Confession time – when my friend last visited Rutherglen she recalls feeling like 50 shades of green after attempting to set a new record for wine tasting.
A party girl at heart, she's returned from overseas 30 years later with vivid memories of hopping off a rickety bus, kicking off her shoes and stomping, picking and imbibing her way around the well-known wine region.
She is now a serious food and wine lover, and we are on a mission to visit some of the 17 wineries participating in the upcoming Tastes of Rutherglen festival on March 7 and 8 to give her a very different experience.
The popular food and wine extravaganza features leading regional chefs and local winemakers who take part in a giant progressive lunch with each winery offering a signature dish, new releases, entertainment and time to chat to the winemakers.
Wendy Killeen, who is chairwoman of Winemakers of Rutherglen, says it's an "opportunity to get behind the scenes at some of Australia's well known family-owned wineries and learn about the history and hard work that goes into making their world class wines and indulge in great wines and food," she says.
We kick off our preview weekend at the town's new Thousand Pound Wine Bar and Store at 82 Main Street and it's literally buzzing. You can sip on a Rutherglen on the Rocks – a Jones Apero and tonic – and nibble on baba ghanoush. The Victorian shopfront has been reinvigorated by the All Saints team and Denis Lucey, of Melbourne's Bottega restaurant. The wine list features great local drops, wines from outside the region and curios such as rice wine, and a tasty snack menu.
You would need super stamina to visit all 17 wineries on the festival weekend, so here are a few suggestions where you can enjoy wine, music and food under autumn skies:
Warrabilla Wines on the Murray Valley Highway will showcase dishes from the Taste @ Rutherglen restaurant including confit of duck and lamb shanks. Warrabilla's fifth generation winemaker, Andrew Sutherland Smith, describes his wines as big on style, flavour and richness.
Take a seat under the giant white cedar on the manicured lawns of Stanton & Killeen on Jacks Road – the new 2013 Durif will be served with slow-cooked lamb with ancient grain salad from Albury's Cafe Victor.
Toe tap along to great jazz at picturesque Lake Moodemere Vineyards, where 12-hour cooked Moodemere lamb will be served with the new 2013 Durif. You can also try your luck at a hole in one golf challenge from the bank onto a floating green on a billabong – if you are lucky, $1000 worth of wine awaits.
Adam Pizzini, of Wangaratta's Rinaldos Casa Cucina, will be serving lamb and a decadent chocolate fudge caramel tart at Pfeiffer Wines, 167 Distillery Road, Wahgunyah, where the historic cellars are nestled on Sunday Creek. The adults-only pink slushie is a decadent treat.
Newcomer Scion Vineyard, at 74 Slaughterhouse Road, Rutherglen, will showcase the food-friendly 2012 Durif Viognier with a sunny Spanish tapas board from Pinchos Catering, packed with punchy flavours and textures from manchego and chorizo croquetas to jamon and red pepper boccadillos.
A take on the Moroccan specialty pastilla will be served at Valhalla Wines at All Saints Road, Wahgunyah, with slow-cooked goat. Love those old vinyl hits – Grooveyard Unplugged will entertain while you sip new releases.
For a sweet treat, Morris Wines on Mia Mia Road, known for its award-winning muscat and tokay, will combine with Albury's Geoffrey Michael Patissier to create a memorable sweet treat.
All Saints Estate, set in magnificent manicured grounds with an impressive tree-lined driveway, is where one-hat chef from the Terrace restaurant, Simon Arkless, will serve a delicious tart to complement the latest releases. There will be jazz on the lawns and an opportunity to be a winemaker for an hour. The Terrrace also serves a six-course degustation dinner on Saturday nights and great lunches.
Asian flavours will feature at Jones Winery and Vineyard on Jones Road, where chef Kate Akrap will serve traditional French Vietnamese bahn mi and confit duck filo pie.
The Pickled Sisters Cafe, a great place for breakfast and lunch, will serve slow braised pork cheek with fennel, apple and red onion with Cofield wines. Cofield, in Distillery Road, Wahgunyah, is known for its great sparkling shiraz.
As for my friend? Her memories are now about classy wines, delicious food and friendly winemakers, with no "shades of green" moments.
Taste Packs for wine drinkers are $50 and include a wine glass and two tickets (each redeemable for an entree and matched wine or an "activity" and wine at the winery of choice), a bottle of water and souvenir carry bag. Event shuttle tickets are available for $25 a day and allow for unlimited navigation between all wineries. All packs and bus tickets can be bought online.
Home for the night is the new Wicked Villa – a historic red brick still house that's been revamped into double-storey accommodation with great facilities, gourmet breakfast and the best views over the olive grove. It's ideally located for a winery hop. Phone 02 6032 7022, see wickedrutherglenaccommodation.com.au.
Rutherglen is a 3.5 hour drive from Melbourne and is located just off the Hume Highway. It is a six-hour drive from Sydney. Qantas, Rex and Virgin fly daily from Sydney to Albury while Rex flies from Melbourne – it is a 45-minute drive from Albury.
The writer was the guest of The Winemakers of Rutherglen.