Between Sydney and Melbourne
American wine devotees are familiar with the names of Australia’s famous wine districts: the Barossa, McLaren Vale, Margaret River, Hunter Valley and others. But in fact, there are more than 60 vastly different wine growing regions across the country. And Americans are familiar with blockbuster Shiraz, but Australian wineries such as Clonakilla, Campbells and Castagna produce a multitude of styles and varieties of wine.
Nowhere is the variety of Australian winemaking on better display than along the Hume Highway. Straddling more than a dozen of the lesser-known Australian wine regions, the drive between Sydney and Melbourne offers a fascinating wine journey. There is nothing like driving cross country and visiting cellar doors (tasting rooms) to develop a real understanding of the impact varied climate, soils, and landscape has on wines and to meet the idiosyncratic characters that define Aussie winemaking. Bookending your trip with Australia’s two great cities—both of which offer an embarrassment of riches for the wine and food lover—adds to the appeal.
The 600-mile Hume Highway is named after the explorer Alexander Hamilton Hume, who in 1824 set forth from Sydney and discovered the mighty Murray River and the Australian Alps and found grazing land throughout New South Wales and Victoria. While today you can do the drive in 10 hours, it is much more interesting to spread the trip over four or more days in order to savor each of the wine regions along the way.
Head out of Sydney on the M5 (which becomes the Hume Highway) and drive through the rolling eucalyptus-covered hills of the Southern Highlands. The Canberra District is four hours south of Sydney. This relatively new, cool-climate region is surrounded by the Australian Capital Territory, but the vast majority of the Canberra District wineries are actually in New South Wales.
More than 30 wineries are spread between sheep and cattle stations and horse and alpaca farms. There are two distinct areas: a cool ridge in the east overlooking a valley formerly known as Lake George, where the soils are predominantly sedimentary rock, and the wide Yass Valley with mainly old granite soils. Wine varieties include Chardonnay, Riesling, Shiraz (often with Viognier) and Bordeaux blends.
Turning off the Hume on the Federal Highway just after Goulburn, stop for lunch at the quaint Lynwood Café in the village of Collector. Not too far away, the sleek corrugated tin and cement Lerida Estate has a stunning view over the Lake George valley. It is the only winery in Australia designed by Pritzker-award-winning architect Glenn Mercutt. There are light meals and pastries in the barrel cellar cafe, a petanque pitch, and some mighty fine Shiraz-Viognier.
Next door, The Lake George Winery offers a distinctive Pinot Noir. Further south, the biodynamic Lark Hill Winery makes a particularly fine Chardonnay. Located in an environmental protection zone, the vineyard is home to many species of birds and wildlife.
Near the Canberra Airport, Mount Majura specializes in Spanish varieties such as Tempranillo and Graciano and offers seated tastings with regional food platters. Take their self-guided gumboot tour of the vineyard to learn about what is planted where and why.
Saving the best for last, head north to the pretty, flower-decked Clonakilla Winery in Murrumbateman. Cambridge academic and scientist John Kirk is considered the father of the Canberra wine industry. He planted his first vines in the early 1970s, with the goal of emulating the wines of the Côte Rotie. Today, many consider his Shiraz-Viognier an icon wine and one of the best in the country.
Also in Murrumbateman are Riesling specialists Helm Vineyards, whose cellar door is located in an historic school house, and Shaw Vineyard Estate, located on a historic fine wool-producing property. Taste their award-winning Cabernet-based wines before enjoying a wood-fired pizza and other Italian specialities in the restaurant.
Visit the lovely old-fashioned village of Gundaroo nearby, which has one of New South Wales’ best restaurants located in an old stage coach inn (Grazing), a café specialising in wood-fired pizzas (Cork Street Café), a country pub (Matt Crowe’s wine bar) and several 100-year-old buildings, including a court house, church, school and police station. The Globe Inn, a national trust-listed Georgian building, makes a fine overnight stop in the town of Yass.
On the fortified frontier
It will take about three hours to drive along wide rolling tablelands and across the border into Victoria. Just past Albury turn off the Hume Highway onto the Murray Valley Highway (B400) to Rutherglen. The next part of the trip is essentially an S curve around the Hume Highway…first to Rutherglen, then across to Beechworth and the King Valley, then back on the Highway.
Rutherglen is the Australian capital of fortified wines with its Muscats (made from the red wine grape Brown Muscat, or Frontignac) and Muscadelles, formerly known as Tokays (a white wine grape that makes a small contribution to Sauternes in Bordeaux). These are some of the world’s richest wines. The region also produces full-bodied Shiraz as well as a distinctive, earthy, deep-violet Durif (Petit Syrah).
