You could be forgiven for barreling down the Western Highway from Melbourne to Adelaide without stopping. Using small towns as nothing more than a way of marking distance (Nhill = halfway!), or bypassing them altogether (sorry, Ballarat). Whizz past the horror that is the grim Giant Koala, crane your neck to see if you can catch a glimpse of the pink lake.
But there is a beacon of promising green to behold amid the sea of brown farmland. The one town that often makes me pause; I hear corks popping, champagne pouring, I feel a celebration is near, and a sudden need for a pit stop.
Recently, I threw all caution to the wind and decided, after 30 years of passing through, I would stop and spend the night (and a penny) at the town of Great Western, en route to the Grampians, and the only thing I am sorry for is not doing it earlier. One could do worse than spending an evening sipping wine, a mere 30 minutes outside of quiet Halls Gap.
Straddling either side of the Western Highway are two of the biggest names in Australian wine. Seppelt for its legendary sparkling reds and Best's which houses the oldest vines in the WORLD. Yes, you heard right; the world's oldest vines can be found right here at Great Western. It's known outside of Australia as "one of the great secrets of the wine world" for the quality of wine, its cherished, mid-1800s history, and its atmospheric old winery, which remains true to its original character.
Both wineries were founded by Best siblings, Joseph at Great Western and Henry at Best's, during the Gold Rush area, which brought with it some great French winermakes, their vine cuttings and practices. The Bests took snippings and soaked up these traditional methods like giant, human-sized sponges and put them into practice. Seppelt utilised the local miners and built three kilometres of tunnels underground (just like they do in France); Bests did the same albeit on a smaller scale.
Over in France, the underground tunnels of Champagne are still used today, while Bests and Seppelt have retired theirs. Even if the days of local kids riding skateboards and bikes through the unused Seppelt tunnels may be over, visitors can tour "The Drives" and fine dine in its remarkable tangle of tunnels, right next to Malcolm Fraser's old bin and the drive named after Dame Nellie Melba, who's said to have bathed in their sparkling red. Best of all (no pun intended) is that Wanderlust Glamping can set you up with a huge glamping tent which features all the mod cons of a hotel room, right next to the vineyards at Seppelt; mere stumbling distance from the wineries.
Wanderlust Glamping at Seppelt. Photo: Kylie McLaughlin
In the morning, amid the screeches of cockies and maggies and bunnies, we wander over to Ye Olde Worlde General Store (otherwise known as Salinger's Cafe) for a modern breakfast before paying homage to the best-kept secret of the wine industry. Best's original nursery block, dating back to the 1860s, spreads unobtrusively between the highway and the old winery and the vines include rare and unidentified varietals. Viticulturists come to take cuttings to study; envious European winemakers come to steal cuttings to propagate, having lost their crops decades ago to vine-eating phylloxera and even more horribly, wine-drinking trends.
While Seppelt's winery is more imposing, with its huge timber supports shipped from Oregon redwood forests decades ago in a practice that would be utterly frowned upon now, Bests reflects an old-world charm, its small cellar rooms filled with huge barrels and rickety old wooden floors that can be pulled out for accessing barrels. You can self-tour the old winery, and then settle in the red gum stables that have been converted into a tasting room, offering simple platters.
The cool climate wines produced in this region are perfect for pairing with food, so while you're passing through the region, Wickens at the Royal Mail in Dunkeld is the perfect place to bookend a Grampians excursion with their focus on French wine, which the Myers family have been painstakingly collecting for decades, underpinning the largest private collection of Bordeaux and Burgundy in the southern hemisphere.
While waiting for their table, guests are seated for a pre-dinner drink and handed a hefty book-sized wine "list" which contains a mind-boggling 25,000 bottles of wines which definitely requires more than one drink to plough through. Take the pain out of this decision making process with a wine pairing. You can elect cellar pairings from around the world including more unusual countries such as Armenia; or specifically French, which is a little extra but worth it (my friend and I got one of each to compare). The sommelier relates the story behind each glass chosen, showcasing the research that goes into the Royal Mail's extensive cellar, some of which now sits at the back of Wickens dining room for guests to admire if they're not looking at the floor-to-ceiling view of the Grampians.
So there you have it, all you who've never stopped at Great Western. It really is great. While I have divulged the biggest secret, there's much more here to be discovered (like, how Australia's brandy habit single-handedly kept French producer Remy Matin alive during WW2 - but you'll have to visit Blue Pyrenees Estate for that story). Stop for a pee, spend the night, and see what those international wine-loving tourists come all the way out here to see.
Visit Grampians: visitgrampians.com.au
EAT & DRINK
111 Bests Road, Great Western, Victoria 3374; bestswines.com
Seppelt Great Western
36 Cemetery Road, Great Western, Victoria; seppelt.com.au
98 Main St, Great Western; salingers.com.au
Wickens at the Royal Mail Hotel
98 Parker St, Dunkeld; royalmail.com.au
Blue Pyrenees Estate
656 Vinoca Rd, Avoca; bluepyrenees.com.au
The writer was a guest of Visit Victoria