The King Valley, once Victoria's tobacco hub, is home to award-winning wineries, great pubs and fine dining restaurants.
When the big tobacco companies closed down the tobacco industry in this lush, green valley in Victoria's North East, some three hours from Melbourne, the Italian immigrant tobacco farmers turned to what they knew best – food and wine.
Although the industry wound up in 2006, many tobacco growers saw the writing on the wall decades earlier and diversified into grapes. Today the King Valley is a food and wine destination.
Up near the far end of the King Valley, where the bush-cloaked hills begin to close in and the old tobacco sheds give way to abandoned hop plantations, is the new ultra-modern Chrismont restaurant and cellar door at Cheshunt.
Cool and white, with clean lines, this large building hunkers down into the hillside, looking onto the vineyards, to the valley floor below and up to Powers Lookout, once the lair of a bushranger known as Ned Kelly's mentor. Inside Chrismont is the cellar door and produce store where you can buy preserved and pickled fruit and vegetables and almond nougat reflecting owners' Arnie and Jo Pizzini's Italian heritage. In the restaurant, either inside by the fire in winter or out on the huge covered deck on those perfect High Country days, it's a casual Italian menu of simple ingredients cooked truly beautifully. Try perhaps a plate of house salami, stuffed sardines, house ricotta or spatchcocked chicken. chrismont.com.au
Further downstream is the little town of Whitfield. It has a general store, garage, a very good cafe (The Whitty Cafe), cop shop and the Mountain View Hotel. This old boozer dates back to the 1860s and is built next to a culvert, dug by Chinese during the Gold Rush, which sent clean water to their market gardens on the river flats. It flows cool and clear through the beer garden giving al fresco dining a zen-like quality.
The staff at Mountain View are mostly European; high-level chefs and sommeliers from Germany and Italy. There is freshly imported German beer flowing through the taps in the bar and the now famous 1kg schweinshaxe – or roast pork knuckle with loads of potato salad and trimmings served at the bar.
One of the Valley's little secrets is the fine dining room. Chef Ben Bergmann has a swag of Michelin stars under his belt and serves finessed and balanced dishes in the cosy dining room. Expect glazed Wessex saddleback pork belly, twice-cooked snapper and a European style cheese trolley service to your table. mvhotel.com.au
A short stroll down the road is Dal Zotto Wines. Northern Italian immigrant Otto Dal Zotto is the man who introduced the Italian sparkling wine prosecco to the Australian wine industry. It was a wine he fondly remembered drinking as a young man in his home town.
Try the different proseccos in the cellar door as well as the other Italian varietal wines such as sangiovese and barbera. His family's trattoria sits on the King River flats, surrounded by river red gums and looks out onto the vineyard and the hills beyond. The dining room is built in rustic corrugated iron to reflect the style of an old tobacco shed on the vineyard.
The dishes are Italian family favourites starting with prosciutto pizza, there could be a ragu of lamb with homemade gnocchi or a pan-seared Milawa duck breast. Check out Nonna Elena's vegetable garden, where a lot of the veg for the kitchen comes from, or have a game of bocce after your meal. dalzotto.com.au
Down by the river flats where the King veers towards the Ovens River at Oxley is a stylish, squat cement brick building that seems to meld into the landscape and surrounding river forest. This is Sam Miranda cellar door and restaurant.
Try the wines and see what museum stock is on offer in Pop's Cellar. The food is classic, wine-friendly bistro-style dishes with perhaps a pork and chicken terrine with some house chutney, followed by a Stone's Throw eye fillet, a steak sourced from the beef herd grazing a stone's throw from the dining room. www.sammiranda.com.au
Opening at the end of summer is the King Valley Dairy. This is the Myrtleford Butter Factory that outgrew its home and had to find somewhere else. Expect good butter, cake and coffee with meals and events underway by Easter. thebutterfactory.com.au
Young Joel Pizzini is really embracing his Italian roots and making some truly remarkable nebbiolo at Pizzini Wines. While distinctively different from the Italian incarnations of this grape, his wine making is definitely informed by the great Barolo wines of the Piedmont. The cellar door is home to Katrina Pizzini's A Tavola cooking school. pizzini.com.au
If you have never tasted saperavi before then drop by Trevor Knaggs at King River Estate at Whitfield. He makes this Georgian grape variety using biodynamic vineyard and winery techniques with minimum intervention. Some wine reviewers think it is one of the best examples in the country. The cellar door is an old milking shed and the vineyard and grounds are kept in immaculate condition. kingriverestate.com.au/
While the Pizzinis are from the north, the Politinis are from the south of Italy. They are known for their value-for-money table wines offering the Sardinian white variety vermentino and the Sicilian red Nero d'Avola with tastings done for Politini Wines served in their (licensed) garage under their home at Cheshunt. It's worth putting your name down on their winter salami-making course. politiniwines.com.au/
Glen Merkel grows his grapes up in Myrrhee, a little bit off the beaten track, so bought the pub at Moyhu in the Valley where you can taste his Merkel Wines German-style riesling and gewurztraminer. Since he and his family have renovated the beautiful old pub it's gained a new lease of life serving great pub grub and pouring delicious wines. merkelwines.com.au
Brown Brothers have been making wine at Milawa since 1889 and although at the tail end of the King Valley much of their fruit is grown in the further up the Valley. The historic property has a very professional cellar door and a very good restaurant, Patricia's Table. brownbrothers.com.au
Rural setting, open fires, in-house restaurant and good beds with high thread count linen. It's a short drive just outside the actual King Valley but Casa Luna Gourmet Accommodation at Myrrhee is worth considering, casaluna.com.au. Just up the road is Mt Bellevue, a cattle farm with really good accommodation with endless vistas across farmland, vineyards and the mountains beyond. Well appointed wood-lined cottages with tasteful decoration, comfortable furnishings and wood heaters. mtbellevue.com.au
Twitter and insta @Foodcornish