Michelle Potts discovers a region dotted with craft breweries, wineries and artisan producers.
It's cold and wet outside as I pack for the Yarra Valley, puss standing sentry by my suitcase. This three-day sojourn is more about food, wine and art than foraging, though, so I'm thinking fashionista over farm-style. I travel light, layer up in cashmere and opt for merino leggings and platform clogs over rubber rain boots.
A text message signals the crew's arrival, so I zip up, rug up and join the convoy.
Out of peak hour it's an easy drive. Within the hour, parallel lines of verdant vines surround us, and cows cluster across the rolling hills.
I flick through the itinerary. Clearly, there's no time to cover all the valley has to offer. You'd need weeks. More than 130 wineries, including prestigious Mount Mary and Yarra Yering, sprawl across cool-climate wine country and many are open to the public. Pinot noir and chardonnay rate as the region's best. Sauvignon blanc, riesling, pinot gris, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon rank well, too. But it's not just about wine. You'll find craft breweries alongside wineries and artisan producers. Farm gates, provedores, cafes, bars and restaurants showcase the season's bounty. And there's a vibrant arts community. More reason to visit more often, really, or stay a while.
First stop, Yarra Valley Dairy at Yering. Wish I'd have packed those wellies. Inside the century-old milking shed, now a cafe, cheese shop and communal cellar door for lesser-known vineyards that don't have one, there's little room to move.
Shelves jam-packed with locally made comestibles and glass cabinets chock-full of charcuterie and farmhouse cheeses share space with chunky timber tables and chairs.
Two Friesian cows linger after the morning's milking. We taste cheeses and break artisan bread with a long-time cheesemaker, Jack Holman, who talks fondly of his travels through France and the inspiration behind his new White Savourine - a semi-matured goat cheese. Bucolic bliss.
Next, a mini masterclass at Kennedy & Wilson chocolate shop on the bustling Healesville shopping strip.
We dip bite-sized tablets of vanilla-infused ganache into rich, dark molten chocolate. After 72 hours in the conch, you end up with this smooth, silky mouth-feel - a hallmark of the highest-quality chocolate. More, please.
Across the road, we recognise another store with a reputation for restaurant-quality produce and rush over to peer in the window.
If it's grass-fed, dry-aged, brined, boiled, baked, cured, curried or confited, you'll find it at Kitchen & Butcher.
Back on board the minibus we pass Yarra Valley Pasta, the Colaneri family's artisan-style pasta shop, on the way to epicurean enoteca Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander for lunch. Part bistro, bakery, pizzeria, cheese room, coffee roastery, provedore, cellar door and working winery, this industrial-chic landmark is one to add to the "must pit-stop" list.
Think vino and victuals with verve. Try Giant Steps single-vineyard pinots and chardonnays.
Hours later, in the commercial kitchen at Cunliffe & Waters, raspberries are on rapid boil in a 2o-litre French pot. While we wait for a spoonful of jam, Amanda Cunliffe takes us through the history and success of her preserves, chutneys and relishes. The verdict? Real berry intensity, not cloying at all.
Finally, check-in time at Balgownie Estate - an impressive vineyard resort with restaurant, cellar door, day spa, health club and indoor pool, smartly set up for weddings, groups, and corporate and international travellers. I drop my suitcase and sink into the soft leather sofa in my spacious spa suite. Espresso machine, award-winning shiraz and a room with an expansive view ... what more could a girl want?
The sweeping curve of an elegant rammed-earth building emerges from the hillside, a beautiful sculptural form in itself. Home to one of the great private collections of Australian modernist works, the TarraWarra Museum of Art is a place to immerse yourself in Arkley, Olsen, and Whiteley. Dinner at TarraWarra Estate, follows. Dish of the night? Yarra Valley salmon roasted in vine leaves with a glass of 2005 TarraWarra reserve chardonnay.
After a relaxing buffet-style breakfast, and sublime Natskin signature spa, it's a soothing start to the day. Wending our way through velvet-like hills towards Healesville, we pass some striking black cows with big white cummerbunds then take a swift left turn up a steep gravel road to Mount Rael. Upstairs in the lounge we spy a huddle of local brewers and cider-makers chatting by the fire. A stash of artisan ales, lagers and ciders sit on ice in silver buckets nearby. It's a nice space - modern with lots of natural light. I grab a shot glass and taste my way through tipples and tapas distracted by the panorama of Healesville, Mount Riddell and the ranges beyond.
Top drops? Kellybrook champagne cider, Napoleone & Co. sparkling pear cider, Hargreaves Hill stout, White Rabbit white and dark ales. Hours later, after a quick tour of Mount Rael's smartly designed contemporary suites, it's back to Balgownie to explore the cellar door.
It is a crisp, clear, starlit night when we arrive at Mandala - a stylish architect-designed shrine to recycled materials. The food, by head chef Neil Cunningham, is a standout with subtly smoked scallop, celeriac and jamon soup, sweet heirloom baby-beet salad with Yarra Valley goat's cheese and toasted hazels, and juicy roast fillet of local venison on sauteed brussels sprout puree and wild blackberry sauce, paired with the Prophet 2008 pinot noir.
In the timber-clad trophy room at De Bortoli, affineur Richard Thomas talks through the importance of maturing cheese in ideal conditions he likens to a cave in the European mountains. This kind of cold, damp environment with high humidity and natural airflow is cleverly duplicated here in the cheese maturing room at the cellar door. We savour slivers of perfectly matured Australian, Dutch and Italian varieties matched with De Bortoli wines. Richard's rule of thumb: soft cheeses with whites, hard cheeses with reds.
After three days of good food, grand designs and fine wine, there are still 82 cellar doors to explore.
Best I book another winter weekend away.
Michelle Potts travelled courtesy of Yarra Ranges Regional Marketing and Tourism Victoria.
Download the free Wine Regions of Victoria iPhone app. Pick up a deck of Yarra Valley Secrets pocket-sized profiles on places to eat and drink, $9.95. See deckofsecrets.com. The Age Good Food Guide 2011 iPhone app short-lists the region's best, $4.49. See experienceyarravalley.com.au.
Yarra Valley Dairy, Yering opens 10.30am-5pm every day; see yvd.com.au.
The cheese room and cellar door at De Bortoli, Dixons Creek is open 10am-5pm daily debortoliyarra.com.au.
Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander, Healesville opens 10am-10pm weekdays and 8am-10pm weekends; see innocentbystander.com.au.
Mandala Wines in Dixons Creek opens for lunch Wednesday to Sunday, Saturday dinner, and cellar door 10am-5pm, daily; see mandalawines.com.au.
The restaurant at TarraWarra Estate in Healesville opens noon-3pm Tuesday to Sunday, and cellar door 11am-5pm; see tarrawarra.com.au.
Coldstream Brewery, Coldstream; see coldstreambrewery.com.au.
Hargreaves Hill Brewing Company, Yarra Glen; see hargreaveshill.com.au.
White Rabbit Brewery, Healesville; see whiterabbitbeer.com.au.
Balgownie Estate, Yarra Glen from $269-$779; see balgownieestate.com.au.
Gracedale, Healesville, from $250-$290 a night; see gracedaleyarravalley.com.au.
Mt Rael, Healesville, from $175-$360 a night; see mtrael.com.au.
Natskin Spa Retreat (at Balgownie Estate), Yarra Glen; see natskin.com.
TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville opens Tuesday to Sunday, 11am-5pm. Admission is $5; see twma.com.au.
Kitchen & Butcher, Healesville or Gateway Estate, Coldstream; see yarravalleyharvest.com.au, gatewayestate.com.au.