The Northeast of Victoria is Australia’s most interestingly varied gourmet region.
Call me prejudiced but I remain convinced.
Having covered the wide brown land’s gourmet regions from the Barossa Valley in South Australia to the Sunshine Coast hinterland in Queensland, to Northern Tasmania’s Tamar Valley to Western Australia’s Margaret River and everywhere in New South Wales from the Northern Rivers/Byron Bay to the Southern Sapphire Coast around Eden and Merimbula (Have I left anywhere out?), I’m convinced.
This is it.
Victoria’s Northeast from Rutherglen to Stanley and Beechworth and all the lovely rolling country in between from Murray River flatlands to Alpine Highlands is the best.
Is it the combination of mineral rich soils and a huge range of climate zones contained in a relatively small area? The diverse community of keen farmers, vignerons and orchardists collaborating with a very talented group of restaurateurs and hoteliers?
All this and more set this region apart in terms of sheer variety of produce and human expertise working in perfect tandem.
I visited recently, this time to explore a smattering of King Valley wineries while sampling the gastronomic delights around Milawa.
Tiny Milawa is well known for its mustard factory and cheese shop. Brown Brothers winery put Milawa on the gourmet map many years ago.
Now a contemporary providore and cafe adds shinier lustre. Snow Road Produce sells a wide range of local goods including a terrific range of wines and Beechworth’s Bridge Road beers.
Owned and operated by hospitality professionals Lachlan and Emma Routledge, breakfast and lunch is served daily while a simple menu of pizzas and a few well-prepared main courses is served Friday and Sunday nights until about 9pm. Ring ahead to make a booking as the thin crust authentic pizzas are popular. Coffee by local roaster Honeybird of Mount Beauty is superb.
Around Milawa, Oxley and Everton lies a rich assortment of farm shops and wineries. Sam Miranda Wines just outside Oxley opened a schmick cellar door restaurant a few years ago in a striking new winery building alongside the picturesque King River. The food and wine matching at Miranda’s restaurant is always interesting while the range of wines is comprehensive and well made.
Nearby Ciccone Estate and John Gehrig Wines both typify the expertly crafted wines of the region and offer a wide selection of styles with welcoming cellar doors.
Of course the daddy of them all in these parts is Brown Brothers where education and innovation has long been essential to the Brown family’s success in conquering global markets.
In my opinion Brown Brothers operates the country’s most professional cellar door. Long time employees charm customers with their generosity of spirit and warm welcome. I say this wholeheartedly though I know comments like this smack of advertorial. Honest-to-goodness hospitality pervades throughout the Brown Brothers business, setting a model that other less proactive businesses should have wisely emulated years ago.
Wine making is essentially a farming business. Boom and bust periods are integral to life in a vineyard. Throughout lean and rich times the Brown family always endeavours to treat its employees like members of an extended clan.
The ethos of mutual respect runs true in everything the Brown family does… there for everyone to share.
Exemplified by its clever and long-running education program, Brown Brothers opened an Epicurean Centre years ago to showcase its broad range of wines matched with appropriate food. Several restaurant incarnations later, the excellent Patricia’s Table restaurant has reached a culinary pinnacle.
I’ve dined moderately well at Brown Brothers’ restaurant several times over the years. The most recent experience I enjoyed was the best yet. Head chef Douglas Elder has raised the bar to a higher level, specialising in maximum use of local seasonal produce.
An entree of Fried Masterstock quail with corn puree, black bean dressing, rolled chicken terrine and shaved coconut was truly delicious. The Cellar Door Release 2013 Pinot Noir Rose partnering the dish was equally inspired.
Other dishes enjoyed during a leisurely lunch on a sunny winter’s afternoon in a large room with floor to ceiling windows overlooking landscaped grounds proved to be real slices of the good life: Chestnut and Ricotta Raviolo with Autumn Mushrooms (mostly Pine mushrooms the day I visited), Porcini Custard and Consomm© to wit. Another entree of Cold smoked salmon, Dill Cr¨me Fraiche, Brioche, Cucumber Piccalilli and Red Onion was also superb. Wine matching excelled, respectively a 2012 Limited Release Tempranillo and Graciano blend and a 2012 ’Banksdale’ Chardonnay.
