If the restaurant industry is having a boom, wineries are flat out on steroids. Millions of dollars are being pumped into the arteries of vineyards across the nation, turning them from functional spaces sometimes slinging you the odd charred pizza into some of the most outstanding dining destinations in the country. And the winner is you.
Look to the Mornington Peninsula, site of two of the biggest hospitality projects Victoria has seen in a decade. There's Louis Li's newly opened Jackalope, a $40 million luxury hotel on the Willow Creek winery with restaurants Rare Hare and Doot Doot Doot at its heart.
And come late spring, the property-developing Gandel family will be swinging open doors to another Merricks estate – a $50 million sculpture park, cellar door, restaurant run by ex-Rockpool chef Phil Wood and winery they hope will trump all else.
Our Good Food Guide reviewers have fanned out across Australia to bring you our favourite winery restaurants of 2017.
Chef Scott Huggins of Penfolds Magill Estate Restaurant near Adelaide. Photo: Supplied
They say old vines and young winemakers make a magic combination, but we say historic vineyards and young chefs is even better. Just 15 minutes from Adelaide's city centre is the 1844 vineyard that gave Australia its most celebrated red wine – Penfold's Grange – with a sleek, dramatically designed dining room that showcases Scott Huggins' inventive, locally sourced tasting menu. It kicks off with some pretty legendary snacks – think sticky pig's tail taco – then flows seamlessly from lobster with konbu and tomato ice to a dish of lamb with brussels sprouts, kale and coal-roasted pumpkin that will have you reaching for that extraordinary list of 56 vintages of Grange. Magill Estate also has a beautiful tasting room and adjacent Magill Estate Kitchen restaurant with more casual, lunchy food (charcuterie, cheese, char-grilled steaks) overseen by Scott Huggins.
78 Penfolds Road, Magill, South Australia, 08 8301 5551
It's an all-Aussie adventure just getting to Hentley Farm. After an hour's drive north-east of Adelaide and a detour down a well-worn red dirt road, you'll find the restaurant in a low-slung 1880s stables, all craggy walls, rough beams, with a second dining room like a glass box suspended over a creek bed. Don't wait for a menu. It's a surprise, a flurry of modern dishes that speak with an Australian accent, using what's grown or found on the property.
Corner Jenke & Gerald Roberts roads, Seppeltsfield, 08 8562 8427
New South Wales
There's room for a mini bus-load of wine tasters and a rash of first daters at Bimbadgen Estate. The view over the vineyards towards the Barrington Tops is expansive enough to cater for all comers. The vista is only improved by a plate of plump sauteed scallops with splotches of sweet corn and crisp chorizo cubes in the foreground. House-rolled gnocchi comes with gorgonzola cream and fried sage leaves, well matched with a glass of the estate's fruit-salad-fragrant gewurztraminer, and tender pork fillet with sweet apple rounds and rich red cabbage puree goes down a treat with a long-and-strong Hunter Valley chardonnay. The menu favours crowd-pleasing over creativity. But that lush hill-top outlook is reason enough to linger.
790 McDonalds Road, Pokolbin, 02 4998 4666
This is special occasion territory without the pomp. Volume-quashing soft furnishings, a simple colour scheme, and a tasteful collection of artworks make for an appealing balance between comfort and elegance at this esteemed local favourite. Chef Simonn Hawke's menu looks to Italy and France for inspiration, flaunting big flavours and technical precision. Rejigged classics such as pressed duck and prune terrine, or a textbook twice-baked Heidi gruyere souffle with pear and hazelnut elevate the familiar. A respectable wine list traverses the globe, but it's hard to look past an extensive selection of local heroes.
48 Sale Street, Orange, 02 6361 7748
The sparkling dining room at Muse is something to savour, as it the food. Don't be entirely surprised if you spot a well-dressed woman literally bent over a dish, licking it clean. Creative flare features in every element of Scott Morrison's seasonal menu. Perhaps pretty little pickled turnip "gyoza" with local goat's cheese and tomato petals. Subtly smoked mackerel mousse with spikes of wasabi and soy-soaked avruga caviar. Or caramelly lamb rump with dollops of black garlic and crisp cavolo nero cigars. Sommelier Stephane Pommier is similarly inventive with local and international drops, whether a crisp Alsace white or full-bodied Hunter shiraz from Usher Tinkler.
