There are some things you can't see even though they are right in front of you. I have travelled to the central Victoria region on and off for most of my four decades, due to family living in Seymour. These were usually duty visits, recharge visits or times to lay low to mend a broken heart. I never got out much, or did the touristy things, save for manning my grandfather's hamburger stall at the footy club.
So it is a pleasant surprise to declare that this area – that includes towns such as Nagambie, Avenel and Murchison – may well be the state's best-kept wine secret.
About an hour's drive north of Melbourne, central Victoria always had its charms: having to pull our fishing lines out of a bucolic bend in the Goulburn River for fear of catching a nearby platypus; driving the Seymour Highlands, gum-lined switchbacks with trees full of koalas; or taking off to the town of Yea for lunch among the vine-covered trellises of the pub. But the region lacked a base from which you could explore unless, like me, there was always a bed for you in Loach Street.
Mitchelton Winery has fixed this problem with its new, boutique Mitchelton Hotel, and the area has a champion in Andrew Ryan (and his father Gerry) who bought Mitchelton from Lion Nathan in 2012. The current incarnation is not the Mitchelton I grew up with, a sometimes unwelcoming spot with patchy food whose imposing modernist buildings had yet to come back into fashion. Under the Ryans, Mitchelton is now a destination in itself with the hotel, a chocolaterie, cafe and friendly cellar door. The winery is home to the whimsical labels and bold flavours of its resuscitated Preece brand and some rich shirazes made by winemaker Travis Clydesdale. Clydesdale says the winery's position on the river gives the wines a unique sense of place. "The water mass around Mitchelton – provided by the Goulburn River – moderates the temperature around the vineyard," Clydesdale says. "This means we end up with wines that are more medium bodied, not as heavily weighted, and thus more elegant on the palate."
Part of this region's recognition problem is a lack of a simple hook. Is it a wine region, a horse-stud area, a foodie hub or a home to military and Ned Kelly history? The truth is it is all these things but the Goulburn River is as good a hook as any, running like a spine through the various experiences.
The Goulburn is certainly on show in my river-facing room as I check into the Mitchelton Hotel, so too is its equine history via striking close-up horse photographs in the lobby, one of which is the Ryans' Melbourne Cup-winner Americain (he lives on a stud across the road).
Architecture buffs will appreciate that the buildings at Mitchelton were the last work of Melbourne's rock star architect Robin Boyd, but he died before it was finished. The completion of the project was overseen by Ted Ashton and the imposing tower – perfect for a sunset tipple – is named after him.
Later, I head down the river to the historic Tahbilk Winery. Tahbilk and Mitchelton are like partners in a buddy cop film: Mitchelton the young(ish) upstart and Tahbilk the old timer – having made wines here since the 1800s. The cellar door is in a shed, which dates from 1860, and the Major Mitchell Line, the first overland stock route between Sydney and Melbourne, used to wind past the front door.
The go-to grape here is marsanne, a rare variety from the Rhone region of France. Marsanne makes whites that age well. Tahbilk means "place of many waterholes" and I do a tasting aboard the Tahbilk I, a small boat that plies the marshland near the winery restaurant.
Other wineries include Fowles Wines, in the neighbouring Strathbogie region, that lacks the connection to the river but has a host of well-known brands such as Ladies Who Shoot Their Lunch and Longleat Wines in Murchison, champions of little-known Italian varietals like garnega.
Back on the river though, in the town of Seymour, another regional champion has just opened an urban winery. Sam Plunkett's father planted the first wines in the Strathbogie Ranges in 1968 and Sam went on to make wine at Plunkett Wines. He eventually joined forces with Fowles to form Plunkett-Fowles but when that partnership dissolved in 2011, Sam made wine for online retailer Naked Wines.
Now Wine by Sam has taken over a converted warehouse that has been both a dye works and a go-cart track. One of the first urban wineries to hit country Victoria, Plunkett, and his wife Bronwyn Dunwoodie, have wine ranges like The Victorian and Stardust and Muscle, the latter a play on the region's shiraz style which has a delicate perfume backed up by robust flavours.
Wine by Sam is fronted by a retro-chic cafe with mid-century furniture sitting on the original warehouse parquetry floors and it serves up light meals which include artisan pies, arancini and local cheese plates. It is another sign that this is an area that is "reinventing itself", according to Dunwoodie and if offers a distinctly different way to try regional tipples.
"The urban winery is different from Mitchelton and Tahbilk," she says. "We are not doing the same thing, people can come through first thing in the morning and get some fresh bread and a coffee, or come to the twilight markets here."
As close as the Yarra Valley but without the crowds, the central Victorian wine region should be your next Melbourne weekend away – just don't take 40 years to discover it.
FIVE CENTRAL VICTORIAN PRODUCERS
TAURUS FINE MEATS & SMOKEHOUSE
Marinated meat such as kabana honey garlic pork and smoked products.
62 Station Street, Seymour
BLUE TONGUE BERRIES
Just out of Seymour, this berry farm also has eco-friendly accommodation.
Join the queue of Avenel locals to buy the famous sausages that can also be found across the road at Bank Street Wood Fired Pizza.
TOOBORAC HOTEL & BREWERY
Some of the best brews in the region, but soon to get some competition from the Nagambie Brewery being built on the banks of Lake Nagambie by the team behind Mitchelton.
MOUNT BERNARD OLIVES
Family-run business just out of Avenel selling olives and olive oil.
The region starts about an hour north of Melbourne on the Hume Freeway.
Double rooms at Mitchelton Hotel start from $289 a night, including breakfast and a winery tour. See mitchelton.com.au
EAT + DRINK
Mitchelton Winery, along with the chocolaterie and cellar door is 470 Mitchellstown Road, Nagambie (see mitchelton.com.au); Tahbilk Winery is at 254 O'Neils Road, Tabilk (see tahbilk.com.au); and Wine by Sam is at 69 Anzac Avenue, Seymour (see winebysam.com.au).
Paul Chai was a guest of Mitchelton Hotel.