Gourmet heaven

From humble beginnings, the Mornington Peninsula has morphed into one of Australia’s finest gourmet regions, travel editor Winsor Dobbin reports.

It is not so long ago that the Mornington Peninsula was the sleepiest of sleepy hollows. Many Melbourne professionals had weekenders there but it was somnambulant for all but a few weeks during the summer holidays.

The secret hideaway of Melbourne’s movers and shakers is a secret no more. Over the past three decades winemakers and boutique food producers have descended – enticed by both its beauty and a cool maritime climate, with breezes from Port Phillip Bay and Bass Strait ideal for producing fine wines, growing olives and making artisanal cheeses.

Today, this is one the most popular wine regions in the country with some of the most expensive vineyard land, fine food, great wines and luxurious accommodation. Many of the best producers are members of the new Wine Food Farmgate initiative which aims to showcase the best of the area.

Gourmets and wine lovers are discovering peninsula pleasures in ever growing numbers and there are now over 50 cellar doors, dozens of appealing eateries and a range of great places to stay.

And it is very much a region on the move with something new to discover every time you visit, from cider producers, craft brewers in most unlikely settings and on to hot springs retreats and world-class golf courses.

Some of Australia’s best winery restaurants can be found here; Ten Minutes by Tractor, Port Phillip Estate, Montalto, Tuck’s Ridge, Stillwater at Crittenden and T’Gallant, yet there are still local discoveries – think hidden truffle groves – that can only be explored with the aid of companies like Mornington Peninsula Experience Tours. Owner Danielle Field offers a range of bespoke gourmet tours in luxury vehicles.

With the new freeway, the Mornington Peninsula is now within a one-hour drive of Melbourne, making it an ideal day trip or short-break destination.

You are indisputably in the country here, with lush farmland and winding country lanes leading from vineyard to vineyard. It’s extremely easy to get lost (the signposting leaves a lot to be desired) but there are pleasant surprises around every corner.

Among my discoveries this time were:

Terre: Beautifully situated in the old Tuerong homestead overlooking the Dromana Estate vines, this new eatery has attracted a lot of attention. The menu changes constantly, reflecting what is available locally, and seasonally, but check out the house-cured meats. The charcuterie plates here, including duck salami, are justifiably in demand and there is an on-site kitchen garden providing vegetables and herbs and produce is sourced, occasionally foraged, from across the peninsula. There is also a small, but very smart, wine list.

Yabby Lake: The new tasting room at this premium producer of pinot noir and chardonnay offers stunning vineyard views and lunches, particularly in summer, are so popular that reservations are recommended.

Bass and Flinders Distillery: Founded five years ago, this tiny artisan distillery is tucked away behind the Darling Park winery and offers tastings of small-batch gins and vodkas, among a large range, all made using local products.

Mock Orchards: A rustic farm gate operation where visitors can arrive by car, horse or bike to sample a range of biodynamic ciders and fruit juices. The Mock family has been growing apples since 1895.

Polperro: Open just a few months on the estate previously known as Vines of Red Hill, Polperro has a bistro serving refined yet casual food, a tiny wine bar, wine tasting room and four refurbished studio apartments with spa baths and vineyard views. Think dishes like duck cassoulet and mushroom brioche, or delicious smoked fish croquettes and wines under the Polperro and Even Keel labels.

Green Olive: This 27-acre sustainable farm is the closest thing Australia has to an “agriturismo” experience. Guests are offered the chance to sample and eat produce grown or raised on the property; ranging from sheep to olives.

Mornington Peninsula Brewery: This craft brewery is hidden away in an industrial estate but is hugely popular with locals and visitors alike with a constantly changing range of beers. The Brewery Bar is known for its gourmet pizzas and features live music on Sundays.

And these relatively new experiences are only scratching the surface of what the peninsula has to offer.

The hamlet of Red Hill is particularly well endowed with destinations for foodies, including Red Hill Cheese, a great market on the first Saturday of each month, the acclaimed Max’s at Red Hill restaurant and the Red Hill Brewery (although its opening hours are much reduced).

The boutique wineries, as you’d expect, tend to specialise in cool-climate varieties like chardonnay and pinot noir, although varieties from pinot gris to gamay are grown with considerable success.

Stonier, Ten Minutes by Tractor, Paringa Estate, Tuck’s Ridge, Eldridge Estate, Paradigm Hill and Yabby Lake all produce stellar wines, while tiny and rustic Hurley Vineyard (visits by appointment only) make outstanding pinots. Crittenden Estate, T’Gallant, Scorpo, Ocean Eight, Moorooduc Estate, Montalto and Quealy are other names to look out for.

The new Port Philip Estate facility should be on any visitor’s itinerary. The spectacular complex features a restaurant, cellar door and tasting room, outside deck overlooking vineyards and Western Port Bay, state of the art winemaking facilities, and luxury apartment accommodation.

All apartments boast sumptuous king–sized beds, living rooms, spacious en suites and stunning views from both the bedroom and living area across vines to the bay, as well as outdoor terraces for relaxing and enjoying a glass of wine.

Five of the six apartments are named after Kooyong’s prestigious single vineyard wines (Haven, Faultline, Farrago, Meres and Ferrous). The sixth and largest apartment has two bedrooms and a more expansive living room and is named the Morillon Apartment after the oldest pinot noir block at Port Phillip Estate.

Among my personal favourite spots to visit at weekends is the ultra-laidback Foxeys Hangout, where visitors can create their own sparkling wine blend and winemaker Tony Lee also gets behind the stoves to serve up superb tasting plates like grilled mushrooms in vine leaves and barbecued quail. Sit outside with a glass of pinot noir and take in the views. Life doesn’t get much better.

Dining choices are many and varied, with Ten Minutes by Tractor serving world-class food and offering fascinating wine and food matches, while the pizzas and Italian dishes at La Baracca Trattoria at T’Gallant winery are also hugely popular.

Other restaurants serving outstanding food include the excellent Long Table, which is open early in the week when many other eateries are closed and is always reliable; La Petanque, Paringa Estate, Salix at Willow Creek, Merricks General Store and newcomer Trofeo Estate all offer interesting experiences.

Terminus at the Flinders Hotel offers some of the most intriguing food with chef Pierre Kodja drawing on his French and North African heritage, while the hotel also now offers top-notch accommodation.

And if all the food and wine becomes a little too much, try a walk along the gloriously unspoiled Merricks Beach (with views to Philip Island), or visit the delightful Peninsula Hot Springs retreat, where you can bathe in mineral spring water and enjoy massage or beauty treatments.

And should you wish to breathe in the country air on a permanent basis, I understand at least two local wineries are for sale: Main Ridge Estate and Darling Park. That might be a very tempting proposition if you have a few million to spare.

• Words: Winsor Dobbin

• For more information: Mornington Peninsula Tourism, (03) 5987 3078, www.visitmorningtonpeninsula.org.  See www.winefoodfarmgate.com.au. 

The writer was a guest of the Mornington Peninsula Regional Tourism Board.