By Sandy Myhre
Victoria is called Australia’s Garden State for fairly obvious reasons, but the climate varies greatly despite its relatively small size. In the north-west it can be very hot and dry while across the other side, in the north-east, near the snowfields and close to the border with New South Wales, winter temperatures can be below freezing.
Yet north-east Victoria has plenty to offer, even in winter, and it’s well worth venturing up from Melbourne for a slow three-hour drive on the very straight Hume Highway or to catch one of numerous trains heading that way.
Victoria has more wine wineries (over 600) than any other Australian wine-producing state but ranks just third in overall wine production. It can’t (and probably doesn’t need) to compete with the mass bulk wine-producing areas in South Australia and New South Wales and that, in fact, is part of the attraction.
Boutique wineries abound and although the area is known for its distinctive Madeira-like fortified wines like Liquer Muscat, the Aussie mainstays of Shiraz, Cabernet Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are plentiful. In the late 1990s new plantings produced Viognier, Sangiovese, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, and a few more exotic, lesser-known, varieties. Sounds good already, does it not?
One of the best ways of getting around the smaller vineyards for a tasting session is to be guided by North-East Victoria Wine Tours. So, on a cold winter’s morning, three Kiwis and one token Aussie ventured forth to discover why Rutherglen, Glenrowan, Beechworth and King Valley are so established on the wine maps of Australia and why Milawa produces such decent cheese.
It was a significant birthday celebratory tour and with a sober driver there was little incentive to exercise wine-tasting restraint.
Fairly close to Wangaratta is Indigo Vineyard in Beechworth. It’s not one of the wineries with a long family history but with careful biodynamic growing methods on mineral-rich hills in a relatively benign climate has earned their product a well-deserved healthy reputation.
Besides that, Indigo promote what they do very well. Their wine-tasting session was one of the best on the day’s tour because of the care that went into the presentation. It’s personal, of course, but the Pinot Grigio is divine and brought back to New Zealand for later tasting was a jar of their highly individual Indigo Shiraz paste.
Not far away is Rutherglen, probably one of the best-known of Victoria’s wine-growing districts. Offering a palpable sense of the longevity of wine production is John Gehrig, wine-makers since 1860 and the state’s oldest winemaking family with five generations notched on the tree. The current winemaker is Ross who has studied his career choice in France and Israel.
The brother-in-law snapped up their Muscat Classic because that’s his taste preference while the two women in the party (twins as it happens) rather liked the Pinot Noir.
There’s another John Gehrig vineyard open for tasting sessions at Oxley and if you time it right you can take in the periodical lunches, music and seasonal tasting festivals.
So many wineries, so little time, and too numerous to go through here. The best-named had to be Pennyweight. It occurred it’s to do with the gold that once streak-veined the area. A little later research reveals it’s a unit of weight, 24 grains of one twentieth of an ounce troy. Good name and nice wine.
One very appreciated stop was at Milawa Cheese Factory in, yes. Milawa, in what’s known as the gourmet region of the north-east high country. David and Anne Brown founded the company in what used to be an old butter factory. Up for tasting is the full range of 17 artisan cheeses (hand-made on site) and it’s probably fair to issue a warning that if you go when you’re hungry you’ll be there a while.
The alternative is to lunch at San Miranda in the King Valley. If you like Italian-style food, enjoy wine (topping up from the previous tastings) and like sophisticated surroundings, this is a must-stop. In a word, it’s flash, and that was unexpected in what is a very rural district.
We visited Glenrowan not for wine-tasting but because of Ned Kelly. I mean, who wouldn’t and you can’t miss him. A six-metre tall metallic statue dominates the main street and which shows you’ve arrived in the right spot, no mistake.
Everything is Ned Kelly Something – stationery store, general store, library, museum but not the Cobb & Co eatery or one of the best bric-a-brac and antique stores seen in a long while. It’s on the corner and you can’t miss it – there’s practically only one corner.
By afternoon the tour had come to an end. Wine had been tasted, much had been bought, lunch had been imbibed, cheeses and other goodies munched. If north-east Victoria wasn’t immediately on the classic tourist trail out of Melbourne until now, this may prompt you to change your mind. It’s worth it.