Rutherglen 'the birthplace of wine tourism in Australia'

There’s much more to the picturesque Victorian town of Rutherglen than wine and great food, but it’s a great place to start.

A young couple cuddle in the living room enjoying a glass of red wine.
  • Chloe Cann
  • September 2018

“Don’t look down,” warns our instructor as we limber up on mats, expelling small clouds of cold air as we exhale, kookaburras cackling in the background. Marooned on rubber islands, we are surrounded by a sea of dark pebbles.

Sheep poo isn’t ordinarily an occupational hazard for yoga teachers. But then again, this is no ordinary yoga lesson. Set amid the gently undulating hills of family-owned and operated Rutherglen winery John Gehrig opens in new window, my drishti (or focal point) is yellowing vines, and during my urdhva vrikshasana (upward salute pose), I see nothing but infinite blue and wispy white trails fleeting thousands of feet above my fingertips, the early sun’s rays grazing my forehead.

 Wine barrels in winery
Rutherglen boasts the friendliest fourth, fifth and sixth-generation family winemakers you’ll be fortunate enough to meet.

This ‘Yoga, Bubbles, Brekkie Bliss’ event is part of the annual High Country Harvest Festival – a two-week autumnal celebration of all things food, wine, beer and, most importantly, local.

It’s a great showcase for the destination’s many edible treasures, but far from the only reason (or season) to visit the north-eastern Victorian region.

Home to more than 20 wineries, tiny Rutherglen (pop. 2378) punches well above its weight when it comes to eating and, particularly, drinking – a draw referenced by the town’s tongue-in-cheek welcome sign (‘Sydney may have a nice harbour, but Rutherglen has a great port’).

Among its draws are a new Aboriginal art gallery within a cellar door, vineyard glamping, some of the oldest fortified wines in the world, and perhaps the friendliest fourth, fifth and sixth-generation family winemakers you’ll be fortunate enough to meet.

Discover Victoria’s diverse wine regions opens in new window

A Modern Infusion

Former gold-mining country, the historic wine region is studded with heritage-listed buildings, including a castle-turned-winery built by Scotsmen in 1864, and a farm and vineyard with a French provincial tower, recently converted into boutique accommodation.

The latter, Mount Ophir Estate opens in new window, was erected in 1891. By the early 1900s it was the largest state-of-the-art wine-producing complex in the Southern Hemisphere. Operations ceased in 1955, but, as of May last year, parts of the complex have begun reopening in fits and starts – a winemaker’s cottage here, a gatehouse there – as private luxury rentals.

From the windows of the three-storey tower, my lodgings for the night, there’s nothing but olive trees, eucalypts and fields as far as the eye can see. But it’s easy to neglect the idyllic pastoral views given the tower’s interior – a near-faultless marriage of old and new.

The white walls give a modern, minimalist air, but are met with Art Deco-style textured wallpaper. The furnishings – in a demure palette of dove grey and navy blue, and made from pure linen, velvet, marble and wood – lend a Scandi-chic feel, though the rooms are scattered with antique curios, such as a mid- century typewriter. It’s a light-filled sanctuary that’s been sensitively restored, yet oozes character.

Australia, Victoria, VIC, Rutherglen, All Saints Winery, exterior
All Saints Estate has gained a stylish, contemporary injection - a wine bar.

The work of local siblings, the Browns – the fourth-generation wine family behind All Saints Estate opens in new window – Mount Ophir is not the only spot in Rutherglen to gain a stylish, contemporary injection.

The family has also turned its attention to the town’s high street, planting a cosy wine bar that wouldn’t look out of place in a Melbourne laneway in its navel.

Housed in an original Victorian storefront, stools line the white-tiled bar counter of Thousand Pound Wine Bar & Store opens in new window. In the main dining room bare bulbs hang over broad, timber communal tables, next to floor-to-ceiling wire racks stacked with wine.

Purveyors of regional drops, Thousand Pound offers small, family-run businesses from near and far pride of place on the menu; there’s even a special key (‘FO’ for family-owned) to denote such outfits. The food is a study in relaxed, Mediterranean-style dining, pieced together with local ingredients.

Red and white wine tasting glasses chinking 'Cheers' bokeh background.
Visiting a cellar door in Rutherglen may be your only chance to snap up a case of liquid gold.

