One of my favourite things about living in Melbourne for the past few years has been uncovering the hidden (and not so hidden) gems around the city and the state of Victoria. Many of us take it for granted that we live somewhere that it only takes a couple of hours to be out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by lush greenery, dazzling blue skies overhead and being connected to the earth beneath our feet. The latest treasure, and soon to be obsession, that I have been lucky enough to explore is the King Valley. Situated a three hour drive (including coffee break) from Melbourne, the King Valley follows the King River, snaking its way south from Wangaratta to Alpine National Park.
The fertile valley was traditionally known for growing tobacco, but in the late 1970s, with the decline of the tobacco industry, many of the local farmers turned their attention to other crops like chestnuts, hops, berries and, most excitingly, grapes (of the wine-making variety). Many of the farmers had emigrated to Australia after the end of World War II, from Yugoslavia, Spain, and, most prominently, Italy; 82% of the farms in the valley were owned by Italians in 1978, leading to the valley’s nickname: Little Italy.
The valley is the perfect spot for a weekend away, although as you will see, you will be quickly booking a return visit to be able explore the spots that you did not get to. So the advice is to make a week or it, or at least a long weekend. The valley is packed with vineyards and cellar doors, delicious food (from rustic trattoria to more ‘fine dining’), amazing produce and spectacular sights, but it will be the people you meet that will leave a lasting impression. Across the four days that I spent in the region, I met some of the most friendly and passionate people, who genuinely love what they do and where they live.
This post is going to be an overview of my time in the valley. I was invited along to the King Valley as part of an ‘Eat, Shoot, Tweet’ event by Melissa Brauer and photographer Ewen Bell, who both love the King Valley so much that they wanted to share its secrets with others.
As it is a long post, feel free to skip ahead
Tuesday: Brown Brothers, King River Estate Winery
Wednesday: Pizzini Wines, King Valley Premium Beef, Mountain View Hotel
Thursday: Politini Wines, Gracebrook Vineyards, Dal Zotto
Friday: Lindenwarrah Hotel, Milawa Cheese Factory, Snow Road Produce
A highlight of any trip out into the Victorian countryside is the journey there, this time it was a classic road-trip up the Hume Highway with the lovely Veda and Sarah; with the perfect halfway coffee at Fowles Wines. Arriving at Brown Brothers in Milawa, we were greeted by brilliant blue skies stretching into distance, a good enough reason as any to start off with a glass of chilled Prosecco in the sun. One of the wines that the region is most known for is Prosecco, that Italian sparkling wine that eschews champagne’s complexity and secondary aromas in favour of a fresher, lighter approach with fruit-driven aromas.
Brown Brothers is known for their restaurant, the Epicurean Centre, overlooking the gardens and serving dishes that are technique-driven and make the most of the local, seasonal produce. We were lucky enough to be joined Ross Brown (Executive Director) and his daughter Caroline (Public Relations Manager) for lunch to tell us more about the history of the vineyard. The menu covers entrées, mains and desserts, with each entrée and main coming with 50mL of complimentary matched wine, a great way to try some of their wines with dishes designed to showcase each wine. You might choose an exploration of mushrooms with pickled, crumbed & grilled varieties joining an earthy porcini custard, tender white asparagus and the crunch of hazelnuts. The pork belly is meltingly tender, served alongside a tangy slaw with slivers of calamari and a kick from pickled ginger and cucumber.
After lunch we continued our bacchian delights at the cellar door, tasting a range of white and rosé wines before we headed underground to the cellar to sample the red and dessert wines. It was the perfect start to the week in the King Valley, and my first introduction to the strong family spirit so evident at the vineyards in the region. If you are up in the Milawa area, there is the option of renting a bicycle to make your way between vineyards, producers and shops, a brilliant way to fill your basket with delights and enjoy the sights and fresh air whilst doing so.
Heading further down into the valley, our base for the week was Whitfield, a central spot in the valley and a great place to branch out to the different vineyards and sights in the area. Our group split accommodation between the Mountain View Hotel and Jessie’s Creek Cottage, a beautiful cottage with a spacious kitchen and entertaining area, ideal for a group wanting to stay together. Our first night was a home-cooked meal at the cottage; roast beef, glorious hasselback potatoes with mushrooms, green beans and salad on the side.
We were joined by a local winemaker, Trevor from King River Estate Winery, to talk about his biodynamic wines and, of course, to try them alongside dinner. The Vermentino treaded that balance between fruit-driven characteristics with a mineral edge, but it was the Sangiovese Rosé that was set to be one of my favourite wine varieties of the week. The Sangiovese Rosé has lovely primary fruit flavours but with a dryness that made it a great wine to drink with cheese, charcuterie and antipasti. Moving into red territory, one of the classic Italian wines produced in the King Valley is Sangiovese, named after the Latin sanguis Jovis (‘the blood of Jove’- Jove being the other name for Jupiter, King of the Roman gods), a beautiful wine to match with foods, with its silky mouth feel and savoury notes of berries, spice and pepper.
