A Taste of Two Regions — Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley
One of the best things about Melbourne is that it has some brilliant food and wine regions right on its doorstep. We get a taste of two regions — Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley — on a day trip from Melbourne with Simon, a food and wine guide and sommelier.
We don’t even need to rise at the crack of dawn to get on our way. The Mornington Peninsula, the first region we’re visiting, is just a short drive south of Melbourne around Port Phillip Bay. In less than an hour we’re passing sleepy seaside towns, weatherboard holiday houses set amongst native bushland, and sandy beaches lined with candy-coloured changing sheds and boathouses.
To reach our first stop we park at the top of a cliff beside a wooden sign that says ‘FISH’ and scramble down a narrow rocky path to sandy Fisherman’s Beach and the blue boathouse belonging to fifth generation fishermen Neville and Dalton Hutchins. The brothers, apparently having already sold most of their morning catch, are scrubbing clean the stainless steel benches when we arrive.
The Hutchins men tell us how their ancestors moved to Mornington in 1860 and their grandfather built the family’s first boatshed on the same site in 1890 from driftwood that washed up on shore. They built a second shed in 1910 after the first washed away and the brothers have ran their fishing business from here ever since.
Fish doesn’t come fresher than the daily catch the blokes bring in and sell from the shed — caught just 50-200 metres off shore! And it’s sold for around 20-30% less than what you’d pay in Melbourne. It’s a popular shopping spot for local chefs and Simon tells us he’s brought guests here before, bought fish, and barbecued it nearby. Yum.
Craving a fish sandwich — I’m picturing grilled snapper drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice, and a picnic on the sand — I ask the brothers why they don’t open a fish and chips shop here. “Nah…” says Dalton, shaking his head (he’s obviously heard this before). “Then we’d be tied to the shop instead of out in the boat catching fish.” Looking out to the still water, the sunlight sparkling on the sea like diamonds, seagulls swooping overhead, I see his point.
We pass more waterfront promenades and vibrantly painted boatsheds further along the coast at Dromana before winding up the hill to Murray’s Lookout to savour sweeping bay views on our way to our next stop.
At Green Olive at Red Hill we sip coffee on a stone terrace with Greg and Sue O’Donoghue, as we soak up the sunshine, inhale fragrant herbs from their kitchen garden, and take in the gentle slopes dotted with silvery olive trees. Greg tells us how they abandoned dull corporate jobs to pursue their dreams. The couple left Australia to travel the world in the 1990s — intending to go for four months and, in true Aussie style, staying away four years — and in 2002, they planted their first olive grove.
Soon after, they planted grape vines — Pinot and Chardonnay — and built a commercial kitchen so Sue could make chutneys, relishes and jams. Two years ago, they opened their lofty, light-filled café and farm shop, bought Wiltshire sheep (26 ewes and one ram) and added lamb prosciutto and sausages to their product list. Now, they also bake bread and roast coffee.
“It’s all about sustainability — to be fully sustainable is our goal,” Greg says with pride, handing over a menu that features delectable dishes such as a tapas-style tasting plate that showcases their produce and that of their neighbours (the Caprinella goats cheese, for instance, comes from nearby Main Ridge Dairy), along with their own Kelpie Bridge Wines, which we later taste and find wonderful.
On 27 acres of fertile red volcanic soil, Greg and Sue are growing 600 olive trees — Picual, Frantoio, Leccino, Kalamata, and Manzanilla varieties — vegetables, herbs and grapes, and raising chickens, sheep and even fish in a dam at the bottom of the hill. They capture all their water, use water from the dam for irrigation, and recycle wastewater. Kitchen leftovers are fed to the chickens or composted, glass and plastic recycled, cooking done in a woodfire oven, fuelled by fallen timber from the property, and they’re installing solar panels.
In the farm shop, you can buy their cold pressed extra virgin olive oil, whole olives, flat bread, free-range eggs, dukkahs and herbed salts, freshly roasted single origin coffees, handmade lamb sausages, salami and salt cured lamb, relishes, chutneys and jams, and of course, their wine. You can eat on the sunny terrace or buy a picnic hamper to take away. Greg and Sue also offer classes in sausage making, olive oil pressing and brining, and coffee roasting. All the delicious results of their dream…
Our first wine tasting for the day is at nearby Ten Minutes by Tractor, where Julie, who has looked after the cellar door for ten years, welcomes us with the fascinating story of how three different vineyards, owned by three different families — each ten minutes apart by tractor, but very different to each other in terms of soil, slope, aspect, and altitude — fortuitously came together to form this very special winery.
