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Australia: Great Ocean Road wineries

Just inland from the Great Ocean Road is an alternative route that winds through Australia’s wine country. Here, despite a lack of native grapes, low rainfall, stubborn soil and the threat of forest fires, determined pioneers have paved the way for a new crop of spirited winemakers who are taking the world of viticulture by storm

Australia: Great Ocean Road wineries
Wynns Coonawarra Estate, Coonawarra. Image: Getty

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Australia’s Great Ocean Road is a stupendous coastal drive between Melbourne and Adelaide, but it is also the route most tourists take. Just inland is another, through wine country. Here, the land changes as you travel, becoming woodier or sandier, thrusting up bare mountains or tree-draped hills, and the wine changes with it.

The people, however, are consistently eccentric — after all, you don’t build a wine industry in a gargantuan country with no native grapes and very low rainfall by taking the logical, straightforward path. As if to prove my point, I meet two locals who transported an old train down from Queensland to create a restaurant that chugs around Swan Bay. The on-board chef plates up six courses of local produce with matched local wines as it rattles through the landscape. One winemaker tells me he treads his grapes by foot (as if making wine here weren’t hard enough); another has built a giant Rubik’s Cube-shaped building in his vineyard.

I eat at restaurants where they mill their own bread, or churn their own butter, or grow all their ingredients. Many people I encounter tell me they came to wine country hoping to remake their lives — as if planting themselves alongside a few vines could lead to a more fruitful existence. Or perhaps it’s the restless spirit of the early settlers who were forced to move here as convicts or as persecuted minorities, inhaled along with the menthol of eucalyptus that perfumes the air.

Below Melbourne, Port Phillip Bay curves like a pair of arms, as if the mainland had tried to hug Tasmania but missed. I take the western arm: Geelong and the Bellarine Peninsula. “You can’t call this a single wine region,” says Ray Nadeson, of Lethbridge Wines, half an hour north west of Geelong. “There are too many soil variations. There’s limestone, basalt, granite, clay…”

We’re at Mietta, a vineyard whose soil has black clay atop basalt, and which Ray considers cool-climate, despite it being T-shirt weather at the beginning of winter. Ray is a trained neuroscientist, which is pretty unusual for a winemaker, and may mean he’s more precise than most. He’s
also the man who likes to crush grapes by foot. I don’t dare point out to him that a lot of UK drinkers think of Australia as a single wine region.
There were vines here in the 1870s, Ray tells me, as he pours a selection of Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Shirazes in a tasting room that resembles a 19th-century parlour. They were planted by German immigrants but were all pulled up when the vine-killing phylloxera louse arrived in the Yarra Valley, north of Melbourne. I ask Ray why, given the scourge never actually made it this far south. “The British had the political power in Australia then, and the Yarra winemakers were Brits,” he explains. They didn’t want their suffering region to have to withstand competition from the Germans’ healthy vines, so they squashed their industry as you might a louse. It took a century for replanting to begin.

Ray taught neuroscience for 25 years before opting for the precarious life of a winemaker. His wines are fantastic, as are his neighbour Nick Farr’s — but don’t bother trying to visit Nick; he doesn’t do wine tourism. These two are helping the region to gain international acclaim — even if Ray won’t admit it is a region. And they have very respectable back-up from wineries such as Scotchmans Hill and Leura Park, as well as from eccentrics like Bernard and Elizabeth Hooley, who make fairly ordinary wines at their Oakdene winery, decorated by Elizabeth with verve and a touch of craziness: teapots line the garden fence and the tasting room is cleverly clad to look like a house turned on its side.

There’s a perversity to planting vines in an arid country where forest fires are more common than floods. “The soil here is from an ancient volcano,” Russell Watson had told me. “When it’s dry you can lose crowbars in the cracks, but it’s fertile.” Russell knows this because his plot has walnut, peach, quince and cherry trees; it has no vines, but there’s a distillery in a shed.

