The Australian state of Victoria is the place to find premium Southern-Hemisphere cool climate wines, produced with passion. Along the way you will see the huge variety of Victoria’s landscapes and wildlife, from alpine forests dotted with wildflowers to seaside penguin spotting.
You can visit both some of the most famous wine regions of Australia and others of which you have probably never heard. Many vineyards offer a wonderful setting for visitors to enjoy fabulous food and wine tasting. Tasting is usually free and you will often be able to talk to the winemaker in person.
The Yarra Valley wine region
This is the most famous wine region in Victoria and the first established in Australia! This rich valley along the winding Yarra River (which also flows through Melbourne) benefits from the silt-rich flood plain and dry, sunny conditions. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the stars here and it benefits from the long history – vines were first planted in 1838) – of winemaking.
Montalto is one of the big set-piece estates in the Yarra Valley and it is worth a stop here to enjoy the view from the lawn of the vineyards, olive groves and green hills but the real charm of the Yarra Valley lies in the small vineyards, the personal touch, the hidden gems.
Some of my favourites include the Allinda Winery, on Lorimers Lane, where complex wines are available for tasting in the gorgeous recycled-timber cellar door that has stunning views. Also Yileena Park – the winemaker here is a real character and they have an impressive sandstone cellar and tasting room. Then there is Dixons Creek Estate, where Graeme Miller offers fabulous views from the terrace and a direct view of the winery at work. Have a look at the Yarra Valley Smaller Wineries website for more examples of unassuming, family-run vineyards that are a real pleasure to visit.
If you don’t end up eating at one of the vineyards – because you are visiting very small places – a great place to either have lunch or buy supplies for a gourmet picnic is the Yarra Valley Dairy. Near Yering on McMeikans Rd. The award-winning handmade cheeses (try the Persian-style feta) is sold alongside delicious breads and all sorts of epicurean treats. They usually have a guest winemaker offering tastings and wine chat in the shop.
Don’t forget to spend some time at Healesville Sanctuary – one of the loveliest places to get up close to Australia’s amazing wildlife in a natural setting.
Alpine vineyards around Bright
Victoria’s Great Alpine Road is a unique road trip in itself, perfect for road touring. For 300 kilometres from Wangaratta to Bairnsdale there are national parks, ski resorts and alpine villages; vineyards and gourmet eats. This is some of Australia’s best high country and alpine scenery. Grab the bicycles off the back of the campervan and hit The Murray to Mountains Rail Trail, a gently pleasant 106 kilometres of off-road sealed trail. For foodies the Milawa gourmet trail offers cuisine and fine wines scattered around a small loop adjacent to the Great Alpine Road.
Wineries in the area have won many awards for their cool climate wines. There are vineyards at P orepunkah and also Gapsted, Myrtleford, Rosewhite and Mt. Beauty. My favourite was the Boynton’s Feathertop winery in Porepunkah – with its lovely shaded terrace restaurant. Isn’t this just what you want to see after a warm morning of cycling?
The Heathcote wine region
The ancient Cambrian soil of the Heathcote wine region produces some excellent reds just 100 kilometres north of Melbourne. This is typical Victoria country scenery: naked hills and rough paddocks with the silvery sheen of long grass. Add to this the gentle curves of slopes covered with vineyards and you’ve got the perfect setting for some wine tasting.
Perhaps time your visit to Heathcote for the annual early winter wine tasting festival in June. Heathcote on Show is a celebration of the wine, food and people of the Heathcote wine region. Some of the vineyards are only open for wine tasting on festival weekends. The town is one of the many former Victorian goldrush settlements that has now turned its hand to welcoming visitors. There are a number of cellar doors right on the main street. Both the Heathcote Estate and the Cellar Store offer wine tastings, food and a pleasant atmosphere.
