Mandala Wines

OHO is as much about the little guys as we are about the headline acts. We love to find the not-so-well-known places doing excellent things and share them with you like little secrets. Mandala Wines was one of those finds. Yes, it’s on the Melba Highway outside of Yarra Glen, but you were probably distracted by the bigger vineyards over the road. Yes, it has a stunning corten-steel building, but you were probably looking at the larger constructions and wineries on the other side too. So, Charles Smedley’s Mandala Wines is like this little gift hidden amongst some of the well respected larger players. But, don’t be fooled by the size; the wines punch well above their weight, and the venue will delight and surprise guests who planned on a quick stop but find themselves staying a while.

There’s a substantial restaurant on-site too, and it is well respected in the region for good Italian-style food inside or on the huge lawn overlooking the vines. However, lets stay focussed here and talk wines. They are all made from grapes grown on the estates at Dixons Creek and Yarra Junction. Everything in the vineyards is about maximising the potential for quality wines. The vines are hand-pruned, the grapes are hand-picked. In the winery, batches are small and carefully tended by winemaker Don Pople. The Yarra is known for Pinot and Chardonnay, and Mandala does not disappoint. Perhaps the aromatic and elegant Cabernet Sauvignon in all it’s inky gloriousness is the surprise, but serves as a wonderful reminder that Cabernet was here before Pinot or Chardonnay. The clever Coravin system of preserving open bottles of wine means that the reserve wines are available for tasting too.

Medhurst Wines

Just off the Maroondah Highway, tucked up against the Warramate Hills, sits the winery, restaurant and cellar door of Medhurst Wines. The long driveway winds up the hill, past the red shed on the dam, past significant sculptures perched elegantly on the lawn, to the architecturally designed building which overlooks the picturesque close view. This part of the experience alone is worth the trip.

Medurst is the ‘retirement project’ (if you could call such hard work retirement) of ex Southcorp CEO Ross Wilson and his wife Robyn. It’s a family business, executed in a thoroughly professional manner. Every detail on the property is carefully considered: from the wave of the vast front glass on the cellar door, to the way a winery of considerable size is perfectly nestled into the hillside.

Speaking of detail, winemaker Simon Steele is all about the details. The Yarra Valley Pinot Noir is a fine expression of the fruit; bright cherry balanced with weight and complex spice notes.  The Rosé, a perennial fave and often on the ‘Pink List’ at the Healesville Hotel, is dry, savoury and so so drinkable.

With the newly renovated kitchen and dining area comes a new chef. Robin Sutcliffe brings his quiet, uncompromising passion for doing simple things right to Medhurst. The pickles, which provide a delicate acidic balance on platters and other dishes, are all made by him in-house. Simple dishes like arancini are elevated with his deft touch. Grazing food, dishes of deliciousness, and damn fine wines mean that a long slow lunch under the shade, overlooking the vines, makes so much sense.

Port Phillip Estate

It’s an unassuming introduction to Port Phillip Estate, through a door that feels a little bit industrial and a little bit James Bond. It opens out into the most extraordinary view across the fields to the ocean, with cellar door and casual bistro to the right, and more formal restaurant to the left.

There is a kind of curious dissonance in the slightly casual chairs and the formal settings, the friendliness of the staff and the formality of the restaurant fit-out. It’s like the formality has been dialled down in a venue where the quality has been dialled way up. It’s a feeling that carries through to the food. It’s hard to describe the visceral experience of sitting in front of such beautiful food. It’s an exercise in the balance of beautiful presentation without overshadowing the beautiful produce. Desserts are a stunning display of skill, but still don’t overshadow the produce they’re made from. That produce is locally sourced wherever possible, and the menu is seasonal.

The cellar-door experience is worth leaving a little extra time for. The wines of the estate are renowned for their quality.

For those wanting a little more time to take it all in, the accommodation is spectacular and shares that view across the fields to the ocean.

Fowles Wines

Sitting down with four glasses of wine, each matched to the perfect food companion, might be the new definition of awesome. This is the Fowles Wines ‘Gamekeeper’s Lunch’. You get the impression that there is a tweed-wearing employee out the back who’s handy with a 12-gauge shotgun and skilled in the art of delicate food preparation.

Smoked eel has one of those flavours that when you speak of it, your memory plays tricks and you feel as though you’re tasting it. The fellow out back has paired it with a riesling which is focused and acidic, with balanced fruit. Rabbit rillette is meaty and flavoursome, matched to a fresh zippy chardonnay.

Duck and pinot noir are best friends – maybe even lovers. In this pairing the confit duck is crispy and full of flavour, and the pinot is elegant, savoury and beautifully rounded.

The finale is beetroot chutney and kangaroo. It’s the OMG moment. Earthy, sticky, charred and delicious. The shiraz is jammy and generous to match.