Russell, a former maintenance man, plans to make whisky, but he and his wife, Lorelle, have started with gin, and turned a tin shed into a little timber-lined bar with pizzas and platters, where all those fruits and nuts end up on your plate, helping to mitigate the effects of what’s in your glass. The place is called The Whiskery; nobody who’s met the lavishly moustachioed Russ needs to ask why.

Exterior of the d’Arenberg Cube

Exterior of the d’Arenberg Cube

The fat of the land

So many Australian wineries have great restaurants with wide-angle views of rolling vineyards — Hollick Estates, d’Arry’s Verandah, Bird in Hand Winery, to name just three. All these places feed me superbly, and I enjoy their wines all the more because of it. And that pride in what the land can produce — if you work hard enough — seeps into the conurbations, too. In southeast Australia, I have fantastic meals at Igni in Geelong, Pipers of Penola, and the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld. But nowhere is quite as fantastic as Brae, a refurbished farmhouse outside the Victorian town of Birregurra, with an expansive kitchen garden and bread made from home-milled flour.

Eating well is one advantage of travelling through wine country, I reflect, as I pull into Brae, Dan Hunter’s restaurant with rooms. Here, amid the silver-barked gum trees, ingredients from the garden are used to create sophisticated and witty dishes — and if you don’t think lunch can be witty, you’ve clearly never eaten warrigal greens and herb toast with green ants, or an iced oyster lurking amid a plate of oyster-shaped rocks. Many of the wines served here are local, or local-ish — they include Crawford River Riesling and Smokestack Lightning Pinot Gris from the Yarra. I also get to try Honey & Red Gum Sour Ale, which is brewed on the premises in collaboration with Edge Brewing Projects.

A two-hour drive west, near the Grampians wine region, I stop at the Royal Mail Hotel, where Dan Hunter made his name. It’s quite a challenge to create a fine-dining restaurant so far from civilisation, and so keen is owner Allan Myers to keep Hunter’s replacement, Robin Wickens, happy that he’s built him an elegant, standalone restaurant with a walk-through wine cellar, mountain views and Australia’s largest kitchen garden.
But, of course, you’re never really far from civilisation if you have a great cellar, and this one is amazing. Of Myers’ 26,500 bottles — there’s a cellar tour for those who like to stare at delicacies they probably can’t afford — around half are French, including various vintages from Bordeaux and Burgundy. It’s all very rarified, or would be if the cellar weren’t a corrugated shed, and the wedding venue a former wool shed that still smells, the manager assures me gleefully, of sheep.

At dinner, I’m given Foudre Ferment Riesling from Best’s Great Western: it’s gorgeous. So I decide to head north to the winery, intent on taking something from this part of my trip home with me. There are rooms filled with dusty bottles, old photographs and superannuated machinery but the real museum is just outside: a vineyard full of ancient vines.

“We’ve got 40 varieties on that plot,” Best’s managing director, Ben Thomson, tells me cheerfully, “but we still don’t know what all of them are.” His family has owned the property since 1920 but it was the Best brothers who first made wine here, back in 1867. One day, thanks to ever-improving technology, they’ll probably discover exactly what they have (is it perverse of me to view that as a shame?). Until then, they chuck the grapes into their Nursery Block red and white, and reserve sophisticated techniques for wines like my Riesling.

Best’s and its neighbour, Mount Langi Ghiran, make a good contrast: the latter is bright and modern, making superb Shiraz and permitting the team’s young winemakers to siphon off a bit of juice for their own experiments. This isn’t common behaviour in Europe, any more than making wine from unknown grape varieties is — but then, this isn’t Europe.

