This post comes from GoGet member and writer Bronwen Whyatt.
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When friends from London descend on the internationally recognised gastronomic delight that is Melbourne, they and you are in for a treat.
Sometimes they can surprise you with a previously unknown gem, like the roof-top, Madame Brussels, oh so naughty, but oh so nice. Or tag along to a couple of your favourites, like Mamasita (fresh, tasty and vibrant) or Brunetti (obscene, yum, cake heaven – offering 12 hours of pleasure).
But when you book a Goget car for the day to go for a drive to the Yarra Valley, you enter new territory in more ways than one.
Wine tasting is best not tackled on an empty stomach, so I suggested we stop in early at another of my favourites, Mixed Business Cafe, Clifton Hill on the way. No, it is never too early for panacotta or Fleetwood Mac, so we’d ticked two things off the bucket list already.
The drive takes about fifty minutes and on a week-day, you travel against traffic, so it feels like a breeze. You leave the M3, take the Maroondah Highway, pass through semi-suburban Lilydale, then officially leave the Melbourne metropolitan area.
The small settlement of Coldstream gives it’s name to the beautiful valley that opens up before you. The tell-tale grapevines start to appear and before long, you’re seeing the huge billboards of wineries. One of my guests likes stags, so we made a note to return to St Hubert’s, but we were actually on a beeline to Domaine Chandon. I wasn’t complaining, anything involving French and sparkling wine is usually a safe bet for me!
I haven’t lived in Melbourne long (if you call four years not long). I have been to the valley once, and I think spent time at De Bortoli, but we’re talking 20 year old ancient history and the other end of the valley. Driving into Domaine Chandon, with its classic garden design featuring European trees, sweeping manicured lawns and a well-oiled wine-making/selling machine, took my breath away.
My compatriots from the land of gourmandia were suitably impressed, but actually they drink the wine regularly, so nothing was really a surprise. What was a surprise to me were the beautiful oak trees (sending me straight back to childhood and the Bistro au Vieux Chêne. These beautiful ‘kings of the forest’ would become a theme for the day.
Many wineries these days charge to taste, something that I never had to endure on frequent Coonawarra, Clare Valley and McLaren Vale trips (but maybe things have even changed now in South Australia). Chandon was no exception – and the cost was steep – $12/person. I was the designated driver, but I had a couple of sips, tasted with my nose, and got drunk on the authoritative French accent of our wine pourer.
It is a nice place to dwell, in a super-modern interior with massive picture windows overlooking vines book-ended by roses, to a lake and the hills in the background. They have invested handsomely in making their operation visible, so we stepped up to a comprehensive display of the history of their operation and of sparkling winemaking culminating in the huge silver vats overseen by a viewing platform. A little reminder of how far things have come sits neglected, except by pigeon poo, behind you. Do they make anything from wood anymore?
Back down a parallel staircase to the cellar, we witnessed all the inverted babies riddling. A fascinating history of the birth of this practice can be found in the book The Widow Cliquot.
“Making red wines involves all of the senses – the aromas of fermentation, the richness of flavours, and the grunts of cellar hands as the cap is plunged – it’s where we really get our hands dirty”. Matt Steel, Winemaker.
Returning back to the tasting room, bar and restaurant, I decided (being the complete know-nothing when it came to wineries here) that I’d ask for directions. Martin, another wine-pourer, was a literal encyclopedia of the company’s operations, but also generous enough to offer some tips for the rest of the day.
Along with their fine establishment, he recommended Oakridge for lunch, and a couple of smaller wineries, just up the road where we’d find interesting old and new style wines. We didn’t get to all of them, but his list included Pimpernel Vineyards and Dominique Portet. He also recommended Four Pillars Gin but we wouldn’t want to mix grape and grain.
Our stag awaited, so first it was back to St Huberts. This small concern, now a part of a much larger Lindeman’s (I recognise that name from SA) operation is named for St Hubert, eldest son of the Norman Duke of Aquitaine. He wasn’t always so saintly, but had a keen passion for hunting and the chase – even being known to hunt on Good Friday.
However, one day during the pursuit of a magnificent stag, the beast turned to reveal a shining crucifix between his antlers and said, “You’ll be going to hell if you don’t turn to the Lord and lead a holy life” (I paraphrase). And so he did. He renounced his title and wealth and marched off to see Lambert, Bishop of Maastricht to receive his instructions. (Maybe the stag scene in The Queen bears a hint of this story).
Hubert died in 727AD and he is the patron saint not just of hunters, but of mathematicians, opticians and metalworkers. The Feast of St Hubert is celebrated on the 3rd November and apparently in Lisieux Cathedral 10 choristers sing dressed in hunters pink and Obyre-Tindare is played on hunters’ horns.
So, apart from this story there was also a late-harvest wine that caught my attention. Usually reserved for blending in the valley, the voignier grape variety is not so popular on it’s own, but this drop was delightful and a bottle made it’s way into the car, Kelsey the Yaris. Maybe I felt sorry for it’s ‘outcast state’. It was getting warm as we made our way towards our third stop, Tokar Estate.
