Wedged between Geelong and Ballarat and just over an hour from Melbourne, a journey through the Golden Plains region is punctuated with gentle vistas of big open skies, old cobblestone fences and an endless expanse of those eponymous golden fields. Plus lots of shiny-coated chestnut horses. In fact, we reckon it would make the perfect backdrop for a Wilco film clip.
Swiss immigrants first settled the region in the 1840s and it was their early planting of European grape vines that kicked off the region’s now well-established vineyards. Despite the region’s run-in with the pest phylloxera in the late 1800s, chardonnay and pinot noir from the Moorabool Valley region is now some of the most highly regarded in the country. Premium boutique local wineries Bannockburn, Provenance and Lethbridge are widely recognised for their elegant, cool climate styles.
While it’s been a little slower to take off, the local dining and produce scene is now catching up too and as we discovered, not only will you eat and drink exceptionally well here, you’ll have no trouble filling up the boot with plenty of loot for the trip home either. So wind down the windows, run the breeze through your hair and be sure to load up some sweet tunes for the ride.
Being situated in a tiny, one-horse town has been no barrier to success here. Behind the unassuming white weatherboard facade lies some of regional Victoria’s best dining. Chef Matt Dempsey has collected a swag of awards for his intricate, produce-driven fare and you can choose between a five or eight course degustation menu (matching wine optional). Dempsey’s seasonal offerings celebrate all that’s great about the region’s produce and wine so you’ll likely see Western Plains pork, Barwon lamb, Meredith cheese and local olives make an appearance.
Red Door Cafe
OK, we’re gonna just come right out and say it – the region is pretty much a dead zone for good coffee and cafe fare, but this cracker little cafe more than makes up for it. There’s a big, wide veranda out front with ‘50s laminex tables and colourful crocheted rugs to keep the chills at bay and the menu features plenty of local stars as well as great local produce grown by co-owner Danni Aitken’s husband. We love their slow-baked beans with Istra bacon and their granny-style cakes and slices make an ideal excuse for a mid-morning stop. Danni and her business partner Iola Iacovella provide a warm country welcome too.
Clyde Park Vineyard & Bistro
Driving around the Moorabool Valley, the terrain can feel a little flat and unremarkable - until you get to Clyde Park. Set on a ridge above a dramatic, deep valley with sweeping views of the surrounding area, the vineyard produces some top-notch pinot noir and chardonnay (all on tasting), while the huge, barn-like bistro belts out wood-fired pizza and tasty share plates, again with a focus on local produce.
Nothing says road trip to the country like brushing shoulders with the locals over a couple of pots in the front bar. Once known (rather delightfully) as the Dog Rocks Hotel, this historic boozer scored a recent reno and is now one of the nicer pubs in the area. Set on a picturesque sweep of the Moorabool River, it’s a pretty spot, and one where you’ll find friendly faces, good quality pub fare and a decent selection of local wines.
Moorabool Ridge Winery
You haven’t properly seen the Moorabool until you see this place. The steep drive down to the cellar door barely hints at the striking vista that lies in wait and once the valley views come into sight, it’s a real OMG moment. Housing a modest cafe, the circa 1856 building was originally built as a shepherd’s hut and was also home to some of the region’s earliest settlers. Owners Tim Harrop and Katarina Romanov-Harrop now offer wine tastings (we loved their Semillon and the Bordeaux blend) as well as cheese plates, coffee and cake. There are tastings and sales of their excellent olives, olive oils and house-made preserves too – made with fruit from their big old orchard.
With PhDs in chemistry and medicine, it’s fair to say that winemakers Maree Collis and Ray Nadeson are not your average grape wranglers. In fact theirs are some of Australia’s most highly regarded wines, and indeed stand up as some of the Moorabool’s finest examples of complex, savoury, cool climate elegance. With its atmospheric rice paper lanterns, the barrel room here is probably one of the nicest we’ve seen too, and a tasting is usually a relaxed, sit-down affair that can be accompanied by Meredith cheeses, if you so desire. Sure, their wines are poured in some of Melbourne’s top restaurants (think Ombra, Cumulus Inc., Rockpool) but nothing beats drinking a wine in situ alongside the passionate folks who created it.
Camilo Olive Grove
Whoever coined the line, “Oils ain’t oils” was definitely onto something. Placing a bottle of Camilo’s multi-award winning nectar alongside the average bottle of (quite possibly rancid) supermarket stuff, you soon see that there’s just no argument. Everything is grown and produced on site here following super-strict industry guidelines and Camilo’s affable owners/producers Joan and Peter McGovern take their oil very seriously – which is a very good thing, because it tastes incredible. After just over a decade in the biz, they’re now producing some of Australia’s best ‘ultra-premium’, boutique extra virgin olive oil and exporting it to the world. We have two words for you: stock up.
Golden Plains Farmers Markets
When you’re out in the sticks, a local farmers market is not only a great way to see, taste and buy what’s good in the region but also to connect with some of its more earthy and eccentric characters too. The Golden Plains Shire holds a fortnightly market at Bannockburn (on first Saturday of the month) and Smythesdale (third Saturday of the month) and if you bypass the usual kitschy stuff you’ll find great local meats, cheeses, wine, vegetables, honey and artisan breads as well as gorgeous native flowers, plants and much more. goldenplains.vic.gov.au
Broadsheet were guests of Geelong Otway Tourism. visitgeelongbellarine.com.au/golden-plains