On this spectacular peninsula an hour’s drive south-east of Melbourne, you’ll find passionate winemakers, producers, chefs and small-business owners hopelessly in love with the region, romancers of the Mornington Peninsula dream – a life centred around good food and good wine in stunning natural surrounds.
By
Sarina Lewis

27 Mar 2015 - 10:32 PM  UPDATED 30 Mar 2021 - 10:29 AM

I first began visiting the Mornington Peninsula nearly 20 years ago: back then a girlfriend to a surfer, both of us would spend evenings with friends red-cheeked in the rustic surrounds of the Flinders Pub, faces flushed from that combination of open fire and too much red wine.These days, the pub is a gastro temple known as the Flinders Hotel, its stunning formal kitchen helmed by chef Pierre Khodja, a master of French technique and Moroccan spice. Fish and chips is still available in the bar, of course, though the beer-battered rock flathead bears very little resemblance to the heavily inelegant plateful it once was. And that red-wine flush? Well, that’s an occupational hazard in these parts.

The last decade has seen drinking holes and eateries that have smartened up their acts and multiplied, birthing a tourism industry based around the notion of a rambling weekend. The only issue now being that two days of exploration is nowhere near long enough: there are more than 80 stops located on the Wine Food Farmgate Trail alone, an initiative created by Mornington Peninsula Tourism that in no way encompasses the full gamut of worthy stop-offs.

These changes are largely attributable to the idea of romance, rather than the march of progress – there is nary a commercial food operator, winery owner or small-scale farmer who hasn’t based their decision to be here on some crazy whim or idealistic passion.

It’s a theory husband-and-wife team Sue and Greg O’Donoghue support as I slow to descend the driveway of Green Olive at Red Hill, passing groves of the Mediterranean fruit before arriving at a striking timber building. We take a seat overlooking the dam as families explore the surrounds, moving closer to the flocks of ducks. A couple nearby nibbles a tasting plate sourced almost entirely from Sue and Greg’s land.

“Life’s about learning and I suppose we just keep learning and experimenting,” Sue smiles, the one-time health and safety consultant seemingly living the dream with her ex-management consultant husband and their two children. It’s only later, when we encounter the newly arrived Greg in the driveway, that the hard yards are revealed – the work it took to arrive here, 12 years on.

Revelations around the hardship are essential in understanding the people who populate the region: those so in love with this patch of fertile earth and the edible plant life it supports that they will leave behind security for pursuit of a Mornington Peninsula dream.

And it’s this wine region in particular that spurs such a pursuit, attests Melissa Gjergja, daughter of Giorgio, the Italian-Croatian former electrical manufacturer who decided – upon sale of his business – to create a landmark winery centred around a grand architectural vision. It all fit, of course, he having been raised in a culture where just about everyone grows vines for their own wine.

“Mum and Dad were spending a lot of time in the Red Hill region pretty much since 1995,” Melissa explains, “and while he’s not a winemaker, he loves his food and wine – he bought it so he could have somewhere to eat and drink!” She pauses an instant, her voice taking a more earnest tone: “They wanted to create something and somewhere very special, and this is the place they loved.”

Indeed the Gjergjas fulfilled that first brief since purchase of the property in 2000: son and daughter both work in the business now alongside winemaker Sandro Mosele. The building itself is incredible, encompassing a winery, restaurant and truly luxurious accommodation designed by Wood Marsh Architecture, the same firm responsible for the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, in Melbourne.

Sandro is a little tied up the morning I pass by, so it is Emma Mordue, another Mornington Peninsula addict and wine expert, (“I fled Sydney a few years ago, landed here, and have never looked back”) who explains what makes the soil here so special.

“This is such a diverse region and – when you look at a map of soil structure – it really is quite vast,” she explains, pouring, in succession, tastes of the Port Phillip Estate Salasso Rose (“very much a dry style with red apple softness”) and a Kooyong Estate Pinot Noir (“a bit more weight and meatiness with darker plums, cherries and more tannins that comes from the complexity in the soil”).

Volcanic soils and rolling hills, she says, create changes in soil condition and physical temperature accounting for shifting styles in vineyards perched no more than a kilometre apart, on opposing slopes.Tasting complete, I move up the road to Paringa Estate for a bite of beautifully tender wallaby (cooked two ways) in the company of

Sam Harbour, the newest winemaker to join local stalwart Lindsay McCall, one of the early adopters who moved into wine with the purchase of this-once derelict property in 1984.