In the early 1990s, the McCutcheon and Wallis families planted vineyards on the Mornington Peninsula’s coolest and highest sub-region, Main Ridge, which had the best potential for producing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, while the Judd family bought a vineyard and olive grove nearby. The families sold fruit to local wineries while experimenting with small batches of wine until the late nineties when they formed a cooperative.
In 2000, they released their first official vintage, made by respected local winemaker (and former surgeon) Richard McIntyre, and by 2003 the families’ Pinot Noir and Chardonnay releases were garnering accolades. They realised, however, that to be successful the winery required more funds than they could manage and in 2004 they sold a long-term lease of the vineyards to Martin Spedding, another corporate escapee who had set out to pursue a dream and had been travelling around Australia in search of a winery to buy. Adding another site to the mix, the Spedding vineyard was established.
Because the vineyards are at different elevations and orientations, the grapes from each are separately harvested, fermented and set in barrel, resulting in markedly different wines, each a true expression of its unique terroir. In outstanding years, they produce single vineyard wines, at other times they do blends. They turn out to be some of the most distinctive wines we’ve tasted anywhere.
As Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are what the Mornington does best, we try several from the 2009 and 2010 vintages, all hand picked. The highlights for me are the 2009 Estate Chardonnay, which has a buttery, caramel and melon nose that I can’t stop inhaling. I don’t even need to sip this stuff, but when I do it’s sumptuous. I also love the Wallis Chardonnay, which Aussie wine legend James Halliday awarded a whopping 96 points, which has a complex nose and a mouthfeel that moves from soft caramels and stonefruit to a zingy minerality as you’d expect being close to the sea.
The 2009 McCutcheon Pinot Noir is special — elegant, earthy and spicy, it smells of an Australian bush summer. Even though it’s a crisp autumn day, I’m transported back in time a few months. The vintage year reminds me of the 2009 summer (we were in Australia staying with family in Bendigo at the time), one of Victoria’s hottest ever, when February bushfires destroyed whole towns, most devastatingly felt in the Yarra Valley, our next destination.
The Mornington boasts some 200 vineyards, 60 wineries and around 50 cellar doors dotted along its hilly bush roads, and we briefly visit one more before heading to the Yarra. At picturesque Morning Sun on Main Ridge, the vineyards and olive groves overlook a small valley facing the morning sun.
Owner Mario Toniolo, who hand-planted his vines sixteen years ago at age seventy (what an inspiration that is!) isn’t around when we visit, but we chat to his staff while we sip a few of wines — current vintage releases include Pinot Noir, Pinot Nero, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio — and Chef Jens cooks us up the house specialty, polenta chips served with blue cheese dipping sauce. They’re sublime. I enviously eye a group of friends enjoying lunch overlooking that valley, before we hit the road and head north.
It takes us an hour to reach the Yarra Valley, regarded as the birthplace of Victorian wine growing and famous for its fresh, crisp country air and cool climate wines, especially its Chardonnays, Cabernets and sparkling wines.
The vast valley is home to more than 70 vineyards and some 50 cellar doors, and wineries like Coldstream Hills which put the Yarra on the map for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; Domaine Chandon, owned by Moet et Chandon; and De Bortoli, who we’ll never forget for generously sponsoring the premiere of our feature film many years ago.
At Dominique Portet, in the centre of the valley, vintage is underway. The genial French winemaker takes us on a tour of his winery, where we finger some freshly-picked grapes, try some fizzy sparkling fermenting in stainless steel vats, and amble across to the vineyards, taking care not to get hit by baskets flying through the air, over the rows of vines, where a crew of workers are hard at work handpicking the Merlot grapes Dominique will use to make his famous sparkling rosé.
