Like the wines they seek to promote, cellar doors are getting better with age. What started out as a simple shopfront for many wineries soon morphed into restaurants – natural showcases for food and wine matching – but as tourism matures, winemakers are seeking to make the cellar-door experience more immersive. "All cellar doors in Australia pretty much offer the same thing, we have to lift the bar and give that truly behind-the-scenes experience and make people feel that little bit special," says Ian Firth, manager brand engagement at Fowles Wines in Victoria.
Ultimate Wine Experiences Australia (UWEA) offers nearly 100 of these new experiences at various wineries nationwide but I am off on a Sideways-esque road trip with UWEA in Victoria where we will cover six signature experiences.
GO BEHIND THE SCENES AT BROWN BROTHERS
On a family property in Milawa, northern Victoria, John Francis Brown started making wine 128 years ago in a barn surrounded by sheep and hay bales.
Today, we are standing in this very barn, now restored, but while the Browns like a nod to the past, they are focused on the future. This is the winery that gave us one of the country's first cellar-door restaurants 24 years ago with Patricia's Table (named for the Brown matriarch) and it is constantly evolving new wines in its Wine Kindergarten, a playground for winemaker Katherine Brown. The Kindergarten is a mini-winery where the Browns can make small batches of sometimes-quite-out-there wines. Not all will make it into production but the varieties barbera, moscato and tarrango – now Brown Brothers staples – all started life in the Kindergarten
Brown Brothers has identified four types of wine tourist: the wine discoverer, who is new to wine; the wine explorer who wants to know everything; the wine settled, who knows what they like and sticks with it; and the wine connoisseur.
"We used that information to develop product to take to the tourism market," says cellar door manager Darren Vincent. "We started creating these products from a simple tour to a three-day immersion visit."
We are on an abridged tour that takes in the production process where we see piles of discarded wine skins, tour the aforementioned Kindergarten where we taste a hot-pink-coloured rose made from tempranillo and meet winemaker Katherine hard at work. We finish at Patricia's Table sitting down to a wine-matched meal that might include fried quail breast and terrine, apple kimchi, yuzu mayonnaise and peanuts, to the soundtrack of acorns falling on the tin roof.
LEARN TO COOK AT PIZZINI WINES
The Pizzinis, tobacco-farmers-turned-winemakers in the King Valley, have helped popularise Italian varietals like sangiovese and barbera, and can also be credited with the meteoric rise of prosecco.
We are staying the night in the town of Whitfield at the Mountain View Hotel, which the Pizzinis own and manage – it is a simple country pub made special by the attention to service. The hospitality of the Pizzini family is so warm you feel like you have been adopted, and that night we are invited to a family dinner at the winery. In the shadow of the old corrugated iron tobacco sheds, sitting on a long table with three generations of Pizzinis, there is a continuous conveyer belt of amazing dishes flying past, from patriarch Alfredo "Fred" Pizzini's char-grilled pigeon to his wife Katrina's indulgent tiramisu; tales are told, new vintages tested, dusty bottles discovered (when Fred gets his torch out you are in for a treat, like a decades-old nebbiolo). Fred points out where the clean, clear King River cuts through the property and where he occasionally allows Brown Brothers' Ross Brown access to his special fishing spots. "What we do well other regions can't do," says Fred.
While our evening meal may have included a few more Pizzinis than the usual experience, the morning cooking class, run by Katrina, is a staple of UWEA. The best cooking classes don't just impart recipes, they impart knowledge and Katrina Pizzini's A tavola Cooking School is full of tips and secrets that stay with you after the class has finished. We make silky tagliatelle, gnocchi and a deceptively simple Napoletana sauce that is now a staple for our pizzas and pasta at our place.
GET GAME AT FOWLES WINES
"Seeing behind the cellar door is particularly important to Fowles because our vineyards and winery are actually separate to our cellar door," says Ian Firth.
Fowles is a relatively new winery situated in the dramatic Strathbogie Ranges, a rugged landscape that has given birth to its Stone Dwellers wine label, and the wine experience of the same name.
On this tour you will visit the main winery operations a short drive away, but a few hundred metres higher in the hills. In our case, we are touring during the vintage so operations are in full swing and we play a game of "follow the pipe" from crusher to barrel. We are able to taste the future vintages in their infancy; sweet pungent glasses of grape juice that only a winemaker could love, but which will eventually become the sort of wine that made Fowles the first Victorian winery to win the Great Australian Shiraz Challenge trophy for Australia's Best Shiraz.
