Susan Gough Henly discovers a region where the right conditions make for fine food and wines.
You wouldn't know it by driving through the unprepossessing old gold-mining town of Heathcote but this is some of Australia's prime shiraz country. A band of well-drained, ancient red Cambrian soils, like the terra rossa types of the Coonawarra, is the key to the region's ability to produce extraordinary red wines, distinguished by their inky colour, voluptuous fruit, well-balanced acids and ripe tannins, which give them great cellaring ability.
Today there are more than 70 vineyards in the Heathcote region. Most of the wineries are small, family-owned affairs led by luminaries such as Ron Laughton of biodynamic Jasper Hill (whose Emily's Paddock and Georgia's Paddock Shiraz is on Langton's Classification of Australian Wine) and David Anderson of Wild Duck Creek Estate (whose Duck Muck was given a perfect score by US wine guru Robert Parker).
Over the past 15 years, some major players have quietly moved into the region, including Southcorp, Brown Brothers, Tyrrell's and renowned Rhone producer, Michel Chapoutier. Now more than 2000 hectares are under vine but they don't have any consumer presence here. Go to the small cellar doors to snap up some shiraz but call first as opening hours are variable.
The region was settled originally by pastoralists in the 1830s after it was surveyed by Major Thomas Mitchell. Gold was discovered in 1851 and the town of Heathcote, named for the vast areas of heath around it, quickly sprang up.
At the town's peak in the 1850s and '60s, the diverse population of migrants grew to 35,000, supporting 22 hotels, three breweries, two flour mills and a bacon factory. Also in the 1850s, Henning Rathjen, a German settler, planted the earliest grapevines.
His descendants continue to grow grapes today and their horse-drawn presses are still in the original cellar.
The recent vineyard cultivation started in the 1960s and today the little township is an agricultural and wine-touring hub, with a couple of art galleries (Leonard French has his private studio here in a former flour mill) and antiques shops.
Heathcote Cellar and Store. This should be your first port of call. It sells more than 130 local drops, many from tiny wineries that have no cellar door. The store also sells picnic hampers and local gourmet specialities, such as Holy Goat cheese and olive oils, as well as offering delectable lunch specials, such as baked ricotta or local lamb, in its courtyard (105 High Street, phone 5433 2204).
Jasper Hill. By appointment. (Drummond's Lane, Heathcote, phone 5433 2528).
Wild Duck Creek Estate. By appointment (762 Spring Flat Road, Heathcote, phone 5433 3133).
Flynns Wines. Greg and Natala Flynn are producing some fine shiraz as well as cabernet-merlot, sangiovese and vognier, which you can taste at their pretty cellar door north of town. Natala is also creating sparkling fresh dishes with produce and herbs from her garden, honey and olives from her neighbour and meats and cheese in the weekend bistro (Lewis Road, phone 5433 6297).
Shelmerdine Vineyards. Taste wines from Shelmerdine's at the jarrah and western red cedar cellar door outside Tooborac. The Whistler Cafe also offers tasting platters of farmhouse cheeses, Istra smallgoods, pate, olive tapenade as well as tarts, pasta, pies and scrumptious desserts, which can be enjoyed in front of the fireplace or on the terrace overlooking the vines (Lancefield Road, Tooborac, phone 5433 5188).
Paul Osicka Wines. This is one of the oldest wineries in the region and is dry grown with the original shiraz vines planted 45 years ago. Kangaroos, wallabies, emus and echidnas can be seen among the vines here (Major's Creek Vineyard, Graytown, phone 5794 9235).
Heathcote Winery. Located in an 1865 restored miners' store in the main street, this winery is renowned for its Mail Coach shiraz. There is also a courtyard cafe and gallery (185 High Street, phone 5433 2595).
Heathcote II. This label makes traditional wines very much in the European style (290 Cornella-Toolleen Road, phone 5433 6292).
Louis de Castella. This is one of the newest wineries in Heathcote, run by a descendant of Hubert and Paul de Castella, the Yarra Valley winegrowing pioneers. Sample wines with a cheese platter at the cellar door above the Pink Cliffs historic gold-mining site (68 Pink Cliffs Road, phone 5433 3958).
Other wineries to visit include Munari, Sanguine Estate, Huntleigh and Barnadown Run.