Vines were planted in Rutherglen during the mid 19th century gold rushes and by the 1890s, a quarter of the country’s wine was produced here. Many of the 19 Rutherglen estates are still run by the fourth, fifth and sixth generations of the original owners. Rutherglen’s climate of hot days, cool nights and long dry autumns ensure that its Muscats and Muscadelles have rich, full flavors that develop layers of complexities as they age and oxidize in cask. Both wines are classified in ascending order of quality as Rutherglen, Classic, Grand and Rare.
Start your visit at the Rutherglen Wine Experience, which enterprisingly combines an information center, café, local wine and produce shop in what was formerly a drapery and general store, in 1865. Then head to Campbells Winery, whose atmospheric cellar door in the heart of the winery is stacked with oak barrels and puncheons. Fourth generation Colin and Malcolm Campbell produce award-winning Muscats, Durif and Shiraz. Try the Bobbie Burns Shiraz or Barkly Durif with a regional food platter.
Nearby, Chambers Rosewood, founded in 1858, is one of the oldest wineries in the country. Fifth and sixth generation Bill and Steve Chambers now run the winery in a rustic tin shed imbued with lashings of quirky Aussie charm. All resources are put into producing a remarkably diverse range of great value-for-money wines, with the flagships being their Muscats and Muscadelles.
Up in Wahgunyah, an 1880s Scottish-styled castle complete with turrets and tower and an ancient elm-tree lined driveway dominates the landscape at All Saints Estate. Enjoy delightful Mod Oz cuisine at the Terrace Restaurant or pick up picnic supplies at the regional food center to enjoy by the Murray River.
Dave Morris, one of the most highly awarded winemakers in Australia, is at the helm of Morris Wines. Taste any of his Muscats and Tokays and the Morris Durif, pioneered by his father Mick, at the rustic cellar door. Nearby, a flower-decked bed and breakfast cottage, The Still House at Terravinia, overlooks a cattle property by a bend in the Murray River.
On the way back into Rutherglen, stop at Jones Winery and Vineyard’s cellar door located in a heritage-listed barn of handmade bricks with an original bark roof. Bordeaux-trained Mandy Jones specialises in well-balanced and elegant Shiraz. There is also a gallery of exquisite hand-made furniture made from Australian timbers. Beaumonts, located right in town, is a great spot for inspired contemporary fare.
Cult wines and cattlemen’s huts
Now head to Beechworth on the Chiltern-Beechworth Road. Stop in the little town of Chiltern en route. The Grape Vine Hotel (now a private residence), on the corners of Main St. and Conness St., boasts Australia’s largest grapevine (which can be seen from the street). It is a Baxter Sherry palomino planted in 1867 that now provides shade to an entire courtyard.
Built on gold fortunes 150 years ago, Beechworth is today one of the best preserved provincial towns in the country and boasts a thriving downtown dotted with sophisticated restaurants and shops. Wardens Food and Wine is the finest restaurant/enoteca in town, amidst stiff competition. Up-to-the-minute Italian fare and the very best Beechworth wines are on offer. Other great dining spots include The Green Shed Bistro, Gigi’s of Beechworth, the Ox and Hound, and for a country lunch, Bouchon in a pretty garden space. Also visit the Bridge Road Brewers for some great microbrews. Black Springs Bakery is a delightful French provincial-style bed and breakfast, while 1860 is a beautifully restored high country cattleman’s hut with luxury trimmings.
There are three cult wineries in the cool-climate Beechworth area in the foothills of the Victorian Alps. All have minuscule acreage under vine and none of them have cellar doors, but they receive visitors by appointment. Giaconda has a worldwide reputation for its Chardonnay. Winemaker and former engineer Rick Kinzbrunner takes a very cerebral approach to making wine. Next door is a relative newcomer, the biodynamic Castagna. Former ad man Julian Castagna’s first Syrah, the elegant Genesis, was catapulted into a list of Australia’s top 100 wines. He also makes one of Australia’s best Sangiovese, called La Chiave. On the other side of town, Sorrenberg’s granite soils have proven perfect nourishment for arguably Australia’s best Gamay, which viticulturalist/winemaker Barry Morey describes as a ballerina with a fine, delicate body. Other wineries worth visiting include Smith’s Vineyard, which produces excellent and reasonably priced Chardonnay and Shiraz, Amulet for its Italian varietals and refreshing cool-climate apple cider, and the biodynamic Pennyweight Wines.
Next stop is the northern part of the King Valley wine region, just a short drive along the Beechworth Wangaratta Road to Tarrawingee where signs will direct you to Milawa. Once a major tobacco growing area worked by Italian immigrants, the fertile King Valley now supplies grapes to leading wineries across the country. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir tend to be made into sparkling wines; Cabernet Sauvignon is widely planted; and Italian varietals are becoming popular with smaller family-owned wineries.