With Lindsay in Sydney to represent his wines at the Langton’s tasting, it is Sam that tells me the story of growth that has seen Paringa develop into a 200-tonne winery, distributing around Australia and internationally. On the phone a few days later, Lindsay himself describes his journey as a pursuit of the zealot. But then if this is fanaticism, Lindsay is not the only certifiable case. In this one brief stay I encounter plenty of people with his depth of passion and commitment to the cause.

There is Mary McCarthy at 2 Macs Farm in nearby Main Ridge. Her gorgeous farmgate is a little tin shed housing incredible raw honeys, free-range eggs gathered from the caravan in which her pampered chickens roost, and other homemade produce. Renovation of an old tractor shed into a classroom for teaching farm cooking and forgotten skills helps to keep her busy.

I also meet 21-year-old Sheryn Mock of Mock Red Hill in her newly created cider lounge adjoining her family’s biodynamic apple farm; artisan distiller Wayne Klintworth at the boutique Bass and Flinders Distillery for a guided gin tasting; and not forgetting brewer Matt Bebe at nearby Mornington Peninsula Brewery for a guided tour of one of Australia’s fastest growing craft brew houses.

More than adequately fed and watered, it is with some relief that I slip into swimmers, and sink my body into the steaming hot natural mineral springs at Peninsula Hot Springs, truly the most spectacular hot springs in the country. Night descends and the fairy lights switch on as I revive, dipping from cold pool to hot, walking the pebbled reflexology path and discovering the beauty in the scent and sight of tea trees that frame more than 20 “bathing experiences” created by brothers Charles and Richard Davidson.

Having bought the 42-acre site in 1997 when a chance conversation led him to discover the presence of hot geothermal water in the region, Charles and his brother plunged endless time and money in to what is now one of the region’s biggest attractions.

Meeting Charles over breakfast the next morning, it’s impossible not to be struck by the similarity of his crazy pursuit-of-the-dream story, one I have heard all through this brief tour; dreams of self-expression through food and wine and hospitality; dreams that have helped to create both a robust local economy and a gorgeous idyll for rest-seeking out-of-towners with a strong food and wine bent.

One can’t help but think, as appetites for both food and rest are sated, that this is one dream from which there is no desire to wake up.

 

The hitlist

 

Eat

The Long Table
Toasty open fireplaces and an impeccable menu offering local produce without too much frill and fuss makes this a great spot for a convivial meal. 159 Red Hill-Shoreman Rd, Red Hill South, (03) 5989 2326.

Merricks General Wine Store
A local stalwart and perennial favourite with Sunday lunching out-of-towners, come here for rustic food in a stylishly informal country setting. 3460 Frankston-Flinders Rd, Merricks, (03) 5989 8088.

Polperro
The new kid on the block, this Hecker Guthrie-designed bistro and cellar door overlooking a picture-perfect bush setting specialises in a produce-focused, European-leaning menu. 150 Red Hill Rd, Red Hill, (03) 5989 2471.

 

 

 

Stay

Port Phillip Estate
Stay in one of six plush suites that each boast Bill Henson artwork, Missoni robes and elegant use of Italian silks and reindeer pelts. 263 Red Hill Rd, Red Hill South, (03) 5989 4444.

King Louie’s Cubby
These two personality-filled cottages are great for families or for groups that are keen to test out the local grub. 1 Station Rd, Red Hill, 0408 561 347.

Morning Sun Vineyard
Striking the right balance between modesty and comfort, these two self-contained units overlooking the vineyard offer quiet respite. 337 Main Creek Rd, Main Ridge, (03) 5989 6571.

 

 

Do

Your Shuttle
Forget drinking and driving, Your Shuttle offers a pick-up and drop-off service from accommodation to restaurant or winery. Bookings must be made in advance. Red Hill, 1300 798 488.

Horseback Winery Tours
Tour the region’s surrounding restaurants and wineries atop your trusty stead with these equine tours. Stay, ride and eat packages are available. 356 Shands Rd, Main Ridge, (03) 5989 6119.

Peninsula Hot Springs
Pre-book for a day of outdoor dipping into more than 20 baths that form the Peninsula Hot Springs, one of the area’s key attractions. The Spa Dreaming centre also offers treatments along with the possibility of private spring bookings. Springs Lane, Fingal, (03) 5950 8777.

Wine Food Farmgate Trail
Download themed trail maps, or design your own Mornington Peninsula food and wine program.

 

 

Photography Tom Donald.

 

As seen in Feast magazine, September 2014, Issue 35.