One of the exciting things about touring a wine region and visiting the different vineyards is being able to compare and contrast between vineyards, but also to see the wines more unique to each winemaker. In this case it was the Sagrantino, a brooding, tannic wine with notes of dark chocolate and an oak finish; but one of the most interesting wines I tried during the week was the Saperavi. Saperavi is a Russian (Georgia) grape, a teinturier variety, meaning that both the skin and flesh are coloured red, leading to a deep black-red hue but without the bold tannins found in most deeply-coloured wines. Wine writer Philip White described it thus: “It’ll suck all the water out of your eyes, suck all the light from the room and then start sucking the volts outta your wires.”; but do not let that put you off, this wine has a smoothness and depth that is usually hard to find together in one wine.
One of my favourite spots out of the week was Pizzini wines, starting off with a glass of prosecco amongst the vines (a recurring theme during the week, because really every day should start with a chilled glass of bubbles). Spring was a great time to visit the valley as most of the vines were beginning to grow, the green leaves rising up from the gnarled stems. Fred Pizzini took us through the vineyard itself, with the odd vine-loving kangaroo bouncing away into the distance, before we settled into the maturation room, filled with barrels and that oaky fragrance filling the air. It was exciting to taste the differences between two different clones of Sangiovese from two different vineyards, one with stronger hints of mint and star anise; sample a young Nebbiolo that will age for another five years; and finishing with their Per Gli Angeli, a Vin Santo-style dessert wine from Trebbiano grapes, which had a luxurious, almost smoky taste.
Heading back to the cellar door, we were perfectly timed to help Katrina Pizzini finish cooking lunch at their ‘A tavola!’ cooking school. There is something therapeutic about rolling gnocchi into ribbed pillows while ragu simmers on the stove behind you. This was probably my favourite meal of the trip, uncomplicated, delicious food shared between old and new friends alike. Fluffy potato gnocchi (and a surprisingly good gluten-free version) with rich ragu; a silverbeet and ricotta gnocchi; pumpkin-filled pasta with sage and brown butter sauce; and a classic beetroot, goat’s cheese and candied walnut salad that wins every time. With lunch we drank their White Roman, a blend of Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Grigio, with lovely aromatics and zesty acidity; and Nebbiolo with powerful tannins, spice and deep flavour, both great wines to match with food.
With barely a moment to buy a bottle of the Nebbiolo to bring home, we were off the sealed roads and heading into the hills to visit the cows at King Valley Premium Beef. Our host was farmer/owner Emma Keith (who can pull off the cowgirl farmer look as well as the glamorous ‘going-out-for-dinner’ look), who took us through the farm, glass of Prosecco in hand. The farm raises grass-fed Square Meaters, an unusual sounding name, but these cows were bred for their compact stature, while still delivering strong muscling as well their ability to grow to market size solely on grass feed. The bull, Storm, in particular took a fancy to me; I would like to say it is the first time I have been licked on the legs by a bull.. but that is story that might have to wait until another day.
That evening we dined at the Mountain View Hotel which takes a step up from your usual pub food, whilst still sticking close to the soul of a rural pub and delivering tasty meals with friendly and inviting service. A entrée of beetroot-cured ocean trout was served with the tang of crème fraîche and bursting pearls of salmon roe. A slow-roasted lamb shoulder came with tender roasted beetroot (there is nothing worse than undercooked roast beetroot), spinach and a lively salsa verde. The risotto continued the week’s celebration of local mushrooms, with the intense earthiness of porcini giving it depth and body. Dining with Fred and Katrina Pizzini, my
week life long love of Sangiovese and Nebbiolo continued, being able to try some of the older vintages of both, matching perfectly with the slow-cooked lamb and Italian-influenced dishes. The Mountain View Hotel should definitely be a dinner spot on your King Valley adventures.
Pulling up to Politini Wines on Thursday morning we were greeted by the dulcet tones of a piano accordion on the wind, instantly transporting us to Italy. Built by Salvatore (Sam) and wife Josie (Giuseppina) Politini, the vineyard sits just outside the village of Cheshunt, a short drive from Whitfield, complete with a lovely little bed and breakfast. We were treated to some of Josie’s homemade cannoli, the Sicilian fried pastries were some of the best I have had, delicately crisp and filled with a vanilla and chocolate custard; as well as some moreish biscuits filled with cherry. Salvatore makes his own salami, they also run salami workshops at the vineyard, which was the perfect accompaniment to tasting some of their wines.
Chilean-born winemaker Luis, married to Sam and Josie’s daughter, Bianca, approaches their wines by trying to capture the essence of the fruit in each wine. Along with the King Valley favourites Sangiovese, Pinot Grigio and Vermentino, one of their more unique wines was the Grecanico, a Sicilian white grape, with strong concentration of fruit flavours, lemon notes and an almost bitter almond quality. Another unique wine was the Amoroso, a vivid cherry-purple hue, made from very ripe Cabernet grapes, which was sweet and juicy with strong fruit aromas. Being a red wine lover, I was taken with their Nero d’Avola (translated as ‘Black of Avola’- Avola being a city in Southern Sicily), reminiscent of a bold Australian Shiraz, this is a deep coloured wine, with semi-sweet acidity, soft but firm tannins and beautiful savoury notes- perfect with the salami!
