It is hard to think of a wine region anywhere in Australia that ticks quite as many boxes as the Mornington Peninsula when it comes to fine food, great wines and luxurious accommodation - although the Yarra Valley, Hunter Valley and Margaret River do all come close.
Melbourne’s movers and shakers have used the peninsula as their weekend seaside playground for generations and over the past two decades they have been joined by increasing numbers of winemakers and boutique food producers.Gourmets, wine lovers and golfers have followed in their wake and there are now over 50 cellar doors, dozens of appealing eateries and a range of great places to stay; ranging from beach shacks to five-star resorts.
Just over an hour south of Melbourne, the peninsula is a delightful region in which to spend a few days. Boot-shaped, it lends itself to leisurely exploration of the vines and olive groves. You are indisputably in the country here, with lush farmland and winding country lanes leading from vineyard to vineyard. It’s extremely easy to get lost, but there are surprises around every corner.
Seaside townships including Dromana, Sorrento, Mornington, Flinders and Merricks all have plenty of great views, while the hamlet of Red Hill is particularly well endowed with destinations for foodies, including Red Hill Cheese, a great market on the first Saturday of each month and the boutique Red Hill Brewery (now sadly now only open occasionally to visitors).
There’s a real warmth to the region. Visitors are made very welcome.
The boutique wineries tend to specialise in cool-climate grape varieties, particularly chardonnay and pinot noir. The breezes from Port Philip Bay and Bass Strait make Mornington perfect for cool-climate viticulture and recently Italian varieties, including pinot grigio, have been grown with great success.
Long-time favourite Stonier, Ten Minutes by Tractor, Paringa Estate, Tuck’s Ridge (far top), Eldridge Estate (below), Paradigm Hill and Yabby Lake all produce wines worth seeking out, while tiny and rustic Hurley Vineyard (visits by appointment) makes stellar pinots. Crittenden Estate, T’Gallant, Scorpo, Ocean Eight, Montalto and Quealy are other names to look out for.
The Port Philip Estate facility should be on any visitor’s itinerary given its spectacular cellar door and restaurant and newly opened luxury suites. Sandro Mosele’s wines under both the PPE and Kooyong labels are outstanding.
Willow Creek, meanwhile, has undergone a major facelift with a renovated cellar door and homestead, a new-look Salix Bistro and a new deck. Rather than the previously cramped facilities, there’s plenty of space at the cellar door with a U-shaped bluestone tasting bench.
My personal favourite spot to visit at weekends is the ultra-laidback Foxeys Hangout, where visitors can create their own sparkling wine blend and winemaker Tony Lee also gets behind the stoves to serve up superb tasting plates like grilled mushrooms in vine leaves and barbecued quail.
Sit outside with a glass of pinot noir and take in the views. Life doesn’t get much better.
Other “must visit” destinations for wine lovers include Main Ridge Estate, Paringa Estate, Eldridge Estate and Morning Sun Vineyard.
Main Ridge Estate is the ultimate aficionado experience, a tiny space where Nat White, one of the region’s winemaking pioneers, pours his own wines – which are of superb quality with Burgundian-style chardonnays and pinots noir.
Paringa Estate has a fun cellar door with extremely knowledgeable staff, superb pinots and shirazes and there's some excellent food in the restaurant.
Morning Sun (second top) has a cellar door that is open seven days a week and serves Northern Italian-inspired food in its Osteria eatery, while Eldridge Estate has a purely wine focus with a range of pinots featuring different clones and winemaking techniques – and one of Australia’s best gamays. Eldridge winemaker David Lloyd, a fountain of knowledge on all Peninsula pleasures, offers plenty of sage advice for first-time visitors.
Dining choices are many and varied, with the spectacular Ten Minutes by Tractor, Stillwater at Crittenden, Max’s at Red Hill Estate, Salix at Willow Creek and Montalto (right) are all winery restaurants that have garnered praise, while the pizzas and Italian dishes at La Baracca Trattoria at T’Gallant winery are also hugely popular.
Other restaurants serving stellar food include the excellent Long Table, now in comfortable new digs, the Fork to Fork Cafe at Heronswood Gardens, which specialises in seasonal food (often fresh from their own vegetable patches and herb gardens) and decadent desserts, and the country-chic Merricks General Store.
For a more casual gourmet experience pop in to Main Ridge Dairy, which produces a range of exciting goat cheeses. Tastings are offered in the cheesery, along with cheese platters and sales.
And if all the food and wine becomes a little too much, try a walk along the gloriously unspoiled Merricks Beach (with views to Philip Island), or visit the delightful Peninsula Hot Springs retreat, where you can bathe in mineral spring water and enjoy a massage or beauty treatments.
For more information
Mornington Peninsula Tourism, (03) 5987 3078, www.visitmorningtonpeninsula.org.
Mornington Peninsula Vignerons Association, (03) 5989 2377, www.mpva.com.au.