The small town of Rutherglen in north-east Victoria has a wealth of attractions for gourmets, travel editor Winsor Dobbin discovers.
Visiting some of the great fortified wine producers of Rutherglen is like taking a step back in time.
Drop into the cellars of Morris, All Saints, Bullers and Campbells and you can feel, and smell, the history among the big old barrels storing ancient fortified wines.
But while Rutherglen’s reputation was built on its famous port-style wines, muscats and tokays (now known as topaques), it is also a go-ahead wine region with several producers thinking outside the square and producing innovative new styles.
This is one of Victoria’s leading wine and food destinations, boasting over 20 award-winning wineries, outstanding restaurants and cafés, and world-class local produce.
It is also home to some of the most picturesque camping, fishing, cycling, swimming and boating locations in Australia and is surrounded by top-notch resort and country golf courses.
The wineries range from 150-year-old household names to newcomers like Scion, Valhalla and Simao and Co, just starting to forge their own legends.
Most are family owned, boutique operations where you’ll almost certainly find sturdy reds made from shiraz and durif alongside the fortified gems.
Experimentation is alive and well with Stanton & Killeen and Campbells trialling a range of Spanish and Portuguese grape varieties, hoping they replicate the success enjoyed by the Rhone varietals of marsanne, roussanne and viognier, which have been championed by Rutherglen Estates, the region’s largest producer.
Tempranillo, sangiovese and zinfandel add variety to the reds of the region, and some of the country’s best sparkling reds are also found here.
There is also a variety of cellar door experiences and, for a town with a population of just 2,500, a myriad of options for wining and dining.
Old favourites include The Terrace at All Saints and Tuileries Restaurant and Wine Bar, but Rutherglen also has several new hotspots ranging from the Taste @ Rutherglen restaurant and its adjacent micro brewery to the new Thousand Pound wine bar and the casual lunches at Lake Moodemere Estate just out of town.
Thousand Pound has been developed by Denis Lucey (Bottega Melbourne) and the Brown family from All Saints Estate and St Leonards.
Nick Brown says he crafted the extensive wine list with family and friends in mind. Wines have been sourced predominantly from winemakers and ‘family owned’ wineries that he admires.
Housed in an original Victorian storefront in Rutherglen’s historic Main Street, Thousand Pound has bar seating, and high tables in the main room, with an inviting alcove with wine barrels for intimate groups.
Chefs Simon Arkless and Cait Mitchelhill from the hatted Terrace Restaurant at All Saints Estate prepare humble, fresh, bar food, such as house-smoked salmon, and local marinated olives.
Choose from the likes of an All Saints Rosa Rosé or a Cheateau de Fesles cabernet franc from the Loire Valley.
For a serious dinner prepared by chef Gavin Swalwell, Taste @ Rutherglen is a lively spot serving an à la carte selection or a degustation menu featuring dishes like house-made gnocchi with confit of duck, Wooragee mushrooms and baby spinach, or perhaps caramelised pork belly in a house-made masterstock.
Other options include the delightful Jones Winery Café and Pickled Sisters, adjacent to the Cofield cellar door at nearby Wahgunyah. This is a favourite of local winemakers, who like to share the outstanding platters of local produce.
Don’t miss out on Parker Pies in the main street, something of a regional legend.
While there the great fortified producers dating back to the 1800s, Chambers Rosewood, Morris, All Saints and Campbells, are among the biggest drawcards, it is also worthwhile seeking out smaller producers like Warrabilla, where I came across winemaker Andrew Sutherland Smith covered in soot after spending the afternoon fighting a bush fire.
Sutherland Smith has a huge following for his bold and idiosyncratic red wines.
Those with a taste for something different will enjoy Rutherglen Estates, where they can sample varieties including arneis, savagnin, viognier, fiano, tempanillo, sangiovese and zinfandel alongside the region’s trademark durifs, shirazes and muscats.
Also check out Anderson Wines, where father and daughter Howard and Christobelle Anderson only release their wines when they are convinced they are at their peak and Stanton and Killeen, which has been reinvigorated by new CEO Wendy Killeen.
At Buller Wines, now owned by local couple Gerald and Mary Judd, the facilities and wines are being returned to past glories by new GM Paul Squires and winemaker David Whyte, a dynamic duo with big plans.
Other possibilities include grandiose All Saints and historic St Leonards (both with dining options and both owned by the Brown family), and boutique operations like John Gehrig Wines, Scion and Valhalla. Pfeiffer Wines has been re-energised by the arrival of winemaker Jen Pfeiffer, daughter of family patriarch Chris.
It is de rigueur for visitors to visit the cellars at Morris or Campbells to savour the rich aromas of treacle, butterscotch and oak emanating from wines that have been maturing for decades in casks or giant oak barrels.
Stay for a night or two at long-time favourite Tuileries, the cosy Rutherglen Country Cottages, or at Moodemere Lake House, the latest accommodation offering.
The broad deck and living area provide views of Lake Moodemere (think pelicans and the occasional platypus), while the bedroom faces the extensive vineyard. The setting is idyllic.
With only one house on the site, privacy is guaranteed. The double bed is extremely comfortable and there are all modern facilities – including television reception.
A complimentary bottle of Lake Moodemere wine is included (if you are lucky you might get the outstanding 2013 Shiraz Cinsault blend), along with provisions for a cooked breakfast.
Alate check-out is included in the very reasonable tariffs.
One of the more interesting ways of exploring the area is the Wahgunyah to Rutherglen extension of the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail, enabling cyclists to ride the sealed path from the banks of the Murray to historic Rutherglen. The 9km trail travels through the heart of the wine region.
For those who don’t want to worry about driving but would like to travel in style, Alister Chisholm from Rutherglen Country Cottages has a luxury Ford stretch limo to ferry visitors from cellar door to cellar door in rock star style.
Whichever direction you choose, you’ll find terrific wines and great country food.