Moorabool Valley, Victoria: The state's most unsung wine region is even closer to Melbourne than Yarra Valley

Have you heard of Moorabool Valley? No? Well, that's why I am going to tell you that it's the most unsung wine region in Victoria.

Only an hour from Melbourne, the wineries you'll find here don't come attached to large stately buildings, sculpture gardens or hatted restaurants. Neither will you be fighting bus tours for parking spaces. It's rumoured that these premium wine-makers sell their wines for a lot less than you'd find elsewhere, too.

Surprisingly, it was the Swiss who settled this area near Geelong in 1842 and started growing vines, creating one of the biggest wine regions in Victoria. Of course, most of these vines were ravaged by Phylloxera in the late 1800s, but the region experienced a revival during the 1960s and the general region now houses more than 160 vineyards and 60 wineries.

Nestled in between Geelong and Ballarat is the sub region of Moorabool Valley. Possessing a unique terroir produced by years of volcanic activity and a mediterranean climate, it favours cool climate wines such as pinot noir, shiraz and chardonnay, as well as several more unusual varieties.

The Valley is home to a handful of family-run boutique wineries that produce premium wines. My first visit is way off the beaten track to a small vineyard with a cellar door fashioned out of a 150-year-old shepherd's cottage, and I'm greeted by a couple of affable hounds. This is Moorabool Ridge Vineyard, and owner Tim Harrop bought the two-room property from a Scottish family who raised eight kids here, seduced by its location where it overlooks the rushing Moorabool River. You have to look hard to find this place - "most locals don't even know it's here" he laughs. The charming old farm has century-old fruit trees that can't be properly identified, which Harrop puts to good use, making preserves and jam from modified recipes found in CWA cookbooks.

Harrop turned his hand from selling grapes to making wine in 2005. Thanks to the unusual microclimate in this part of the valley, he grows most semillon grapes, avoiding "faddy wines and competitions".

"I believe it's a really good wine that's largely misunderstood as it needs some aging before it's any good," he explains. "I produce what I like and we are trying to find a niche in the market as we can't compete with the big guys. People are surprised how good our wines are across the board and can't decide what to buy, so they end up buying them all."

Driven by artistic vision, Ray Nadeson of Lethbridge Wines is another winemaker who describes himself as non-commercially driven and shuns fads and awards, despite having a five-star rating Halliday rating in 2022. "I have a clear artistic vision of what I want to make," he says. The former scientist has 58 wines in his repertoire which are exported all around the world, including Paris, London and Copenhagen, often turning up on wine lists in Michelin-starred restaurants. You're more likely to see a bottle on a restaurant wine list than in a shop. But Nadeson insists that, despite their success, they are not "snobby" - and a visit to Lethbridge is not your standard winery experience.

With two cellar doors, here and on the Bellarine, Lethbridge feels like a casual dining room of a Tuscan villa in a garden setting. "It doesn't look like a tasting room, it looks like my house," he admits. "And I'm not a barman, so you will be served by someone who has a connection to the production. It's an authentic experience - visitors here are able to see the creativity and artistry and community of wine." Indeed, everybody working here has been drawn together by a mutual passion of the arts. In particular, Nadeson is a music lover and interprets wine as such. "A piece of music is the place and the instrument is the variety. As the maker I am the musician."

Advertisement

It's a horse of a different colour over at Clyde Park Vineyard and Bistro, the biggest cellar door in the Valley, and perhaps the region's best kept secret, at least it is according to assistant winemaker Joel Christie. And he may be on to something. On approach, Clyde Park looks like a large-scale operation with sweeping valley views, but owner Terry Jongebloed jokes it's more of a "shed with lipstick". Clyde Park is indeed a small family run operation, with a huge, high-ceilinged dining area both indoors and out, from which diners enjoy the vineyard-etched valley or watch the winemakers at work.

