Mornington Peninsula, an hour from Melbourne, is one of Australia’s best kept wine secrets, discovers Laura Millar on a tasting tour
I feel like I’m starring in my own, personal remake of Sideways, that 2004, low-budget indie film which became a huge hit for its portrayal of a couple of friends working their way through the wineries of Santa Barbara (as the hilarious wine-buff protagonist, played by Paul Giamatti, proclaims, ‘If anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving!’). I’ve just arrived at my third vineyard of the day, the Port Phillip Estate – a futuristic, oval-shaped glass and steel building cut into the rolling hills of the Mornington Peninsula – and five different wines have been presented on their sampling table for me to try, from pinot gris and sauvignon, to shiraz. I take a few sips of each, enjoying the flavours as they roll around my tongue. They’re variously crisp, dry and velvety, and the quality is consistently – as I’ve noticed since I started tastings earlier today – exceptionally high.
If you’ve never heard of the Mornington Peninsula, you wouldn’t be alone. This relatively small region is only an hour’s drive from Australia’s second city, Melbourne, with its skyscapers, thronging streets, and well-caffeinated population (it practically invented the flat white). It’s understandably popular with Melburnians, who spend weekends here, enjoying its sandy beaches, golf courses, acres of dairy farms and orchards, and, of course, its wineries. The landscape feels comfortingly recognisable – it’s like being in the British countryside – as I drive along narrow, sun-dappled roads, passing forests and fields (though possibly you wouldn’t find road signs advising to watch out for koalas back home…). The weather is also familiar: I’m here in the depths of Australia’s winter, which actually feels like a Scottish spring – possibly even summer – with average temperatures of 13C during the day, bright blue skies and plenty of sunshine: warm when you’re basking in its rays, chilly when you’re not.
And it’s this European climate which has made the Peninsula such an ideal place for viticulture; the cooler temperatures derived from being so close to the ocean are particularly conducive to growing chardonnay and pinot noir grapes – no merlot here – so that every vineyard worth its salt (and there over 50 of them, most with tasting rooms, or, as they’re known here, ‘cellar doors’) produces these. When you think of Australian wine, you might think of labels like Yellowtail, or Hardys – big budget operations which are mainly located in other parts of Southern Australia. The Mornington Peninsula wineries pride themselves on being a lot less commercial; they tend to be much smaller, boutique and artisanal, many still making wine using manual techniques, and most family-owned.
My wine pilgrimage began earlier that day at Montalto (montalto.com.au), a vineyard which was opened in 1997 by wine enthusiasts John and Wendy Mitchell. Back then, it consisted of a handful of vines and some farm buildings; now, they own over 30 acres of vineyards, and the winery sits on 75 acres of land, which also includes olive groves, a kitchen garden and a sculpture trail. In their cosy cellar door, I sample a tropical, pineapple-y 2016 Pennon Hill sauvignon blanc, and their award-winning 2015 Montalto single vineyard Tuerong Block pinot noir, a fruity, aromatic wine with red cherry notes – so good I have a glass with lunch at their restaurant, which uses ingredients grown on-site.
“Winemaking really started to take off in the area around 15 to 20 years ago,” explains manager Luke Gooley. “It’s still in its relative infancy, but it’s an exciting time, with lots of opportunity for growth.”
That sense of quality is only enhanced by the time I get to my final stop for the evening, the newly-opened Jackalope hotel and winery. A converted 19th century homestead with a vineyard which was originally established in 1989, it’s a magnificent temple to design which somehow fits in seamlessly with the landscape. Outside, it’s all sleek lines and black, polished wood, a 7m high sculpture of the mythical creature from which it gets its name by the entrance; inside, it’s filled with unique pieces of artwork and light installations, bringing the concept of a winery with accommodation bang into the 21st – possibly even 22nd – century. “No-one else in the region is offering this level of luxury within a vineyard,” says manager Josh Ogilvie. It has already won three national awards, and draws guests from Sydney and beyond, and its wines – under the labels Willow Creek and Rare Hare – are equally lauded.
The next day it’s time to take my leave of the Peninsula before heading to one of the country’s most iconic routes: the Great Ocean Road. But not before I pay a visit to the local hot springs, a somewhat unexpected attraction which only opened ten years ago after its founder, operating on a hunch that, because the land was on a fault line, there would be geothermal water underneath it, made the welcome discovery. Now, Peninsula Hot Springs (peninsulahotsprings.com) is a draw for local families as well as visitors, who enjoy its bubbling, 46C, mineral-packed bathing pools, private onsen baths, and saunas.
Skin beautifully nourished, I head to the ferry port at the small town of Sorrento, crossing over to Queenscliff, then through some relatively drab terrain, until, finally, following the signs for the Great Ocean Road, the route starts narrowing and the ocean itself starts to peep through the foliage on my left hand side. It’s beautifully dramatic – a sweeping, sprawling vista with a jagged, cliff-lined coastline, promontories poking out into the crashing, thundering surf, the occasional lighthouse directing its gaze all the way towards Antartica. But the real money shot is to be found just beyond the green and forested expanse of the Great Otway National Park – which contains waterfalls, nature trails, fern gullies and the odd kangaroo (which you’ll find at the Great Ocean Ecolodge and Conservation Centre) – at the 12 Apostles heritage site. A collection of towering, limestone stacks, only seven actually remain standing, due to even more of the erosion which carved them out of the cliffs in the first place; one of the best ways to see them is to fly over them in a helicopter. Further along the road is Loch Ard Gorge, a vast gap between two dramatic rock formations named after a ship which was wrecked nearby in 1878, leaving only two survivors out of 54 passengers and crew. They were a ship’s apprentice and a young Irishwoman emigrating to Australia, both 19-years-old; I can’t help but romantically wonder whether they formed a relationship in the aftermath. My last port of call, before I turn inland and drive back to Melbourne, and my Singapore Airlines flight home, is Warrnambool. This little town is best known for whale watching, and every year, between June and September, female southern right whales come to Logan’s beach to calve, within just a few hundred metres of the shore. Unfortuanately, bad weather puts paid to my plans to head to the viewing platform, so I head to a local café, the Pavilion, for a warming glass of wine instead. And no, it’s definitely not merlot.
Fact box: Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com) flies to Melbourne via London and Singapore from Edinburgh from £940 return (business class fares from £4,120); doubles at the Jackalope Hotel start from £371 per night, jackalopehotels.com; villas at Chris’s Beacon Point on the Great Ocean Road start from £133 per night, chriss.com.au; for more information, see www.visitvictoria.com