Kelsey Munro finds la dolce vita on Prosecco Road, a trail through King Valley devoted to the Italian sparkling wine.
Sam Miranda was a futures trader in Sydney before he threw it in and took up the family business of winemaking. We're sitting on the terrace at Miranda's eponymous winery near Milawa in Victoria, surveying the stands of trees in full autumnal display. I take a sip of prosecco, fork up a zucchini flower stuffed with risotto and reflect that his life-changing decision might have been easier than it sounds.
Sam Miranda is one of six King Valley wineries making prosecco, the Italian white sparkling wine. In a savvy marketing move, the wineries of Dal Zotto, Brown Brothers, Chrismont, Pizzini, Ciccone and Sam Miranda have created a self-drive prosecco and food trail called Prosecco Road, which highlights the region's Italian heritage and its claim as being the home of Italian bubbly in Australia.
This year marks the release of Sam Miranda's second prosecco vintage and he, like his fellow vignerons, is buoyant about its prospects. Melbourne is a big market for King Valley prosecco but Canberra and Sydney drinkers are discovering it, too.
Distinct from champagne, which undergoes its secondary fermentation in the bottle, prosecco is produced by the Charmat method, in stainless-steel tanks. If the French stuff is typically more austere, drier, more complex on the palette, then prosecco is like its flirty younger sister: sweeter, fun and always ready to party. Its lower price tag doesn't hurt, either.
The area owes its Italian heritage to the farmers who emigrated to the King Valley between the 1930s and the 1960s, and its wide range of Italian varietals - sangiovese, nebbiolo, vermentino, prosecco - to the range of microclimates available from the rich flat valley up to the alpine foothills.
Otto dal Zotto and his wife, Elena, were among those migrants. They left Valdobbiadene - the home of prosecco in northern Italy - and settled here in 1967. Like many in the area they began as tobacco farmers; they planted their first grapevines in 1987. A decade later, dal Zotto planted the first prosecco in Australia at his King Valley winery, Dal Zotto, giving the family a legitimate claim to being the original producer of prosecco in Australia.
Dal Zotto's first prosecco vintage was produced in 2004. From 0.4 hectares at the beginning, the family has seven hectares of prosecco vines under cultivation. Two of dal Zotto's sons are heavily involved in the business: Michael as the winemaker and Christian as the business and marketing manager. Michael learnt on the job as well as in a fellowship in Italian prosecco wineries. Otto's sons have clearly inherited his dolce vita approach to wine and food. There is a lovely casual trattoria at the cellar door, where the menu changes daily - a must-stop on the prosecco tour.
The Prosecco Road trip works perfectly as a weekend visit. Flying to Albury, we pick up a hire car for the hour's drive to Milawa. We have dinner at King River Cafe in nearby Oxley, a compulsory stop for many Melburnians heading to the ski fields. It's a low-key place, serving home-style food and local wines at good prices. Our hotel is Lindenwarrah, a few minutes down the road. The room is large and luxurious, painted an elegant light grey-green, with white shutters framing views of the gold autumnal trees. From the dining room there are views to Falls Creek and Hotham mountains, over the top of the grapevines. A reading room - fireplace, deep sofas and coffee-table books - almost makes me sorry we've got to leave for the wineries.
It is only a short walk across the road to Brown Brothers, where Ernie Menichelli works the cellar door. He has done so for 20 years - one of the original tree-changers from Melbourne, he says. Menichelli is passionate about wine. Brown's prosecco is "all about the primacy of the fruit, with notes of apple and pear in the fragrance", he says. Brown Brothers is by far the biggest wine producer here but the company is generous with its investment in promoting the region, according to other producers, which helps everyone.
No one should drive through Milawa without a visit to the famous cheese factory. It's the busiest spot in town when we arrive after lunch at Sam Miranda. "This is nothing," a salesgirl says. "You should have seen Easter." Customers mass around the cheese-tasting desk. We try the Capricornia, a much-awarded parmesan style made from goat's milk.
Down the road, the Ciccone family, who are producing prosecco from their Myrrhee vineyards, are working on their soon-to-be-opened cellar door and wood-fired pizza restaurant, Planks and Plonk, in the old Milawa butcher's shop.
From Milawa we head to the southern end of King Valley, almost an hour's drive through pretty country. We are staying up high on the mountain at Mt Bellevue, a lovely bed and breakfast on a working cattle farm. The proprietor, Winnie, and her three dogs welcome us at the gate and we're soon installed in a self-catering loft with a giant bed and a nice deck for sunsets. We take a long walk up to the top paddock. The sun sinks over the fields, turning everything gold.
We drive in the dark - dodging wayward wombats - to Mountain View, , a restaurant in Whitfield run by the Pizzini family. A converted pub, it has accommodation upstairs, and downstairs is a fine-dining room - exposed brick walls, grey carpet, travertine tiles - and a casual bar next door. For dedicated Prosecco Roaders, there's oysters served with prosecco granita. But we choose a quite spectacular and enormous Hopkins River steak with a glass of Pizzini sangiovese. A strangely sweet goat's cheese mousse with salad is a bit of a misfire but the chocolate fondant with walnut and honey ice-cream is not to be missed.
In the morning, we bid farewell and drive back through Whitfield and down to Chrismont, the southernmost winery on the King Valley trail. There, Arnie Pizzini has been growing grapes for 25 years and commercially selling wine for 12. Chrismont's 2010 harvest was almost completely wiped out by hail in November but they bought grapes from neighbouring growers and produced about 5000 cases of prosecco - their third prosecco vintage - as well as several other varieties, including a rare fragolino, a spectacular blood-orange-coloured sweet wine.
Up the road is another family winery, Pizzini, run by Arnie's cousin, Fred Pizzini, and his wife, Katrina. Son Carlo and his partner, Sally, run the Mountain View restaurant in Whitfield, daughter Natalie does Pizzini's marketing and son Joel is the winemaker now Fred has stepped back from the job. Pizzini, making wine since 1978, produces mostly Italian varietals and 2010 will be its first prosecco vintage. Katrina runs popular cooking classes and hand-makes takeaway treats: the Rocky Prosecco Road - a nougat-and-chocolate classic flavoured with prosecco - is irresistible.
We finish with a delightful lunch at the Dal Zotto trattoria, thinking wistfully about how we might pull off our own tree-change.
Qantas and Rex fly from Sydney to Albury (1hr 20min), with one-way fares from $99. The drive from Albury to Milawa, in the upper King Valley, takes an hour, or a two-hour drive to King Valley cellar doors. The drive from Melbourne to King Valley wineries takes about three hours.
The huge Lindenwarrah Hotel at Milawa has garden-view rooms from $215 a night including breakfast. See lancemore.com.au/lindenwarrah.
The cosy, quirky Mt Bellevue B&B has four rooms with basic self-catering facilities and a timber cottage, from $175 a night twin share, $10 a person for a breakfast hamper. See www.mtbellevue.com.au.
The Chrismont Guesthouse at Wangaratta has light, comfortable rooms and a full kitchen, from $155 a night. See chrismont.com.au/04guesthouse/guesthouse.html.
Dal Zotto Trattoria, Dal Zotto Wines, King Valley, is open Saturday and Sunday, 11am-4pm. Phone (03) 5729 8321, see dalzotto.com.au.
King River Cafe, Oxley, phone (03) 5727 3461, see www.kingrivercafe.com.au.
Mountain View Hotel, Whitfield, phone (03) 5729 8270.
Restaurant Merlot at Lindenwarrah Country House Hotel, phone (03) 5720 5777.