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?

 

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.

Merricks General Wine Store

It’s been a while since the last visit to Merricks General Wine Store. I had fond memories of a great long lunches with a bunch of day-tripping friends. We’d seen a few wineries, walked on a wintery beach at Shoreham, and sat around a long table swapping dishes, tasting everything and sharing some great wines. The ownership has changed since then, but my memories are accurate. This place is just a perfect pause in the middle of a long weekend or just a long day out.

French chef Patrice Repellin’s food is seasonal, from local produce. We’d been to a farm-gate store where they were growing mushrooms earlier in our day out, and it was fantastic to then eat the king brown mushrooms in a dish a few hours later.

Wines are mostly local, showcasing in particular the wines of the Baillieu vineyards and other “friends of the wine store.”

Don’t miss the art gallery next door. It has a regularly changing exhibition. Also, if you’re on an early run and just want a coffee, they have a hole-in-the-wall style cafe too.

Balgownie Estate Bendigo

If you’re familiar with Balgownie Estate Yarra Valley, going to the Bendigo side of the family is like visiting that cousin in the country who has the lifestyle you’ve always dreamt of. Laid-back, casual, super-relaxed about being incredibly lucky to live in a beautiful place. This cousin is the envy of its slick sister.

The Bendigo property was the first to bear the name ‘Balgownie’, planted in 1969 by Stuart Anderson. It’s 33 hectares of mostly red grape varieties, producing powerful and intense wines, but which still show restraint in alcohol.

Food by chef Travis is French inspired, and makes the most of the region’s stunning produce. Particularly noteworthy is the Wagyu beef, grown by an old school mate of Travis’s. Fresh boxes of local food come in from producers, inspiring the classically trained chef to create new dishes. There’s beauty and finesse in the food, but the atmosphere is relaxed and very ‘country’.

The property also has accommodation. There’s a newly renovated set of suites, joined in the middle by a large common area with kitchen, perfect for a big group weekend away. The popular ‘glamping’ tents are a must-do experience, set in the bushland adjacent to the restaurant and winery, overlooking the spectacular vineyard. Each is equipped with air-conditioning and a fridge, and the deluxe tents even have bathrooms. It’s still camping, but definitely on the glamorous side!

Captain Moonlite

Walking from the car park to the top floor of the Anglesea Surf Club, we had no idea what to expect. We’d heard rumours about what chef Matt Germanchis and his partner Gemma Gange had done up here, but nothing solid. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition – surf-club memorabilia with super-professional service from a ridiculously experienced crew. (Gemma comes from a portfolio career of high-end postings at Pei Modern, Jacques Reymond and Stokehouse.) So, even as we sat down, we still had no idea what was coming.

Matt started at the Healesville Hotel years ago, and moved on through a career littered with more Chef’s Hats (Pei Modern, MoVida, Pandora’s Box). The food reflects all that experience, but it’s somehow made the sea-change and relaxed with him. It’s seasonal produce, a daily menu changing with what’s available. Don’t worry about missing a favourite we guarantee each visit will garner a new one.

Visit again and again. Make a Captain Moonlite pilgrimage a regular thing. It’s not that far to go for food this good.

Did we mention the view?

Austin’s & Co.

This is one of those ‘you’d better sign up to the mailing list’ moments, because you’ll want to book early. The monthly lunches are a long-table affair, showcasing the local produce and, of course, Scott’s wine. We had the mainstay Chardonnay and Pinot. It’s an education in the influence of maritime conditions on the growing of grapes. These wines have a delicious complexity afforded them by the climate. 

Pomonal Estate

Something is happening in the tiny community of Pomonal. Pep, owner of Pomonal Estate, points to the neighbours in various directions and tells OHO, ‘The carpenter lives over there, the builder just there, the beekeeper over that way, and the guy who grows the salad greens, just there.” Almost on cue, the guy who grows the salad greens walks in the door with today’s box of salad greens. He talks about the horseradish-peppery flavour of the curly red lettuce.

The owners’ enthusiasm for all things local is infectious. The build is brand-new, and made by locals. The accommodation they’ve just opened on site is set right in the middle of the place they love. The Grampians are right there, changing all the time with the changes in light, and you can stay in a brand-new luxury home with picture windows to all the views.

What you’ve really come here to read about, though, is one or more of the following burning questions:

1.  Can I get a good coffee? Yes.
2.  Is there good food? Yes. Local, simple and fresh.
3.  Is there a view? Yes. A damn good one.
4.  Is the wine good? Yes it is.
5.  Is the beer good? Yes it is, and it’s truly small-batch, made on site.
6.  Is it far? No, not if you stay over. Otherwise, expect a 3-hour drive and a mix-tape.

Fallen Giants

The Grampians is rich with ancient history. The landscape, shaped by the great spirit Bunjil, breathes ancient air. There’s so much to soak in, if you just take a little slow-time. Part of the ancient Dreamtime story is honoured by Fallen Giants Wines, the name a reference to the tale told in the traditions of the Djab Wurrung and Jardwadjali people, the original custodians of the land. The estate’s wine labels show representations of the spirit birds from the stories.

The cellar door at Fallen Giants is a small, picturesque place. There are simple local-produce platters on offer, and knowledgable staff take care in presenting tastings of the wines. The modesty of the place belies the quality of the wines – most rate 95 or higher according to Halliday, and are worthy of any great collection. Formerly a part of the Rathbone’s Langi Ghiran portfolio, the place is now independently operated again after purchase by the Drummonds in 2013.  Recently awarded a “5-Red-Star Winery” accolade by Halliday, Fallen Giants is continuing the long tradition of exceptional wines from this vineyard.

Stay tuned to the social media pages and subscribe to the mailing list for all kinds of super-relaxed music and events on that epic lawn, surrounded by those extraordinary Grampians views.