The Mornington Peninsula is hardly hidden – even Australia would have trouble concealing a 724-sq-km landmass jutting into the Bass Strait towards Tasmania. Even so, wine lovers visiting Melbourne still tend to miss it. They are probably too busy looking north, towards the better-known Yarra Valley, without realising that they are turning their backs on some of the most beautiful landscape, and wines, in all of Victoria.
The peninsula’s gorgeously layered Pinot Noirs and creamy yet elegant Chardonnays are the happy outcome of a series of mistakes, starting with the European settlers’ first efforts to plant vines here, in the mid-19th century; Alexander Balcombe’s efforts were known locally as Balcombe’s Vinegar. Balcombe must have been a singularly untalented winemaker, because this is some of the most fertile land in Australia: a green spur beneath a baking land, with bright sunlight, yes, but gentler temperatures and, often, a kindly autumn. It gets hot, of course, but all that water means cooling breezes scudding in past the shining beaches, plus relatively high rainfall.
‘Anything you learn about warm-climate viticulture is no use here,’ Martin Spedding of Ten Minutes by Tractor winery tells me. The trees may be eucalyptus and the orchards passionfruit (plus apple or cherry), but anyone from this hemisphere will understand exactly why early settlers, looking at the luxuriant foliage and the dappled shade beneath those stately gum trees, named so many villages in honour of England’s verdant south coast: Shoreham and Hastings, Portsea and Rye.
The next lucky mistake came in the early 1970s, when a few well-heeled Melburnians with a hankering to make wine looked at their latitude, drew a line around the globe to Burgundy, and decided to plant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, despite the lack of any other resemblance to a landlocked region of steep-sloping limestone. Nonetheless, it worked. The Pinots here are richer and spicier than Burgundy’s but delicious, with subtle wafts of eucalypt; some people think the Chardonnays have even more potential. There is also great Shiraz, interesting Pinot Gris and a few Italian and Spanish varieties, while a couple of places even grow Aligoté. Really, the main difference between here and France isn’t soil type, surrounding ocean or climate; it’s attitude. Mornington Peninsula hasn’t been doing everything the same way for 90 years, let alone 900 – and it shows.
I’ve been coming here all my life. My family is from Melbourne, and not only is this peninsula the city’s playground – an hour’s scoot for a morning surf or a great dinner, the return drive perfectly feasible if you can resist the wines – but those early wine-loving arrivals included cousins of mine, George and Jacky Kefford of Merricks Estate. I love their wines, but then I would, wouldn’t I? It sounds odd to say that they remind me of my childhood, but it’s true. The decommissioned wine barrel that became a paddling pool for the Caplan and Kefford children; the scent of the wind brushing across the vines; the appreciative murmur of adults discussing that wine – all return as I inhale the contents of my glass these many years later. That is part of wine’s magic. But the wines are lauded far and wide, so you needn’t rely solely on my skewed judgment.
And I love plenty of Mornington Peninsula wines that have no personal associations: this is one of the best Pinot regions in Australia. The Mediterranean herbs and ripe plums of Meres, a single vineyard from the Kooyong estate, or its Ferrous (also a single vineyard), with a savoury iron tang, are favourites, as is its vibrant, citrus Clonale Chardonnay – which is partly why I opt to stay at Port Phillip Estate, under the same ownership.
But only partly. The place doesn’t look like much as I approach the large entrance door in a blank rammed-earth wall – but I’m straight into an enormous room with a startling panoramic view of vineyards via the entirely glass wall opposite, beyond the tasting room and restaurant. Downstairs, six suites share that fabulous view. I could stroll out of my well-appointed bedroom, with its dark walls and Technicolor Missoni bathrobes, and grab a few grapes for a last snack before bed – except that would deprive them of a much worthier destination. Back upstairs, I taste through the range while a cluster of fellow tourists coo with pleasure beside me. They clearly aren’t experts, but that doesn’t matter. In Australian tasting rooms, it never does.