Hungerford Hill Winery, 2450 Broke Road, Pokolbin, 02 4998 6777
Expect handshakes and warm welcomes on arrival, followed by a glass of bubbles on the lawn while the sun slowly sinks over distant hills. Housed in the old Lowe family homestead, the dining room radiates refined-rural with soft oak, communal tables and bounteous arrangements of freshly picked herbs, fruits, vegetables and floral arrangements. The garden is boss here, and chef Kim Currie works with the seasons to compose a daily set menu of wholesome dishes designed to share.
329 Tinja Lane, Mudgee, 02 6372 1660
A ceiling covered in 10,000 lights is the centrepiece of Doot Doot Doot's dining room. Photo: Supplied
Finally, here is a luxury hotel and restaurant on a working winery where you can watch toil on a tractor from the comfort of an infinity pool (if you drop $650 to stay, see below). For the rest of us, there's Rare Hare, a casual drop-in eatery, food store and and wine tasting barn offering smoked artichokes with burrata and venison carpaccio with views of the vines. Or, step up another level for Doot Doot Doot, the black-boothed fine diner doing four- or eight-course adventures beneath a 10,000 globe installation resembling wine mid-ferment.
166 Balnarring Road, Merricks North, 03 5931 2500
When high-roller friends come to town, send them this way for spots to park the chopper, sophisticated architecture, solicitous service – and a cellar of thousand-dollar-plus iconic imported wines to complement those from Levantine Hill's sweep of surrounding vineyards. Five- or eight-course set menus served on sculptural white crockery might be preceded by a miniature cone of silky foie gras pâté before proceeding to a smoke-filled cloche of butter-soft salmon with pearls of roe and curls of cucumber, then a dainty seasonal salad with goat's curd, hazelnuts, flowers and leaves from the estate's garden.
882 Maroondah Highway, Coldstream, 03 5962 1333
The bar at Giant Steps restaurant in Healesville. Photo: Arsineh Houspian
It's back to the future at this Healesville giant of the hospitality and wine scene. What was once Innocent Bystander and Giant Steps has split. Bystander is now slinging its pizzas next door under new owners, while Phil Sexton's premium brand has stepped up. Steampunk chandeliers spread over booths in olive and mustard tones. What's hitting tables – a mix of South-East Asian dishes, steaks, charcuterie and harissa-slathered chickens – is by Steps/Bystander's original chef Jarrod Hudson. Don't drive. Do let Suzanne Tyzack lead you through a Cures and Causes vermouth tasting or wine journey, all with your eyes fixed on barrels and wine vats next door.
336 Maroondah Highway, Healesville, 03 5962 6111
Oakridge's outlook. Photo: Arsineh Houspian
Since arriving in 2015, Matt Stone and Jo Barrett have transformed this Yarra Valley restaurant with their determination to put terroir on the plate. It's a blueprint every winery restaurant in the country could do worse than follow. Insert an architecturally striking glass-walled dining room gazing over a postcard-pretty tableau, plant an organic vegetable garden, and round up anything you don't grow from neighbouring producers. Of course, it helps to have two uncommonly creative and driven chefs in the kitchen.
864 Maroondah Highway, Coldstream, 03 9738 9900
Don't be deceived. The monolithic rammed-earth wall contouring the Red Hill ridgeline opens to sweeping views of vine-lined hills, valleys and distant waters of Western Port uniting cellar door, terrace and restaurant. Inside, concrete, limestone, timber and glass keep the fitout clean and modern. Why spoil that view? Head for the black mesh designer chairs and widely spaced tables to best enjoy chef Stuart Deller's cleverly conceived, beautifully balanced combinations of flavour and texture. Two- and three-course menus rely on a roll call of the region's finest produce including ingredients plucked from the estate's orchard, kitchen garden and beehives. Expect house-churned butter and wine yeast-fermented bread; poached calamari on black risotto; heirloom tomatoes and house-made ricotta doused last-minute in subtly smoked tomato consomme; crisp-skinned dory, confit lemon and peas in salsa verde; and juicy Flinders Island lamb on white bean and roast garlic puree. Outstanding estate drops, a commendable cellar, Riedel stemware and polite service elevate the refined drinking and dining experience.