 

Saltwater Phillip Island

Saltwater Phillip Island opened a while back in an incredible waterside position at San Remo on the Phillip Island side. The water dominates 270 degrees of the view, from the bridge to the mainland around to the waters of Westernport. It boasts a wood-fired pizza oven, inside or outside dining, and an impressive bar.

Of course, sitting in a place like this, looking across the water to the fishing boats moored under the lee of the bridge, you’d expect seafood to be local. It’s exciting when the chef points to the boats and says, ‘That’s where the calamari came from today.’

The beers are a good mix of local and from further afield, as are the wines. A seasonal menu makes use of local produce, like Archie’s Creek rib-eye, and Koo Wee Rup asparagus.

If you’re a fan of Innocent Bystander in the Yarra Valley, then this is a no-brainer for you. The warehouse vibe, the casual fun food turned out to very high standard, combined with that view, make Saltwater an easy sell.

Phillip Island Winery

Here’s a reminder to people who might wonder what on earth a tiny coastal hamlet has to offer the wine lover. Phillip Island is nestled just next to the Gippsland coast. So, all those things you love about the flavour of Gippsland wines apply here. The wines are complex and full of character. But that’s not the whole story.

The owners of this place have form putting together the kind of venue where you want to spend a lazy afternoon with friends, having made a success out of the Westernport Hotel. The experience shows. Decor is considered and comfortable, dining choices from inside, to the outside open fire, to the expansive lawns are all beautifully put together without being fussy. Food is casual, from local produce. It’s for sharing, or for keeping to yourself, depending on how much you love your friends. The wines are on taste in the cellar door, so have a look before you order with lunch.

The venue is perfect for larger events, with a couple of spaces designed for the purpose. But don’t let that thought put you off an intimate lunch here, because that stunning view across the paddocks to Westernport is the prettiest way to spend a quiet foodie afternoon with wine and the person you love.

There’s a quirky bonus in visiting the winery, in the form of a little farm-gate style shop/studio for floral designer and stylist Bec Newman.

Warmer months here are ideal for a venue that boasts so many outdoor options, including the atrium, bean bags, live music, and a menu for your dog.

Yabby Lake

You might know Yabby Lake for its wines. The wines from winemaker Tom Carson are exquisite, and the subject of many a wine review containing rapturous hyperbole. The 2014 pinot noir quite famously won the Jimmy Watson Trophy – Australia’s most prestigious wine gong. It was the first pinot noir to do so.

The cellar door is a welcome breath of casual air, despite the lofty reputation of the wines. It’s a nice place to stand and taste a few of the award-winning wines while staring at either the sculpture collection, the view across the vineyards, or that Jimmy Watson Trophy in the cabinet. Take a little time to try the single block wines if you have the opportunity – they are a stunning lesson in terroir*.

The tasting is a lovely prelude to a long lunch. The menu is casual but sophisticated, the plates generous but refined.

There are few better ways to spend an afternoon than sitting in front of a view drinking some of Australia’s best wines, eating good food, and pondering the artworks. The Kirby family are well known patrons of the arts in Australia, and the collection at Yabby Lake is significant.

The attention to detail extends right to the end (or the beginning, depending on your preference) with expertly made Market Lane coffee.

* a French term which roughly translates as ‘the influence of all things local to a place upon the end product’.

Rokeby to Neerim Trail

It’s not the destination, it’s the journey, right? Like when you’ve got a whole day for a road trip and you’re all about the journey? But then you get in the car, punch in the GPS location, drive for a bit and then that GPS voice gets all angry when you take a turn off the path –suddenly, you’re all destination focussed. Read on and let OHO remind you why you should mute Google Maps and adjust your trip a little.

The back roads from the Yarra Valley into Gippsland via Neerim and Noojee are a stunning detour in themselves. Program your route to go via the C-roads, off the Princes Highway. Drag that blue line out to Neerim and Noojee. You won’t regret the extra time, particularly as you come through the Murchison gap. Stunning.

While you’re in the area, get out of the car and take a short walk into the Neerim-Rokeby trail. For us it was the perfect place to stretch the dog’s legs along the super-easy and flat rail trail. It features a historic trestle bridge that makes for a fine photographic subject. The complete walk is 12.6km, but you can park and do it in sections if you’re just out to stretch the dog’s legs. OHO kelpie Rosie approves.

Whilst on the topic of bridges, you should also stop at the Noojee trestle bridge. This one you can climb up to, walk across, and complete a circuit walk. It’s a spectacular wooden bridge in really great condition: discoveries like this at the end of a pointing brown tourist information sign are the reason it’s about the journey, not just the insistent voice of destination-focussed Google Maps.

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?