Victoria – the Henty and Grampians wine regions

Australia Felix!

By Sam Russell
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Seppelt Great Western vineyards are famous for their high quality wines

Seppelt Great Western vineyards are famous for their high quality wines

Gourmet Traveller's 2009 best regional restaurant - The Royal Mail Hotel at Dunkeld in Victoria
The Royal Mail Hotel at Dunkeld in the Grampians, Victoria
Cellar Door - Best's Wines, Great Western, Victoria
Crawford River Wines, Condah, Great Ocean Road, Victoria

 

When explorer Thomas Mitchell sighted this verdant landscape and rolling countryside he named it Australia Felix – a ‘fertile southland.’ With settlement and time it became ‘the Western District of Victoria.’ Wealth from wool sustained it through good years and bad. Today the wine industry knows it as ‘the Henty Wine Region’ after the first family to settle here -- at Portland – in 1834.

It is tucked away in south-western Victoria and a must-visit for the wine traveller especially if you are touring the coastal routes from Melbourne to the Coonawarra and Adelaide.

With so much of Australia burdened by drought, it is a relief to visit this prosperous part of the nation. Even in summer the paddocks reflect good seasons past and promise more to come. Gracious historic towns with tidy war memorials, decent coffee and inviting bookshops (such as Henty Street Books in Casterton) encourage travellers to pause.

From the Henty family’s Portland vines a small but significant wine industry grew. There are eight wineries here and several cellar doors but many are open only by arrangement. There are jewels among them. The searching is worth while.

The most prominent of these is the striking 10-year-old structure at Crawford River Wines, the only Halliday five-starred winery in the region. Graziers here at Condah since 1884, the Thomson family planted vines in 1975 and have developed a wine portfolio of considerable elegance. Their tasting room overlooks the vineyards and hosts some notable art including a fine Bob Marchant painting. The Thomsons welcome visitors by arrangement. Give them a call.

When in Henty, visit the Hamilton Art Gallery. With much justice but laudable lack of modesty it claims ‘the best gallery experience in Australia’. It has fine collections, especially of the decorative arts including glass, silver and oriental ceramics. Its collection of Hogarth prints and other eighteenth century works is compelling. Its website has details of its exhibition schedules.

Nearby in Hamilton is Gilly’s Restaurant, open from breakfast until bedtime with good bistro fare, coffee and Henty wines.

On the eastern fringe of the Henty region at the foot of the brooding Grampians lies the country hamlet of Dunkeld and its applauded Royal Mail Hotel. A 72-page wine list (including Grange Hermitage dating to 1966 and in The Age’s words, ‘arguably the best sweet wine collection in the nation’); imaginative cuisine and stylish accommodation make this a gastronomic destination of great merit.

The Grampians Wine Region adjoins the Henty. It stretches from the massive formations of the Grampians National Park to the placid  grazing and cropping country around Ararat. Here cellar doors and wineries become more numerous.

Recovering from the disastrous 2006 bushfires that incinerated half the Park the timbered areas of the Grampians are regenerating eagerly, a metaphor for the great Aussie ability to overcome bad times and capitalise on the present.

Ten minutes from Hall’s Gap -- the epicentre of Grampians tourism and a mecca for outdoorsy family holidays -- the little village of Pomonal hosts a new outpost of the Rathbone wine group’s stable. The compact Gap Vineyard and cellar door offers their local wines as well as a range of the Halliday five-star Mount Langi Ghiran labels from Buangor on the perimeter of the Grampians region about 50 kilometres away.

Often ignored by the thousands of cars streaming daily through the town, Great Western is home to several of Victoria’s best cellar doors. Best’s Wines is a favourite. Their evocative cobwebbed Concongella cellars are of such age – 1866 - and obvious integrity that every winelover should visit them. They say the free self-guided tours of the cellars take 10 minutes. By the time you have soaked up the atmosphere, marvelled at their museum wines and tried to interpret their labels in the crepuscular gloom, you might find you’ve spent half an hour.

Across the highway at the extensive Seppelt Great Western winery is another Halliday five-star operation. They too run tours. The legendary three-kilometres long ‘drives,’ dug in the late 1860s, are used to this day for storing countless thousands of bottles of maturing red and sparkling wines. The cellar door carries local wines as well as some from the Seppelt vineyards at Drumborg in the Henty region and an interesting range of French reds and whites.

Nearby on the highway and on a quite different scale is Grampians Estate cellar door, another Halliday five star winery. For a small family vineyard it has notched up an awesome collection of trophies. As well as its catalogue of good wines for tasting, the cellar door offers cheese platters and coffee and in school holidays conducts wine education sessions – confirmation it is a friendly place to visit.

The last stop in these travels is at the top of Ararat’s main street. Vines café and bar is one of those rare finds that add lustre to the too-often dreary foodscape in country towns. It has enticing food, nice people delivering good service, and that reliable touchstone for excellent espresso coffee – the Segafredo sign. It’s all you could wish for, really.

In summary, here are my personal Top Picks for travellers in the Henty and Grampians regions:

 

Notes from a wine traveller

There are 600-odd cellar doors in Victoria. No tourist can do justice to dozens in one trip. Above, in no order of preference, are some I have enjoyed visiting. You might too. Check the details of trading hours on VisitVineyards.com (click on links above or related listings below).

Many are closed during the week. Others are ‘by invitation only.’ Some offer food. Many have coffee. I have also mentioned some non-winery places of interest. My Top Picks are personal choices. They are not intended to be the definitive top anything. That would imply I have visited every one of hundreds of wineries, restaurants or whatever. I haven’t.

I always rely on The Wine Regions of Victoria from Tourism Victoria, VisitVineyards.com, James Halliday’s Australian Wine Companion, a selection of brochures and maps from the local Visitors’ Centres -- and an endless supply of curiosity. I recommend them all.

 

Regions

  • Grampians (Tourism) (VIC)
  • Grampians (Wine) (VIC)
  • Great Western (VIC)
  • Great Ocean Road (VIC)
  • Henty (VIC)
  • North West Victoria (VIC)

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March 04th, 2010
 
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