Their wine already has a great reputation (they're another Halliday five-star award winner) but the food here is the hero. Focusing on their own home-grown produce or sourced as close as possible, the menu is simple but well-executed, with freshly baked bread, wood-fired pizzas, local seafood and a show-stopping dish of fire-roasted garlic prawns.

Barwon Ridge wines presents a return to rusticity. Set in the Barabool Hills, its cellar door almost operates directly from the family home. Owner Geoff Anson is hiring TAFE students to plant sustainable grounds for walking trails around his property - here you can sip wine and nibble on platters by a fire pit set among a native garden, which draws plenty of bird and animal life. He has re-introduced pinot meunier vines from the old heritage block at Bests in Great Western, which they plan to introduce as a component to their (excellent) sparkling wine. You can also try Marsanne here, another of the region's lesser-known but intriguing white varietals.

A prominent feature of Moorabool Valley for the last 30 years, 2022 is set to be a very exciting year for Austin's Wines as they open their cellar door in January. Former owners RIchard and Pam Austin bought it as a run down sheep property during the 80s and planted vines here in the 90s. They planted 36 hectares of vines and had to create a second label, 6ft6, to utilise it all. It seems Richard's overplanting paid off, as it became one of the highest selling pinot noirs in Australia, and their prosecco is following suit.

The spacious, west-facing cellar door overlooks the vineyards, and there will be plenty of seating outside on picnic tables. They hope to have sunset DJ sessions and events such as weddings. But wine will still be the hero of this place - food will be supplied by Sticks and Bones BBQ and produce hampers will be available to enjoy with the wines.

Austins also offer a unique "rent a vine" experience for those interested in trying their hand at making their own wine. Says co-owner Belinda Austin "these masterclasses connect people to the land, from picking the grapes to illustrating how the process works in an approachable way while having a good time doing it".

Around five minutes from the tiny township of Anakie, and on the slopes of an extinct volcano, is former sheep farm, Del Rios Winery and Restaurant. Arriving here feels like you have been teleported to Spain. That's partly because there's a castle perched on a hilltop next door belonging to Fairy Cave, and partly because of its Spanish winemaker Gus del Rios. The mouthwatering smell of Spain wafts through the restaurant, as tapas plates of patatas bravas, tortilla and paella are delivered to the patrons at their busy restaurant-slash-cellar door. Esther Del Rios learned to cook Spanish food with her mother-in-law, learning the traditional family recipes they serve from their kitchen to be "shared and enjoyed".

One of the region's older wineries, del Rios has a spectacular outlook from its floor-to-ceiling glass windows, overlooking vineyards, their fields of llamas and black angus cattle (which end up in some of the dishes) and the You Yangs beyond. They're working on plans for an outdoor cocktail bar. "It's been a labour of love," del Rios says proudly, who is also fond of their Marsanne, which goes particularly well with food. "When it ages is develops amazing characteristics". They also make a Spanish Tempranillo, and a knockout chardonnay.

It's taken me two days two explore the Moorabool Valley, using Geelong as my base about 15 minutes away, I scoot back home down the Princes Highway to my inner-west Melbourne pad and am there in 45 minutes. Knowing that, I'll be making a return visit soon.

The writer was a guest of Visit Geelong and the Bellarine Peninsula

MORE

traveller.com.au/geelong

visitgeelongbellarine.com.au

STAY

Novotel Geelong, 1014 Eastern Beach Rd, Geelong; novotelgeelong.com.au

Click here to read our review.

VISIT

Moorabool Ridge Vineyard

37 Spiller Rd, Lethbridge; mooraboolridge.com.au

Lethbridge Wines

67 Burrows Rd, Lethbridge; lethbridgewines.com

Clyde Park Vineyard and Bistro

2490 Midland Highway, Bannockburn; clydepark.com.au

Barwon Ridge

50 Mcmullans Rd, Barrabool; barwonridge.com.au

Austin's Wines

870 Steiglitz Road, Sutherlands Creek; austinswines.com.au

Del Rios Winery and Restaurant

2290 Geelong-Ballan Rd, Anakie; delrios.com.au

Comments