"Hang on, let me wash you a glass," says Laurie, vineyard manager at Chambers Rosewood. I’d been standing at the vineyard’s tasting table barely two minutes, eyeing off the long line of bottles at various stages of fullness with the veracity of a sugar-addict at a dessert buffet. Clearly, he had mistaken my hesitancy: there were glasses aplenty. It was the signage that confused. 'Help yourself," it read, a neighbouring chalk illustration of a wine glass partially filled serving as a gentle reminder as to what volume constitutes a tasting in polite company.
Accustomed to some of the more impersonal operations of Victoria’s better-known wine regions – the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula – Rutherglen’s more organic approach had left me stumped. First, the inadvertent confusion caused earlier at Campbells Wines as I failed to register the 140-year-old family-run operation’s no-charge tasting policy. Chambers was taking it one step further: leave your wallet closed until purchase, was the instruction, and feel free to help yourself in the meantime.
For those on the wine-tasting circuit accustomed to tasting fees and carefully meted-out pours, Rutherglen’s arms-open approach is as welcome as a glass of chilled pinot gris on a hot summer’s day. Not that you’ll find much of that particular grape in this north-eastern Victorian wine region: the combination of warm days, sunshine and the long dry autumn, makes it an ideal climate for growing award-winning muscat and muscadelle grapes, just as its family-first ethos has created an embracing environment where people – not profits – come first. As I continue to enjoy the many wines on offer, I think to myself how refreshing that attitude is.
"It’s always been about family here," mused Bill Chambers earlier that morning over coffee at Rutherglen’s The Pickled Sisters Cafe. At 78, the fifth-generation winemaker and OAM recipient for his contribution to the wine industry, is a walking textbook of the region’s colourful history: from the discovery of gold that made the town in 1860 and the phylloxera epidemic that wiped out the area’s vines in the late 1890s, to the families that created and carried on Rutherglen’s wine traditions – including his great-great-grandfather’s planting of the family winery at the turn of the 20th century. 'The Seppelts, the Campbells... we all helped each other and asked for advice," he says.
It’s a sentiment his son Stephen – now Rosewood’s current winemaker – shares later that day as he discovers me at the tail end of that aforementioned tasting in the no-frills Chambers cellar door. Courtesy of Laurie’s generous tasting flight of the winery’s award-winning muscat, I am deliciously familiar with the grape. Stephen is only too happy to fill in the colour.
"That’s your seventh generation of winemaker right there," he laughs with a nod to his four-year-old daughter Zara, busily bossing 'Daddy" to push her on the old swing set tucked behind rose bushes on the vineyard grounds. He points out the original winery site behind some shearing sheds across the road, and the single remaining rose bush – one of many that once encircled the vines – that is all that’s left of the initial vineyard.
Now 39, Stephen recalls primary school days spent picking grapes and experimenting with fermentation. Although it appeared that his destiny lay with the family’s successful enterprise, it wasn’t until his return to Rutherglen in May 2001, following years spent training in South Australia, Western Australia and Bordeaux wine regions, that the winemaking mantle was passed from father to son.
For his part, Stephen admits to feeling the weight of responsibility in continuing to uphold the winery’s award-winning status. Recent awards – including a perfect 100 from US wine critic Robert Parker for both the Rare Tokay (Muscadelle) and the Rare Muscat – tell that the Chambers family name is in safe hands. "The fact that we’ve managed to maintain that high level with the Rares since I’ve been back means that I haven’t buggered it up so far," he says with a grin.
Of course, it’s not just the winemakers of Rutherglen who talk fermentation and vintage. A few kilometres away, on Gooramadda Road, Jos and Kathy Weemaes have spent the last 12 years developing what is a thriving boutique olive oil and table olive concern at Gooramadda Olives.
"The olive oil industry complements the wine industry in a lot of ways," Jos explains as he pulls out bottles of olives and olive oil for an impromptu tasting. The setting is as stunning as the produce. In a neat timber outbuilding surrounded by three olive groves, Jos lines up a selection of the seven table olive and five olive oil varietals they grow: fleshy green king kalamata, rose-scented koroneiki from Greece, the soft-textured Spanish manzanillo, and the fruity French verdale. I move on, dipping sourdough into the pungent extra virgin oils (the grassy kalamata is a favourite) and munching crackers topped with Kathy’s punchy tapenades.
This year has seen a bumper crop: 24,000 kilos of olives have been carefully raked from the 13 acres of planted trees during the intensive May–June harvest. Many of those are now resting in barrels of brine where they will stay for 12 months, undergoing the natural lactic acid fermentation process that will help extract the bitterness and develop the intense flavours that has seen Gooramadda scoop dozens of awards since its 1998 inception.
"We use an old Greek method," explains Jos of both the extraction (through a traditional cold-press technique) and the fermentation as he shows me through the gleaming processing shed. "Common practice in the industry is to use chemicals [to ferment] within a couple of hours. But by sitting the olives in barrels and slowly fermenting them, the flavours develop better this way."
Theirs is the kind of slow-food philosophy that seems to permeate the actions of the many food producers and winemakers that have come to call Rutherglen home: from the locavore leanings of Marion Hansford and husband Stewart Gilchrist at the aforementioned Pickled Sisters, to the sustainable principles of new winery on the block, Valhalla Wines.
A few kilometres away, Simon Noble of Brimin Lodge is doing his best to keep up his end of the bargain. Attracted away from his south-western Victorian farm by the promise of warmer weather and his wife’s passion for aquaculture, the industrious twosome have spent the past two decades ensuring a plentiful supply of Murray cod to the surrounding region.
