A day trip to Heathcote
Before setting off on a wine region road trip it helps to have some context. Immersing yourself in the place, the people, the produce and the history not only helps make sense of what’s in your glass, but it really elevates the whole experience.
A clue to what makes Heathcote such a unique wine region can be found caked on the back of my car. The dusty, red dirt roads that lead to the cellar doors and farm sheds in Heathcote are veins for the lifeblood of this region - the soil.
It’s what caught the eye of Ron Laughton as he was driving through the area back in the 70s. He noticed a roadside cutting that exposed a layer of soil which upon further investigation, was identified as being rather fertile, and old. Pre-dinosaur old. 550 million years old in fact, from the Cambrian era. This decomposed granite soil is what has lured viticulturalists and winemakers to the region in pursuit of a particular style of shiraz. One celebrated for its fine balance of intensity and elegance.
Where to wine
From Melbourne, driving through Romsey and Lancefield, Merindoc is the first winery you come to. You’ll notice the granite boulders scattered amongst the landscape as you approach as well as the gradual rise in altitude - cue wine country. Merindoc have converted an old machinery shed into a cellar door which is nestled amongst the vines and features a bistro serving lunch. Produce is sourced locally - most of it from the garden out the back. If it’s sunny and warm, this is the place for a long lunch with a couple of bottles of their riesling and Willoughby Bridge rosé.
Five kilometers north of Heathcote township, turn off the Northern Highway at Sanguine Estate and you’ll see smaller signs for The Bridge. This is the antithesis of a flash cellar door tasting experience, which is why we love it. It’s typical of a lot of cellar doors in Heathcote - they’re small operations run by either the winemaker, viticulturist, or owner (that’s often the same person, as is the case here). Ex-Balgownie chief winemaker Lindsay Ross has been making wines here since 2000 and does so by paying very close attention to the environment - he works according to biodynamic principles and records vintage notes on an astrological calendar. The wines are beautifully expressive, as is Lindsay when you get talking. I suggest making the time to do so, it’s a fascinating insight into the connection people have to the land here.
Stop into Sanguine Estate while you’re here too. It’s a big operation and the cellar door is located in the barrel room. Shiraz is outstanding and the tempranillo is well worth a look. You can BYO picnic, grab a bottle and sit outside overlooking the dam and rolling hills.
After spotting that seam of soil back in the day, Ron and his wife went on to establish Jasper Hill and for over 30 continuous vintages they’ve been showcasing this terroir through their iconic wines. They’re dry grown and organic - pure and unadulterated expressions of Heathcote shiraz. Each vintage sells out quickly, so it’s a rare privilege to taste these wines at the cellar door. They’re open by appointment so if you’re particularly keen, give them a call. Drink anything you can get your hands on - the riesling, shiraz and nebbiolo are all exquisite and much sought after.
Heading further north along the Northern Highway, turn right at the Toolleen Pub and Tellurian is a few minutes away. As you approach on the dirt road you’ll notice the vineyards are planted in the foothills of the Mt Camel range. The elevation provides a good view of surrounding vineyards from the cellar door as well as ideal growing conditions. Of course the shiraz is glorious, as are some of the other interesting varieties such as fiano, marsanne and nero d’avola.
Where to eat
Right in the town of Heathcote, this place offers plenty - from your morning coffee fix, to lunch, homewares and wine, there’s even a courtyard out the back i to enjoy it all. As far as food goes, it’s pizzas, salads and toasties - nothing fancy but it’s all made in-house. They do a great job at showcasing the region’s wines too, with three enomatic machines stocked with wines for you to taste, free of charge. It’s the best way to get an insight into the region’s wines. Grab a glass or bottle of your favourite and tuck in.
If you get going from Melbourne early enough you can stop in at Fodder for breakfast. It’s a relatively new place on the main street that’s doing breakfast and lunches. Coffee is good and everything is made in-house, the cakes are delicious.
For local produce, the best option is Heathcote Harvest. Just past Jasper Hill on 32 Tuscan Court, it’s a small restaurant that serves lunch and dinner and provides hampers for you to take with you. They breed pigs and grow veggies, so much of what’s on the menu is from the farm. It’s a husband and wife team of two - Lyndal is front of house while Steve is in the kitchen. I took Lyndal up on her guarantee that the the bacon would be the best I’d ever have. After a lovely dinner of their pork sausages at the restaurant, I threw the bacon on the grill the following morning for breakfast, she was right.
Where to stay
There are a few places in town and B’n’Bs around the region, but if you do end up having a big day and and want to experience a mind-blowing sunset from the balcony of a villa in the vineyards, you need to stay at The Cellars.
Owners, Peder and Lionel, built four cabins on their property amongst the vineyards and they’re beautifully appointed. Each one features a walk in cellar built with rocks from the property and it’s stocked with wines from the region and wines of a similar style from around the world. The fridge had free range eggs from the farm next door and a bottle of vintage Krug. They’ve got the important things right here and it’s an absolutely magnificent setting.
It may not be the most popular wine region near Melbourne, but that’s slowly changing. There’s a laconic charm to this place and the people who call it home. There’s a genuine reverence for the land and you can feel it, and taste it. If you’re looking for a weekend in the country with some outstanding wine and company, you don’t have to look too far.