Victoria's reinvigorated High Country
Author: Michael Harden
Photography: Kristoffer Paulsen
Victoria's High Country was long regarded as a scenic stretch of the drive from Melbourne to the snowfields - a sleepy region of farms and fortified wine. Then along came a new generation of farmers, winemakers and thinkers. A decade later, their energy and confidence has turned the region into a destination buoyed by new businesses, new wine varieties, new produce and new ideas. Bright attracts as many people for its coffee, chocolate, beer and gin as it does for its showy autumn leaves. Rutherglen winemakers are challenging the notion that fortified wine is the region's only strength. Yackandandah's energy is on track to be 100 per cent renewable by 2022. And destination diners flock to one of Australia's best restaurants in Beechworth.
At the vast Brown Brothers winery in Milawa, Katherine Brown is barrel-tasting wines she's been developing in the company's "kindergarten winery". It's a purpose-built facility surrounded by giant tanks, positioned away from the manicured gardens around the cellar door and restaurant. This is where Brown Brothers winemakers go to experiment with new things. As the first Brown woman to make wine at the 128-year-old winery, Katherine is something of a new thing herself, part of a generation that's shaking things up across Victoria's north-east.
Brown Brothers cellar door.
"Our climate in the King Valley is a huge strength," she says. "We can grow anything we want because of all the separate microclimates. And because the area still feels a bit like a hidden secret, we're not stuck in a mould. People come here to try something new. We can make and grow what we like and so the reputation we're getting as a region is as a place where we do things differently. We're all about surprise and delight and getting people excited about the good things in life."
Along quiet, narrow roads framed by mountains, Italian families such as Pizzini and Dal Zotto have well-established vineyards of prosecco, nebbiolo, arneis and sangiovese where once they grew tobacco. Some wineries have restaurants or cooking schools featuring produce from the region: Angus beef, free-range pork, cheese, chestnuts, olives, butter, cherries, apples and honey.
The diversity of produce comes from the High Country's distinct seasons and consistent climate: frosty winters, clear, crisp autumns, and hot summers with evenings cooled by alpine winds. It's perfect for growing hops, farmed here for local and export markets. The region is so enthusiastic about craft beer that a High Country town without a microbrewery is almost an exception to the rule.
There's even a brewery in the wine town of Rutherglen, and generational change is under way at its wineries. Rutherglen is thick with venerable winemaking families renowned for their fortified wines - Morris, Chambers, Campbells, Stanton & Killeen - while other winemakers are pushing the envelope, Jen Pfeiffer at Pfeiffer Wines, Mandy Jones at Jones Winery, and Rowly Milhinch at Scion among them.
Autumn in Bright.
"There's a change happening in Rutherglen winemaking where people are looking at the region's traditional strengths and then saying, let's move them over here and see if there's another way of doing things," says Milhinch. "There's a respect for tradition but also a realisation that Rutherglen is just as capable of producing award-winning white wines like arneis."
This kind of energy and optimism seems endemic across the north-east of the state. Shuttered pubs are reopening, people who grew up here are quitting city jobs and returning with expectations and experience of good coffee and sourdough, of distinctive beers and gins and wines that tell local stories. And still the High Country retains a sense of peace, of being just a little off the beaten track. Here are the places that should be on your radar.
Mansfield Coffee Merchant
One of Mansfield's oldest buildings, a former general store, is now an industrial-chic coffee roastery. The morning coffee rush here is an impeccably serviced moshpit with two espresso machines and a brew bar going full tilt. Owner Mat Picone learned his roasting skills and developed his ideas - ethically sourced beans roasted in-house, direct relationships with dairy farmers - in Melbourne. The café has a crowd-pleasing all-day menu (smashed avocado, pulled and smoked lamb burger) and bottles its own cold brew to keep travellers alert when they're back on the road.
Mansfield Coffee Merchant, 23 Highett St, Mansfield, (03) 5779 1703, mansfieldcoffeemerchant.com.au; open daily 6.30am-4pm
Mansfield Coffee Merchant.
Social Bandit Brewing Co
Jeff Whyte makes beer in small batches with the Austrian-made copper equipment he acquired from a defunct Japanese brewery. He uses local hops from Myrtleford in some beers, rye from a local baker in others. The brewery occupies the same space as a bar that's pieced together from salvaged materials and recycled furniture. Add a stone-floored pizza oven, a list of local wine and street art spray-painted on a wall and it might sound like overkill. But the focus stays on the beer, a dozen of them on tap. Don't miss the smooth, mature Jackie Brown Ale, hoppy Triggered pale ale, grassy wet-hopped Delinquent IPA and The Heff, an impressive version of a German hefeweizen.
