Drop by ... Rutherglen

Wine and travel writer Winsor Dobbin presents the latest in a series of guides to Australia and New Zealand's top wine regions.

It may only be a sleepy hamlet with a couple of thousand residents tucked away off the main roads of north-east Victoria, but Rutherglen is one of Australia's most historic — and important — wine regions.

Known as the home of Australia's great fortified wines (ports, muscats and tokays), Rutherglen and neighbouring Wahgunyah are also gaining increasing attention for the quality of their table wines.

History here dates to the 1850s gold rush. Pioneering Chambers Rosewood, the oldest winery in the region, was established in 1858; Morris, the biggest producer, in 1859; All Saints in 1864; and Campbells, now being run by the fourth generation of the family, in 1870. Well-known labels such as Stanton and Killeen (1875) and Buller (1921) are relative newcomers.

There is a glorious aroma that greets you when you enter any of the cellars of the great fortified producers. It's the smell of treacle, butterscotch and oak emanating from wines, many of them decades old, maturing in casks or giant oak barrels. Evaporation takes up to 5 per cent of the contents each year, as witnessed by the dark deposits on the winery walls and roofs. The locals call it "the angels' share".

Rutherglen is about 280 kilometres from Melbourne and is a place of pilgrimage for wine aficionados. It can be a sleepy spot, enlivened at weekends by tourists in their hundreds and inundated during the Tastes of Rutherglen festival held each March.

There are about 20 wineries in all, with several branching out stylistically. Cofield specialises in sparkling wines and Rutherglen Estates in European-style table wines. Newcomers Valhalla and Scion offer something different, while a visit to the new John Gehrig cellar door is a step back in time.

At All Saints, which is owned by a branch of one of Australia's most famous wine families — the Browns — visitors taste and enjoy lunch in an imposing chateau.

This is a close-knit community. Many of the winemakers will direct you to their neighbours and rivals if you don't find anything to suit your palate — and there's a history of hospitality handed down from generation to generation. It's a place with a heart, while characters, both grizzled veterans and bright young things, abound.

Campbells and Morris are among the older, more atmospheric, cellar doors, while at Pfeiffer you can enjoy a glass of wine on the Sunday Creek Bridge and gaze down at the busy turtles below.

How to get there

Regional Express (Rex) flies to Albury in NSW, which is a 45-minute drive from Rutherglen. Alternatively, you can fly to Melbourne Airport and embark on a three-hour drive along the Hume Freeway. Qantas, Virgin Australia and Jetstar all have several flights daily to Melbourne and major car-hire companies have desks at both airports.

Best cellar doors

All Saints is a heritage-listed estate run by the fourth generation of the Brown family. Tastings are conducted in an atmospheric old chateau and winemaker Dan Crane produces outstanding rieslings, marsannes and durifs. Visitors can enjoy lunch either at Terrace Restaurant or more casually at the adjacent Indigo Cheese facility. All Saints hosts regular Day on the Green concerts.

Anton Therkildsen is a relative newcomer to Rutherglen. He and his family run the Valhalla facility, which boasts a winery made from straw bales and a vineyard run using sustainable agriculture. The wood-fired pizzas here are extremely popular at weekends and the focus is on Rhone Valley varieties including marsanne, viognier, shiraz and grenache.

Morris is one of Australia's best-known wineries, established in 1859, and best-known for its fortified wines as well as pioneering the durif grape. David Morris is a fifth-generation winemaker and visitors are invited to stroll among the old barriques in the cellars and take in the amazing aromas.

Campbells' cellar door is full of history, including the giant old casks used to store the venerable muscats and topaques (the new word for tokays). Flight tastings are available and behind-the-scenes tours are offered each Tuesday. The famous fortifieds are available for tasting alongside newer varieties such as viognier, roussanne and tempranillo. New offerings are "Hamper Boxes", which can be filled with a selection of regional produce and enjoyed while tasting, or under an oak tree in the gardens with a bottle of wine.

John Gehrig is the newest cellar door in the region, a rustic and typically Australian country shed where you might find the vineyard tractor blocking your way to the tasting bench. Winemaker Ross Gehrig makes wines of surprising elegance, including a stunning riesling and a sparkling gamay. A real country experience.

Scion is a new boutique operation run by Rowly Milhinch, son of a well-known Barossa Valley winemaker and a distant relative of the Morris family. He creates new-wave wines from muscat and durif. There's a modern, appealing cellar door, a tiny winery and a garden area for enjoying wines alfresco.

Also try Lake Moodemere, Anderson Winery, Pfeiffer, Mount Prior, Rutherglen Estates, St Leonards, Vintara, Watchbox and Warrabilla Wines.

