It is easy to fall in love with the Mornington Peninsula. Whether you are drawn to its bucolic allure, rich natural surroundings or vast wining and dining scene, the reasons are aplenty. March is generally considered the peak season for tourism in Victoria with Melbourne hosting a number of exciting festivals — the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, Melbourne International Flower & Garden Show, Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Formula 1 Grand Prix and Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival.
Despite this, the Mornington Peninsula is far from overcrowded — probably a sign of its understated popularity at the moment but also the result of brilliant development of the area. There is no doubt that tourism is on the rise here, but the strategic placement of resorts and Victoria’s green wedge policy ensure greenery and the natural environment are preserved.
The peninsula is an easy hour-long drive from Melbourne and I find myself travelling in the good company of tour guide Stuart Dobson, who is also the co-founder of Acacia Tours, a luxury private tour provider. There is a dramatic change in landscape as we exit the freeway and begin passing vineyards and farms. It is autumn and endless rows of eucalyptus, pine and acacia flank the roads throughout the Mornington Peninsula, only to be interrupted by unobtrusive signage indicating the entrance to various wineries or restaurants. This is the best time to visit, I am told. Leaves are only beginning to turn brown and there is a cool breeze that provides respite from the lingering summer sun.
Moving away from the rolling green hills, we enter the bay areas that are just as picturesque. The colourful bathing boxes of Mount Martha — a throwback to the 19th century to preserve bathers’ modesty — are a popular tourist attraction. Stroll along the beaches or discover the peninsula by embarking on one of the many walking trails. The well-preserved nature is best explored on foot and there are ample opportunities to do so.
For city dwellers, especially, the Mornington Peninsula affords a sense of tranquillity. One can enjoy good food and drink against the backdrop of a beautiful countryside, making it easy to forget that one is in fact not too far from the city. Perhaps therein lies part of its charm — it’s a swift escape to a sanctuary and a welcome change of scenery from urban living.
Wine culture and high-quality local produce
Victoria’s early winemaking endeavours grew in tandem with Australia’s gold rush in 1800. Being surrounded by three bodies of water — Port Phillip Bay, Western Port Bay and Bass Strait — made for ideal wine growing conditions and it was not long before the peninsula began gaining traction as a wine region.
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are at home here but you will also find many other varieties that benefit from the crisp, cool maritime climate — which translates into long growing seasons — and fertile terroir (such as rich red volcanic soil, sandy soil, brown loam and clay). The wines produced represent the region’s bay location with distant hints of minerality and acidity.
Today, the Mornington Peninsula has a thriving wine industry that goes hand in hand with its equally successful dining scene. The majority of vineyards have a restaurant on their grounds and offer a cellar door tasting session, which is possibly the best way to try a selection of wines before settling for a glass of your favourite.
For lunch, we head to the Polperro restaurant, named after the winery whose grounds it is located on. Nestled among the vines and shaded by ancient Angophora trees, it occupies part of a 25-acre property in the heart of Red Hill. A cellar door behind the counter leads guests to a tasting session where the friendly host, Maria, guides us through a selection of Even Keel and Polperro Estate wines. We begin with a floral, citrusy Pinot Gris and progress to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Rosé before ending with a spice-laden Syrah.
The food menu is crafted from the fresh produce that the peninsula is renowned for, so expect to find many vegetables and seafood. If, like me, you find yourself spoilt for choice, opt for the Tour Menu where the chef will surprise you with a showcase of dishes that best represent the Polperro philosophy. The food can be creative — we had chilli-sprinkled nitro caramel popcorn as an appetiser — but not at the expense of quality.
Point Leo Estate also offers wine tastings. Overlooking the blue waters of Western Port Bay, the vast property is made up of a 50-acre vineyard, two restaurants and the Sculpture Park. It is also home to 100 head of Black Angus cattle, chickens, bees and a veggie garden that contribute to the ingredients used in the restaurants.
Fertile land and passionate individuals who work on it are the driving force behind the abundance of fresh local produce in the peninsula. I had the pleasure of meeting Greg O’Donoghue, who together with a team of employees, runs the farm that he and wife Sue own.
On the day of our visit, the farm is brimming with produce and the vineyard is awaiting harvest. It is difficult to imagine that it was completely empty when the O’Donoghues purchased it. Greg left his job in the corporate sector to start Green Olive, which predominantly grows olives, grapes and an array of herbs and vegetables that are used in their tapas kitchen. He speaks about the farm with a sense of pride that reflects his passion for his work and the results are seen in the lush surroundings that have been cultivated over the years. Olive Garden offers excellent coffee that is best enjoyed in the outdoor seating, placed amid planting boxes that grow vegetables and herbs.
The Mornington Peninsula lives up to Australia’s reputation when it comes to coffee and there is no shortage of good caffeine fixes here. While goat cheese is the primary product of the Main Ridge Dairy, which operates on a paddock-to-plate concept, it also offers a satisfying cup of joe. The cheese platter is a great way to sample the variety of cheese (such as the semi hard, caramel flavoured capony, halloumi, traditional and marinated feta, and the soft, creamy chevre) before taking home with you a slice of the flavours from the peninsula.
This article first appeared on Apr 2, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia. Read the full story by subcribing to our digital copy.