Social Bandit Brewing Co, 223 Mt Buller Rd, Mansfield, (03) 5775 3281; open Thu-Sun 11am-9pm
Arnie and Jo Pizzini opened their combined cellar door, larder and restaurant on an elevated part of their property where they once sat on a picnic rug, dreaming of a building that would capture views to the distant peaks of the Black Ranges. A modern angular building replaced the rug in 2015 and nailed the brief. On a sunny day the awning-shaded, terrazzo veranda is the ideal perch to appreciate the bucolic setting and simply cooked, rustic Italian dishes by Jo's cousin Giovanna Jones - eggplant polpette, braised beef rib with polenta - and Chrismont's Italian varieties: prosecco, pinot grigio, fiano, arneis, sangiovese and barbera. Deftly balancing the modern and the traditional, lunch at Chrismont is an essential King Valley experience.
Chrismont, 251 Upper King River Rd, Chestnut, (03) 5729 8220, chrismont.com.au; open daily 10am-5pm
A selection of dishes at
Not far from Chrismont, Arnie Pizzini's cousin Fred and his family tend some of the oldest plantings of Italian varieties in Australia. Fred started growing grapes on his father's tobacco farm in 1978, and the current Pizzini cellar door is housed in the tobacco-drying kilns. The vineyard is planted with 17 grape varieties, many of them Italian. "In the King Valley we're able to make wines of finesse and power, medium-bodied with long-lasting flavours," says Fred. There's prosecco, of course, and the King Valley's other calling card, pinot grigio, but also interesting, elegant reds such as nebbiolo and sangiovese in the repertoire, too. At Pizzini's renowned cooking school, A Tavola, Fred's wife, Katrina, teaches pasta-making, meat-curing and spit-roasting. Pizzini, 175 King Valley Rd, Whitfield, (03) 5729 8278, pizzini.com.au; open daily 10am-5pm
Otto Dal Zotto was born in Valdobbiadene in Italy's Veneto region, the home of prosecco, and his love of the sparkling wine led him to hunt for and plant then-rare prosecco vines in the 1990s. Dal Zotto is now considered one of the finest prosecco makers in the country and a pioneer of styles such as ultra-traditional, bottle-fermented Col Fondo; the vintage is celebrated at an annual prosecco festival in November. The trattoria next to the cellar door has a menu matched to Italian wine varieties and focuses on local produce, much of it - tomatoes in a Caprese salad, eggplant in cotolette di melanzane - grown on site by the matriarch, Elena.
Dal Zotto, 4861 Wangaratta-Whitfield Rd, Whitfield, (03) 5729 8321, dalzotto.com.au; open daily 10am-5pm, dinner Fridays 6pm-9pm.
Dal Zotto wines.
King Valley Dairy
Naomi Ingleton, a chef turned butter-maker, recently relocated her thriving butter business in Myrtleford to an old dairy factory in Moyhu, closed since the 1960s and now restored. Ingleton produces an impressive range of cultured butter, buttermilk, crème fraîche, ghee, buttermilk ricotta and butters flavoured with the likes of truffles, confit garlic, smoked salt and wild thyme. Customers take platters prepared at the dairy's produce store and head across the road for lunch beside the river. Or they settle on the factory's veranda with smoothies, fudge and ice-cream made from buttermilk.
King Valley Dairy, 107 Moyhu-Meadow Creek Rd, Moyhu, (03) 5727 9329, kingvalleydairy.com.au; open daily 10am-4pm
An 1870s brick stable has been transformed into an artisan chocolate factory where co-owner and head chocolate-maker Simeon Crawley handcrafts chocolatefrom beans he roasts on site. His small operation (he describes it as a "make it up as you go along" kind of production line) shares the space with the retail shop, and the smell and sounds of chocolate-making flavour the experience of tasting and shopping. The factory's signature is a range of beautifully packaged, single-origin chocolate bars made with beans from Madagascar, Ecuador, Trinidad, Tanzania and the Dominican Republic, each with a distinct flavour profile. Or try the truffles, chocolate-coated coffee beans (sourced from local roaster Sixpence, below), nuts or addictively rich hot chocolate.
Bright Chocolate, 8/3 Riverside Ave, Bright, (03) 5750 1235, brightchocolate.com.au; open daily 10am-5pm
There's a lot of good coffee in Bright these days, and Sixpence makes some of the best. Luke Dudley and Tabath Bennett's rustic tin-shed café and roastery are so busy they've decided to shift the roastery to larger premises, which they'll share with gin-maker Reed & Co Distilling, run by Hamish Nugent and Rachel Reed, who also ran the now-closed Tani Eat & Drink in Bright. The Sixpence café and its grassy outdoor area will remain largely unchanged, but for increased focus on a range of bulk-fermented sourdough and pastries that are baked on site. "I thought at first that it would be just me in a shed roasting and serving coffee on a really small scale," Dudley says. "That didn't exactly work out."