Terra rossa soil, South Australia

Terra rossa soil, South Australia

Terra rossa

I cross an invisible border into South Australia, where the Limestone Coast, formed from a long-vanished sea, begins: a fantastic array of volcanoes, mountains and caves, to say nothing of the unusual soils that make such a happy home for vines. I circle the Blue Lake, in the crater of an extinct volcano, which glows turquoise each summer but is impressively blue even on the lip of winter, and continue north to the Coonawarra wine region.
An elderly friend fondly remembers buying ‘Coonawarra Claret’ back when every Aussie wine was misleadingly labelled ‘Claret’, ‘Burgundy’ or ‘Champagne’. There’s more local confidence in the region, now. They’re very proud of an iron-rich swathe of red land known as ‘terra rossa’, which is particularly kind to Cabernet Sauvignon.

“This is an incredible area,” says Simon Meares, who started coming here on holiday and fell so hard for the region that he set up Coonawarra Experiences to run bespoke tours. He now knows everybody in the area, from Dan Redman, a fifth-generation winemaker at Redman Wines, to Steven and Emma Raidis, a young couple making excellent wine at Raidis Estate. He can plan an itinerary of wineries and restaurants, as I did, and he’ll then drive while you drink. Simon is also a one-man encyclopedia of the region: when the girl behind the counter at Katnook Estate stumbles over my questions, he takes over, telling me about the old barrel room — formerly a wool shed — where John Riddoch made the region’s first wines in the 1890s. John, like the Bests, had made his fortune selling sustenance to those trying their luck in the Gold Rush; that money, dug from the land as nuggets, was then planted back into it as vines.

I glamp in a field beside Bellwether Wines, which sits (along with a kitchen, dining room and tasting room made cosy with carpets and wood-burning stove) within a large, rather beautiful stone shearing shed. It was built in 1868 by Chinese immigrants, fresh off the ship, who walked all the way from the shore to the goldfields: tired men who had far better reason than me to turn their back on the coast. The tent has a proper bed, heater, and even a chaise longue, although glamping, to me, shouldn’t involve an outdoor squelch to the washrooms. Still, there’s a lovely dog, a grumpy donkey, and I’m woken by the mocking laughter of kookaburras.

Australia’s soil shelters vine roots and, sometimes, gold, but there’s other treasure beneath the country’s surface. At Naracoorte Caves, the pocked, chalky earth trapped prehistoric animals and then preserved their bones. Rediscovered in the 19th century, this incredible repository of long-extinct creatures includes megafauna: gargantuan beasts (giant short-faced kangaroos, five-metre snakes, marsupial lions) that lived between 500,000 and 40,000 years ago and must have terrified the early humans.

You can descend, on guided tours, into some of the white caves, where stalactites meet stalagmites to form bars like dragons’ teeth, and the reconstructed skeletons of ancient creatures loom eerily out of the darkness. You could use these caves as a wine cellar, I jest to our guide, and she takes me seriously: “No, any spill develops fungus. But we do hold an opera down here.”

I surface into bright winter sunshine and, at last, swap lakes, waterfalls and extinct seas for the modern coast, taking a half-hour detour down to the town and fishing port of Robe to drive along the Coorong, an 80-mile stretch of saltwater lagoon, with the Southern Ocean hidden behind sweeping sand dunes.

Cellar tour at Royal Mail Hotel

Cellar tour at Royal Mail Hotel

Puzzle pieces

Doug Collett was a Second World War pilot who flew over French vineyards in a Spitfire; inspired, he came home and founded Woodstock Wine Estate. It’s beautiful here, peaceful and sustainable; a gigantic fallen gum tree forms an unusual picnic table, the garden fence is made from barrel staves, and there’s an enclosure where an emu watches inscrutably as kangaroos bound over to be fed. Call me an unreconstructed tourist, but these crazy creatures are a highlight of my trip. One little fellow even tries to eat my shoelaces.

Surprises take a very different shape down the road at d’Arenberg, where the startling form of a five-storey Rubik’s Cube rears from a vineyard, complete with a replica of that eternally frustrating last piece, resting in the car park. The d’Arenberg Cube is the brainchild of Chester Osborn, who likens winemaking to a difficult puzzle. To say this A$15m (£8.5m) structure is odd doesn’t begin to convey the florid weirdness of a ‘five senses’ room covered in fake fruits and flowers, or urinals painted with enormous clown faces.