Beyond Rutherglen Red

While new bars and accommodation have helped rekindle interest in Rutherglen, the region’s true essence is bottled.

Campbells opens in new window, one of the 12 founding members of Australia’s First Families of Wine, is a bastion of Rutherglen’s winemaking heritage. It has remained in the Campbell family since vines were first planted here in 1868, and is noted not only for having brought wine tourism to Rutherglen, but for introducing the very concept to these shores.

“Rutherglen is credited with being the birthplace of wine tourism in Australia,” explains Prue Campbell, the winery’s manager, as we taste a flight of golden-hued, syrup-sweet muscats.

In 1967 winery co-owner and director Colin Campbell helped pull together the Rutherglen Wine Festival – said to be the first of its kind in the country.

At a time when jaunts to cellar doors were uncommon, the festival drew some 5000 people to the rolling countryside. And the June long weekend festival, now known as Winery Walkabout, remains one of Australia’s biggest.

Colin’s unwavering dedication to the wine industry (from establishing the wine festival to pioneering a classification system for the region’s signature Rutherglen Muscat and chairing the most comprehensive research ever undertaken on the Australian fortified wine industry) has been such that he was recently awarded with an Order of Australia Medal.

And it’s thanks to the work of Colin and fellow Rutherglen winemakers that local fortifieds, once racing towards extinction, are now a major calling card. “It puts us on the map because it’s a product we own,” explains Prue. “It’s a real speciality of ours in the world. We call the Classic Rutherglen Muscat ‘history in a glass’.”

But here lies a great deal of liquid gold beyond muscat. Durif – a spicy, deep red wine, ripe with black fruit flavours and originating from France – is a rare varietal globally and a local standout, while shiraz and whites increasingly bolster tasting bench wine lists.

And many of the region’s wineries plumping for small-batch production and eschewing the embrace of big name liquor stores, visiting these cellar doors may be your only chance to snap up a case and experience the distinctive charm of each.

Small wonders

Visiting father-daughter run Anderson Winery opens in new window is like stepping foot inside a museum. Pipettes and test tubes sit on countertops, while bottle labelling machines and traditional basket presses are scattered throughout, with reams of accompanying information. Almost everything is done by hand here, from pruning to picking and even with disgorging.

Softly-spoken Howard Anderson, who established the winery in 1993, worked for a large label for 15 years before starting up on his own. “I couldn’t get it out of my blood, so I bought this little bit of dirt,” he says. “We made the decision we weren’t going to sell [our wines] to the big companies. Most of our batches are 100 to 150. We’re trying to do something a little bit special.”

Rutherglen Estates opens in new window is a world apart. Its new cellar door opened last November, sporting a modern, minimalist, monochrome look and feel, with clean lines and concrete floors. The red gum beams, however, offer a gentle nod to the storied space, built in 1886. And if the roll call of eminently quaffable wines wasn’t enough to steer you to its doors, the contemporary works exhibited in its new Aboriginal art gallery just might.

At brother-and-sister-run Jones Winery & Vineyard opens in new window, a rustic French theme awaits. There’s a cosy, country house character to the cellar door, with its brick walls and low, bark-lined ceilings. Its wine varietals largely originate from France’s Rhône wine region, where chief winemaker Mandy Jones lived and worked for 15 years.

And the restaurant honours the culinary canon of Gallic kitchens. Savour golden rectangles of pork belly that yield with a crackle, the richness offset by ribbons of radicchio; expertly pan-fried gnocchi, velvet-smooth on the inside; and beetroot pickled, roasted and pureed in startling candy shades.

The newest of Rutherglen’s restaurants, Ripe opens in new window sits in a repurposed tractor shed at Buller Wines estate, with clusters of bare light bulbs dangling like supersized spiders from the ceiling.

The ambitious menu navigates through Europe’s classics (think confit duck leg and beef Wellington), capitalising on fresh, seasonal produce.

“We’re one of the few restaurants in north-east Victoria to source nearly 100 per cent of our vegetables from our market garden,” explains head chef Gavin Swalwell.

Buller Wines’ general manager Paul Squires neatly captures the lure of not just Buller, but Rutherglen in general. “We really work on not being snobby wine people,” he says. “We try and make wine a bit more fun.”