The Port Phillip restaurant is closed during my visit, but I already have more places to eat than mealtimes available. Top of the list is Tedesca Osteria, opened by Brigitte Hafner and her sommelier James Broadway just before the pandemic. (‘I figured if we can survive this, we’re invincible,’ she says with a tight smile.) Their Gertrude Street Enoteca was legendary, but it’s easy to see why they wanted to swap Melbourne for this rural location beside the tree-coated crater of an ancient volcano, with a kitchen garden supplying the wood-burning oven in the farmhouse-chic interior. The Pinot that Broadway has planted (‘I’ll try other things later – Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese’) isn’t ready yet, but his wine list is amazing.
The peninsula is incredibly compact. During my eight-minute drive to Tedesca, I could have stopped at lovely Polperro – with its excellent bistro restaurant and four vineyard villas for rent – and detoured to Paringa – where Lindsay McCall makes Pinot Noir that has depth, minerality and elegance and has installed a restaurant so good that he now complains that even he can’t get a table on weekends – and still turned up for lunch only 10 minutes late. I would have missed several other wineries, to say nothing of a terrific deli, The Epicurean; the Red Hill Rail Trail, a scenic way to reach Merricks Beach by mountain bike or horse; and Red Hill Brewery, the peninsula’s first but by no means last beer producer, which offers tours, a bar and a large terrace serving spicy wings and tater tots. In culinary terms, this is a long way from Tedesca. In reality, it’s seven minutes’ drive.
These friendly distances certainly make life easier for Danielle Field of MP Experience: a day’s winery tour is a lot less enjoyable when half of it has to be spent in the car. She whirls me from Trofeo, where they ferment and age exclusively in amphorae – winemaker Richard Darby uses around 76, of different sizes – to Mike Aylward’s beautiful Ocean Eight, with its sumptuous gardens. Here I’d have liked to pull up a chair on the lovely stone terrace and linger over a cool bottle of his 2019 Pinot, with its flavours of steeped rose petal and crushed mulberries, or his Aylward Pinot Noir from 2017 and as mellow as aged wood.
In between, we stop at Yabby Lake Winery for enormous prawns on brioche and autumn mushrooms en papillote with, respectively, its fabulous 100% Pinot single-vineyard rosé and the 2019 Single Vineyard Pinot Noir – still young, but with black cherry, redcurrant, rose petal and spice starting to peek out of the crib. In a few years, I think, this will be lovely. As if reading my mind, the server plonks down a glass of the 2017 – ‘On weekends, we open something fun’ – which confirms it: the roses are open, the cherries ripe. Beyond the veranda, a couple of sculptures punctuate the soothing parallels of the vines; farther away, trees and fields glow in the sunshine. (Everyone here seems to love sculptures. Pt Leo Estate – currently closed until further notice, following a fire on the premises in May – has a walking trail where the art competes for attention with the ocean views beyond; the works parked around the Montalto vineyards range from fascinating to startling.)
We also pause at Moorooduc Estate, which is very different: a simple tasting room, no restaurant, but plenty of ideas. Richard McIntyre was an early adopter of wild yeasts (he really likes yeast: he bakes, too), while his daughter Kate is a chip off the old block, trying out skin-contact Pinot Gris in the winery and YouTube tastings online. The Pinot Gris is odd but appealing and hugely aromatic (‘great with salmon,’ says Kate), but I’d rather drink the Pinot: the Robinson Vineyard Pinot 2018, which has bitterness and red berries to balance its gingerbread, or the 2019 Garden Vineyard, rich yet appropriately floral.