Under restaurant manager Bec Deslandes’ resourceful and friendly guidance, service is flawless. Our server, Julie Willis, was a fount of local knowledge whose utter charm sprang forth like a premium vintage ‘Patricia’ sparkling wine.
From Milawa it’s a short drive up the King Valley to Whitfield where the majority of top-quality wineries have cellar doors open to the public most weekends and public holidays.
If an abundance of Italian surnames is noted, remember that this area was settled by migrants escaping the deprivations of war from 1918 onwards until the early 50s. Italian families’ tobacco growing businesses once proliferated in the King Valley and surrounds. They brought with them (usually hidden in packages and trunks on board the ships carrying them to new pastures) Italian grape varieties’ rootstock from ancestral vineyards. Making wine primarily for home use in a style they preferred, less alcoholic and more savoury than the fuller bodied and fruitier wines common in Australia until the early 80s, these pioneering families now dominate today’s local wine industry.
The verdant foothills of the Australian Alps in Northeast Victoria appear vaguely Tuscan in appearance, particularly after several glasses of Prosecco when autumn and winter mists set into the landscape like a finely embroidered cloak.
At Dal Zotto Wines, Prosecco, the light bodied grape responsible for the frothy sparkling wine captivating Australia, is the wine of the moment. Winemaker Michael Dal Zotto has spent many months studying and working around Valdobbiadene, Italy’s Prosecco headquarters North of Venice nestled in beautiful hill country. Here he learned how to make Prosecco in a fashion the most loyal Italo-phile would love.
Dal Zotto boasts a cozy cellar door facility and a great range of wines including stunning examples of Barbera and Nebbiolo.
By sheer happenstance I popped into Dal Zotto while Michael Dal Zotto and a small team of volunteers was cutting up free range pork for salami and sausages. An aura of secret men’s business pervades salami making but this was an open kitchen full of fun and ’dolce vita’.
Other esteemed wineries in the neighbourhood are Pizzini Wines, Politini and Chrismont.
Fred and Katrina Pizzini, like the Dal Zotto family, are local wine industry heroes. Katrina, an accomplished chef, runs a very successful cooking school from the winery. Fred has attained ’Eminence Grise’ status while his kids continue the Pizzini tradition of creating stunning wines from their family vineyards. Fred Pizzini is the Nebbiolo guru in these parts. His ’Vin Santo’ style wine is unique and well worth getting hold of a bottle when it’s available.
Chrismont’s excellent Riesling is sought after by knowledgeable wine buffs. The rest of the range is equally good.
Just down the road from Whitfield is Gracebrook Vineyards. Owned and operated by the Maples family, they’ve been farming here since the 1970s. The Gracebrook restaurant connected to the winery and cellar door is open seven days for lunch. This is authentic ’Paddock to Plate’ dining as almost the entire menu is sourced from the family farm.
The kitchen is run by talented chef Colleen Maples who shares duties with two of her sisters. Another Maples progeny, Nathan, is a local builder who has helped construct the warmly rustic cellar door and restaurant dining room. Views from the veranda overlooking the valley and nearby mountains are mesmerising.
David Maples makes wines according to basic organic principles with minimal intervention in the winery. I tasted a wide range of his wines, from an austere Sauvignon Blanc made very much in the Sancerre style to a complex Riesling from the 2005 vintage. A 2010 Savagnin Blanc was the best example I’ve tasted of this variety produced in Australia. (Savagnin Blanc rootstock was confused by import authorities for Albarino which has resulted in some unavoidable confusion.) A 2009 Sagrantino was also very good, earthy, tannic and crying out for a big plate of Osso Buco. I also liked Gracebrook’s Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, both prime examples of adept cool climate wine-making techniques.
Apart from the great food at Brown Brothers and Snow Road Produce I dined at newest talented chef on the block Ben Bergmann’s excellent food at the Mountain View Hotel located in the centre of Whitfield. You can’t miss the Mountain View pub; it’s the only one in town. Owned by the Pizzini family and managed by German born Bergmann, this pub operates two distinct dining rooms. One is capacious and ’pubby’ with a long bar running alongside widely spaced tables overlooking a huge beer garden where an imaginative menu appeals to both local residents who prefer a no fuss chicken Parma and smart travellers searching for great ingredients cooked with consummate skill by a chef who really knows what he’s doing.