Having just returned to the 161-hectare farm after dropping his filleted cod to Pickled Sisters, there’s time for a cup of tea in the homestead before Simon leads me into the twin sheds housing multiple pools of the local river fish. It’s dark and wet, the fresh bore water pumped up from the farm’s depths to fill the pools bringing with it the scent of the river. Reaching for a net, the genial 57-year-old scoops up a few cod for inspection. "This one’s 800 grams, so we’ll get two 200-gram fillets from him," Simon says of the slick fish before it slips out of his hands and back into the tank with a splash. Though initially hesitant to take them on due to their reputation as a fish that carried the Murray’s muddy taste in its creamy flesh, local chefs have fallen in love with the Brimin flavour. "Because it’s a very moist fish, the chefs can’t bugger it, they can’t leave it too long in the oven," he laughs of the 30,000 fish currently housed in his sheds.
Keen to see their natural namesake, I climb into Simon’s jeep for the two-minute, cross-paddock drive to see the Murray in all its fast-flowing glory. "We love it here," he says as I admire the view that is pure Australiana: tall gums and grassy river verges framing the iconic waterway. 'It’s a really lovely community."
The afternoon is fading and Simon has work to do. It’s time for me to be on my way, but not before a quick tour of the overflowing vegetable garden and orchard, grabbing a few mandarins and oranges at the hospitable farmer’s behest. Back on Main Street and I hunt down local goodies to plump out the makings of a delicious evening nibble: a loaf of sourdough from Valentines Bakehouse, and some local smoked quail and Milawa cheese picked up at Rutherglen’s new tapas restaurant, Black Bull, the perfect accompaniments to a few bottles of Rutherglen white wine.
As Bill Chambers had remarked earlier that day, Rutherglen is possessed of beauty without the beast of slick self-promotion, a tranquil paradise for those fortunate enough to share in the secret. It’s only now, at the end of my trip, that his words are hitting home.
The hit list
More than 100 awards attest to the expertise of Parker Pies. Don’t miss the Rutherglen Red: chunky beef cooked in Bobbie Burns shiraz. 86-88 Main St, Rutherglen, (02) 6032 9605, parkerpies.com.au.
Handmade couverture chocolates are the stars, but delicious coffee, hot chocolate and scones are also served. 507 Boorhaman East Rd, Rutherglen, (02) 6035 7216, renaissancechocolates.com.au (see Renaissance Farm B&B for where to stay).
Rutherglen Antiques and Collectables
Find Victorian, Edwardian and art deco treasures alongside rustic farm implements and antique China and glassware. 141 Main St, Rutherglen, (02) 6032 8800.
Rutherglen Lolly Shop
The array of lollies is impressive – licorice blocks, raspberry drops and cherry apples, for example – but it is the homemade fudge that shines. 100 Main St, Rutherglen, (02) 6032 7001.
Locals rave about the luscious croque-monsieur and with good reason, too, but regional produce also gets a delicious look-in with the lamb shoulder a standout. 61 Jones Rd, Rutherglen, (02) 6032 8496, joneswinery.com.
The Pickled Sisters Cafe
A locavore leaning combines with rich country flavours to produce food representative of the region: a grilled backstrap of Riverina lamb is a hearty choice, or the lighter Shaw River buffalo mozzarella on roasted eggplant. Cofield Wines, Distillery Rd, Wahgunyah, (02) 6033 2377, pickledsisters.com.au.
Incredible cheeses and a fantastic tapas menu brings a touch of Spain to Main Street. 121 Main St, Rutherglen, (02) 6032 8899.
Located in the historic Jolimont Cellars, Rutherglen’s fine diner overlooks a Mediterranean courtyard and serves Australian cuisine with strong regional influences. Enjoy Myrtleford buttermilk-fried chicken or Brimin Lodge Murray cod in picturesque surroundings with an adjoining, relaxed wine bar. 13-35 Drummond St, Rutherglen, (02) 6032 9033, tuileriesrutherglen.com.au (see Tuileries for where to stay).
This 140-year-old family concern is famed for its full-bodied Bobbie Burns Shiraz, The Barkly Durif and exclusive Isabella Rare Rutherglen Topaque (tokay). Murray Valley Hwy, (02) 6033 6000, campbellswines.com.au.
Chambers Rosewood Winery
Established in 1858, six generations of family have been turning out some of the region’s best fortified wines. Barkly St, Rutherglen, (02) 6032 8641.
This boutique winery produces quality drops in small quantities using organic and sustainable principles. All Saints Rd, Wahgunyah, (02) 6033 1438, valhallawines.com.au.
Renaissance Farm B&B
Perfect for couples, this elegant, two-bedroom B&B has packages that include a two- or four-course dinner and use of their Spa Centre. Their delicious chocolates on your pillow are a happy bonus.
This modern self-contained accommodation overlooks 2.5 hectares of vineyards making it an ideal rest stop while in the area.
Taste amazing olives and olive oils, and tour the processing shed. 1468 Gooramadda Rd, Gooramadda, (02) 6026 5658, olivesandoil.info.
Tastes of Rutherglen Festival
Meet the producers of this region’s great wines and sample them in a culinary double-act when matched to food from the area’s finest chefs. Held over two weekends (March 9–11 and 17–18), shuttle buses will transport people around the 21 wineries. 1300 787 929, winemakers.com.au.
Photography by Derek Swalwell.