Sixpence Coffee, 35 Churchill Ave, Bright, (03) 5755 1242, sixpencecoffee.com.au; open Mon-Fri 7.30am-2.30pm
Sixpence Coffee roastery.
Now that Bright has a microbrewery, chocolate factory, distillery and coffee roastery, it was inevitable that a cool bar would follow. Long and narrow with a partly open kitchen and a timber-topped bar, Tomahawks looks the part without being too slick. An on-trend menu by chef Kurt Adam includes a brilliant cheeseburger made with Seven Creek wagyu, top-notch Korean fried chicken, charred broccoli with smoked butter, and lamb ribs with a tamarind lime dressing. Adam's partner, Megan Healy, does front of house, mixing impressive cocktails (try the sherbety, sugar-rimmed Tiki Sour) and keeping the mood friendly and welcoming.
Tomahawks, shop 3, 15 Camp St, Bright. (03) 5750 1113, facebook.com/ Tomahawks.Bright; open Wed-Sun noon-11pm
Kurt Adam and Megan Healy of
Janelle Boynton recently stepped in to save the Porepunkah pub after its closure, renaming it Punka Pub and giving it a sleek "industrial provincial" renovation, stacking the menu with retro favourites (prawn cocktails, crumbed Camembert) and making a feature of craft beer. She's trying something new at the family's Feathertop Winery, too, offering winery members access to facilities and a private terrace any day of the week, plus invitations to food and wine matching events, cooking classes and dégustation dinners. From Friday to Monday, non-members can enjoy the views from another vine-shaded terrace and shop for local produce at Feathertop's deli. The winery also has two apartments for short stays, one with a bath on the veranda, one with views to Mount Buffalo.
Feathertop Winery, 6619 Great Alpine Rd, Porepunkah, (03) 5756 2356, feathertopwinery.com.au
Provenance is the best restaurant in the High Country, and one of the finest in Victoria. Owner-chef Michael Ryan's love of Japan is present in the technique and flavours of his dishes, and there's similar fascination with local produce. There are two- and three-course à la carte menus where steamed snapper with a rice cake and kimchi hotpot is a highlight, but choose the dégustation, a six- to eight-course joyride that might include house-made silken tofu with ginger and dashi, and a wallaby tartare flavoured with umeboshi and topped with cured egg yolk. The wine list, by sommelier partner, Jeanette Henderson, is a thrilling read, placing the best of local makers (Savaterre, Giaconda, Castagna, Sorrenberg) alongside noteworthy Old World labels and rare sake. Book ahead to stay in one of the four Japaneseaccented rooms in converted stables.
Provenance, 86 Ford St, Beechworth, (03) 5728 1786, theprovenance.com.au; open Wed-Sun 6.30pm-9pm (Sat from 6pm)
Octopus, seaweed butter and nuka pickles at Provenance.
Project Forty Nine
In a compact shopfront on Beechworth's main street, this restaurant-wine store offers a snapshot of what's excellent in the region's wine, mixing it with greatest hits from Italy, quality coffee and a short, sharp menu featuring salumi and antipasti. Owners Rocco Esposito and Lisa Pidutti are winemakers who champion emerging Beechworth winemakers here and at their sister restaurant-wine store in Melbourne. Wines by small producers such as Domenica and Sentio are available by the glass, ideal with capocollo and buffalo mozzarella or orechiette tossed with gorgonzola, pear and hazelnuts.
Project Forty Nine, 46-48 Ford St, Beechworth, (03) 5728 1599, projectfortynine.com.au; open Wed-Mon 9am-5pm, Friday 9am-9pm
Bridge Road Brewers
One of the original craft breweries in the High Country, Bridge Road produces more than a million litres of beer a year in up to 50 varieties - including a seasonal vanilla ice-cream ale called Magical Christmas Unicorn. Owner and head brewer Ben Kraus is clearly not afraid to have a little fun. His brewery in an old Cobb & Co stable off Beechworth's main street houses a sizeable bar, pizzeria and beer garden, and serves his remarkable variety of well-crafted beers. There's plenty for the serious craft-brew fan - wet-hop beers, Celtic red ale, porters, pilsners and IPAs - but also more off-the-wall brews using the likes of chestnuts and chocolate malt (and ice-cream).