Approaching this winery, you’re struck by the Tuscan-styled villa, which you drive around to get to their cellar door and restaurant. Despite one of the owners, Rita, saying it grew up like topsy, the Mediterranean style was reflected in her hospitality. She personally hosted us for wine tasting and told us the history. Now boasting 27 thousand, two hundred and eighty vines, this site has “arguably the best view in the valley” according to the tourist map. The view from outside on the deck was certainly appealing, although my fellows weren’t that interested in eating there.
The wine seemed to be more embraced as intellectually ‘interesting’ rather than heartily drinkable – with their Chardonnay having an unusual gun-flint taste – maybe it would’ve gone well with babaganoush! The Pinot Shiraz – smooth yet unusual again and the Tempranillo, made with a Spanish variety, planted first in 1998, when Rita’s husband had the extensive horticultural experience of mowing lawns (her words, not mine). This wine reminded me of those I’d tasted in Italy and France in the back-blocks – just a basic, good-drinking-with-food type. Despite this, it won the best red in show in 2003, so they were doing something right 15 years ago.
Rita was proud of their Shiraz, drawing the distinction between it and it’s SA cousins that thrive on neglect and require storage to reveal their true colours and flavours. Theirs, in the cool climate Yarra Valley is more subtle, soft on the palate with a burgundy colour. Then of course my friends tested a gamey cab sav.
We seemed to linger here. I don’t know if it was fascination with Rita or her wine – both were distinctive in make-up and character. Four dollars per taster seemed appropriate.
Well, we were really getting hungry by now, and it was heading on to 1:30pm, so we stopped in at the recommended Oakridge Wines, continuing the oaky theme. Whereas the specimen was mature and majestic at Chandon, I parked Kelsey under a mere sapling at Oakridge, with a few steps to the cantilevered Baton Rouge bearing the masthead of this cellar door, looking more like an art gallery.
The restaurant was unfortunately closed. Even chefs need a day off sometimes. However, the view and the light, bright cellar door couldn’t have been further from the dusty, musty, oak-barrel-filled tasting rooms, replete with trophies hard-won in the 1970s, that I was familiar with. My friends couldn’t resist a tasting, this time free.
We travelled to Italy in the wine glass with an Arneis – a Piedmontese variety from Turin. I was sold on the Skelete Reisling – a mere, stipped-back slip of a thing, true to its name.
It would be fair to say we were now famished, and we took the recommendation of our Oakridge hostess to visit Soumah, but alas by the time we visited, it was closed. We phoned a friend, the helpful people at Tokar with the stipulation that we wanted somewhere that was open, it being 3:30pm already. We were directed back towards the stag and it was entirely appropriate, as the hunt for food was getting tiresome.
Just up the road (St Huberts Road), we descended on Meletos.
It seemed unfathomable, that despite every other place in the valley appearing to be closed, we opened the heavy glass doors to a bustling hangar of a restaurant. Oh, so everyone had let the wine-tasting get away from them and forgot to stop for lunch. Now we didn’t feel so foolish.
Surrounded by more picture windows overlooking lawns, hedged pathways and vine-covered patios, the place was buzzing. Butterscotch Chesterfields sat authoritatively around a coffee table near us, oak cuttings again made their way into the decor, and we got straight to the point.
Hervey Bay scallops with cauliflower puree; Goats curd, honey and charred sourdough bread; Beetroot salad with Brillat Savarin (one of my favourite French cheeses) and caramelised walnuts – it was the kind of place where you might get caught licking the plate.
One octopus pizza and one mushroom and goat curd all to share and we were sated. My guests were extremely impressed at the high quality of the ingredients and the exceptional presentation. So was I.
We made a quick dash around the corner to the odoriferous Yarra Valley Dairy in our ten minutes before 5pm but then we began our journey back to Melbourne.
We chose to wind our way back via Yarra Glen so we snaked up the Christmas Hills escarpment until someone spied a body of water on the map. We stopped for a time at the Sugarloaf Reservoir which reminded me a little of that characteristic ‘Bonnie Doon’ flavour of Australian life. You know, you take a not-particularly-natural (in actual fact, person-built) landscape next to a dam and build picnic grounds all through it and put up signs prohibiting fishing and swimming. Complete with creosote-soaked pine sheds with dirty light green hues and short-clipped grass, you know the ones. And don’t forget the power-lines. But my guests seemed to like the chance to wander around.
Leaving for a drive down through the leafy suburbs, I mentioned we would be passing through Kangaroo Ground. I explained that they shouldn’t get too excited, but I instantly became the hostess with the mostest when we spied some on a private oval off the road before Eltham. Wow! A whole group of Skippy’s cousins stood around with a couple of baby joeys in pouches. The big males always on the lookout, nevertheless one of our party insisted on getting a bit better acquainted.
We were back in the city around 7pm and we had completed a perfect day. It is great to entertain overseas visitors and it is wonderful to have such gorgeous food, wine and views to share. Sometimes it takes widely traveled international visitors to remind us we have something so special just a short drive from Melbourne city. Maybe we don’t need the excuse of entertaining guests to go out and explore the many day-trips Victoria offers – which one are you going to take next?