This is sponsored content by Visit Victoria
Meet Melanie Chester. You'll find her in an Akubra hat with her dog Myrtle among the vines at Sutton Grange Winery. Sutton Grange is about 30 kilometres south of Bendigo in the region dubbed Victoria's "Shiraz Central". Chester, who has been the winemaker in charge at Sutton Grange since 2015, has fully explored the region – an astounding 250 wineries, including world-renowned Seppelt and Bests, and 120 cellar doors spanning 30 towns from Bendigo to Ballarat and taking in Heathcote, the Pyrenees and the Grampians.
Set in the wild heart of Victoria's highlands, Shiraz Central boasts diverse landscapes from rolling hills to rugged bush, flat plains dotted with eucalyptus trees and kangaroos resting in the shade, to working farms and of course, the famed vineyards. The cool nights and long sunny days make cool-spiced shiraz ripe for the picking. "Every person who drives down our driveway is like, 'I can't believe this place exists, I've never seen it before!'" she says. "That's the theme in this region – there are heaps of undiscovered gems."
From Australia's best vanilla slice and a pub serving Scottish classics, to handmade pasta and delicate Japanese food, here are Chester's lesser-known edible experiences in sprawling Shiraz Central.
People flocked to Bendigo in the 1850s when gold was discovered, the boom leading to the historic architecture. You can learn about vintage trams and Chinese history, visit the wonderful Bendigo Art Gallery and explore the craft beer and produce scene, but Chester urges you to visit Flora Hill Quality Meats, a non-descript butcher a few kilometres from town that she rates as possibly the best in Victoria. "It's just this amazing, classic Aussie butchery – but if you want to get a whole suckling pig, he'll help you with that, too," she says. "I actually have customers from Melbourne who come to the winery to go by Flora Hill and get boxes of wine on the way back."
Enjoy punchy Asian flavours at Fook Shing in a Gold Rush-era pub. Photo: Supplied.
Just an hour out of Melbourne, the food and drink scene in Kyneton is thriving, especially on Piper Street. In April 2019, Spaghetti Bar opened with its gold leaf window gilding, speckled marble tables and house-made pasta. Legendary chef Tansy Good opened her namesake, seasonally driven restaurant just up the road, while newcomer Fook Shing brings punchy South East Asian flavours to the Gold Rush-era pub. Also check out Midnight Starling, a romantic spot for French fare with degustation-only Ma Cave in the cellar (Friday and Saturday nights). To drink, Chester recommends Musk Lane, a new wine bar, winery and cellar door showcasing small batch, lo-fi Victorian wines in an old timber yard, open between noon and 4pm on weekends. There's also Animus Distillery who back on to Piper Street Food Co. "Together they do pizza on a Friday night and three or four types of G&Ts, so all the locals just sit there and smash pizzas and G&Ts," says Chester.
Less than 10 kilometres from Kyneton is Malmsbury, a sleepy town with vintage and antique stores, botanic gardens, a nature reserve and a self-guided historical walk past an Instagrammable bluestone viaduct. The Stables is the best place to stop for wood-fired pizza, but if you're on the eternal national quest for the best "snot block" Chester is here to settle the score. "There are so many cute little towns scattered across Shiraz Central. The Malmsbury Bakery has the best vanilla slice in Australia. I know that's quite a large claim, but I attest that I've had a fair few vanilla slices," she says.
Woodend in the Macedon Ranges is best known as a base for visiting Hanging Rock, but Chester's first thought is of Kuzu Izakaya for "really good sushi and delicious Japanese food". Near Holgate Brewhouse and behind Woodend Wine Store, you can eat creative and considered Japanese cuisine with local wines, Japanese beer and sake. Set omakase menus start at $40, while the a la carte menu tempts with dishes like zucchini blossom tempura, prawn sashimi and slow braised char siu pork belly.
A former gold mining town about 40 kilometres from Bendigo, Castlemaine is worth its weight, according to Chester. She's a fan of Boomtown Winemakers Co-Op, an incubator for emerging local labels in The Mill. The old redbrick industrial wool mill is home to a number of other small businesses and producers including a smallgoods company, coffee roastery, chocolate maker, taproom, vintage store and more. Just outside Castlemaine in Chewton is 165-year-old country pub, Red Hill Hotel. "(The owner is) this Scottish bloke, thick-as accent, and they've got all sorts of fun Scottish food," says Chester. "He's actually an ambo down in Melbourne and then he runs the pub on the weekend." Try the traditional sausage stovie pie and feel free to bring your dog – there's a dedicated canine bar and menu.
Where to stay
The grounds at Northfield. Photo: Supplied.
Kyneton: Mollisons, two boutique apartments and six hotel-style rooms in a 1903 former bank. Antiques or decorations in rooms are for sale (from $230 per night).
Woodend: Northfield Boutique Apartments, two self-contained, modern one-bedroom apartments in a garden setting with stylish furnishings, walking distance from shops (from $200 per night).
Castlemaine: The Empyre Boutique Hotel, built in 1860, this restored period hotel features mod cons with old-world flair. All suites have antique carved beds and marble bathrooms, but only some have fireplaces (from $285 per night).
Stay close, go further. Plan your next food and wine trip to Victoria's Shiraz Central: visitvictoria.com/wineries