Bridge Road Brewers, 50 Ford St, Beechworth, (03) 5278 2703, bridgeroadbrewers.com.au; open Mon-Wed 11am-5pm, Thu & Sun 11am-10pm, Fri & Sat 11am-11pm
The Peggy Adelaide suite at Feathertop Winery.
Scion Vineyard & Winery
Rowly Milhinch, the owner and winemaker at Scion, is part of the Morris family (on his mother's side), who have been making wines in Rutherglen since 1859. At 34, he's a relative newcomer to winemaking and not afraid to shake things up. At the Scion cellar door you might find yourself chatting over a (well-made) coffee before tasting a flight of durif, one made in traditional style, one made as a rosé, one as a lighter style fortified. Milhinch's excitement about the possibilities inherent in a single grape variety is infectious. Milhinch is emblematic of Rutherglen's new energy, a next-gen winemaker respectful of the region's traditions but ready to take new directions. See it here now.
Scion Vineyard & Winery, 74 Slaughterhouse Rd, Rutherglen, (02) 6032 8844, scionvineyard.com; open daily 10am-5pm
The restaurant at Jones Winery is a delight - a low-key room with polished concrete floor and mismatched antique furniture with a menu of classic French bistro dishes such as chicken and pork terrine, and confit duck with braised lentils. It's run by winemaker Mandy Jones and her brother Arthur, who also manage the family winery. Mandy worked as a winemaker in Bordeaux for more than a decade and many of her wines are classically made using Rutherglen varieties such as durif. But she's also experimenting with white varieties such as fiano and has recently released Correll, a French-style apéritif wine with notes of juniper, orange and anise. Served with soda and ice on a hot day, it instantly broadens perceptions of what a Rutherglen wine can be.
Jones Winery and Vineyard, 61 Jones Rd, Rutherglen, (02) 6032 8496, joneswinery.com.au; open Mon & Thu-Fri 10am-4pm, Sat-Sun 10am-5pm.
Fourth-generation winemaking siblings Eliza, Angela and Nick Brown like yo keep busy. Their latest project is restoring Mount Ophir, a spectacular, rundown old winery about a 10-minute drive from Rutherglen with an eclectic collection of buildings (including a threestorey tower) ripe for conversion into self-catering accommodation. There are plans for a small music festival and reinvigoration of Ophir's organic orchards and vineyards. The Terrace Restaurant at the Browns' All Saints Estate, where hef Simon Arkless prepares some of the prettiest, most skilfully cooked food in the 'hood, is a little like a permanent tent with clear plastic walls that roll up to catch manicured garden views when the weather is balmy. It lends a (sometimes literal) breeziness to the space, and there are plans here, too: to replace the tent with a sturdier structure within the next year or so. Tight service and Arkless' menu impress with or without walls - the meal might include estate-raised suckling pig teamed with quince aïoli, gnocchi tossed with garlic custard and grilled radicchio, or a superb spiced pumpkin and brownbutter tart.
Terrace Restaurant, 315 All Saints Rd, Wahgunyah, 1800 021 621, allsaintswine.com.au; open Wed-Sun noon-3pm, Sat 6pm-10pm.
This is another project by the enterprising Brown siblings - a handsome, flatteringly lit wine bar on Rutherglen's Main Street. Extensive lists of gin and whisky sit beside wines from the Browns' All Saints and St Leonards wineries (All Saints Museum Muscadelle is available for $120 a glass) as well as notable releases from fellow Rutherglen producers and benchmark Old World labels. Terrace Restaurant chef Simon Arkless hits the mark with a pared-back menu of quality steak, char-grilled fish and salty snacks, such as grilled saganaki and tins of Spanish sardines served with bread and pickles. Communal tables and a turntable for tunes keep the mood grown-up and friendly.
Thousand Pound, 82 Main St, Rutherglen, (02) 6032 8179, thousandpound.com.au; open Fri-Sat 5pm-late.
Inside Thousand Pound.
Gavin Swalwell and Fiona Meyers are busy people. They run the fine-diner Taste@Rutherglen and a new restaurant and reception centre at nearby Buller Wines, and they're developing a distillery in Rutherglen. They also operate Rutherglen Brewery in a shed behind the restaurant, brewing six elegant and restrained beers in classic styles, including pilsner, Ieish red ale, and IPA. Enjoy a schooner or a tasting paddle and pizza in the spacious beer garden fronting Main Street.
Rutherglen Brewery, 121C Main St, Rutherglen, (02) 6032 9765, rutherglenbrewery.com; open Wed-Sun 8am-2pm & Wed-Sat 5.30pm-late.