Fowles also offers a game experience that showcases the winery's unique take on food and wine matching. "What sets us apart is our food and wine-matching philosophy," says Firth. "We are the first winery in the world to actually blend a wine to specifically match game food."
BLEND YOUR OWN BOTTLE AT TAHBILK
Established in 1860, Tahbilk is the grand dame of the Strathbogie region wineries. After a tour of the cellar door and the huge cellar beneath, theatrically strung with cobwebs and redolent of old world wineries (it was originally known as Chateau Tahbilk), we are off on the Art of Winemaking tour.
"The Art of Winemaking is about blending. Every single wine you have ever drunk is a blend," says Bruce Minchinton, manager Tahbilk Winery and Vineyards. "Now you will say 'hang on, I have drunk wine that is 100 per cent riesling' – it is still a blend because the winemaker will make many different batches and blend within those batches to get the style they want."
Our task is to blend a red wine using four distinct wines: oaked shiraz, unoaked shiraz, oaked merlot and unoaked merlot. Under Bruce's tutelage we have learnt that grape varieties affect specific parts of the mouth; shiraz is tasted on mainly the mid-palate, while merlot favours the back palate, and a winemaker's job is to make a wine that touches all parts of the mouth. I'm a little concerned because during training by back palate seems to have gone to sleep, but Bruce helps make some adjustments – though I don't think I would get a job making wine with him any time soon. But the experience is interesting, given that the group of proto-winemakers splits down the middle, one side preferring a shiraz-dominate wine, the other merlot. It perfectly highlights the personal nature of winemaking.
PICNIC AMONGST THE ART AT MONTALTO
From the art of winemaking to a potent mix of winemaking and art, Montalto Vineyard and Olive Grove has held a sculpture prize each year for the past 12 years and displays the entrants among their lush vines. Situated on the Mornington Peninsula, this is an outdoor space that people want to engage with, so their popular experience is a picnic on the grounds.
The sculpture prize entrants are on display for six months of the year, and then winner then goes into the permanent collection. This creates an ever-changing landscape for Montalto visitors to enjoy the area's famous pinot noirs. At Montalto the 2015 is a particularly good vintage and we taste the pinot at the cellar-door tasting table, which has a bright-white strip along the centre so you can fully appreciated the light red hue of the wine. We have a beautiful day for our picnic and there is plenty of discussion about the sculptures including the winner, Ben Carroll's The Bush of Ghosts – twisted, intricately carved wooden poles perfectly placed by the river.
HAVE LUNCH WITH THE TALENT BEHIND DE BORTOLI
De Bortoli's gourmet food and wine experience offers the best of the Yarra Valley on a plate, and in a glass. We start with a gourmet tasting right next to the cheese room where the De Bortolis age a range of cheeses and while this is a well-loved combination, combining a Rococo NC Premium Cuvee with a Meredith's Goats Cheese in De Bortoli's award-winning cellar door makes everything taste better.
Later, we move upstairs in the on-site Locale restaurants for an Italian buffet lunch with Leanne De Bortoli, who manages the estate with her husband Steven Webber. The view across the vines is amazing and the perfectly matched wines, including a La Boheme Act Two rosé and a Riorret (it's Terroir backwards) pinot, make you glad that the De Bortolis swapped growing fruit for making wine years ago in Griffith in New South Wales.
The King Valley wine region is about three hours drive north from Melbourne, and you pass through the Strathbogie Ranges about an hour north of the city. The Yarra Valley is a one-hour drive north-east of the city, while the Mornington Peninsula region can be reached in a 1½-hour drive south-east of Melbourne.
Wine experiences are booked through Ultimate Wine Experiences Australia and you can choose from 19 wineries nationwide (ultimatewineryexperiences.com.au). From our Victorian trip we visited: Brown Brothers winery at 239 Milawa-Bobinawarrah Rd, Milawa; brownbrothers.com.au. Pizzini Wines is located at 175 King Valley Rd, Whitfield; pizzini.com.au and you can stay at the Mountain View Hotel, 4 King Valley Rd & Benalla Whitfield Rd, Whitfield; mvhotel.com.au, doubles from $145. Visit Fowles Wines cellar door at 1175 Lambing Gully Rd, Avenel; fowleswine.com. The historic cellar door at Tahbilk is found at 254 Oneils Rd, Tabilk; Montalto Winery, 33 Red Hill-Shoreham Rd, Red Hill South; montalto.com.au. De Bortoli is in the Yarra Valley at 58 Pinnacle Ln, Dixons Creek; debortoli.com.au.
Paul Chai was a guest of Ultimate Winery Experiences Australia.