In the Milawa subregion of King Valley, Brown Brothers has been the pioneer ever since John Francis Brown planted the region’s first vines in 1885. The family-owned company is renowned for its experimentation with different varieties, including Barbera, Dolcetto, Moscato and Tarrango. Today the bustling cellar door offers visitors the opportunity to taste limited releases of new bottlings and experimental batches in addition to their excellent mainstream wines. The epicurean centre restaurant matches each dish to a glass of Brown Brothers wine.
In nearby Oxley, Sam Miranda Wines has a dramatic cellar door with a 40-foot tower streaming light into the tasting area. Try some unusual varieties such as Arneis, Tannat, Petit Manseng and Saperavi in addition to more well-known drops. Their Mediterranean tasting plates can be enjoyed on the terrace or, by prior arrangement, picnic style down by the King River red gums.
Milawa has become quite a gourmet region with the Milawa Cheese Company offering European-style cow’s and goat’s milk cheeses in the historic Milawa Butter Factory. Also on site are Milawa Chocolates and the Milawa Cheese Factory bakery with its French and Italian, sourdough and rye breads. Nearby are Milawa Mustards and the Olive Shop. Lindenwarrah Country Retreat hotel, with its good restaurant and fine art collection, makes a great base for exploring.
Valley of old vines
Follow the signs to the Hume Highway and drive an hour or so south. Turn off to the Nagambie Lakes subregion of the Goulburn Valley. This small, warm region is well worth a stop to visit Tahbilk and Mitchelton Wines, which lie along the Goulburn River. Founded in 1860, family-owned Tahbilk (from the Aboriginal tabilk tabilk, meaning “place of many waterholes”) is one of Australia’s most beautiful and historic properties. Its distinctive, multi-tiered wooden winery houses an atmospheric cellar, museum and tasting room. It has the world’s largest single planting of Marsanne vines, the oldest of which date to 1927. Its 1860 Shiraz vines are some of the oldest in the world and contribute to its flagship wine. A delightful café overlooks the property’s new wetlands and wildlife preserve.
Nearby, Mitchelton also has a spectacular cellar door and contemporary restaurant, where local produce is cooked with flair and enjoyed with Mitchelton’s impressive wines, including the Blackwood Park Riesling and Print Shiraz. You can also stay on the property in the Blackwood Park Country House.
From here you can head back to the Hume Highway for the final 90-minute drive into Melbourne. (Be sure and take the Western Ring Road for the most efficient way into the city.) A veterans of the Hume, you will not only be familiar with all manner of Aussie place names on route, from Wooloomooloo to Warrandyte (and all the Tarrawingees, Turramurras and Tumbarumbas in between), you will have delved into some of most diverse and intriguing wine country Australia has to offer.
Yarra Valley detour
Those who want more, can take an alternative route to Melbourne via the Yarra Valley, Victoria’s premier winegrowing region. Instead of rejoining the Hume Highway at Seymour, cross over it to join Goulburn Valley Highway (B340) in the direction of Yea. At Yea, switch to the B300 (the Melba Highway) for a delightful drive through rolling farmland and the Toolangi Forest in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range, to the heart of the Yarra Valley.
More than 70 wineries specialize in Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and sparkling wine, taking advantage of the valley’s warm sun, cool breezes and well-drained soils to produce cool-climate wines with ripe fruit flavours and good acidic balance.
You could spend a month trying to sample all the wines. The best approach is to decide what sort of wine experience you are seeking. Some cult wineries, such as Mount Mary, Yarra Yarra and Yeringberg, have such a small production that they tend to open only once or twice a year and sell out their entire stock in one day.
If you are after the big venues, visit the soaring winery complex at Domaine Chandon (greenpointwines.com.au); Yering Station (yering.com), renowned for its Pinot and Chardonnay, great restaurant and gourmet shop; and de Bortoli (debortoli.com.au) for its Chardonnay, Shiraz/Viognier and Noble One botrytis Semillon plus excellent restaurant and cheese room.
For a more intimate experience try Yarra Yering (yarrayering.com) for their dry reds numbers 1, 2, and 3; the biodynamic Kiltynane (kiltynane.com.au) for its refined Pinot Noir, and Dominique Portet (dominiqueportet.com), whose Provençal-style winery has a great rosé. In between are serious mid-sized wineries like Coldstream Hills (coldstreamhillls.com), Oakridge (oakridge.com), Sticks (sticks.com.au), TarraWarra (Tarrawarra.com), which has an impressive contemporary art museum, and Giant Steps (giant-steps.com.au ), with its edgy café, produce store, bakery and coffee roaster.
You can explore the Yarra Valley’s gourmet food offerings on the self-drive Yarra Valley Regional Food Trail. And there are fabulous accommodations to suit all tastes and budgets, from the Relais et Chateaux Chateau Yering (chateauyering.com.au) to the Sebel Heritage Yarra Valley (hgcc.com.au), with two golf courses, and the Yering Gorge Cottages (yeringcottages.com.au).
SYNDNEY AND MELBOURNE: QUICK TAKES
Wineries, restaurants, accommodation