Among the vines

David Reyne falls for the authentic charm of a gold town now famous for its wine.

Rutherglen's sky is scarred; slashed like a breadboard as interstate travellers, traversing at altitude, leave jet stream graffiti in their wake. In their haste to get from beginning to end, they're missing a glorious slice of in between.

Various forms of juicy agriculture line Rutherglen's rolling hills, creating broad paddocks of ripple. The gold rush of the 1860s brought a frenzied throng of prospectors to the gently sloping plains just south of the Murray River to try their luck with pick and pan. The land was dry and unforgiving. A few made their fortune, the rest just worked up a hellish thirst.

To cater for the thousands of dusty, parched miners looking to drown their sorrows, 21 licensed hotels opened on Rutherglen's main street. Of these, just three remain, the Star, Poachers Paradise and the Victoria; their broad verandahs, wrought-iron lace work and corrugated tin lulling visitors into a dreamy bygone daze.

Fortunately the temptation to slick every nook and weathered cranny of this impressive heart of town with a lick of something modern and glossy has been avoided and an honest, authentic, historic vibe lingers.

There are at least half a dozen cafes on Main Street, the spit, sizzle and waft from their kitchens suggesting something hearty and rural is about to hit the plate. They do good coffee as well. The cafes are book-ended by smart Victorian premises that are home to the kind of stuff that is conveniently covered by the term, ''collectables''.

There are horse-drawn wagons, polished leather suitcases with gleaming latches and statuettes of ladies holding light globes in such a position as to perfectly - and conveniently - illuminate their naked breasts.

An early-morning jog in the nimble air reveals just what Rutherglen's greater purpose is. I run through vast, docile fields of wine and oil. While the olive groves stand fat, ordered and flourishing in the early sun, the vineyards look positively shagged. Grizzled trunks clearly exhausted from constant pruning and annual expectation have once again given of their famous fruit and now appear in need of a good lie down. They've been growing grapes here for more than 150 years. They've survived droughts, disease, downturns and the Depression. Is it any wonder the region is renowned for a style known as fortified?

Rutherglen's muscat and tokay are internationally crowed about and so rich in flavour the eminent wine writer, James Halliday, described them as ''wines of superb quality … enormously - indeed dangerously enjoyable''.

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Bearing this in mind, my wife and I head to All Saints winery to sniff and gargle some fortification. About eight kilometres from the heart of town, straddling a gentle riverside rise, is a vision one would expect from the woven tales of Robin Hood.

There beyond the manicured hedgerow stands a most magnificent stretch of elm trees; thick, stately and more than a century old. Beyond them, a grand brick castle, a fortress of turrets, towers and sheer temptation.

The gravel driveway gives an expensive crunch as we cross it. The lawn rolls out before us and dips towards a lake.

Many's the time I've been shackled to an overnight stay in a quiet country town where the dining options are best described as sparse.

It is with, admittedly, reserved glee that I discover Rutherglen's extensive gastronomic range and although it is a Tuesday evening there is a number of hotel bistros, cafes, restaurants and wineries open for business.

Our first choice, Beaumont's Cafe, a restaurant in the main street, even has the temerity to turn us away, such is its popularity. We end up at Tuileries, a converted Clydesdale stable where we are seduced by the wine buffet, a choice of five red and five white Rutherglen wines. It is immediately apparent that this is an all-you-can-drink option, though no one seems quite willing to describe it as such.

In order to appropriately absorb the quantity of wine, I opt for the exotic-sounding hainanese chicken, teapot broth and something called aromatics while my wife manages to make a meal of the four tastes grazing plate. The food is perfectly acceptable, our requests are met eagerly with ''not a problem'', or ''too easy''.

As we walk back to our motel, a glass-clinking symphony played by enthusiastic wine region explorers drifts across the valley. We look to the heavens. Rutherglen's scarred sky has been transformed. The starlight twinkle is so rich it is as if some extra cream has been added to the Milky Way.

For a town built on the desperate hope that gold might be discovered glistening beneath the soil, it would seem 150 years on, the riches lie above ground and there's plenty to discover.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Rutherglen is 280 kilometres (about three hours' drive) from Melbourne, just off the Hume Highway.

Staying there

See www.rutherglenvic.com.

Touring there

All Saints Estate, Wahgunyah Road. Open Monday-Sunday, 10am to 5pm, See www.allsaintswine.com.au.

Eating there

Tuileries Restaurant, Drummond Street, see www.tuileriesrutherglen.com.au. Entrees from $18.50, mains from $30.50, wine buffet (five choices of whites and five of Rutherglen reds) $22.50 a person. Beaumont's Cafe, 84 Main Street, Rutherglen, see www.beaumontscafe.com.au.

Entrees from $17, mains from $33.

While you're there

Rutherglen Winery Walkabout is on June 12-13. See www.rutherglenvic.com.

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