A new generation of winemakers is reinvigorating a region with a rich history, writes Sue Wallace.
A billboard catches my eye whenever I pass through Rutherglen, declaring: "Sydney's got the best harbour but Rutherglen's got the best port."
Somewhat of a tourism icon dating back to the 1970s, it now doesn't quite ring true.
Today's innovative and passionate Rutherglen winemakers are not only receiving accolades for their fortifieds, they are making a name for themselves with emerging Rhone-style blends, alternative varieties and their own take on traditional varieties such as shiraz, durif and cabernet sauvignon. New varieties including marsanne, roussanne, grenache, mourvedre and cinsault are creating interest among wine-lovers.
The historic wine region, one of Australia's oldest, had an injection of enthusiasm a few years ago with the formation of the Young Bloods, a group of young winemakers and marketers, some of whom are the fifth and six generation of original wine-growing families.
Together with veteran wine legends, they have created a calendar of events enticing many to venture to north-east Victoria to meet experienced and novice winemakers, taste their latest offerings and discover the charm of the region.
Food for thought
All 20 wineries team with regional chefs for two gourmet weekends on March 7-8 and 14-15, offering an entree-sized dish matched carefully with a glass of wine.
You can meet the legends of Rutherglen's world-class wines and discover the passion of north-east Victoria's producers. Themed wine dinners, markets and hot air ballooning are planned. Boom Crash Opera will perform at Buller Wines the first weekend. Special passes and shuttle bus tickets are available and you can hire a bike or ride in a stretch limousine. Phone (02) 6032 9588, see walkaboutmotel.com.au.
Pfeiffer Wines: Sunset drinks, canapes and four-course dinner and wines on Sunday Creek Bridge on March 8, phone (02) 6033 2805.
All Saints Estate: Italian dining under the stars with chef Leilani Wolfenden from Bottega Restaurant on March 8, phone (02) 6035 2222.
Tastes of Rutherglen program: phone 1300 787 929, see rutherglenvic.com.
Up to 30,000 gold diggers flocked to the region after the first specks of gold were discovered in the 1860s. Included were many Chinese, who worked in early vineyards.
First named Barkly, the town was renamed when mining identity John Wallace, who built the Star Hotel, was asked by a patron: "Shout the bar and we'll call the town Rutherglen after your birthplace in Scotland," - which he did.
The first grapes were harvested in Rutherglen in the 1850s.
Stop at the Rutherglen Wine Experience and Information Centre, 57 Main Street, to see displays of the town's rich history and to check out the array of local produce and wines (phone 1800 622 871). You can hire bicycles from the centre and also follow the Rutherglen Muscat Trail around the great muscat houses and enjoy a tasting or two.
Pick up a brochure for a self-guided ramble through the historic town and wander along the main street under the shady verandas of a bygone era.
Visit the Keg Factory on Main Street (phone (02) 6032 9927) for interesting gifts such as cheese boards made out of old wine barrels.
Where to eat
Fancy a pie? As well as traditional pies, Parker Pies makes crocodile and crab meat in sweet chilli sauce and buffalo in a rich garlic, onion and bacon sauce. The business has won about 100 awards. Main Street, phone (02) 6032 9605, see parkerpies.com.au
For a coffee break or meals, visit Ripe in the Rutherglen Wine Experience Centre, phone (02) 6032 7715; Forks and Corks, 82 Main Street, phone (02) 6032 7662; and Beaumont's Cafe, 84 Main Street, phone (02) 6032 7428.
Head out of town to the Pickled Sisters Cafe, Old Distillery Road, Wahgunyah, at Cofield's Winery, phone (02) 6033 3798; Vintara winery, brewery and cafe, 105 Fraser Road, phone 0447 327 517; and The Terrace at All Saints Estate Winery, Wahgunyah, phone (02) 6035 2222.
Where to stay
Renaissance Farm B&B, 507 Boorhaman East Road, phone (02) 6035 7216, see rutherglenvic.info.
Tuileries, Drummond Street, phone (02) 6032 9033, see tuileriesrutherglen.com.au.
The Still House at Terravinia, 987 Gooramadda Road, phone (02) 6026 5353.
Produce and food stores
Pick up picnic supplies from Gooramadda Olives, Gooramadda Road, Gooramadda, phone (02) 6026 5658, olivesandoil.info; the Indigo Cheese Company, All Saints Estate Winery phone (02) 6035 2250, indigocheese.com.au; Esca on Argyle, Main Street, phone (02) 6032 8899; and the Wicked Virgin Olives, Hopetoun Road, phone (02) 6032 7022, see thewickedvirgin.com.
Here are just a few of Rutherglen's 20 wineries; drop in to the cellar door and chances are you will meet a winemaker or family member.
Campbells Winery, Murray Valley Highway, phone (02) 6032 9458. You will discover loads of history and some wonderful white wines, reds including Bobbie Burns Shiraz and fortifieds.
Jones Winery, 61 Jones Road, phone (02) 6032 8496. A smaller winery, Mandy Jones is a respected winemaker, having spent many years making wine in Bordeaux.
Rutherglen Estates, Tuileries Complex, Drummond Street, phone (02) 6032 7999. One of Rutherglen's newer wineries, winemaker Nicole Esdaile has been included in the Winemakers Federation of Australia leadership and development program.
Warrabilla Wines, Murray Valley Highway, phone (02) 6035 7242. Another smaller winery, it has a reputation for producing some of the country's biggest reds.
Chambers Rosewood Winery, Barkly Street, phone (02) 6032 8641. Meet Rutherglen legend Bill Chambers at this traditional, family-owned winery that dates back to 1858.
Morris Wines, Mia Mia Road, phone (02) 6026 7303. Another Rutherglen legend, established in 1859, fifth-generation winemaker David Morris has won more awards than any other Australian winemaker.
Stanton and Killeen, Jacks Road, phone (02) 6032 9457. Vintage ports are a specialty here, as well as the Jack's Block shirazand durif.
Ask for a sip of apera and topaque - selected as the alternative names for sherry and tokay.
Rutherglen lies at the base of the Victorian Alps alongside the Murray. It is a mecca for cyclists, golfers, anglers and holidaymakers.
It is a three-hour drive from Melbourne on the Hume Freeway.
For more information, phone 1800 622 871, see rutherglenvic.com.
WINEMAKER David Morris was born in Rutherglen and says life is never dull in the country town.
"There's always something going on; part of its charm is the small-village atmosphere but it has much more than just the essentials you find in other small country towns," he says.
"As well as great wines and restaurants that showcase the wide range of fresh local produce, there's something unique about walking down the main street of Rutherglen - there's some great shops, including interesting curiosity shops, and that sense of history."
Morris, 51, who attended Rutherglen primary and high schools, left the region when he was 20 to gain experience in the wine industry throughout Australia but he always returned to Rutherglen whenever he could.
"Rutherglen's just that type of place. I worked away for about 17 years, coming back at various times, and I think it has a lot going for it," he says.
"I often think we locals don't realise how good we have it here - we have the best of both worlds - there's plenty to see and do, it is close to the ski fields, only a short drive to bigger centres such as Corowa and Albury and then three hours drive to Melbourne."
Morris, a fifth generation winemaker and the most awarded winemaker in Australia, says people return to Rutherglen year after year and bring their family and friends with them.
"It usually only takes one visit to this area and they usually love it," he says.