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.
There’s something lovely about plated single dishes from an à la carte menu, and professional, attentive service. In contrast to the ‘all dishes on the table, share the love’ approach, there’s an almost quiet, contemplative joy in studying the menu, ordering for yourself, and then talking with your company about all the elements in your meal as it comes out.
The Rathbone family have been custodians of this vineyard and property since the mid ’90s, though there has been wine made here before then. Very good wine, in fact. The Ryrie brothers, then the De Castella family, made some impressive red wines here. Sadly, with the destruction of the wine industry from a little bug called phylloxera, the property moved to other agricultural practices. The vision of a few pioneers in the 1970s and ’80s saw the first returns to grape growing and winemaking.
Of course, at the cellar door you can sample the excellent wines made on site by chief winemaker Willy Lunn. The cellar door is one of the older buildings on site, formerly the winery from 1859. Now it does triple-duty as cellar door, gallery and produce store. The produce is a representation of the monthly farmers market held in the barn. It’s all local, all lovely. The gallery showcases artworks from emerging artists and also hosts the annual Yering Sculpture Prize. Money from the gallery’s sale commissions go to the Children’s Leukaemia charity, Larch – a long-standing Rathbone family commitment.
All that makes for interesting conversation over a meal at tables set in a mighty glass, stone and steel structure overlooking the rolling green pastures, vineyards, hills, and skies until tomorrow. When the food arrives at the table, you’ll be tempted to whip out the phone and Instagram it, but resist the urge. Just take in the view, the setting, and the beauty, and re-post someone else’s picture.
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’.
Just out of Shepparton is a tree-lined highway hamlet called Mooroopna. It’s home to Bill & Beats, and to possibly the most unexpected delightful surprise, Yiche. The moment you enter Yiche, you’ll be reminded of every 1980s Chinese restaurant you ever dropped into for take-away, from the white tables to the vinyl chairs. The similarities to those old days are superficial though. The food from chef Brian comes out on one-off ceramics (which he hand-makes himself), and is presented so beautifully that all vestiges of suburban restaurants from a bygone era pass into irrelevance.
Stunning is a word too small for both the surprise and the beauty of what Brian is putting on the table. Little gel soy balls gleam like caviar atop the salmon. Mulberries are something you’ll never see on other menus because they are so expensive and so time-consuming to prepare. But when it grows in your backyard, it’s relatively easy, and the result is breathtaking in a granita.
The ‘Surprise Me’ menu is a perfect way to eat. You get 12-13 dishes put together by the chef, so you won’t go hungry. You’ll get a bit of everything, all seasonal, and all from the great produce Brian gets in every day. He says, ‘I get a good ingredient, and I just cook it.’ Doesn’t get much more beautifully simple than that.
Yiche has a couple of Chinese meanings: ‘Together’, ‘Number One’, and ‘Keep going up’, according to Brian’s mum Evelyn. Brian says, ‘I’m just continually trying to get better.’ How perfectly apt.
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.
The Dandenongs have been a bed-and-breakfast destination from Melbourne since someone realised they were there, and worthy of a stay. There have been tea rooms and little places to stay since forever. While staying at the perfect weekend bolt-hole, the great dilemma has always been ‘Where do I get something awesome to eat- in, so I can watch a DVD and drink this bottle of wine?’
Pizza is the obvious answer to that question, and Savvy Organic Pizza in Belgrave is a perfect place to get it. The bonus of house-made ice creams makes it a no-brainer. The menu is all unique, with Savvy’s own interpretations of classics like margherita delivering a fresh simple punch of good tomato, basil and garlic.
The Mexicans have a gift for mixing the deliciousness of chocolate with the heat of chilli. Savvy has accepted the gift and made an ice cream out of it. There are other amazing flavours to try, but this one is an OMG, When Harry Met Sally, leave-me-alone-with-the-ice cream moment.
Oh, there’s some other stuff nearby – some kind of steam train, a short trip to an animal thing, and a winery or two; but really, your weekend away is about staying indoors and eating bloody good pizza and ice cream.
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.
Christopher and Jayne are both ex-photographers, although one is never really an ex-photographer. One merely becomes preoccupied with other things. The ‘other thing’ that fills their time is a slice of a stunning country town in the form of Talbot Provedore and Eatery.
Christopher was once the chef at the Avoca Hotel and part of a team that won numerous industry accolades. His commitment to excellent food from sustainable, local produce continues at his own venture here in Talbot.
The town plays host to one of the biggest farmers markets in country Victoria every 3rd Sunday of the month, when thousands of people descend on the streets looking for produce straight from the people who grow it. The Provedore and Eatery is designed to be a showcase of the best of the farmers market and other producers from the region. It’s situated right next to a community garden, where the chefs regularly gather whatever is growing and include it in the menu. Fresh produce from the farmers around the district comes in daily, and the menu reflects this. The wine and beer list contains mostly local heroes, all worthy of the best lists, and all doing something interesting.
Christopher and Jayne are not loud or brash entrepreneur types. They are enterprising, no doubt. But they exude a quiet and passionate commitment to their craft. Saturday nights are a real stretching of the legs for the chefs. It’s a simple degustation of three carefully crafted and exquisitely prepared dishes for pretty short money. Talbot is lucky to have the Provedore and Eatery. Get out there for a weekend, do the Saturday night and the market next day. Good times.
What’s the next best thing to fresh mussels taken from the boat and served hot with just the right amount of your favourite flavours, and maybe a lager or two? How about sitting in a sweet little garden next to the shed where those mussels arrive just minutes after they come off the boat, doing exactly the same? Sounds just about perfect, doesn’t it.
The Little Mussel Cafe is a cute little shed and garden right next to the processing shed of Advance Mussel Supply in Portarlington. They cook mussels just right – so they are the soft little balls of perfection that they should be. Advance Mussel Supply are mussel and oyster farmers. You can get the latter from them too, when the timing is right; they’re also as they should be.
If you have in your group someone who struggles with shellfish, the menu has them covered. There are also ways for you to bring them around to the goodness of these ocean-found molluscs of joy. Purists always wince at the thought of any kind of cooking or overpowering flavours, but beginners will love the introduction. It’s only one or two steps away from getting into the heaven that is au naturel.