At this time of the year things once again get confusing. It’s harvest time for the grapes in McLaren Vale, and the Northern Hemisphere is buried in snow. The Winter Olympics are underway and rather than jumping over slushy puddles in NYC, as I would normally be doing, I’m enjoying the cooling breeze of jumbo jet sized ceiling fans here in South Australia. To get some perspective it’s always a good time to head out of town for a couple of days and check out somebody else’s backyard. This time it was to Melbourne and then to the Mornington Peninsula.
I know Melbourne better than most Australian capital cities, besides Adelaide, and would happily move there one day if for no other reason than to encounter the endless permutations of bars and restaurants. The food culture is top notch, and so it was when we flew in to see my friend Duncan Wilcox. Duncan is an American that owned London Street Restaurant in Lyttleton, NZ and was mentioned over 2 years ago (wow!) in this blog for famously serving me up a 1990 Chateau Rayas Chateauneuf du Pape as casually as one might ask if you’d like a glass of sparkling water. He now lives in Melbourne with girlfriend Alex Hallatt, the artist behind the syndicated cartoon “Arctic Circle”. We met at Cumulus Inc. for a glass and some terrific small plates, including a luscious tin of Ortiz anchovies in olive oil w/ toasted ciabatta. After a couple more pit stops, it was on to dinner at Coda. We were fed good wine, friendly service, albeit a little slow at times, and well executed Indonesian apps and mains in a subterranean space with the open kitchen hustling behind the bar’s racks of liquor. After-dinner drinks at the crowded rooftop bar, Siglo, were enhanced by views of the House of Parliament flooded in lights below and the old cornices and building paintings of the neighboring Princess Theater. Strangely enough, it was nice to see smokers and drinkers uniting once again, as well, under the starry dome.
Next morning we drove an hour and a half SE of Melbourne to Red Hill, the heart of the wine region in the Mornington Peninsula (MP) to meet our Melbourne merchant and to look around. The MP has rolling hills, forests and isolated beaches, and is Melbourne’s version of the Hamptons, the posh coastal retreat on Long Island where New Yorkers recharge their batteries. There is a lot of money and opulent estates in Portsea, a sunfilled town that is safely tucked in at the end of the peninsula, but the rest of the MP seems pretty humble and caters to many types of people. Our first stop was an out of the way osteria called La Campagna. That it was out of the way made it more special, since getting there was an elaborate game of hide and seek. And the reward for all our troubles was their Lasagna. This dish was so lovingly made with what seemed like 100’s of leaves of homemade pasta infused with a perfectly calibrated bechamel sauce and dressed with fresh tomato and ground beef ragout. The pizzas were good from the wood oven, as well. I really liked La Campagna because it wasn’t some souped up winery charging an arm and a leg to make more money; it was no frills here. This was a soulful, Italian place out in the country, like you might find in the mother country herself, making everything themselves. The food even made the wines taste good and the plain bricked downstairs dining room feel warm.
Our other favorite restaurant meals were at Paringa Estate and The Long Table. After visiting the swish newly opened, ultra-modern Port Philip Estate and being denied a table in their cold, concrete dining room, we headed to Paringa Estate and sat out on the verandah eating nice food served by a polished staff enjoying the view of the vineyard. Owner/Winemaker Lindsay McCall came out to say hello. The pinot noirs there are worth seeking out, as are their cool climate Shiraz.
The Long Table almost didn’t happen, as a lazy day at Lindenderry Resort almost did us in, but we rallied late and caught their last table of the night. Chef Andrew Doughton and the crew are working like clockwork in an open kitchen watching over the warmly lit, compartmentalized dining room. We loved the food; smart combinations of ingredients executed well. What more can you ask for? Kingfish tartare, salted cucumber, Vietnamese mint & sand crab vinaigrette ($18) was so clean and zippy it made a mockery of the pinot gris served with it. I should have listened and taken the server’s advice and gone with the Austrian gruner veltliner from Domaine Wachau. Gruner Veltliner is a white varietal indigenous to Austria that works surprisingly well with tough wine matching flavours like mild vinaigrettes. Port Lincoln sea bass, smoked potato, Dromana mussels & chorizo ($34) worked equally well with a lithe, Burgundian styled chardonnay from Ocean Eight and a light, smoky pinot from Ten Minutes by Tractor. We left utterly convinced and would gladly visit again. A smart local and international wine list coupled with attuned service (which is a good and rare thing these days) sealed the deal.
The MP is a cool climate winegrowing region, a fair bit further south than where I live in McLaren Vale, which really started growing grapes commercially in the early 1970’s. They excel in chardonnay and pinot noir; two varietals that appreciate steady temperatures and sloping vineyards. Top wines from this district are Paringa Estate, Ten Minutes by Tractor, Port Philip, Kooyong, Aylward, and Main Ridge Estate. There is Red Hill Brewery making artisanal brews and Red Hill Cheesery also following traditional methods to great effect. The peninsula has glorious isolated backbeaches that beg to be compared with some of the hidden sandy coves one finds on the south side of Crete or any untrodden Greek island. Gaps in the forests occasionally offer great views of crashing surf, not unlike Margaret River, and the light here is as bright and glowing, as well. This is the same kind of light you see out in the Hamptons in summer that Edward Hopper captured so well in his paintings.
So, this is the backyard of Melburnians, and I can see why. It’s a pricey place, the Mornington, and a weekend here is almost too short to get the relaxing vibe of the place. I felt that with all the good wine and local food at your finger tips, that a week would be more like it. Getting a bungalow with a kitchen near the beach would be perfect. You can still feel and see the old farming elements of the MP, with tractors of all shapes and sizes dotting the landscape still providing produce for the Melbourne markets. There is a real sense of community here, like most old farming regions, mixing the old and the new: strawberry farms and chocolatiers live side by side.
Many of the beaches have rows of small, sometimes colorful beach huts. Some sell for half a million dollars in monied towns like Portsea. It did cross my mind, however, that if you put in a skylight, a couple of windows, and a hammock that one of these cozy huts, in a lower rent district, might just do the trick as a little weekender. After all, in the Mornington Peninsula everywhere you want to be is outside anyways.