and Boat O’Craigo wines definitely fit that bill.

The deck outside shares the close panorama of Mt Riddell with the dining area inside the building. For people who might be heading up to Marysville or just on a drive up the Black Spur, stepping out of the car and encountering the stunning view across the lush vineyard to the foot of the mountain comes as something of a surprise. It’s easily overlooked as you head up the highway, but with the triple threat of great wine, food and a surprise view, it’s a must-stop venue.

Oakridge

You might know Oakridge for its deserved reputation as a producer of some of the best wines in Australia. The best wine writers consistently score Oakridge’s sacred drop over 95 points, and for good reason. The cellar door and restaurant, set in the middle of the vineyards at Coldstream, is a beautiful architectural work of minimalist art, and is the perfect place to try all the latest as well as some selected museum releases. Winemaker David Bicknell is one of the greats, described by James Halliday as ‘an extremely gifted winemaker’, so the opportunity to sample the wines with knowledgeable staff is one you should consider seriously as a life goal.

Another life goal should be to eat the food of Oakridge’s dynamic duo, Matt Stone and Jo Barrett. Both might appear familiar to you from cameo appearances on TV shows, including MasterChef. The ethos of local and seasonal is taken seriously, with an array of just-picked produce coming straight out of the large garden behind the winery. Matt handles the savoury flavours delicately and with such finesse that you’ll be hard-pressed to resist the instagram urge before devouring. Go slowly, because you’ll want to remember every bite. The same is true of Jo’s exquisite desserts.

One of the things we all look for when we go out to dine is flavour that we won’t experience at home. Jo and Matt both pair flavours with such bold confidence, you’re guaranteed a unique taste experience that you won’t get anywhere else, much less at home. Some flavours seem so unusual, ethereal and beautiful that they’re impossible to put a finger on. Who’d have thought that the lime-like acidity in a dish might come from the unexpectedly delicious addition of green ants?

 

Six Acres

The name could not be any more literal. Six Acres is truly six acres of vineyard producing estate-grown (vegan-friendly) wines in small batches on site. The Zuccaro family has tended this plot lovingly, subscribing to the adage that all good winemakers say: ‘Good wine is grown in the vineyard.’ It’s a prime little patch of Yarra Ranges dirt near Silvan in the Upper Yarra region of the Valley. Here the soils are deep and volcanic, and the fruit yields wines of density and structure. Some of the greatest wines of the Yarra Valley come from up this way; we’re not far from Seville Estate, Hoddles Creek, Thousand Candles, and vineyards growing fruit for Giant Steps, De Bortoli and Oakridge. So the area has some kudos.

Six Acres is a smaller affair, located in a modest (cute) shed with a great view. However, don’t let size fool you. The Zuccaros are focused on quality in their pinot noir, merlot and cabernet. They pride themselves on minimal intervention wines, using none of the usual animal products (like eggs, which are traditionally used for fining). The cellar door is a fun and super-personal experience with a passionate family sharing some stonking wines. You’ll need to allow a budget for take-home wines, but nothing is super-expensive, so don’t be shy!

The Royal Mail Hotel

So much has been written already about the extraordinary food at The Royal Mail. We know that it’s a save-your-pennies experience at the famous Two Hat restaurant – and that it’s worth it. But less well known are the other stunning gems also part of the Royal Mail Experience. The wine cellar attached to the business is, as you’d imagine, goddamn amazing. Here’s the awesome bit though – you can get into it for a rare tasting and tour. It’s literally a warehouse full of wine racks. And you can pay $25 for the most extraordinary flight of wines. This is the way to learn about the great French wines, and our local equivalents.

Also part of the Royal Mail’s DNA is the attention to produce. Most of it is sourced from the business’s properties – the beef and lamb from the farm, the olives from the grove, the fruit from the orchards, and the veg from the garden. You can take a complimentary tour of the garden as a guest of the hotel. Well worth it. We were inspired to make things grow in our own dirt back home.

Of course, it all comes together in the dining room, with the famous degustations. But if you’re just passing through from Port Fairy or Hamilton, try the Parker St Project. This is the Mail’s laid-back experience, but none of the attention to detail is lost. As the name implies, this is a work in constant progress, where menu items are tried and tested, and we get to sample in a casual, country pub-like setting. Worth the detour.