There are around 70 wineries in the region, with 30 of them having cellar door wine tasting – I visited Shelmerdine Vineyards, Munari Wines, Sanguine Estate Wines, Flynns Wines, Idavue Estate, McIvor Estate and Downing Estate.
The best food was at Shelmerdine Vineyards, enjoyed in front of an open fire and looking out the window on the dew glistening on the garden. The best cellar door was at Munari, where a charming wooden cabin cellar door with an antique bar, fresh flowers and charming hosts welcomed me. The prettiest winery setting was that of McIvor Estate on the scenic Tooborac-Lancefield road (just south of Heathcote).
The Pyrenees wine region
Yes but isn’t that in France or Spain I hear you ask? In western Victoria a cluster of low, untamed ranges was named by early explorer Thomas Mitchell in 1836. Mitchell was reminded of the European mountain chain where he had once served as an army officer. The highest point in these hills is actually only just over 750m in altitude. Another significant event in the mid-19th century was the planting of vines in the region in 1848 and it has long been a significant producer of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon grape varieties (now planting and wine-making is much expanded). The starting point for an exploration of the Australian Pyrenees is the town of Avoca, where the tourism office can give you a list of the wineries open to the public as well as those offering restaurants and accommodation. I had a marvellous lunch and tasting at Warrenmang Vineyard and Resort.
The Grampians wine region
The little town of Great Western rejoices not only in a cool name and a setting on the edge of Victoria’s Grampian National Park mountains, but also in a cluster of wonderful vineyards. A couple of Frenchmen who met in the Victorian goldfields came here in the mid-19th-century and decided to plant vines. Another Frenchman, Charles Pierlot, introduced the method champenoise at Great Western Estate and the region has gone from strength to strength with its sparkling wines. Sparkling Shiraz is a popular celebratory drink in Australia and this is the best place I tasted this unexpected tipple.
Seppelt (a venerable Barossa Valley winemaker) took over the Great Western Estate in Victoria and a visit to the Seppelt estate is particularly fun because they offer tours of the over-three-kilometres of underground tunnels, called “drives”, dug originally by gold miners but now used as an impressive and slightly spooky place to cellar the sparkling wine. The other well-known Great Western vineyard is Best’s and although I didn’t have an entirely positive experience there, the cellar door is nice and they had a yummy fortified wine.
Of course you will want to explore the craggy ranges of the Grampians, with its lush vegetation and wildlife. There is plenty of walking to be done and make sure you take a drive up to the village of Halls Gap and visit Mackenzie Falls. Reeds Viewpoint is a must – the views out over the seemingly neverending sea of eucalyptus forest is spectacular.
Phillip Island vineyards and the Mornington Peninsula
Last but not least, once back in Melbourne and before you jet off to enjoy more of Australia’s top attractions, it is an easy day or weekend trip to drive down to Phillip Island and/or the Mornington Peninsula.
Phillip Island is home to the world-famous Penguin Parade to see – gather at sunset at Phillip Island Nature Park to see hundreds of Little Penguins race up Summerland Beach, returning to their burrows after a day fishing at sea. But there are also a number of lovely vineyards where the cool climate wines have a strong varietal character. I love Purple Hen Wines, near Rhyll, where the restaurant/tasting room is rustic and the food delicious, with views across the rural setting. Bass Valley Wines and the Phillip Island Vineyard and Winery are also excellent, family-run wineries.
On the Mornington Peninsula, charming towns like Rye and Sorrento offer gourmet delights (such as the world’s best vanilla slice at the Just Fine Food Delicatessen in Sorrento), pretty beaches and a handful of lovely wineries. A couple of my favourites – that are right next to each other so easy to enjoy on a day trip are the Montalto property and the Tuck’s Ridge estate. Both are on Shoreham Rd and have lovely gardens, views, food and of course wine tasting!
So there you have it, my top tips for a Victorian road trip with a focus on enjoying some of the state’s best landscapes and vineyards and some of Australia’s best wine regions.
By Natasha von Geldern