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Drinking it all in
NOT many vacation mornings start with an idyllic horseback ride through some of Australia's most picturesque vineyards but that's exactly the sort of charmingly atmospheric wake-up call to be had in the Mornington Peninsula.
With over 50 boutique wineries, restaurants, farms and artisanal producers tucked into the small country roads of this region, wandering around at the trotting pace of a well-tempered steed is one of the best ways to take in this slow life.
Perhaps emboldened by the tasty tipple that I had sampled along the way, I found myself, an equestrian novice, riding in sync with the gentle filly that I had been assigned to for my half day winery tour with Horseback Australia. It doesn't get more country chic than this, especially for city-slickers on the hunt for a simpler lifestyle, sans the rusticity of many outback experiences.
In search of wine, food and wide-open spaces - but in a lesser-travelled region compared to big Aussie draws such as Yarra Valley, Margaret River and Barossa Valley - I discovered the Mornington Peninsula by chance after a conversation with my sister, who lives in Melbourne. No more than an hour's drive from the city, locals in-the-know often head to the Peninsula for short weekend getaways.
A little more research leads me to the realisation that the Mornington Peninsula is one of Australia's premier regions for producing excellent pinot noir that has consistently received high praise from experts including the likes of James Halliday, and I am sold.
Top on the agenda are visits to the region's most well-rated wineries, including Yabby Lake, Port Phillip, Montalto, Tuck's Ridge and Crittenden, just to name a few. With a gentle maritime climate and a unique range of soil types across the Peninsula, including sandy flatlands, alluvial and volcanic soils, the star varietals here include chardonnay and the notoriously finicky pinot noir. The latter, in particular, has inspired vignerons to create delicate and well-balanced small-batch wines that are unique in their ability to embody the microclimate in which they are grown.
Nowhere is this unique character trait more apparent than at the top-rated Yabby Lake, which has a "single block release" range that beautifully showcases the nuances of the grapes. Its remarkable Block 1 and 2 pinot noir parcels are grown less than 10 metres apart and feature the same clone of grapes, but have consistently shown significant differences in character that are a delight on the palate.
But, of course, all of this is just technical talk without the wine. Thankfully, at the winery's spacious cellar door - a light-filled space fitted out with industrial-chic recycled timber and steel fixtures - it is possible to taste these wines in person. After an informative session through the winery's flight of offerings (generous pours alert!), I pick up the critically-acclaimed Block 2 Pinot Noir as a souvenir on impulse - and later find out this was a savvy splurge as the Block 2s often get sold out soon after release. Talk about a lucky score.
Naturally, excellent vino ought to be enjoyed with delicious food. Not surprisingly, the fertile hinterland of the Mornington Peninsula is equally famed for its farm-fresh produce, making it a strong draw for top city chefs. With four award-winning Chef's Hat restaurants in this relatively small area, it is no surprise that epicureans are increasingly making their way here for a gourmet food adventure. These establishments include the two-Hat Ten Minutes by Tractor Restaurant, as well as Port Phillip Estate Dining Room, Paringa Estate and the Montalto Vineyard & Olive Grove Restaurant, with one Hat apiece.
Take the time for a leisurely lunch at the Port Phillip Estate Dining Room, located within an expansive property which offers stunning views of the surrounding vineyards. Designed by the award-winning Wood/March Architecture, the elegant limestone and timber building is at once eye-catching and in harmony with the natural environment, making it an indulgent location to savour modern Australian cuisine paired with the estate's standout wines.
For a memorable masterclass in the flavours of the region, be sure to secure a dinner reservation at one of the most awarded restaurants in the area, Ten Minutes by Tractor. Helmed by chef Stuart Bell, the restaurant is known for its produce-driven seasonal menu inspired by the bounty of the land. Besides the estate's enviable garden of heirloom vegetables, herbs and flowers, the chef is also known to forage for wild plants around the Peninsula and work with local producers to get his pick of the best ingredients. Come hungry so you can do justice to the thoughtfully curated degustation menu and be sure to leave some space for dessert. I was wowed by my delicate mango mousse and coconut sorbet confection, which just like the region's signature wines, are calibrated to dance on the tastebuds without overwhelming the senses.
When you need a break from all that epicurean excess, escape to the Peninsula Hot Springs for some zen. With rejuvenating facilities including a Turkish bath, massaging thermal showers and a day spa, you'll be up and ready for more of the good life in no time at all. But don't leave without a soak in the hilltop geothermal pool. With rolling, misty hills as far as the eye can see, this is one of the prettiest spots in the Peninsula to hit the pause button for a few moments.
With a few more days of the good life left to savour in the Mornington Peninsula, there was just one thought running through my mind: The Melbournians may be lucky to have the Peninsula as a weekend escape, but it is those who travel from afar who get to fully immerse themselves in the luxuries of the region with a trip that stretches beyond a mere weekend getaway.