The Duck Inn

Marysville hadn’t had a pub for a while when Ashraf and Christine decided that they would answer the call of the community and build one. It has been a ground-up build of a brand new business from the former owners of the famous Marysville Patisserie.

The heart of any good local pub are the locals who frequent it. Head here to have a fun dinner out with the folks of Marysville. Stand around the fire or at the bar and share a drink or two –  there are regional beers on tap and wines from nearby on the list. The menu is classic pub, handled with precision by the international chef. With her passion for pastry, desserts made by Christine are worth travelling for. Be warned though, it’s worth booking your table ahead if you’re coming up on a weekend.

Ashraf and Christine describe The Duck Inn as their gift to the community that stood behind them and supported their business for so long. It’s certainly a well-appreciated one among tourists and locals alike. Music nights are a hoot, with some great bands on the bill. Stay tuned to the Facebook page for information about these.

Trofeo Estate

The word “Amphora” conjures up images of the Romans to me. It turns out that’s exactly what Trofeo Estate have here – ancient-looking clay jars used to ferment wines without imparting flavours from wood (such as with oak barrels) whilst still letting in that crucial slow leak of oxygen which ages and softens the wine (unlike stainless steel.)

Winemaker Richard Darby says that the huge clay pots allow the truest of fruit flavours to shine. We did a head-to-head of the same Syrah as fermented in clay vs. fermented in oak. We could see his point. Beautifully focussed and delicate fruit flavours.

The estate is also a restaurant, set in a former passionfruit cannery from the 1930’s. The food is local where possible, always seasonal, and matched nicely to the wines as you’d expect.

Join the mailing list and follow this place on social media. The music nights are epic, and there are plans to host movie nights and more.

The Farmer’s Place

We don’t know how many times we’ve taken this trip and passed the shed-like structure made from shipping containers which houses the Farmer’s Place on our way to Lorne or Anglesea. We’re glad we made this pit stop though. The day was perfect for a long breakfast outside in the herb garden. We had the rice pudding and French toast. The former was light (for such a big dish) and tasty. The latter was as you’d want your French toast to come. The lavender syrup was amazing.

If you’re staying in the area, consider booking ahead into one of their many courses on food and growing. These guys preach what they practise, making the Farmer’s Place much more than a simple pit stop.

Warragul Farmers Market

It’s hard to believe that this vibrant market in Warragul has only just turned five years old. It has the feeling of a long-established tradition of growers and makers who gather once a month to present the fruits of their labour. People come from all over to get their produce, enjoy street-food or a great coffee, and meet up with the people who grow the produce and make wares locally. It’s definitely dog-friendly, and OHO dog Rosie the kelpie had as much fun making new friends as your intrepid OHO adventurers did. Available produce will vary seasonally of course, but with over 60 stallholders listed as regulars, there really is something for everyone, even Rosie, who took home some delicious liver treats.

There are so many stalls, it’s going to take a few visits to get into the swing of the market (every third Saturday of the month) and establish some long-term favourites, but here are some early highlights.

Hope Farm Sourdough The way it should be.
Lime & Co.  Delicious Mexican food, made right there.
Wild Dog  Great wines and a spectacular pair of gins.
Craig’s Hut Coffee  Literally a replica of the famous hut, and great coffee.
The Bunyip Beekeeper  Because proper honey is better in every way.
Cambodian Street BBQ  Fills the whole place with delicious smells!

Better come hungry, because you’re going to want to eat it all.

Clyde Park

Clyde Park is one of those jaw-dropping moments in wine touring. You step out of the car behind the winery, walk around to the restaurant and cellar door, and find yourself looking over a balcony across the valley. It’s a stunning view across the vines. Pinot lovers will have a field day here. It’s a study in terroir – the impact of local conditions, soils, etc on specific sites. Here they craft single-block wines of such different refined character that it’s hard to believe they come from the same property.

The real bonus here is that the food is amazing. Great wood-fired pizzas cooked in front of you (weekends), and a seasonal al la carté menu with what owner Sue humbly calls “home-style” food. It’s the kind of home I’d like to live in, if this is what’s cooked there. It’s so easy to spend half a day here, tasting extraordinary wine, eating Sue’s food and staring out at that view. Wow, that view.

Oh, if you’re planning a special event, while you’re standing at the tasting bar, turn 180 degrees and stare at  the awesomeness that is the barrel-hall event space. Long table dinner or lunch in a working winery. Perfect.