Several Melbourne chefs pop down to the Mornington Peninsula to source ingredients – which isn’t always a euphemism for surfing before work
The peninsula is dotted with farm shops, and I know several Melbourne chefs who pop down to source ingredients – which isn’t always a euphemism for surfing before work. But they’re right that it’s a waste of good water to enjoy it only via the vines, so I summon up my courage, don a ‘rashie’ T-shirt and attempt standup paddleboarding. Nic Cooper, founder of Wild Adventures Melbourne, picks me up in his funky pimped van. Originally English, he is as fired up about environmentalism and protecting this beautiful place as he is about introducing tourists to water sports or local wildlife. This will be my only entirely wine-free activity of the trip – even the mellow yoga class I take one morning is in a tree-encircled hut owned by Polperro – but Mount Martha Beach is sheltered, balancing on the board is easier than I expect, and the view from the water back towards land is worth any amount of paddling. If it were winter, says Cooper, surveying the ocean from a mountain lookout as he offers me fresh fruit and pastries, he would take me whale-watching – which is the best reason I’ve heard yet to visit Australia mid-year.
Still, I’m much more at home eating a magnificent dinner at Ten Minutes by Tractor, where the restaurant overlooks the original vineyards (all ten minutes’ tractor-ride apart, hence the name). Xavier Vigier, the excellent sommelier, pours me a Pinot Gris by peninsula legend Kathleen Quealy before launching into three TMBT single-vineyard Pinots: the Coolart Road, classic and structured; the Wallis, fatter and spicier; and the more delicate Judd from a high vineyard that’s full of clay. ‘It’s a labour of love working Judd – any patch of cloud will drop all its rain there,’ he says. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an Australian winemaker complain about too much rain.
Before leaving, I stop at Paradigm Hill, where George and Ruth Mihaly, longtime Francophiles, are channelling the Burgundy spirit in the best possible fashion – by making wine that is true to its own birthplace. Mornington Peninsula no longer measures its wines against those distant, vastly different vines. The culmination of all those long-forgotten errors is self-realisation and great wine – which makes me wonder if they were really such mistakes, after all.
- Jackalope: Self-consciously hip hotel with its own winery, a relaxed bistro and admired fine-dining restaurant, as well as views over the vineyards and the pool in their midst. From A$565, including breakfast.
- Port Phillip Estate: Six luxurious suites with terraces and vineyard views beneath the cellar door and restaurant in this exceptional architect-designed winery. From A$675, including breakfast.
Mornington Peninsula restaurants
- Many Little: Sri Lankan dishes, as spicy (or not) as you like, in a bistro setting: cool brown tiles, tables, or seats at the bar in Red Hill. The restaurant is owned, as many things seem to be, by Sam Coverdale of Polperro Winery.
- Paringa Estate Winery: Another wonderful vineyard restaurant with views of the vines (and of the winery). The great food is matched to their own and other’s wines.
- Tedesca Osteria: Set menu, usually around five courses, of dishes sourced either from its own garden or as locally and ethically as possible. The setting is sumptuous (owner Brigitte Hafner’s husband was the architect) and the wine list to die for. A three-bedroom house and a honeymoon studio are also available to rent, exclusively for guests.
- Ten Minutes by Tractor: Martin and Karen Spedding complement their terrific wines with a new cellar door and a superb restaurant as formal as the Peninsula gets – which means amuse-bouches rather than any kind of stuffiness.
- Yabby Lake Winery: Gorgeous wines and a wonderful restaurant with terrace, where you can sometimes see kangaroos covetously eyeing the vines. The wine list includes an impressive range of the winery’s back vintages.
Activities in and around the Peninsula
- Hut Yoga: Yoga classes in a gorgeous space surrounded by trees, where the sun salutations are soundtracked by birds outside and followed by peppermint tea. From A$30.
- MP Experiences: Truffle tours, wineries, trips to the Peninsula hot springs… Danielle Field, who runs the company with her chef brother Max Paganoni, is a lifelong Peninsula-dweller who knows just where to go, providing great context and great company. From A$300 for a private tour.
- Wild Adventures Melbourne: Adventures from SUP to paddles, Pinot to pools – hot springs, wineries and a hike, not in that order – from an ecoconscious startup with a funky van.