From the road, it almost reminded me of a military compound, so bold, confident and ultimately uncompromising is this building. But what I’m looking at is actually something far subtler and sculptural than any concrete facility. This is a 120-metre wall, made from limestone rammed-earth, gracefully spiralling out the ground and unfurling along a ridge in Red Hill. This is also the eastern wall of the impressive new home of Port Phillip Estate.
In 2000 Giorgio Gjergja, the founder of a successful electrical manufacturing business, bought Port Phillip Estate vineyard, followed by Kooyong winery four years later. Working with winemaker Sandro Mosele, these wines became two of the Mornington Peninsula’s best and most recognised labels.
Giorgio then set out to create a home for his wines and a destination that would become the crown jewel of the Mornington Peninsula wine region. Fittingly, he engaged Wood March Architecture to design an architectural landmark.
What they have delivered is unquestionably grand. Behind the dramatic rammed-earth wall is the cellar door and restaurant. The space is finished with stained timber beams and overlooks rows of undulating vines, native bushland and Westernport Bay beyond through large panoramic windows.
Tucked underneath, five metres below ground, is the cellar, winemaking facilities and a cavernous barrel room encased in the limestone rammed-earth, which acts as natural insulation, nullifying the need for automated temperature control.
While the architecture is impressive, I expect it’s probably the restaurant that’s going to have most people making the drive to Red Hill. By and large restaurants in holiday spots don’t need to be as good their city counterparts. There’s less competition, customers are usually relaxed and out to have a good time and are probably resigned to getting less value. That’s not an issue here: the Port Philip Estate restaurant could hold its head high next to most Melbourne restaurants. Chef Simon West’s food really is that good.
Having said that, this is really where it belongs. The menu is well suited to the wine focus and predominately lunchtime trade. It is made up of a few canapé-size dishes such as oysters or a demi tasse of lobster bisque, and then a good selection of dishes no bigger than a standard entrée. Think snapper, duck breast salad and rolled saddle of rabbit. One of each size dish will suit most for lunch, but if you’re hungry you could easily have an extra plate (obviously a good time to try a different wine).
Of course, the restaurant encourages tasting a cross section of wine with your food – you’re more likely to walk away with a case of something if: A) they impress you and B) you’re walking sideways. But at the end of the day it really is an ideal way to experience their range.
The question I kept asking myself, and they no doubt ask themselves, is ‘how will they get people down there?’ It’s a problem most vineyard destinations must wrestle with. How do you get someone to come out of their way to visit you, fill them up with good food and wine, hopefully send them off with a case or two and then have them get home without blowing the bottom through a breathalyser?
Some vineyards seem to build good businesses with bus loads of grape grazers and wine tourists – but Port Phillip Estate isn’t the kind of place you’d expect to see a hen’s party and mini-busses lined up in the parking lot. Here’s hoping anyway.
No doubt they’ll be counting on some of us coming for the whole weekend, stying in their new boutique hotel. Planned for a late January opening, they’ll have six rooms underneath the restaurant and cellar door (one of which is a two-bedroom mini suite). Each room will have floor-to-ceiling windows, enabling you to view rows of vines rolling over the hills with the bay beyond, all while still lying in bed.
While the architecture, the setting and the food are all, by themselves, impressive; it’s the overall experience at Port Phillip Estate that makes the drive to Red Hill so worthwhile.
But make sure to consider booking that room. It’d be a shame not to open that second bottle.
Port Philip Estate
263 Red Hill Road
(03) 5989 4444
Cellar Door daily 11am-5pm
Lunch daily from noon
Dinner Tues-Sat from 6pm