Winsor Dobbin presents the fourth in a series of guides to Australia and New Zealand's top wine regions.
VICTORIA'S second-largest city is slowly shaking off its gritty, working-class image. It's the home of the AFL premiers for three of the past five years, has a redeveloped waterfront that is proving a lure for tourists and is surrounded by vineyards whichever way you head.
Geelong lies about 75 kilometres south-west of Melbourne and the region was first planted with vines by Swiss immigrants in 1842.
Twenty years later it was arguably the most significant wine district in Australia but the vines were pulled out in 1870 after the discovery of the vine disease phylloxera and were only re-established in the 1970s.
The Geelong wine region can be divided into three distinct sub-districts; the Moorabool Valley to the north (where big names include Bannockburn, Clyde Park, Lethbridge and Littore Family Wines, as well as Shadowfax at Werribee), the Bellarine Peninsula (Scotchmans Hill, Bellarine Estate, Leura Park, Jack Rabbit and Oakdene) and the Surf Coast (Bellbrae Estate, Brown Magpie and St Regis).
Much of the area surrounding Geelong is home to rolling countryside, pretty bays and some excellent vineyards. Several of the better producers, including By Farr, Farr Rising, Curlewis and Bannockburn, do not have cellar doors but their wines can be found on many local lists. Other producers, such as Austins, only open one day a month.
How to get there
Qantas, Virgin Australia and Jetstar all fly to Melbourne's Tullamarine Airport, from which Geelong is a one-hour drive with favourable traffic. The Gull bus service operates 32 times a day between Tullamarine and Geelong city centre on weekdays, less frequently at weekends. Jetstar also flies to Avalon Airport at Lara, a 20-minute drive from Geelong.
Best cellar doors
Scotchmans Hill is one of the slickest cellar doors around, with casual but informative tastings of top-notch wines under both the Scotchmans Hill and Cornelius labels in a rustic setting.
If you enjoy sweeping water views, don't miss Jack Rabbit Vineyard (formerly Kilgour Estate), where a spectacular new tasting facility is due to open any day and the friendly young staff are very helpful.
Ray Nadeson and Maree Collis at Lethbridge Wines produce some of the region's finest wines and are open for tastings Wednesday to Sunday.
Ponda Estate's cellar door is literally part of the family home and there are just two wines to try on the verandah overlooking the vines; a chardonnay and a pinot noir.
Banks Road is ideal for a laidback experience, with tasting platters featuring local cheeses and cured meats, or home-made pies and tempting moussaka.
Also try Brown Magpie, Del Rios, St Regis, Shadowfax at Werribee and Otway Estate.
Where to eat
Loam is an exciting recent arrival at Drysdale, on the Bellarine Peninsula, which specialises in local produce. Chef Aaron Turner is surrounded by a keen young team and produces stunning degustation menus of four, seven or nine courses.
Jack Rabbit Vineyard matches estate wines and those from Leura Park with dishes such as local baby snapper fillets with white bean tabouli or a seafood tasting plate.
Oakdene Vineyards and Restaurant at Wallington is home to a cosy but fun tasting facility, award-winning restaurant with shabby chic decor and artworks covering the walls. Gladioli at Inverleigh is the new venture for Matt Dempsey, formerly chef at the now-closed Pettavel restaurant and Geelong fine diner Baveras.
Clyde Park at Bannockburn has a hugely popular bistro open at weekends only. Think family-friendly dishes such as wood-fired pizzas or antipasti platters.
Bellarine Estate at Bellarine is home to Julian's restaurant for sophisticated food in a relaxed atmosphere and the Bellarine Brewing Company.
Leura Park Estate has some excellent wines and serves gourmet pizzas and hot rock cuisine at weekends and has live music on Sundays. It's a funky-rustic place.
Also try Edge in Geelong for tapas, Baveras, the funky Elk Horn Roadhouse, Riviera, Spresso, Fishermen's Pier, 2 Faces and the quirky Indulge on Harding.
What to drink
The cool climate here, aided by maritime influences, is perfect for not only chardonnay and pinot noir but also for producing modern spicy shirazes, sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, riesling and a number of lesser-known varieties.
Lethbridge, Bannockburn, By Farr and Leura Park Estate are acknowledged as being among the region's finest producers but also look out for boutique offerings from the likes of Provenance, Curlewis, Austins, Nalbra Estate, McGlashans, Amietta, Between Five Bells and Basil's Farm.
Where to stay
Aaron Lee Waterfront Apartments is for those who like to be close to the action. Part of a refurbished 1880s mansion, they overlook Geelong's Western Beach and are a short stroll from major attractions, restaurants and bars. From $165 to $345.
The Vue Grand Hotel opened in 1881 but this stately old building has been completely refurbished, making it a lovely spot to stay in the gracious seaside resort of Queenscliff. From $198, twin share.
Peppers The Sands resort at Torquay has its own championship golf course, a health club with heated lap pool and 112 suites and rooms, many overlooking the ocean. From $210 a night.
The Ol' Duke is home to a cafe-restaurant overlooking Port Phillip Bay in Portarlington but also has six smallish rooms upstairs that are perfect for couples. Rooms are available from $155 a night.
Oakdene offers funky vineyard accommodation in three eclectic suites. From $220 midweek.
Also try Mercure Geelong, the Haymarket Boutique Hotel, Four Points by Sheraton, the Rose Garden Motel and The Pilot's House Bed and Breakfast in Queenscliff.
Geelong hosts the Festival of Sails each January, while Portarlington is the venue for the National Celtic Festival each June long weekend. Geelong also hosts events during the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival in March.
Toast the Coast has been held at wineries across the region for the past 10 years and is again scheduled for October.
The National Wool Museum, the Ford Discovery Centre and the Geelong Cats AFL team are major drawcards in Geelong, the gateway to the Great Ocean Road. The Bellarine Peninsula is home to several picturesque villages, including Portarlington, Barwon Heads and Clifton Springs. Randall's Wines, in the Geelong suburb of Newtown, sells many wines from local producers while the Bellarine Taste Trail features 65 local wine and gourmet food producers. There are also several golf courses in the region.
Take the car ferry from Queenscliff across to Sorrento on the Mornington Peninsula or head for some of Australia's best surf beaches, including Bells Beach and the Great Ocean Road.
For more information
(03) 5275 5797, visitgeelongbella rine.com.au, winegeelong.com.au.