You don’t fall in love with Mornington over time – it happens instantaneously. Halfway into the drive from Melbourne, the peninsula starts showing itself. Undulating landscapes and vineyards emerge, and you find yourself on narrow roads lined with eucalyptus trees, bent inwards by the wind. Your muscles ease, the stress of the city leaves you, life slows down — and the romance of Mornington fills you up.
This beautiful part of Victoria, in south-eastern Australia, has been my retreat for 20 years now. Back in 1999, this is where I tasted my first glass of wine. The wine was crafted by Nazaaray Estate’s Paramdeep Ghumman, whom I lovingly call family. He instilled in me a passion for Pinot and inspired my subsequent forays into the wine world.
Back in the day, the reasons to visit Mornington were simple: wineries and idyllic beaches. Today, Mornington has evolved into a lifestyle. Farm-to-table restaurants, art galleries, mazes, adventure parks, water sports and some of Australia’s best golf courses all form part of the experience.
Through the years, the peninsula’s constant is wine. At first, I picked grapes for Nazaaray’s early vintages; on my latest visit, I learned how to be a cellar hand, blending wines and preparing barrels for the new vintage. Every year, I discover another vineyard, meet the people behind the scenes and admire their hard work and passion.
Mornington is undoubtedly one of Australia’s premium wine regions and is renowned for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Both grapes love a cool climate, which allows them to ripen slowly, leading to nuance and complexity in the glass. Mornington’s sea breeze acts as an air conditioner for the vines; as night falls, the temperature drops significantly, giving the grapes a much-needed break from the hard work of ripening. Grapes are picked a little later here than elsewhere in Australia, around March. The long season allows extra time for the sugars in the grapes to develop, resulting in a soft roundness of flavour.
There are more than 200 wineries to explore here, most of them small family businesses. With an average of five to 10 acres of land under vine, Mornington boasts a truly boutique wine culture: hand harvests, no massive machinery or giant filtration plants. Without economies of scale, prices start from AU$25 a bottle and no bulk wine comes out of this region. All these factors contributes to Mornington’s “premium region” status.
There is a certain style to a Mornington Pinot Noir: a cherry core with lively acidity, a touch of spice and earthy notes. The tannins are polished and elegant. But I generalise. Every winery has its own rendition of Pinot to showcase, maybe more; I have tasted as many as three different expressions coming out of the same winery.
The Chardonnays are not heavily oaked – far from it – but they do capture the dimension that an oak barrel adds; it’s subtle but present. They show a range of citrus and stone fruits and are creamy, full-bodied and herbal. These cool growing conditions have attracted more cool-climate grapes, especially Pinot Gris and Shiraz.
One of the best ways to taste the wines of Mornington is a cellar door visit. Most cellar doors offer either a modern Australian restaurant or café. Spend an afternoon on a long lunch, savouring the local produce and wines, and then go on to explore the next cellar door – there are more than 50 dotted around the region.
Here are a few of my recommendations:
Moorooduc Estate is situated in the northern part of Mornington. Established by the McIntyre family, Moorooduc boasts an award-winning cellar door. They produce a range of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris and source their grapes from three different vineyards. Each site showcases a different nuance of the grape.
Polperro Winery is an immersive experience, with luxury villas on site, a stunning in-house restaurant offering degustation menus and a garden with an open-air café. We spent a whole afternoon lying on the grass, sipping wine. They make two Chardonnays – Polperro [SC1] and Mill Hill – both delectable and lovely.
Ten Minutes by Tractor started up with three vineyards in Main Ridge, all 10 minutes apart by tractor. Since then, they’ve added more vineyards, a two-chef-hat restaurant and a few more tractors. I love their Judd Chardonnay, which is often picked by Decanter and Gourmet Traveller WINE as the hallmark Chardonnay of the region. Their Wallis and 10X ranges are available in Hong Kong.
Paringa Estate, one of my favourites, is charming in every way. I have had more than one special-occasion lunch at their fine-dining restaurant and enjoy their single-vineyard “The Paringa” Pinot Noir as well as their Shiraz, which is one of the finest in the region.
Montalto is where friends meet. The first time we visited the winery, we ran into two friends from Hong Kong in the car park. Once inside, you’re spoilt for choice: the café in the piazza makes wood-fired pizzas, the formal restaurant offers farm-fresh produce and the grounds, with their open-air sculptures, are open until late for picnics or the general purposes of rolling down hills.
After all these years, I am still discovering the treasures of Mornington Peninsula and am planning my next trip. What will it be then – craft beer at Red Hill Brewery or the renowned wines of Dromana Estate?
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