For lunch we headed to Gracebook Vineyards, where the cellar door and restaurant is located in the original stables, built in the 1880s and they have kept the rustic stable feel, complete with a long bar made of red gum wood. Lunch was in the sun on the expansive deck (there are also tables on the grass near the vines) with cheese and antipasti to graze upon. Roasted poussin, filled with a delicious stuffing, were worth the effort of dealing with the tiny birds; with roasted pumpkin salad on the side. Following was a perfectly wobbly pannacotta, rich tiramisu and warm cinnamon-dusted doughnuts, which never fail to bring back childhood memories of shopping at the markets.
Instead of the valley’s Prosecco, Gracebrook’s signature sparkling is ‘Sunshine’, a blend of Chardonnay, Savagnin and Moscato Giallo, with an interesting savoury nature, yeasty aroma and a mineral edge. Their Dolcetto favours the traditional Italian style by veering more savoury, where as Australian Dolcetto tends to be more sweet; light tannins make for a soft, vibrant wine, that would be perfect for a red wine drinker like me in summer. Their version of the Umbrian grape, Sagrantino had wonderful cherry and dark chocolate notes, and tannins strong enough to stand up against game meats like venison.
A big day in the valley ended at Dal Zotto, walking distance from Whitfield, and home of the Australian Prosecco king, Otto Dal Zotto, the man who brought Prosecco to the valley and Australia. The Dal Zotto vineyard has their own trattoria (think simple, delicious Italian dishes), with some of the produce coming from the vineyard’s gardens tended by ‘Nonna Elena’, the family matriarch. Our evening began with a walk around the garden which was beginning to come alive in the spring warmth, with chives in full violet bloom and beds ready for tomato planting. Our bocce game, a Dal Zotto tradition, was thwarted by the only rain we saw during our week in the King valley, but that just meant moving into the trattoria earlier.
One of my favourite ways to spend a meal is to leisurely graze through tasty nibbles, enjoy some great wines and chat away with friends and family, and the Dal Zotto’s instantly make anyone feel like a member of the family. Washed rind cheese, salty prosciutto and spicy salami was a match made in heaven with their L’Immigrante Prosecco, their more mature Prosecco with lovely savoury yeast characteristics. Following were plump and juicy polpette (meatballs) with a fresh tomato sugo and ravioli with divine brown butter and sage (as I have said before, it is almost impossible to beat a brown butter sauce made with real butter). The highlight for everyone were the sage fritters, a slither of salty anchovy sandwiched between two sage leaves, fresh from the garden, lightly battered and fried; this is going to be my nibble of summer 2013/14. The main dish was a delicious slow-cooked ragu with polenta and a bitter (in the best way possible, like a negroni) rocket and radicchio salad. We finished with a dark chocolate tart with raspberries, matched with a glass of Elena, their signature dessert wine named after Nonna Elena, with stonefruit and caramel notes.
To ease the pain of the final day in the valley (why did we not decide to stay for the weekend as well!) we drove back up the valley to Milawa to have breakfast at Lindenwarrah Hotel. If you are looking for a luxurious place to stay in the valley then Lindenwarrah is for you. The rooms are spacious, with amazing views of the vineyards trailing into the distance and likely the best spot in the valley to enjoy breakfast in the warm spring sun. With a glass of Pizzini Brachetto (their pink Moscato) in hand, there were ‘continental’ treats to enjoy: bircher muesli, yoghurt, fresh fruit and pastries. On the savoury side, I opted for their take on eggs benedict; poached eggs, prosciutto and spinach nestled on a bed of crispy croutons. It was a delicious breakfast dish, although the gratinating was a little unnecessary as you lost some of the velvety comfort of the hollandaise. Dinner at their restaurant is a definite must for my next visit to the valley, as the lure of tea-smoked lamb is hard to resist.
Despite having to head back to Melbourne, a quick visit to some of the shops in the Milawa area was on the cards, to keep the spirit of the King Valley alive when back at home. From Milawa Cheese Company I walked away with a tangy and creamy chévre (as almost anything can be made better with the addition of goat’s cheese), and their aged Markwood, a cheddar-esque hard cheese, perfect with all of the red wine I left the valley with. Then it was a quick visit to Snow Road Produce in Milawa, run by the lovely Emma & Lachlan, who have recently returned to the area after living in Melbourne and overseas. If you are looking for one spot to be able to pick up produce, wine and beer from the area then this is the place; they also serve the best coffee in the area.
With that a glorious week in the King Valley came to an end, a week of delicious food, amazing wines, great company and outstanding hospitality. There are many places you can visit for good food and wine, but hospitality is that je ne sais quoi that elevates good to memorable, and the people of the King Valley make you feel welcome and at home.
Brown Brothers and Epicurean Centre
239 Milawa Bobinawarrah Road, Milawa, Victoria, 3678
Jessie’s Creek Cottage
6187 Mansfield Whitfield Road, Whitfield, Victoria 3733
King Valley Premium Beef
1237 Banksdale Rd, Hansonville VIC 3675, Australia
4446 Wangaratta-Whitfield Rd, King Valley, Victoria 3678