VICTORIA’S LESSER KNOWN WINE REGIONS ARE WELL WORTH DISCOVERING.
Within an hour’s drive of Melbourne, you can be among rolling green hills, fern-clad gullies and ancient forests. Wine touring in Victoria makes the perfect break if you’re a city dweller or wine lover.
Ask your average non-Australian to name any of the country’s wine areas, and they might come up with the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale (South Australia), Hunter Valley (New South Wales). Or perhaps Margaret River (Western Australia). I myself was unaware that Victoria also boasts a surprising number of wine regions, as this map shows.
A visit to family in Melbourne changed all that. My husband and I decided to take a side trip for a couple of days to discover this under-rated region. We booked a small group trip with Wine Tours Victoria, a local specialist. It turned out that we were the only participants, so we had an even more personalized experience.
DAY 1: THE YARRA VALLEY
Collected from our city hotel first thing in the morning, we headed out for our day of fun and indulgence, feeling thankful – and maybe just a little smug – as we looked at the slow queues of commuters heading into Melbourne.
Until I realised, with that sickening sense of panic, that I’d left our passports in the hotel safe. The ever-patient Trevor, our guide for the day, dutifully turned back – and we joined said queue back into the city. I silently promised never to look smugly at commuters again when on holiday.
The penance for my forgetfulness was that we missed out on a picnic-style morning tea, which would have been lovely. Ah well, another time.
We were soon back on track and heading for the Yarra Valley, Victoria’s oldest wine region. This is a cold climate area known especially for sparkling wines, chardonnay and pinot noir. The craggy landscape reminded me very much of the Scottish borders. Even the place names, such as Coldstream, were reminiscent.
Our first stop was at Domaine Chandon which belongs to a branch of the famous French champagne house Moët & Chandon. We were feeling pretty thirsty by then, so were delighted to walk into the stylish and spacious tasting bar with its fabulous views over the vineyards. This was definitely the most swish of the wineries we visited.
Naturally, Domaine Chandon are known for their ‘méthode traditionnelle’ sparkling wines. We were shown upstairs to a private room and given a talk about the vineyard, how it started, and how the wines are produced. After an enjoyable time sampling them at the tasting bar we visited the boutique and could not resist buying a bottle to take home.
Our next stop was Tokar Estate, which was not so much Scottish in appearance as Mediterranean. As we approached the winery, with its pretty driveway and gardens filled with roses and cypresses, we could have been in Spain or Italy.
The Tokar family planted their vineyard in the 1990s and now produce the region’s traditional varieties – pinot noir, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz. They also grow the Spanish variety – tempranillo – and were the first in the region to do so. This was a real surprise, especially as I love tempranillo!
Tokar was also our lunch stop for the day, so we enjoyed a delicious 2-course lunch – with wine, naturally. This was a very different environment from luxurious Chandon – more rustic and authentic. We loved it.
We could have probably done with a siesta at this point! – but after a reviving walk around Tokar’s gorgeous gardens, we were back in the minibus and heading to nearby Oakridge Wines. This was very different from the previous visits, with its brutalist modern buildings.
Oakridge is one of the older wineries in the region, having been established in 1978. They specialise in single-vineyard wines and have won a number of international awards. Their top 864 range sells for around $90 a bottle! Luckily there are other, more affordable options. My husband enjoyed the Yarra Valley Chardonnay, and I really liked the sparkling rosé from Oakridge’s Specialty range.
What we particularly admired about Oakridge was their focus on sustainable practices. They use compost teas and even have an insectarium! – all geared towards promoting soil health using natural methods. Their wine making uses traditional techniques and minimal intervention. The extensive kitchen garden was amazing – I’d love to have tried the restaurant.
Our next visit was to Coldstream Hills winery, which was founded in 1985 by a well-known Australian wine writer named James Halliday. He and his wife have gradually added more blocks to their property over the years, producing single vineyard wines from some of them – notably Deer Farm and The Esplanade. They have been very successful despite a bush fire destroying part of their vineyards in 2009.
I particularly enjoyed tasting their Yarra Valley Sauvignon Blanc, which was a little sweeter and less acidic than the New Zealand Marlborough equivalents that I know and love so much. Their single vineyard Deer Farm range was exceptionally good, especially the pinot noir.
I have to admit, by this time we were wishing we had used the spittoon a little more! We could understand how professional wine-tasters simply couldn’t cope with drinking all the samples. At the same time, it would have been such a waste!
Time to head west towards our lodgings in Macedon, and a cup of tea.
The company had booked us into Hollyhocks Bed & Breakfast in Macedon for the night. We had a lovely private room with a deck overlooking the beautiful gardens. It was a real Australian country home experience. Cockatoos played in the trees and a kookaburra liked to sit on our veranda.
