The food and wine lovers’ guide to North-east Victoria’s High Country »

Another lovely regional guide from the team at Produce to Platter

By Robyn Lewis
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Delatite Vineyards - Autumn, booroolite

Delatite Vineyards - Autumn, booroolite

Autumn in the vineyards, Morris Wines, Rutherglen, North East Victoria
Produce to Platter Victoria's High Country
Campbells Winery, Rutherglen
Many of the great winemaking houses of Rutherglen, Victoria, are still owned and run by members of the original family

 

The high country in the north-east of Victoria is one of the most beautiful areas of regional Australia, and should be on the bucket list of every Australian wine, food and scenery lover. If you want to #PutVictoriaOnYourTable too, this is for you.

The food and wine lovers’ guide to Victoria’s High Country covers the area centred around the famous towns of Rutherglen, Beechworth and Bright, stretching (according to their map) from Strath Creek and Yea in the south west to Kergunyah near Lake Hume in the north east.

Discovered by white explorers in 1824, it’s an area with a long and colourful history, and has been inhabited by indigenous Australians for perhaps 40,000 years.

Best known in more recent times for Ned Kelly, Banjo Paterson’s ‘Man from Snowy River’, and the Beechworth gold rush, from the wine point of view it’s also one of the most important regions of Australia, with the first vines of the area being planted in the 1850s at Rutherglen.

The Victorian government saw potential in the industry, and offered settlers £2 for every acre of new vines, which saw a five-fold increase in vineyards in the four years to 1885.

By 1890 Rutherglen was producing a quarter of Australia’s domestic wine. The area was also opened up for sheep and cattle grazing, and the gold rush brought in money, development and new settlers.

One of the first to plant wine grapes was a pastoralist named James Lindsay Brown, who with his son John planted 10 acres in 1885. From these small beginnings – and surviving the ravages of the dreaded phylloxera disease in the 1980s – the company we know today as Brown Brothers evolved (now one of Australia’s ‘First Families’ of wine).

Their winery built in 1898 still stands, and four generations later, the Brown family continue to make wines and experiment with new grape varieties suited to the warm summer climate of the region.

There are six wine regions in the High Country of NE Victoria: Rutherglen; Beechworth and Glenrowan; the Alpine Valleys; the King Valley and the Upper Goulburn.

Each is covered in detail in The food and wine lovers’ guide to Victoria’s High Country, with discussions about the regional climates, and some information on terroir and grape varieties.
 

Glenrowan is famous for its fortified wines (a favourite of early colonists). muscat and toquay (now known as topaque) as well as full-bodied shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and other reds including durif, tempranillo, nero d’avola and merlot. Whites include chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, verdelho, trebbiano and fiano.

Today, the region, along with neighbouring Beechworth are ‘producing Australia’s best, and intensely complex muscat and toquay’, the book states. Bailey’s of Glenrowan is one of its most famous producers.

Two other historic family wine makers are Auldstone Cellars and Booth’s Taminick Cellars.
 

The town of Beechworth at the foothills of the Victorian Alps is also known for its fortifieds, but also pinot noir in addition to the heavier reds and chardonnay.

Vineyards are relatively small, with Indigo Vineyard (Indigo Wine Company) at 46 ha the largest. There has been a modern revival in wine making, and the town excels in food – fine dining, winery restaurants, cafés, delis and country pubs abound.

The food and wine lovers’ guide to Victoria’s High Country explores many eateries, from the Ageing Frog’s Fish Bar to Gigi’s, Freeman on Ford and The Green Shed.

Several provide recipes, including the delicious Wild Rabbit Pithivier from chef Sean Ford at Gigi’s, and Gluten-free Chocolate and Raspberry Brownie from the Benalla Gallery Café (recipes from the author’s ‘favourite local chefs’ are separately indexed on pp 16-17, with handy thumbnail photographs).
 

Rutherglen is also famous for its fortified wines, and it’s here that the Campbell family (another of the First Families of Wine) have been producing their amazing wines since 1870.

To quote Graeme Lofts in Heart and Soul, his book about Australia's 'First Families of Wine', "the region’s reliable climate, with good soaking rains in winter and hot, dry summers that extend well into autumn, provides ideal conditions for slow ripening that delivers the true varietal flavours so desirable in red and white table wines.

The climate is especially kind to shiraz and durif… Grapes can be left to linger on the vines to develop the high sugar levels and complexity needed to produce the unique muscats and topaques of Rutherlen."

The Campbells were originally attracted to the region by the gold, but agreed with the Brown forebear’s advice that “there is more gold in the first six inches than there is lower down” – ie that the riches were in growing vines. The rest, as they say, is history, and for winelovers, a taste of the first Australian wine to be awarded a perfect 100 point score the Alpine Valleys Campbells Merchant Prince Rutherglen Muscat – is nirvana indeed.

Other wine producers include Cofield Wines (estd 1909) – which made its name with sparkling wine but is increasingly known for its reds and still whites – Jones Winery and Vineyard (1860),  and the more recently established Warrabilla Wines (1991), the unirrigated Olive Hills Estate Winery (1999) and Scion Vineyard and Winery (2002) which is only 2 km from the town centre.  

To plan your trip, or you don’t have time to visit all the wineries, drop into the Rutherglen Wine Experience and Visitor Information Centre, which has a great café and stocks local produce (and of course wines).

Regional eateries include the Pickled Sisters Café (in the grounds of Cofield Wines) and Taste@Rutherglen for a more formal dining experience.

Brimin Lodge on the Murray is a farming enterprise producing fabulous lamb, and now diversifying into shiitake mushrooms and Murray cod. Can't wait to see more of these on the local and Victorian menus!