Dominique’s wines are delightful, as we’ll discover during a tasting at the cellar door — especially the sparklings and particularly the Fontaine Rosé — however, it’s the story here, like everywhere we’re visiting today, that I’m finding just as captivating. While Dominique has been in the Yarra for 10 years, the Portet family has been making wine for ten generations — since the 17th century!
Dominique’s father, André Portet was a régisseur (vineyard/winery manager) at Chateau Lafite-Rothschild in Pauillac, France, where Dominique’s own training started, continuing at Montpellier’s University of Oenology and during vintages in the Médoc, Rhone Valley and Provence, with Moët et Chandon, and even during compulsory military service where as a wine purchasing officer Dominique was responsible for daily wine rations and therefore, he felt, responsible for the army’s morale.
It was during the three vintages Dominique spent at his brother’s Clos du Val winery in California’s Napa Valley that he began searching for his own vineyard, arriving in Australia in the mid 1970s, where he would make wines at Taltarni and Clover Hill, and establish a reputation as one of the pioneers of Victoria’s wine renaissance.
It wasn’t until 2000, however, that the Frenchman, now well and truly an Aussie, started the Yarra Valley winery and his Dominique Portet label, the first to bear his family’s name after centuries in the business. Continuing the tradition, Dominique’s children are involved in different capacities and we meet winemaker Ben, who, following in his father’s footsteps, holds an Adelaide University degree and has notched up some years of experience at wineries in France, South Africa and the Napa Valley.
Yarra Yering, Maddens Rise & Innocent Bystander
There are more fabulous tales to discover at our final three fleeting stops… Yarra Yering is where in 1973 Dr Bailey Carrodus released the first commercial vintage of Yarra Valley wines in fifty years. While grapes had been grown in the Valley since the mid 1800s through to the 1920s and was one of Australia’s main exports, production stopped during the 1920s depression when there was a shift in focus to wool.
An Oxford-educated botanist, passionate about food and wine, Dr Carrodus planted 12 hectares of vines in 1969 to produce his first vintages of Dry Red Wine No 1 and No 2. The doctor’s wines quickly gained kudos abroad for their quality and individuality and for the next 35 years Dr Carrodus made great wines from everything from Nebbiolo and Barbera to Carmeniere and Mouvedre. The tasting room is crowded with a large group of wine tourists when we arrive, but the few drops we hastily try are wines of distinction I’m determined to seek out again.
At Maddens Rise, in a chic cellar door that more closely resembles a florist’s shop, we learn from the bubbly Emma that biodynamic practices are being employed, along with handpicking and small batch fermentation, to produce some really interesting wines. In addition to the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, planted in 1996, there are trial blocks of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Arneis, Fiano, Garganega, Vermentino, and Sangiovese, supporting Matt Skinner’s view that Victoria is probably Australia’s most diverse wine-growing state.
Our last stop for the day, slap bang in the centre of the Yarra Valley’s main town of Healesville, is Innocent Bystander. An enormous contemporary barn of a winery, the stylish set-up houses a bakery, cheese room, provedore, and casual bistro, from where you can see through a colossal glass wall into the lofty winery, as well as a cellar door. After a quick winery tour, we try a handful of wines from the two labels, Innocent Bystander and Giant Steps.
The first includes a selection of quality wines produced from grapes from different vineyards around the Valley and beyond. The second focuses on small batch wines created from single vineyards within the Yarra Valley and there are some outstanding drops. The name Giant Steps, we’re told, is a nod to the leap owner Phil Sexton took in moving from one side of the country to the other, from the Margaret River in Western Australia to the Yarra Valley in Victoria, and from beer-making (he’s behind the brilliant Little Creatures brews) to wine making.
We love the wines, but we also love the story behind them. Our taste of the two regions — Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley — may have been brief, but the stories of passionate people pursuing dreams to do things they love, to make people happy, would be lasting and inspiring.
How to get to the Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley
We were guests of Suze Healy’s Melbourne Private Tours, which offers a range of tours as well as bespoke excursions. While we got a delicious taste of the two regions in a day, and would highly recommend the same trip if you’re on a stopover or tight schedule, we’d suggest the Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley be explored over two days to allow more time to soak up the sunshine from a terrace overlooking the vineyards. Having said that, either way, you’re going to be left wanting more.