Our host, Christine, was very friendly and had a delicious chicken stew on the go when we arrived that first evening. After a very sound sleep and hearty breakfast, we were ready to hit the road again.
DAY 2: MACEDON RANGES
The Macedon Ranges is one of the coolest regions in Australia. There are no more mountains between this area and Antarctica, so the fresh cold air blows straight through! We were told that this gives the wines their distinctively fresh and intense characteristics.
Our guide for this region was Melissa, Trevor’s business partner, who turned out to be just as friendly and knowledgeable. And this time we got to enjoy morning tea, with some delicious fruit cake baked by Trevor! Given our delayed start to the previous day’s visits, Melissa was determined to make up for it by packing in as much as possible to day 2. I’ll go on to describe the highlights.
Hanging Rock Winery
Hanging Rock Winery is named after a local landmark – an impressive geological formation. It’s not quite Uluru but is certainly beautiful in its own way.
The Ellis family were the first to make méthode champenoise in Australia. They planted their vines in 1983 after searching for land that was cool enough to mimic the Champagne region terroir and climate. The south-facing Hanging Rock location in the Macedon Ranges proved to be the perfect place.
The family also have their own herd of pure bred Speckle Park cattle. Their own award-winning beef is sold at the cellar door. Wish I could have taken some of that home to New Zealand! In the meantime, we enjoyed the wines, especially the sparkling rosé.
Cleveland Winery was our lunch stop visit. We loved the rustic red brick and corrugated iron buildings and the pretty box-hedged garden at the heart of them. The restaurant felt like a large barn and had lovely views of the vineyards and Mount William in the distance. We had delicious pizzas from the wood-fired oven, naturally accompanied by tastings – of shiraz and pinot noir.
After lunch we were taken to the winery’s unique underground cellar door to learn more about the winery’s history and taste some more wines.
Granite Hills Winery
Granite Hills was probably our favourite of the whole tour. Like most of the wineries we visited, it’s a small-scale family business, in a lovely hilltop location. They started with cabernet sauvignon and shiraz, but when tastes began to change in the 1980s they began to grow pinot and chardonnay also.
And so to our top 2 wines of the trip, which we simply had to bring home. Winemaker Llew Knight named The Gordon after his father, who established Granite Hills in 1970. Our 2012 vintage was a blend of his dad’s beloved cabernet sauvignon with cabernet franc and merlot, hand harvested from 40 year-old vines.
The 2015 Late Harvest was made from a select batch of partially botrytis-affected riesling, producing a sweet, but not too sweet, dessert wine.
These 2 wines were so different and distinctive that they stood out for us. As Llew Knight said, it’s the quirky oddities that you get from family vineyards that make them special – whereas the larger commercial operations aim for consistency.
The Holgate Brewhouse
I think Melissa could tell that by now, things were becoming a bit of a blur for us – physically and mentally! So she threw in a surprise to our schedule as we prepared to head back to Melbourne. Hearing that my husband is a craft beer aficionado, she simply had to drop us off at the Holgate Brewhouse, in the village of Woodend, for a quick visit.
Founded by Paul and Tash Holgate in 1999, this historic establishment offers a traditional pub, accommodation, function space and visitor experience. The traditionally-crafted beers are made on site.
Although it was late in the afternoon, we were allowed to slip into the brewhouse at the back and have a look around. It wasn’t the right time to take a tasting selection of Holgate’s 12 beers, but it was fun to get a glimpse of what was on offer. Every trip should save at least one thing undone, for next time!
We thoroughly enjoyed our 2 days of wine touring in Victoria. April was a lovely time to go, as the early autumn colours were starting to appear, but temperatures were still comfortably warm. Roads were good, the terrain was gentle and the scenery beautiful. Travelling around was easy and comfortable.
We couldn’t have had more knowledgeable or friendly guides than Trevor and Melissa, who not only knew their stuff about wine, but also had a fulsome repertoire of entertaining anecdotes and stories. We would definitely recommend Wine Tours Victoria to anyone thinking of taking a wine tasting trip.
2 days was about right for a wine tour, and if we did another we would try and pace ourselves a little better. After the 4th or 5th winery, things do start to blur and feel a little repetitive, so we would endeavour to try something different at each location if possible. And use the spittoon!
Of course, the food is as much a part of the experience when wine touring, and there are some very good restaurants at these wineries. Some had their own vegetable and herb gardens, and most sourced their produce locally. We enjoyed our lunches at Tokar and Cleveland, and would love to try dinner at one of the other restaurants.
Our stay in Melbourne was at The Langham, which I write about in my post on Bucket List hotels.
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