By Tilly Smith Dix

 

The good life is evolving and winter serves an exquisite plethora of guilty pleasures here in the valley of plenty, the captivating Yarra Valley, a mere 45-minute drive from Melbourne.

Lunch in Healesville

We celebrated our wedding anniversary at the Healesville Hotel on a Saturday, which proved a fabulous choice, arranged by my husband, who knows I adore the picturesque town – and its delightful fashion and homeware boutiques. Of course, there is the superb Healesville Animal Sanctuary, which is a major tourist attraction, but having spent many hours exploring the world-class attraction some time ago, today was about romance, good food and getting cosy.

Our lunch in the hotel restaurant proved a triumph. The ambience was indeed cosy, with a touch of yester-year romance in the decor, complemented by a spacious layout allowing privacy for diners, with crackling log fires and convivial views of the outdoor dining spaces in the garden setting. It being a sunny day, we were not surprised so many diners opted to soak up some vitamin D outside, some with their offspring.

The rib eye steak from the daily special board proved juicy and grilled to a perfect, tender medium-rare. Accompanied by an impressively crispy clad potato croquette, which was voluptuously creamy below the surface. The steak, topped with butter-caramelised onion, was served with a delicately flavoured mustard cream, all of which fused beautifully with my NV Mandala brut.

Speaking of brut, the handsome brute also picked his main from the specials board, settling on the slow roasted chicken with spinach, luxuriating in cauliflower mash.

The baked ginger and walnut pudding with butterscotch sauce proved a wise choice to share on a chilly winters day as we had unfashionably finished every morsel on our plates but felt the need to sample something sinfully sweet.

The service at Healesville Hotel could not be faulted. The informative, helpful staff skipped painfully pretentious and overly familiar chatter, getting the service balance just right for us to feel well-looked after. The chef caters for special dietary requirements, contributing to our decision to embrace this restaurant as one of our new favourite dining destinations in this enchanting region.

Ah, the good life…

The Shortest Lunch

– a winter solstice tale of meandering through the smaller wineries of the Yarra Valley

On a cold, wet, rainy Saturday, we joined some friends for our first annual Shortest Lunch wine tour through the smaller wineries of our magical valley. However, being relative newcomers to the region, we broke the rules and decided we so enjoyed the atmosphere, vistas over the Yarra Ranges, and wine at Payne’s Rise in picturesque Seville, this maiden meander became a not-so-short lunch.

Our table of some 16 people, most of whom have known each other for many years, made us feel like we belonged and we are delighted to call them new friends, with special gratitude to Paul and Lara, who invited us to join this plucky group. Many stories of years spent in this spectacular region, with many of us originating from other corners of the globe, now settled here, abounded, making for a heart-warming time on a chilly day.

The Yarra Valley is beautiful any time of the year, but, with me being an autumn and winter person, the drama of billowing dark clouds over the mountains, valleys and gentle hills, soft rain, eventually clearing in that silvery glow that turns to white gold, made for a convivial, special day.

The lunch, of which I chose the crispy pork belly with mild chilli mayo and coleslaw in a soft but firm baguette, proved too hefty as I’m not big on carbohydrates. The slices of pork belly were scrumptious, though, and I did manage half of the baguette to ensure my belly was sufficiently lined for the delicious bubbles, which I was familiar with. I’m told the pumpkin and sage ravioli with charred capsicum, Yarra Valley Persian fetta and herb salad, as well as the cheese box with fig and walnut roulade proved excellent menu choices. Some ladies, who’d done this tour before, ordered the kid’s burgers, which were perfectly sized and tasty. The regular menu was not available as this was, after all, about the tasting of the fruit of the vine in its mature, perfectly processed liquid form.

So, instead of utilising my glass, which one purchases for keeps on arrival, for wine-tasting, I opted for the Payne’s Rise Premier Cuvet by the glass instead. Too old to waste time on merely tasting when I know I want to spend quality time savouring the familiar bubbles in good company, I told the new friends. I purchased a healthy stash of this flavoursome elixir to continue the joy back home in the months to come.

Tim and Narelle Cullen have created a veritable feast for the eyes on the boutique wine estate and take pride in their varietal fruit-driven wines with complexity. They should be proud, and I bet Thomas Payne, the first settler in Seville and the original owner of the 1860s homestead now incorporated in the estate, would be proud too. Not sure if his spirit roams the estate but I’ll let you know when I find out.

Good idea to either utilise a local taxi or secure a designated teetotaller driver for the day. In this instance, for a change, I was the driver, savouring only two glasses of the heavenly nectar at lunch so himself could indulge in some luscious reds, for which he gave the thumbs up.

By late afternoon we decided to move on to Five Oaks Vineyard a few kilometres down the track, in Wandin East, for coffee and the family’s famous Canadian pancakes. Our tasting glasses afforded us further wine tasting at this vineyard, in which some of our clan indulged but we were ready for the sweet stuff, given the sun was setting early as the clouds were gathering to bless us with more gentle rain. My husband reports the Five Oaks cabernet sauvignon to be a triumph. Very happy for him and his broad smile and rosy glow certainly reflected his joy.

The small family-run vineyard was established in 1978 as Oakridge Estate by the Zitzlaff family, and renamed Five Oaks in 1998 by Judy and Wally Zuk, owners since 1995, in honour of the five 85-year old oak trees elegantly guarding the pristine vineyard.  I did not get to meet Katie the cat and hope to make her acquaintance soon as I am told she is a sweetie.

The locally produced beef sausage and 50-year old family pancake recipe served with maple syrup provided a perfect, old-fashioned finale to another perfect day in the glorious Yarra Valley.

The smaller wineries we did not get to visit during the winter solstice Shortest Lunch Wine Tour, comprise Badger’s Brook, Billanook Estate, Boat O’Craigo, Brumfiled Winery, Elmswood Estate, Miller’s Dixons Creek Estate, Seville Estate, Seville Hill, Steels Creek Estate, Tokar Estate, Warramunda Estate, Whispering Hills, Wild Cattle Creek and Yering Farm Winery. We intend to visit them soon.

The live music was a pleasant touch at both of the estates visited and I commend the guitarist at Five Oaks for his soothing, light touch, which proved non-intrusive and easy to listen to whilst lazily conversing with our new mates.

Wine Compass is a nifty wine tour company specialising in the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula regions. Take time out with your team, partner or mates to cherish the beauty of the glorious vineyards of Victoria, for a bespoke tour of savouring the fruits of the best vines, and in style – view at www.winecompass.com.au and mention my name to director Adam Nicholls! His team takes the stress out of driving and planning your route.

Oakridge Winery Coldstream vista 2017
Oakridge Winery in Coldstream is one of the top vineyards you could visit when booking your tour with Wine Compass. It happens to be one of my top choices for dining and wining.

We are immensely grateful for the panoramic surrounds and myriad vineyards we have in our midst, living the good life. Savour every moment…life’s too short to quaff rubbish wine.

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