There are many reasons to drink to this Victorian region
Asked to rate the country's wine regions, most minds conjure images of the top-rate wineries in South Australia's Barossa Valley, the emerald-green hills of Victoria's Yarra Valley, the sun-drenched vineyards of Margaret River in Western Australia or NSW's acclaimed Hunter Valley.
But there's a spot on Victoria's coastline punching well above its weight, with award-winning wines attracting a huge amount of interest - Geelong and the Bellarine Peninsula.
While the peninsula has always drawn holidaymakers for its stunning beaches, the Bellarine is now making waves, not just in the water, but also among oenophiles seeking fine wines paired with gourmet local produce.
A comfortable drive from Melbourne in Victoria's southwest, this area was the largest grape-growing region in Victoria's gold rush era in the mid-19th century when Swiss settlers established vineyards.
The discovery of the pest phylloxera in the late 1800s, however, meant all of the vines had to be dug up. After a hiatus, the wine region was built from the ground up again in the 1960s and has bounced back in the past couple of decades with a clutch of wineries delivering some excellent fruit-driven cool-climate drops influenced by the coastal environment.
The combination of the soil, moderate rainfall and the environment gives the region a terroir often likened to France's Burgundy and Bordeaux. The Bellarine Peninsula delivers excellent pinot noir, chardonnay and spicy shiraz, with pinot gris turning heads of late.
Geelong, Victoria's second largest city, is a 25-minute drive from the Bellarine Peninsula wineries and makes a great base for exploration. The once industrial city has been transformed to offer plenty of enticing restaurants and wine bars where you can sample the best wine and produce from the region.
Tasting the award-winning wines produced at this boutique winery will turn your world upside down, quite literally. The cellar door is as quirky as they come, located in an "upside down house” - a timber A-frame barn where the roof sits against the ground as if it's been blown over in a gale (or knocked back a little too much wine, perhaps?).
The grounds are dotted with eclectic sculptures and art objects, though the offbeat vibe possibly belies the high quality of the wines produced here. Oakdene specialises in cool-climate wines of the region, with varietals including chardonnay, pinot noir, shiraz, sauvignon blanc, merlot and pinot gris.
MCGLASHANS WALLINGTON ESTATE
Winemaker Robin Brockett (from nearby Scotchman's Hill) produces the wine for McGlashans using French oak and maturing for 12 months prior to bottling. Taste his premium cool-climate wines, including the standout pinot noir and chardonnay, at the rustic cellar door alongside exceptional food, such as wild-caught abalone and fresh seafood platters - you can tell the winery is run by a local diver. The cellar door is decked out in automotive and maritime memorabilia and a collection of classic cars is on display.
LEURA PARK ESTATE
Leura Park has gone from strength to strength since its first vines were planted in 1995, becoming an acclaimed producer of maritime cool-climate wines. Darren Burke is the primary winemaker and attributes the quality of his wines to "the use of ambient (wild) yeast commonly employed providing the wines with an extra layer of complexity and verve”.
The stellar line-up of Leura Park wines includes sparkling pinot chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, riesling, pinot gris, chardonnay, rosé, pinot noir and shiraz. The Block 1 Reserve chardonnay is crafted to age in bottle and is consistently rated one of the top 20 in Australia.
Ninety-minute segway tours around the vines are available ($80), which include a glass of wine and a tasting platter or pizza.
With such sweeping water views from the alfresco deck here, you might be satisfied with a $5 cask wine, but thankfully you don't have to stoop that low.
Jack Rabbit's experienced winemaker, Nyall Condo, was one of 10 finalists in the Wine Society Young Winemaker of the Year Awards 2012 and approaches his craft with minimal intervention and creative use of oak to produce some terrific results. Pair an elegant chardonnay with a bowl of local Portarlington mussels in the cafe, or take it up a notch in the contemporary Jack Rabbit restaurant. Extend this trail with a stop in at Terindah Estate next door to sample their rival bay views and excellent pinot noir.
The oldest winery on the Bellarine Peninsula, with the first vines being planted in 1982 on the extinct volcano of Mt Bellarine, Scotchman's Hill is a classy operation. The main varietals grown in the vineyard are sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir and shiraz, along with the recently planted pinot gris.
Their 2016 Scotchman's Hill chardonnay scored 97 points in James Halliday's 2017 Wine Companion and the winery was also rated among Halliday's Top 100 Wineries for 2018. Don't miss tasting one of its knockout shirazes.
A new cellar door opened in 2017 with a cozy atmosphere, leafy alfresco area and views out across the water to the Melbourne city skyline. The eagerly awaited restaurant is to open in 2018.
Like most wineries on the peninsula, Basils Farm takes full advantage of its location with endless views across Swan Bay. Take a stroll through the vegie gardens and plonk down on the lawn under a parasol, or grab a table in the cafe to sample the range of artisanal wines. Try a wine flight - where three half- glasses are matched with a tasting platter - to appreciate the range, which includes rosé, chardonnay, pinot noir, shiraz, sauvignon blanc and pinot gris starting from the 2018 vintage.
Reproduced with permission from Wine Trails: Australia & New Zealand, 2018 Lonely Planet; lonelyplanet.com. Book available in stores now.
IF YOU GO
Get there: Geelong is an hour from Melbourne by car or train. A ferry from Melbourne's Docklands to Portarlington on the Bellarine takes 90 minutes.
www.oakdene.com.au; ph (03) 5256 3886; 255 Grubb Rd, Wallington; 10am-4pm daily
MCGLASHANS WALLINGTON ESTATE
mcglashans.com.au; ph (03) 5250 5760; 225 Swan Bay Rd, Wallington; 11am-5pm Saturday and Sunday, daily in January
LEURA PARK ESTATE
leuraparkestate.com.au; ph (03) 5253 3180; 1400 Portarlington Rd, Curlewis; 10am-5pm Thursday-Sunday, daily in January
www.jackrabbitvineyard.com.au; ph (03)52512223; 85 McAdams Ln, Bellarine; 10am-5pm daily
www.scotchmans.com.au; ph (03) 5251 3176; 190 Scotchmans Rd, Drysdale; 10am-4.30pm daily
www.basilsfarm.com.au; ph (03) 5258 4280; 43-53 Nye Rd, Swan Bay; 11am-4pm Mon-Fri (closed Tue), 11am-5pm Saturday and Sunday