Heathcote Graytown National Park contains the largest remaining box-ironbark forest in Victoria. There are great bushwalks where you might see the endangered squirrel glider and swift parrot and (in spring) displays of orchids and wildflowers. You can also explore the gold-mining ghost town of Graytown, which was used as an internment camp during World War II.
On the edge of town on the way to Mount Ida are the miniature gorges of the pink cliffs.
The Heathcote Market (first Saturday of the month) has produce, plants, fruit and clothes.
Where to eat
Emeu Inn. Austrian chef Fred Thies and his wife, Leslye, renovated a dilapidated pub on High Street and offer the town's most serious restaurant with dishes from spicy bush tomato soup, emu shepherd's pie and rack of lamb, to laksa and a range of curries. An excellent Heathcote wine list (187 High Street, Heathcote, phone 5433 2668; see emeuinn.com.au).
The Redesdale. Melbourne restaurateurs Dean Bamford and Daniel Whelan have injected new life into the old Redesdale Tavern and now serve regional food in the French country bistro tradition with handmade linguini and gnocchi with local produce (2640 Kyneton-Heathcote Road, Redesdale, phone 5425 3111).
Tooborac Hotel. James and Val Carlin have restored the 1857 bluestone and ironstone pub that was a former Cobb and Co staging post. Soon their micro-brewery will be installed in the old stables but you can already taste their Stonemasons Pale Ale and Woodcutter's Amber Ale alongside solid country fare such as rabbit pie and porterhouse steak (5115 Northern Highway, Tooborac, phone 5433 5201).
Where to stay
Olive Grove Retreat. This airy and light-filled place, with its beige and white interior, open fireplace and draped outdoor terrace bed, is set on four private hectares, with pool, on the outskirts of Heathcote (olivegroveretreat.com).
Hut on the Hill. With views to the Mount McHarg Ranges, this two-bedroom retreat has an open-plan living area and cathedral ceilings, a designer kitchen, outdoor barbecue terrace and a solar-heated swim spa (720 Dairy Flat Road, phone 5433 2329, see hutonthehill.com.au).
Emeu Inn. There are six luxury suites decorated with period furnishings - five with spa baths and two with open fireplaces - plus a self-contained cottage (187 High Street, Heathcote, phone 5433 2668; see emeuinn.com.au).
Mimosa Glen. Among the ancient boulders of Tooborac, this is a pretty wooden cottage with polished floors and two bedrooms, each with ensuite. (2415 Lancefield Road, Tooborac, phone 5433 5346, see mimosaglen.com.au).
Redesdale Estate. There are several self-contained accommodation options, including L'Auberge de la Rose in Redesdale and the open-plan Stonewall Farmhouse in Barfold ( redesdale.com).
Heathcote Wine and Food Festival, October 3-4.
Heathcote is 110 kilometres from Melbourne along the Hume and Northern highways. An alternative scenic route is via Tullamarine Airport and the Lancefield-Tooborac (C325) road, where you will pass through a dramatic landscape of massive granite boulders created by an ancient glacier.
Contact Heathcote Visitor Information Centre (phone 5433 3121) or see visitvictoria.com or heathcotewinemakers.com.au.
Susan Gough Henly travelled with the assistance of Tourism Victoria.
David Anderson, of Wild Duck Creek Estate, came to Heathcote in 1972 when he bought a piece of land next to his father's.
"I had no plans about being a winemaker but was drinking some pretty ordinary wine at the time and I thought I could grow stuff at least as good. It was a complete fluke that I had bought in a reasonable [wine-growing] area."
After a few years of trial and error, he began to get the hang of things. "Actually, if I can make a wine, anybody can," says this self-deprecating, self-trained winemaker. "What is really difficult is making good grapes and it is even more difficult to know where to plant them."
What should people do when they visit the area? "I suggest newcomers sniff around the little cellar doors and find out what is there. The most exciting vineyards are where winemakers are getting dirty and figuring things out for themselves, not the places where people have a bunch of money but not much sense," he says. "There is too much homogenised wine these days. The essence of a good wine is that the winemaker grows with it. It is an evolutionary thing."
He can describe every hill and dale across Heathcote: the slopes that get the gentle morning sun and are sheltered from too much wind; how the red Cambrian soils in the north give wines a rich, chocolatey flavour while the friable soil in the south helps keep the acids high; and how winemakers need to get out in the vineyard and sniff the berries to know whether they are ready to pick.
Sounds like the spirit of French terroir hidden in a paddock on Melbourne's back doorstep.