Lovers of fine wines and food are in their element on the Mornington Peninsula, writes travel editor Winsor Dobbin.
It is not so long ago that the Mornington Peninsula was the sleepiest of sleepy hollows, but the holiday hideaway of Melbourne’s movers and shakers is a secret no more with an ever-increasing number of top-notch resorts and eateries.
The Peninsula, an easy drive from Melbourne, is one of the most popular wine destinations in the country, with 50 cellar doors.
The newest regional attraction is Jackalope, a hotel, wining and dining complex that is part of the completely revamped Willow Creek operation, which gives you access to the winery and magnificent vineyard views.
Jackalope is the personal project of 29-year-old Chinese-born entrepreneur Louis Li, who sees the design as his own creative story; a mixture of art and storytelling featuring stand-alone artworks and a dark, moody vibe. Li describes Jackalope as “an escape from reality”.
Jackalope’s 46 rooms and suites offer either vineyard or terrace views and have floor-to-ceiling windows and private terraces that connect guests to the rural surrounds. Inside, bathroom features include deep soaking Japanese tubs, rain showers and double vanities.
The spa-like setting is complete with bath luxuries including a pinot grape skin and seed bath soak and body scrub, made using grapes from the hotel’s vineyard.
Jackalope is a dining destination in its own right. Fine dining restaurant Doot Doot Doot offers degustation menus under the guidance of executive chef Guy Stanaway, while Rare Hare celebrates the surrounding Willow Creek vineyard through casual dining and wine experiences.
A four-course degustation dinner costs $85 or $150 with wine matchings — think dishes like John Dory with leek, vermouth, prawn and finger lime, or lamb sweetbread with abalone and shiitake. Meanwhile, the Japanese-style crab omelette for breakfast was superb.
There is an on-site 1,200 bottle glass cellar that showcases an international selection of limited release wines, all produced from vineyards that are 11 hectares or less — the same size as the hotel’s vineyard.
The hotel’s bar, Flaggerdoot, specialises in cocktails and is dotted with art installations, while outside a black 30 metre infinity pool laps up to the surrounding vineyard. A poolside pavilion offers a sun lounge service and is also available for massage treatments or private dining.
A seven metre tall sculpture of Jackalope’s namesake, a mythical rabbit-like creature, has been sculpted by Melbourne artist Emily Floyd, and takes tenancy at the entrance to the hotel.
It just doesn’t get any hipper.
Other dining newcomers on the peninsula include Ten Minutes by Tractor, a long time favourite that has been given a tasteful makeover, and its younger, more casual sibling, Petit Tracteur.
The offerings throughout the region are largely up-market which is no wonder, since nowhere in Australia is vineyard land more expensive than the Mornington Peninsula. The region has grown from sleepy hollow to gourmet hotbed in just a generation.
Over the past three decades, winemakers and boutique food producers have arrived in numbers, enticed both by the region’s beauty and its cool-maritime climate. Breezes from Port Phillip Bay and Bass Strait are ideal for producing fine wines.
Many of the Mornington producers are still boutique operations, often family owned and run. As you’d expect, they tend to specialise in cool-climate varieties like chardonnay and pinot noir, although varieties from pinot gris to gamay are also grown with considerable success (see breakout).
The conditions here, which sometimes include red, rich soils, generally produce wines with high natural acidity and cool-climate elegance. There are distinct micro-climates around the hinterland villages of Red Hill, Main Ridge and Moorooduc, and around Merricks, Balnarring and Dromana on the coast.
This is very much a region on the move, with the winemakers being joined by cider producers, boutique distillers and craft brewers, along with the hot springs retreats and world-class golf courses.
Some of Australia’s most successful small batch producers can be found on the peninsula, including Port Phillip Estate/Kooyong, Yabby Lake, Ocean Eight, Polperro/Even Keel, Ten Minutes by Tractor, Willow Creek and Paringa Estate, as well as big names owned by corporates, such as Stonier and T’Gallant.
Tuck’s Ridge, Eldridge Estate, Foxeys Hangout, Paradigm Hill, Crittenden Estate, Moorooduc Estate, Hurley Vineyard, Red Hill Estate and Quealy are among the other star producers.
Several of them have spectacular on-site restaurants, including Ten Minutes by Tractor, Port Phillip Estate, T’Gallant, Stillwater at Crittenden Estate and Yabby Lake, but if visitors head off the beaten track there are also local discoveries to be made — think hidden truffle groves and tiny cheese producers.
With the new freeway, the Mornington Peninsula is now within a one-hour drive south of Melbourne. Nonetheless, you are indisputably in the country here, with lush farmland and winding country lanes leading from vineyard to vineyard.
It seems remarkable, given the familiarity of so many of the names, that it was only 30 odd years ago that producers like Dromana Estate, Main Ridge Estate, Stoniers Merricks and Hickinbotham were regional viticultural pioneers.
Although vines were planted at Dromana as early as 1886, the industry had failed by the 1920s and the vineyards had been abandoned. The first commercial winery of the modern era opened at Main Ridge in 1978 and its first fruit was picked in 1980.
While there is no doubt that pinot noir and chardonnay from the Mornington Peninsula are of world class, younger winemakers are also championing pinot gris as a style to pair with the spicy cuisines that are increasingly popular in Australia.
Ocean Eight, where talented young winemaker Mike Aylward is prepared to challenge the status quo, and renegade vigneron Sam Coverdale from Polperro/Even Keel are behind a movement to promote Peninsula pinot gris.
Pinot gris was pioneered at T’Gallant on the peninsula, by husband and wife team Kevin McCarthy and Kathleen Quealy. Both have since departed T’Gallant but still produce gris under their family Quealy label at Balnarring.
Ocean Eight and Polperrro recently combined with star chef Adam d’Sylva, of Coda and Tonka fame, for a series of wine-matched meals to demonstrate pinot gris’ versatility with dishes across the spectrum — from Thai to Indian — as part of the Mornington Pinot Gris Project.
“Our intention is to highlight the quality of pinot gris being produced in the region, and in particular to showcase its ability to pair with a broad cross section of Asian cuisines,” says Coverdale.
“As a nation we are moving away from the European influenced food of the past, to be far more influenced by the vibrant cuisine of our neighbours, with Asian food of all incarnations widely available across the country.”
The verdict: dishes with fresh chilli match particularly well with peninsula pinots gris.
Polperro/Even Keel: Boutique luxury villa accommodation on a 10 hectare working vineyard, along with a bistro and verandah serving high-end but relaxed cuisine, snacks and share plates. 150 Red Hill Road, Red Hill.
(03) 5989 2471. www.polperrowines.com.au.
Jackalope: A cutting edge luxury hotel with funky rooms and two on-site restaurants adjacent to the Willow Creek vineyards and winery. 166 Balnarring Rd, Merricks North.
(03) 5931 2500. www.jackalopehotels.com.
Ocean Eight Wines: Well worth a detour, this family-owned wine estate set in delightful gardens sells some of the best regional wines. 271 Tucks Rd, Shoreham.
(03) 5989 6471. www.oceaneight.com.au.