You can taste wine in a top-storey bar or learn to blend your own a couple of floors below. There are serious A$100 bottles for sale, but Chester seems determined to accentuate the bonkers side of wine. It doesn’t quite work for me: we’re each a different breed of contrarian. Still, there’s nothing silly about the superb lunch served at the Verandah restaurant. Chester’s father, d’Arry, is there, complaining about the expense of his son’s project. “I’m still getting bills!” You wouldn’t guess that Dad is 92, Chester 56, and the winery over 100 and one of Australian wine’s biggest success stories.

The General Wine Bar & Kitchen in Mclaren Flat is the Verandah’s opposite in everything except quality. An unassuming town-centre restaurant jointly run by two local wineries, Mr Riggs Wine Co and Zonte’s Footstep, it has no vineyard views but plenty of wines. There are exposed brick walls, leather banquettes and lovingly prepared food that pairs well with a selection of their wines. It’s a very Australian place — informal yet rigorous on quality. My last winery, Yangarra Estate Vineyard, is equally so. Here, the winemakers perversely insist the quality of their Grenache and Shiraz is all down to a climate similar to that of the southern Rhône, even though the 60-million-year-old sandy soil gripping the roots of vines and gum trees here has nothing in common with the stones of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Still, the wines are really good, nourished by biodynamic practice, hot sun and, perhaps, sheer pigheadedness.

I leave the calm shade of the Vale for a glorious drive into the Adelaide Hills, my final destination. Mount Lofty House, built in 1852 as a private home, perches on a hilltop with wonderful views down into the cool-climate foothills of this viticultural outpost just half an hour from Adelaide. There are botanical gardens next door and I like to think the exotic blooms send infinitesimal perfumed molecules into the Chardonnay vines. There’s a great cellar, excavated from solid rock that’s another layered fragment of Australia’s past — but then, so is the wine it houses.

When I try a South Australian Riesling, I’m tasting a tradition begun in the early 19th century by German migrants who’d fled religious persecution but weren’t ready to give up their native wines. As Ray Nadeson had explained, winegrowers were forced to pull up their vines around Geelong; they fared better here, and the descendants of their grapes have made Eden and Clare Valley Rieslings world-famous.

As I pull out of the Bird in Hand winery after lunch, past rose-pink galah birds pecking between the vines, it occurs to me that adversity — stubborn soils and homesick immigrants, parsimonious water rations and insanely determined pioneers — has given us the wines we drink today. I board my plane with a suitcase full of bottles: taking those wines that originated out of a longing for Europe back to fill a European glass.

Essentials

Getting there & around
Etihad, Qantas, Emirates and Singapore Airlines fly between Heathrow and Melbourne/Adelaide via their respective hubs.

A car is essential, but traffic is light and parking easy. Take a designated driver if you’re tasting — the drink-driving limit is low and keenly policed. Hertz has an outlet at Melbourne airport; the car can be returned in Adelaide.

When to go
The temperatures hover around 20C in September-November, when the vines are budding, and March-April, as harvest approaches. These areas get very hot in summer (December-February) and some, like Coonawarra, can be cold and rainy in midwinter (July-August).

Where to stay
The Nest.
Brae.
Royal Mail Hotel.
Bell Tents, Bellwether Winery.
The Farm Willunga.
Mount Lofty House.

How to do it
Coonawarra Experiences offers a day tasting, a trip to Naracoorte Caves, two nights in a luxury bell tent and the A Table of Twelve wine-matching experience at Bellwether from A$599 (£334) per person, based on two. Travelbag offers three nights in Adelaide and three in Melbourne from £1,299 per person, based on two sharing. Includes car hire and economy flights (London to Adelaide; Melbourne to London).

Published in the October 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)