Victoria wine and beer walkabout

For Melbourne-bound motorists the high-country around Beechworth and Bright and, on the return trip, in the vicinity of Macedon, offers rich food, wine and beer pickings.

On a recent jaunt the Chateau Shanahan team abandoned the disgraceful Hume Highway at Albury for the uncrowded back roads from Wodonga to Beechworth and Bright and then on to Dixon’s Creek in the Yarra before popping out in Melbourne, watching tennis and then loitering around Macedon, before the final sprint home.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007

Lovely Beechworth owes much of its wine reputation to the jaw-dropping prices achieved by Giaconda, Castagna and Savaterre. But that’s not the end of the area’s wine story. It’s not even the beginning.

In fact, the area’s modern history began with the establishment of Smiths Vineyard in 1978 – located just on the Wangaratta end of town next to Pennyweight, founded in 1982. And there are lots more, as well – about thirteen by my count.

While the high-priced legends remain must-try wines for the deadly serious, a random wander is probably more enjoyable for the casual drinker. And that means all the idiosyncrasies that are part and parcel of the boutiqus scene: from the earthy, more-ish sangiovese of Amulet, to the magnificent chardonnays of Sorrenberg and Smiths, to the sherry styles from Pennyweight’s quarter-century-old solera.

And for après-cellar door, there’s Bridge Road Brewery (confusingly in Ford Street, not Bridge Road) where winemaker-turned –brewer, Ben Kraus, makes and serves fresh from tap a range of outstanding and highly distinctive beers. These go beautifully with the fresh pretzels made by his Austrian partner Maria.

Less than an hour’s drive away in Bright, the new Bright Brewery, too, serves fresh brewed beer just three paces from the vats. It’s a refreshing stop before crossing the road to Simone’s Restaurant.

You’ll have to book to enjoy Patricia Simone’s Umbrian inspired magic. And allow at least three hours to relax, savour the food and be a little adventurous with George Simone’s wine list. He offers a select range of local and Italian wines by the glass and backs this with a more comprehensive selection by the bottle.

From Bright, it’s about a three hour scoot back down the Hume, via Benalla and Mansfield, or via Seymour, to either Healesville or Dixon’s Creek in the Yarra.

Our preferred route is Dixon’s Creek as the road passes De Bortolis Winery and Restaurant – another fine watering hole.

Leanne de Bortoli’s Italian heritage shapes the food but her husband Steve Webber’s French orientation influences the increasingly elegant wine styles from the property. The new sauvignon 2006, for example, is delicious, bordering on sensational.

The cellar door offering was recently expanded to include the Richard Thomas cheese room. Richard, a driving force in Australian boutique cheese production, founded Milawa cheese in the eighties.

In the new venture with De Bortoli Richard matures a range of classic cheeses under controlled temperature and humidity and offers these – along with styles made for him by small manufacturers – at the cellar door and in the restaurant.

Loaded with cheese, it’s a short but fragrant drive into broiling, mid-January Melbourne. There’ll be one more food adventure before the trip northwest to Macedon and Woodend for new craft beer and wine encounters – including perhaps the best sparkling wines in Australia and the new hotshots of the Aussie pinot and chardonnay scene. Stay tuned.

WINE REVIEWS

Arnaldo-Caprai Umbria Poggio Belvedere 2003 $21
Umbrian wine on an Aussie wine list is a rarity. But it’s appropriate at Simone’s of Bright, an institution more than a restaurant, where Umbrian born Patrizia Simone’s delicious food harmonises with husband George’s wine list. On a recent visit this sangiovese/ciliegiolo blend hit the spot with stuffed, boneless pigeon and slow braised goat. Assumedly it was the ciliegiolo grape – sometimes called the cherry grape – that gave the wine an extra lift and seemed to mollify the austere tannins of the more familiar sangiovese. Available direct from the importer, call Maurizio at Arquilla Wines 03 9387 1040.

Santa Barbara Le Vaglie Verdicchio di Castelli di Jesi 2005 $28
We plucked this bone dry Italian white from the wine list at Da Noi, the legendary Sardinian restaurant in South Yarra. Made from the indigenous verdicchio grape — grown on the coastal plain, near Jesi in the Marche region – it’s a full-flavoured, utterly dry style with a tart, bordering on bitter, edge that grew in appeal as successive portions of a sensational antipasto arrived. This is as good a Jesi verdicchio as I’ve seen, if not a match for the best from the more elevated Matelica region to the west. Available direct from the importer, call Maurizio at Arquilla Wines 03 9387 1040.

Ringer Reef Alpine Valleys Merlot 2002 & 2004 $28
Annie and Bruce Holm’s Ringer Reef vineyard sits on the high side of the Bright to Wangaratta road, at Porepunkah, Victoria. Rare – perhaps unique –- in Australia, all of the 3.2-hectare vineyard, bar 400 vines, is planted to merlot. Annie and Bruce established the vines in 1998, made the first wine in 2001 and currently offer the Merlot 2002, with the 2004 vintage due for release in a few months. The quality progression is notable, though all three vintages to date show exceptional fruit depth and ripe, fine tannin structure – commendable achievements with this difficult but potentially great variety. See www.ringerreef.com.au

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