The recipe from Pickled Sisters for Sticky Caramelised Pork Belly with Pineapple Salsa, Coconut Rice and (home made) BBQ Sauce sounds fabulously perfect for the Australian climate. Equally yummy looking is the Crisp Skinned Barramundi with Garlic Roasted Scampi from Taste@Rutherglen.
 

The Alpine Valleys have always been a bit of a mystery to me, but no longer. They consist of 4 valleys: the Ovens, Buffalo, Buckland and Kiewa, which apparently share similar microclimates featuring hot summer days, cool nights and chilly winters, with such variation that over 30 different grape varieties can be grown.

The foodie epicentre is the town of Bright, famous for Simone’s Restaurant and a range of others including Blackbird Café and Foodstore, Sol e Luna and Thirteen Steps bistro and wine bar.

Nearby there’s Porepunkah, Eurobin where you can dine on venison, emu or goat at the Red Stag Restaurant, and the towns of Ovens and Myrtleford, with its Butter Factory and Reign of Pearls tearooms.

I can see that a month’s good eating awaits anyone visiting this region – and why not stay in the Bright Velo Cycle Inn, Australia’s first dedicated bike hotel, and cycle it all off?! Who needs to go all the way to France when you’ve got this right here, especially with Food Wine Friends to make up picnic hamper baskets for you? I’m sold!

A featured winery is Ringer’s Reef, planted at the base of Mt Buffalo in 1998, and today producing all estate-grown, small batch wines.

If you love nectarines like I do and don’t eat them all fresh off the tree, try out Tani Restaurant’s recipe for Poached Nectarines with Nectarine Consommé, Quark, Millet Hazelnut Praline (using locally grown hazelnuts of course) and Bee Pollen which you can find at health stores. It looks so deliciously summery.
 

The King Valley lies to the west, stretching from the well-known Milawa in the north (home to Brown Brothers and the Milawa Cheese Factory) to Cheshunt in the south, and where you’ll find Chrismont Estate (established by Arnold Pizzini) and Politini Wines, of Sicilian heritage.

In case you haven’t guessed already, the Italian influence in the north east Victorian high country is strong, not just because of the post 1950s immigration but because of the climatic similarities.

Brown Brothers, founded in 1889, boasts one of Australia’s outstanding cellar door experiences, and is a must-visit on your trip to the NE. The food created by Chef Douglas Elder looks sensational too, especially the White Chocolate and Vanilla Bean Semifreddo.

There’s plenty of casual dining in the area, at the King River Café (try their Masterstock Duck), Ciccone’s Wine Cellar and Woodfired Pizza, and stay in a beautiful country house amongst the vines at Lindenwarrah and Milawa, for the fully immersive experience.
 

To the south-west and closer to Melbourne lies the Upper Goulburn, centred around Lake Eildon, with Bonnie Doon and Mansfield to its north, Jamieson to its south-east, and Yea, Yarck and Strath Creek to its west.

Mansfield (base camp to the ski fields in winter) is home to one of Australia’s finest rieslings, made by Delatite, who also produce a range of dry reds including tempranillo and graciano, Bordeaux-style blends and the more usual shiraz and pinot noir.

Hipsters will love Arteco Raw, the first boutique distributor of organic and biodynamic produce, coffee and wines in Mansfield, which also has a retro café and a wine store. Want meat? Head to Bonnie Bar and try their wood-fired Roast Rib of Beef, which you can also cook at home in the oven.

Stay in colonial style at Flowerdale Estate at Strath Creek, a fave for weddings, conferences, and also business and training centre (its owners previously managed The Botanical in South Yarra), and a relaxing retreat at weekends.

I defy anyone to read The food and wine lovers’ guide to Victoria’s High Country and not want to visit. However, the book is hefty, weighing in at just under 2.5 kg, so it’s not something you’d easily take in the car, more for armchair planning at home, and dreaming of a country escape.
 

A significant deficiency (as with some others in the Produce to Platter series) are the maps, especially the map on pp 8-9 – it’s for decorative purposes only, lacking a scale, regional names or boundaries (and locations of some of the places referred to in the text), or any explanation of the road names, even the arterial Hume Highway.

It’s a pity as this makes navigating through the book harder than it should be – you need to constantly refer to the internet to find out where some of the places are (even major ones such as Glenrowan). Don’t use it for navigation. The regional sub-maps are not much better.

But hey, we have satnav now, and Apple and Google maps, so maybe this is not so much of an issue.  

The wine coverage is not comprehensive, either – this is not a guide to all the cellar doors (the series is based on paid inclusion), but a taste of the riches that await the visitor.

However, overall The food and wine lovers’ guide to Victoria’s High Country is a delight, especially for foodies, who will be salivating over the places to visit and savour the region’s produce, as well as the recipes to try at home.

I can’t help wondering why this region is not better marketed? Or perhaps they have all the visitors they need, and like to keep it a secret?

Whatever, the news is out now. If you are planning a trip to this region, or looking for a coffee-table memento of your visit to North Eastern Victoria, then The food and wine lovers’ guide to Victoria’s High Country is definitely for you.

 

The food and wine lovers’ guide to Victoria’s High Country by Jonette George and Ethan Jenkins is published by Smudge Publishing (Melbourne, 2013;hc, 327 pp) and retails in Australia for RRP A$39.99 for the smaller sized hc, and $69.99 for the large, coffee-table only size.

It is available to purchase from any of the listed businesses, or direct from www.smudgepub.com.au »

Regions

  • North East Victoria (VIC)

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October 01st, 2014
 
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