On bicycle, Ewen Bell drinks in the scenery and stops to taste fine cheeses, moscato and pinot noir.
A new tour on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula manages to blend bikes and bottles by keeping them discrete. You start the day high on a cycling buzz and finish the day mellow with pinot.
The French have been doing this for decades, winding through vineyards and farms on a bicycle and stopping every few kilometres to partake of local flavours. The Mornington Peninsula may have a shortage of chateaus for cyclists to visit but no shortage of wineries.
Melbourne-based Vine Tours of Victoria has adapted this fine French tradition to suit local conditions - with an emphasis on leisure. Sometimes we need a little encouragement to get outdoors and, for me, the promise of goat's cheese and a pinot is just the ticket.
We meet the van outside Melbourne's Arts Centre and an hour later, we're on the Mornington Peninsula with a bunch of fancy bikes and helmets. The route begins at Arthurs Seat, the highest point on the peninsula, and I'm glad to be heading down the hill instead of up. Our route follows the tourist road for a kilometre, with a steady stream of vintage cars and classic motorbikes heading in the opposite direction.
Pretty soon, we leave the main route and encounter flatter terrain. There are a few gradients to tackle but, mostly, we're rolling a little, then pedalling a little. This trip is not designed for cycling freaks and you don't need to go into training to complete the ride. There is one hill that tests your thighs properly - but only one. I'm told the Yarra Valley version of the tour is even easier, pretty much a flat run across a similar distance but you finish at a winery instead of the ocean.
Our first stop on the ride is the Main Ridge Dairy cheesery. Hidden behind gum trees, the factory is a subtle piece of architecture that blends into the landscape, disguised by weathered hardwood panels. A paddock opposite is home to a herd of goats and they're just as excited to make friends as we are.
Having met the livestock, we sit around a table to sample the cheese. This really does feel like France and the people of Main Ridge stay true to the European tradition of letting the cheese run wild with flavour. It's an acquired taste. Gone are the days of tempering the full-bodied aromas of chevre and we are treated to a range of marinated, hard, soft and mild varieties.
Back on the road, we follow the undulations and get a chance to work up an appetite. There's a decent hill between the goat's cheese and strawberry farms so we catch our breath at the next stop. Even in spring, they have an ample supply of strawberries to taste but in summer, you're invited to wander into the fields and pick your own punnets. If you like what you find, there are strawberry sundaes on sale, or you can stop for a coffee instead. We're in no rush and the support van is parked outside to provide safe keeping for our fresh berries.
From here, we leave the sealed roads and head to the dirt. The gum trees and scrub are thick here and, for a while, it could be any piece of forest in Victoria. But the road slowly descends towards the ocean, which we suddenly glimpse. A few lucky landowners have a bit of forest behind them and views of the ocean in front.
Our trail keeps rolling towards the water and we get bigger and better views of the coast with each kilometre. By the time we reach the shore at Shoreham, we've ridden 17 kilometres and it's just about lunchtime. Some of the group are enjoying the physical nature of the cycling so much, they continue to pedal a challenging seven-kilometre stretch into Flinders. For the rest, there's a van to carry us and the bikes.
We gather again on the Flinders lookout and lunch is ready. I never enjoy a meal as much as when I've worked for it. We have a selection of local produce laid out on the picnic blanket, including yet more fine cheeses from Red Hill. The only thing missing is the wine. The French would have taken the chance to tipple a few bottles over lunch but, today, we're saving that for the finale.
Then, just when I think the wine tasting is about to begin, we make one more stop for indulgence. Chocolate. I buy a small stash of truffles at Mornington Peninsula Chocolates to keep in the van so I can batter my taste buds between wineries. Good thing I had some exercise this morning.
After visiting the first two wineries - Montalto Vineyard and Tuck's Ridge - we've forgotten all about the bikes. They hang on a trailer at the back of the vehicle - out of sight and out of mind.
My favourite wine of the day is a Pennon Hill moscato from Montalto, a sweet but subtle digestive that reminds me of Bordeaux's more indulgent attitude to white wines. It's something you drink to finish a sumptuous meal and it proves suitable, given the scale and design of our lunch.
Tuck's Ridge Vineyard is notable for its pinot noir, which could easily rate a mention in Burgundy, while the late-afternoon views of vines at Foxeys Hangout are almost as good as its sparkling shiraz.
As we head back to Melbourne, the van clinks with every bend in the road, the sound of glass bottles kissing each other inside their paper bags.
There's no shame in falling asleep during the drive home. The late-afternoon light mixes with the bubbles and our tired bodies. Maybe some of those hills were tougher than I remember, or maybe 17 kilometres is actually a good distance for someone who so rarely gets on two wheels. Just like in France, it really depends on whether you're there to enjoy the cycling or the wineries. I'm happy to enjoy both.
Vine Tours of Victoria provides bikes and back-up transport to get around the wineries of the Mornington Peninsula or Yarra Valley at a cost of $165 for the day, including pick-up and drop-off in the city and lunch.