The King Valley is about to showcase its food and wine with a weekend festival, writes Sue Wallace.
Hearty Italian food, fine wine, warm hospitality and toe-tapping entertainment awaits those who venture to north-east Victoria's King Valley.
Time your visit with the upcoming Weekend Fit for a King celebrations on June 6-7 and 15 family-run wineries will offer new releases showcasing the diversity of King Valley wines, gourmet meals and activities from bocce to Italian sausage making.
Centred around the towns of Milawa and Oxley, Whitfield and Cheshunt, just south of Wangaratta, the King Valley has earned a reputation as a unique wine-growing area for European varietals, with some of the highest-altitude vineyards in Australia.
The King Valley is renowned for its fresh local produce. Head to the Milawa Cheese Factory bakery where cheese is handmade and artisan breads are baked daily (5727 3589).
On the same site, visit the quirky Muse Gallery of Milawa where George Piercy showcases local and regional artists (5727 3599, see musegallery.com.au). You will also find Eucalypt Woodworks, maker of quality timber furniture and homewares using, principally, recycled and reclaimed Australian hardwoods (5727 3783).
Brown Brothers of Milawa is home to the Epicurean Centre, where fine food and wine are paired and you can taste the latest releases at the cellar door (1800 032 248). Milawa Mustards, housed in the historic Old Emu Inn, has a variety of handmade condiments including mustards, chutneys, pickles and vinegars (5727 3202).
A two-kilometre drive down the Snow Road, in the quaint village of Oxley, Blue Ox Blueberry Farm offers berries of all sorts as well as jams, chutneys, relishes and sauces (5727 3397).
King River Cafe, in Oxley's original general store, is where chef Ben Bonwick dishes up bold flavours of the area with a Mediterranean or Asian spin (5727 3461).
Further on you will find Rinaldo's of the King Valley situated at Dal Zotto Wines Cellar Door, offering modern Australian cuisine with northern Italian influences (5729 8000).
King Valley Cucina on the Wangaratta-to-Whitfield road features an Italian-inspired cafe menu and wood-fired pizzas (5729 3604).
Weekend Fit for a King Celebrations, June 6-7
At Dal Zotto's enjoy pasta dishes by Adam Pizzini of Rinaldo's, try your hand at bocce, and on Sunday there's a five-course Molti Gusti 20-mile feast with Dal Zotto wines (5729 8321).
Chrismont's will hold a festa rustica celebration, with antipasti, pasta with sugo and beef polpette and gourmet wood-fired pizzas prepared by Matt Wilkinson of Circa (5729 8220).
At the top end of the King Valley at Ciccone's, you can feast on southern Italian cuisine prepared in-house by Pina Ciccone (0400 108 026).
Learn about, taste and enjoy the intense aromas and flavours produced by the biodynamic wines at King River Estate and attend a cheesemaking class (5729 3689).
La Cantina offers a large range of traditional wines which have no preservatives. Indulge in nonna's lasagne, antipasto platters, arancini, minestrone and tiramisu (5729 3615).
Pizzini's will host its famous Sangiovese e Salsicce lunch on Saturday five courses of Italian fare, wine and entertainment. Then make salsicce (Italian pork sausages) on Sunday (5729 8278).
Sample Richard Verrocchio's new winter menu at Sam Miranda's as well as classic Italian pizzas all weekend. Join them at the event "Raiding Pop's Cellar" with wines from the 1970s and '80s on Saturday night (1800 994 750).
Souvenir tasting glasses are $10 and available from all 15 wineries.
King Valley art show
The region's largest art exhibition will feature more than 250 artworks at King Valley Cucina.
It will be open from 10am to 5pm over the festival weekend. See kingvalleyartshow.com.au.
Where to stay
Lindenwarrah Country House, Milawa, a 40-room boutique hotel (5720 5777), see www.lindenwarrah.com.au.
King River Stables, Oxley Slats Road near Wangaratta, a rustic retreat set on farmland, 10 minutes' drive to Milawa (5721 8195).
Casa Luna Gourmet Accommodation, Boggy Creek Road, Myrrhee, boutique accommodation specialising in Italian cuisine (5729 7650).
The King Valley is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Melbourne on the Hume Highway and 15 kilometres south-east of Wangaratta. Take the Milawa Gourmet Region exit.
Wangaratta Visitor Information Centre is a rich source of local knowledge (1800 801 065), see visitwangaratta.vic.gov.au.
THERE was something about the King Valley that took Sam Politini's eye when he arrived from Sicily with his brother Paolo in 1956.
He was born in Francofonte, a typical rural Sicilian village, surrounded by orange orchards and vineyards.
"At the age of 21 - an age when you expect everything and understand nothing we arrived in Australia and thought it was such a wild country," he says.
The brothers share-farmed tobacco and later Sam bought his own farm at Cheshunt in the King Valley and married Josie La Spina, from the Sicilian mountain town of Ramacca.
"I only expected to stay a few years but then I married and had four kids," he says.
While they initially grew tobacco on their farm's river-flats, little did they know that the dry ridge above their home would be the future site of the Politini vineyard, established in 1989.
"There are many other valleys in the north east and I have seen them all after living around here for 50 years, but the King Valley has something special about it," he says.
"We have the King River, beautiful scenery, such wonderful wines and great people and we love seeing visitors discover our secret."
Two things Politini loves in life are getting out his accordion, which he learnt to play at a young age, and his wife's Italian cooking. "She makes the best salsicce (sausage) and sweet cannoli, crostoli and almond torrone she's too good and I have to watch my weight," he says.
Politini says the valley reminds him a little of Sicily, but it's the people who make it special. Over the festival weekend he'll be playing golden oldies on his accordion and encouraging visitors to taste his wines and try Josie's wonderful Italian treats.