Tahbilk, one of Victoria's oldest wineries, is also its most remarkable. Established in 1860, the heritage-listed property has turrets, a watchtower and a "moat". It's the closest thing you'll get to a French chateau, at least in Victoria's underrated Nagambie region, just a short 90-minute hop from Melbourne.
Rescued from abandonment after vine-destroying phylloxera disease devastated the property in the late 1890s, Tahbilk was bought by the Purbrick family in 1927 who soon revived it as a winery. Six generations later, that has proven a worthwhile investment, winning Halliday's lauded "winery of the year" in 2016, and more recently, became the first carbon neutral winery in Australia.
But what you don't expect to see here are the relics of an old village, for Tahbilk once had to accommodate all its staff. Under its long, low-slung red-tiled roofs you'll find old farming equipment and a butchery, recognisable by the terrifying meat hooks and chopping block made from an old tree stump. The butchery mainly catered for the pickers and field workers who ate a whopping two kilos of meat every day.
There's a small building that used to house a church and a school; and another with bars on the door they like to think of as an old gaol. Its iconic tower was used to store grapes and to watch for bushfires. Everything here is heritage-listed, and a world away from the modern wineries of the Yarra Valley.
And you won't find any pinot noir grapes here either - it's the wrong climate. What you will find is Marsanne - Tahbilk's most widely produced varietal was even given the seal of approval from the Queen when she visited Victoria in the 1980s. Unlike other white wines, Marsanne ages very well, growing more golden in hue and developing complex flavours of honey and stone fruit. Tahbilk has the biggest and oldest plantation in the world of the grape - bigger, even, than France, where the older vines were lost to phylloxera.
You can take a self-guided tour the property, but you'll need to book to get into the museum, which is housed in the old non-denominational church and school. They also host "the art of winemaking" experiences and following a tour of the 19th century underground cellars, you'll learn how to blend your own wine by combining some of Tahbilk's signature varietals. My "wine ambassador" escorts me around the new museum that showcases the winery's history.
"The ground was never consecrated, so we just worship wine in here now'" she laughs.
I'm given two glasses of red to try and identify between shiraz and cabernet sauvignon, then asked to identify the flavour notes in each. "Cab sav is beautiful at showing off its terroir," she says instructively. "It's easy to tell where it's from. Coonawarra, for example, has eucalyptus because its grown right near huge eucalyptus trees. Here, it's mint - and any variation of it - sometimes it's choc-mint, sometimes spearmint."
Once the fun tasting part is over, the hard work begins - coming up with suitable measurements to add to my blend. You get several tries and lots of help and by some fluke, my ambassador is quite pleased with the result - or at least a great actor (and teacher).
"The idea of a blend is to coat every section of your palate, which is why we use two different wines to create this experience," she explains. The addition of unoaked wine adds a fresh fruit flavour, which is now more apparent in my first shiraz-heavy blend, while my second cab sav-heavy blend has a meaty, minty flavour. I get to take both bottles home to re-evaluate my career path and impress my friends with later.
I wander across to Tahbilk's Water View restaurant for lunch, where I enjoy a two course meal on the patio overlooking overlooking Tahbilk's lagoon on a flawless Friday afternoon. Matched with their sparkling wine, the entree is local mushroom croquettes with truffle oil and for main, a macadamia-crusted barramundi with pea mash paired with the museum Marsanne.
With the Goulbourn River on one side and the Tahbilk Lagoon to the other, half of Tahbilk's 1250 hectares is spectacular bushland which they are painstakingly restoring to its original state. Ex-farmer Bob McMaster is credited with a lot of this work and takes me on a tour of the lagoon on their "Eco trail boat" which visitors can book. It slowly chugs around the lagoon as he points to logs that have been placed into the water to attract aquatic life and various species of water lilly.
Some native species are welcome, some not so much; but all provide a spectacularly vibrant green carpet along the river and it adds to Tahbilk's unique landscape. There are also walking trails throughout the reserve which highlight native plants, and explain what the traditional owners of the land used it for. "All the seeds we've used in the regeneration of the land had to have grown here before," McMaster explains. "We're trying to get it as close as possible to the way it was prior to white settlement."
The writer was a guest of ultimatewineryexperiences.com.au
Blue Tongue Berries: Like a little piece of Byron without the BS, Blue Tongue is a cosy retreat in which to relax and a great base for exploring the hidden gem that is Nagambie and the Mitchell Shire. 445 Northwood Road, Seymour. Phone 0438 320 049. Rooms start at $150 per night. See bluetongueberries.com.au
Box Grove Winery
Run by winemaker Sarah Gould, a trip to Box Grove is like visiting Maggie Beer's farmhouse, except wine and cheese is the only thing on the kitchen table. Operating out of her riverside homestead, the smell of baking and puppies greet you at the door before you're escorted to the glass-enclosed "tasting room" which has views of the river shaded by huge gums. While the setting is gorgeous, Gould's wines and her tasting experience are also exceptional. By appointment only. See boxgrovevineyard.com.au
Brave Goose Vineyard
Five minutes outside Seymour on the Goulbourn Valley Highway is Brave Goose's simple cellar door. Winemaker Nina Stockton swung the doors open in early 2020 (just in time for the pandemic), calling it "Friends of Ours" to showcase other locally made produce. Northern Rhone varietal viognier is particularly suited to the soils here, which means the fruit gets a lot of flavour without being too ripe. Stocker's viognier is a dream for lovers of apricot; barrel-fermented and like chardonnay in terms of structure and weight, but much fresher, with creamy characteristics and notes of chamomile and honey. See bravegoosevineyard.com.au
The tiny regional town of Avenel is noted for three things; two outstanding restaurants, plus its exceptional butcher (Avenel Meats). Harvest Home is one of thenoted restaurants, housed in a huge heritage-listed building with sprawling gardens that include event space and a pool. The facade looks like a former hotel, with latticework and a huge verandah, offering accommodation with recently renovated rooms that suit its heritage exteriors. . Popular with locals, you could also drop in and enjoy some of the region's great wines from its tiny front bar. Rooms start from $180 per night. See harvesthome.com.au