The other much smaller dining room is reserved for fine dining where a very moderately priced degustation menu allows Bergmann’s star to shine without dimming down. A comprehensive wine list comprising local favourites and imported beauties creates a very appealing package.
Bergmann’s ambition for this winning gastro-pub is clear: he wants to create a destination diner. Four adjoining rooms have been renovated to superior accommodation standard as an encouragement for guests wanting to reduce worries about driving after drinking great wine.
Given Ben Bergmann’s drive and talent, I believe the Mountain View Hotel is poised to become Victoria’s newest stand-alone gourmet restaurant up to the task of proving correct the old Michelin adage: It’s Worth the Detour.
Down the valley on the main road between Wangaratta and Beechworth is miniscule Tarrawingee, essentially the hamlet with a gracious old pub attached.
Many times over the years I drove by the old pub and felt sad. It was unloved but still lovely looking. All it needed was tender care and someone with drive to primp its interior while returning it to former glory.
Lucky for us, dynamic duo Andrew and Feona Roscouet stepped in over a year ago. Andrew was the head chef at the sadly missed and excellent Wardens of Beechworth. He has plenty of street cred, having worked in fine restaurants in Melbourne and abroad.
Put simply, he’s a gifted chef.
He’s also one of the reasons I’m enthused about this whole region as an Australian gourmet’s paradise.
The newly revamped Plough Inn at Tarrawingee is now one of the region’s finest restaurants. Service is top-notch (Thank you Kylie and Florence!) while Andrew and his talented sous-chef Tui rattle the pans with aplomb.
A very reasonably priced degustation menu (AUD$65 per person for five generous courses, AUD$90 per person with matching wines): Gratineed Scallops with Pea Puree, Cr¨me Fraiche and Ginger crumbs were lip smacking succulent, sweet of the sea and cooked just enough to warm the juicy scallops to a state of perfection. A Twice-cooked Pork Belly with Sweetcorn Puree, Corn and Red Capsicum salsa and Goat’s cheese Croquettes was rich and exquisite. Beef cheek Agnolotti on a reduced sweet/savoury Onion Puree, thin slices of Fennel pickled in Chinese spices and rice wine vinegar with crunchy Savoury Corn Flakes was inspired if a little weird. Two Duck leg Confit spheres encased in bread crumbs then lightly fried over Lentils, Garlic Cream, tiny roast Pumpkin pieces and a house made Worcestershire sauce came together like a dream but by then I’d overloaded on protein and couldn’t finish. I had no problem polishing off the Sticky Date pudding with Poached Prune and house made Butterscotch Sauce which our server Kylie referred to as ’A Cup Of Heaven’. She was right about that.
We drank a complex and plummy/mushroom-y bottle of Ninth Mile Vineyard unfiltered 2011 Pinot Noir from a vineyard near Stanley sited approximately 800 metres altitude.
Before the Pinot Noir, to start we had two glasses of Ringer Reef Sauvignon Blanc from Porepunkah near Myrtleford, another cool climate wine from a great local producer.
Roscouet’s food verges on the generous side of rich. He says his local customers are meat eaters (farmers in this region tend to like their meat portions served giant sized) but I reckon he could add a vegetable course to the degustation to give us meat-wimps a chance to complete the feast without a nearby defibrillator powered up ready for action.
No matter, the old pub retains its historic atmosphere; the small front bar is direct from country Victoria casting, while the Roscouet family has wisely injected aspects of urban cool into the framework. For instance, the main dining room’s ceiling sports plywood sheeting draped over rafters hiding extra insulation. Melbourne and Sydney trendy renovated warehouse restaurants sport similar looks.
The Plough Inn also provides a modestly priced pub grub menu with terrific hamburgers, fish and chips and a small selection of items off the main restaurant menu.
Plans are afoot to open the rooms upstairs for overnight guests. A huge cellar under the old floorboards is set for renovation as well and a room off the front bar in the vicinity of the gent’s lavatory will become a boutique selling hard-to-find local wines.
Clearly this couple have big plans in mind for the ongoing success of the Plough Inn. They’re off to a smashing start.
Tom Neal Tacker visited Northeast Victoria as a guest of Tourism North East and the Rural City of Wangaratta.