263 Red Hill Road, Red Hill South, 03 5989 4444
Wine bar? Talk about an understatement. Yering Station is more of a Vino Temple, complete with an avenue of beatified bottles, a pond of contemplation and godly views from the modish seats in the cathedral-high dining area. It is here that Yering's wines are paired with dishes that border on opulent, combining ingredients in unanticipated ways. The suited-up, scurrying staff are always on hand to proudly talk you through the station's wine list – its syrup-gold viognier could well pip the beetroot-chocolate mud cake for dessert.
38 Melba Highway, Yarra Glen, 03 9730 0100
Lunch here is more than a good meal, it's a lesson in the importance of a life with vision. More than 30 years ago, Marcus and Eva Besen established the vineyards, built the winery, planted the trees, incorporated great architecture and art. Raise a glass to all of that – and try the chicken liver parfait with melba toast – while you toss up between the weekly changing menu and the four-course set menu with optional wine matches. There are some more familiar dishes, perhaps long cooked beef short rib with a bordelaise sauce, but the buzz here is the mix of contemporary comfort and gastronomic adventure.
311 Healesville-Yarra Glen Road, Yarra Glen, 03 5957 3510
What was a simple, sleek dining room at this Main Ridge mainstay has been completely transformed: think sage banquettes trimmed with green flecked marble lining the room, dark modern floorboards, grey velvet dining chairs. It's an odd match with the bucolic setting but not with the deeply delicious, keenly finessed food of chef Stuart Bell. He turns food grown in the vineyard garden or locally foraged into dishes like slow-cooked goat fanned with discs of beetroot and freckles of caprinella goat's cheese. Mains may feature Great Ocean Road duck resting on a moreish rubble of walnut mushroom and celeriac: always an excellent choice since pinot noir stars alongside chardonnay on the leather-bound, 400-strong tome of a winelist.
1333 Mornington-Flinders Road, Main Ridge, 03 5989 6455
Heir to the winemaking throne, Vanya Cullen has colonised winery and restaurant to reflect her keen allegiance to biodynamic practices. As elegantly rustic as the restaurant's pared-back granite and timber farmhouse aesthetic, this is food deeply connected to its source. Vegetables are harvested daily from the restaurant's biodynamic kitchen garden, or sustainably farmed proteins. Interplays between texture and flavour find their echo in wine pairings showcasing the vineyard's characteristically fresh, rich whites and subtle, deep reds that result from Cullen's low yielding vines.
4324 Caves Road, Wilyabrup, 08 9755 5277
The vineyard eschews a timber and glass Aussie bush vibe in favour of a more formal French aesthetic illustrated by everything from the manicured gardens and slightly austere dining room, to a degustation menu playing between "haute" Australian and classic French technique. Certainly the savoury dried pear of the 2015 Girt By Sea chardonnay is a winning match for sweet-fleshed barramundi left alone to do its thing barring the subtle addition of bitter nettle and a polite hit of dashi.
41 Stevens Road, Margaret River, 08 9757 6354
Jackalope Hotel is the Mornington Peninsula's new mini-MONA. Photo: Sharyn Cairns
Welcome to the luxury hotel the Mornington Peninsula never knew it needed until it pitched up at Willow Creek – all 40 rooms of it, with a fleet of restaurants, a bar and a tonne of trippy art for good measure. Investor Louis Li spared little in bringing this vision to Merricks North. The development is estimated to have cost $40 million, and while it's not cheap to stay here (rooms start at $650 for a straight terrace room; it's $750 for a vineyard facing suite and a cool $1100 a night to get the lair with its own outdoor entertaining area), there's some notable trim to lift the game.
Real breakfast doesn't hurt – the likes of spiced lamb and fried eggs or crisp chive-flecked waffles with smoked salmon with a well made latte to boot. Movies in your room are also included, as is a welcome cocktail at the hotel bar, Flaggerdoot. That's probably your better bet for refreshments over the mini-bar – it's nice that everything in it (bar the wine) is included in the room price but it's a somewhat basic selection of local beers and softies.
If you are going to drop the cash to stay, it's worth upgrading to a vineyard room for the morning views and deep stone bathtubs, or centre room, into which you could feasibly fit a football team. Either way, you still get the benefit of a deep black infinity pool looking to the vines, neon alchemy symbols illuminating the corridors and the Jan Flook installation of 10,000 bulbs in the restaurant that make you feel like you're dining in a bubbling vat.
Day trip to the restaurants for a taste of the action, but save and stay if you can. This is a rabbit hole you want to venture down.