Where to eat

The Terrace at All Saints winery, where British-born chef Simon Arkless (formerly of Chester White in Melbourne) is a recent arrival, serves inventive seasonal dishes such as seared yellowfin tuna with smoked tomato and caper saffron dressing, or local rabbit wrapped in prosciutto with tomato, black olives, basil and polenta. The room has recently been revamped and the service is top-notch. It's arguably the best eatery in north-east Victoria — and with wines from All Saints and St Leonards available by the glass.

Lunches Sunday-Wednesday and dinner on Saturdays with a free pick-up/drop-off service. 1800 021 621, allsaintswine.com.au.

Tuileries Rutherglen serves serious modern Australian food in a relaxed setting overlooking a Mediterranean-style courtyard. Think dishes such as rabbit rillettes or Asian-style pork belly with rice cakes. Service is attentive and informative, and there is a good selection of local wines. (02) 6032 9033, tuileriesrutherglen.com.au.

Jones Winery offers cafe-style food with a French accent in the relaxed atmosphere of a heritage-listed and classically Australian setting. Winemaker Mandy Jones spent 15 years working in Bordeaux and, just as her wines have a European sensibility, the menu features dishes such as croque-monsieur using local ham, Murray cod en papillote, and confit duck crepe. (02) 6032 8496, joneswinery.com.

Pickled Sisters Cafe is part of the Cofield Wines complex at Wahgunyah and features quality local produce. Think honey and muscat-glazed confit duck, or just snack on coffee and cake. The outside deck is popular with locals at the weekend, and seasonal food hampers are available to take away. (02) 6033 2377, pickledsisters.com.au.

Also try Taste of Rutherglen, The Kitchen at The Courthouse Hotel (Howlong), Cafe Viand and Renaissance Chocolates for hand-made truffles and pralines. Locals also swear by the supremacy of the locally-baked Parker pies.

What to drink

You must samples some of the venerable old and rich muscats made at All Saints, Buller, Campbells, Chambers, Morris, Pfeiffer and Stanton and Killeen, along with some red wines made from the region's flagship durif grape, which is also known as petite sirah.

Where to stay

Tuileries offers up-market accommodation in well-equipped suites overlooking an old vineyard. Guests have access to a pool and tennis court, and it's a short walk to Rutherglen's cafes and shops. There's also a very good restaurant on-site, as well as a cafe and a wine bar. (02) 6032 9033, tuileriesrutherglen.com.au. From $199 bed and breakfast.

Murray Rest Cottages at Wahgunyah offers two-bedroom self-contained cottages with new fittings and appliances. They sleep up to five adults. A peaceful riverside setting with plenty of wild birds. From $160. (02) 6033 3685, murrayrest.com.au.

Bank on Main is a former bank on Rutherglen's main street, built in 1899, which has been converted into a luxury bed and breakfast with just two bedrooms. Guests climb a huge staircase to the rooms, which boast king-size beds and en suite spa bathrooms. From $175 a couple. (02) 6032 7000, bankonmain.com.au.

Carlyle House is a bed and breakfast in what used to be one of the town's grandest homesteads. The restored 1890s residence has been completely refurbished and offers five rooms to guests, most overlooking traditional English-style gardens. Log fires make the homestead toasty in winter, or you can stay in self-contained modern garden studios. From $150. (02) 6032 8444, carlylehouse.com.au.

Also try Cuddle Doon Cottages, Best Western Heritage Motor Inn, Oakleigh at Corowa, John Foord Guesthouse at Corowa, Alambie on the Murray, Koendidda Country House at Barnawatha, Brimin Lodge, Country Cottages B&B, The Old Post Office at Howlong and Wine Village Motor Inn.

Festivals

The Tastes of Rutherglen festival is held over two weekends in March (March 9-10 and 16-17 this year) and is this year celebrating its 25th anniversary, while the Rutherglen Winery Walkabout is held over the Queen's Birthday weekend each June.

Local attractions

There's plenty of history to uncover here, dating to the discovery of gold in the 1850s. It is best unearthed at the Rutherglen Historical Society Museum, while Rutherglen's main street, with its many historic buildings including several old hotels, is ideal for a pre-dinner stroll.

Nearby

Bicycles can be hired from the information centre to enable exploration of nearby towns and villages including Corowa, Howlong and Yarrawonga, all of which are home to quality golf courses. The pretty towns of Beechworth and Bright are both just a short drive away, as are the vineyards of Milawa and the King Valley.

More information

The Rutherglen Wine Experience and Visitor Information Centre at 57 Main Street is staffed by well-informed locals and open daily from 9am to 5pm, 1800 622 871, rutherglenvic.com.

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