For years, vignerons recognised that the climate in Murrumbateman made it perfect for growing grapes and making wine. But in the mid 20th century, when Australia rode on the sheep's back, the powers that be in this part of the Southern Tablelands, just north of Canberra, wanted to keep this country for raising fine wool sheep. Then, in the early 1970s, a few wine pioneers cleverly worked a way around the rules, planting out the country with grapes and laying the foundations for one of Australia's most admired cool-climate wine regions.
Almost half a century on, the region has become renowned for its wineries, cafes, food stores, markets and bakeries set in the historic towns of Murrumbateman, Yass and Gundaroo. Surrounded by pastoral farmland and rugged bush, the region is three-and-a-half hours south-west of Sydney, 30 minutes from Canberra and just over three hours from the Victorian border. Here are some of its highlights.
Murrumbateman pioneer Ken Helm, of Helm Wines, makes outstanding clean, lean riesling and cabernet sauvignon with delicious dark fruit aromas. A natural raconteur, he pours his own wines for tasting in the original 1888 single-room schoolhouse in the middle of the vineyard. You'll find his winery down a winding lane lined with ancient gums and past a derelict suspension bridge. It has been named the region's best winery for almost a decade. helmwines.com.au.
Ken's daughter Stephanie and her husband, Ben Osborne, own The Vintner's Daughter, which has one of the best views in the region. Here they make Old World-style wines with lots of skin contact and maturation in French oak, including a dry and delicate gewurtztraminer from vines first planted in 1978. One of their more unusual wines is a fortified shiraz made with ripe and raisined berries, and while it still has a lot of residual sugar, they add neutral grape spirit to make a beautiful, rich, dark fortified wine. thevintnersdaughter.com.au
Neighbouring Clonakilla planted its vineyard in 1971. Sitting by the fire in winter, or looking over vines cloaked in green in summer, you can taste some of Australia's most highly regarded wines, including Clonakilla's flagship shiraz-viognier blend. clonakilla.com.au
On the other side of Murrumbateman, on a former sheep station, is Shaw Wines. The old shearing shed sits in the shadow of a stunning, modern cellar door looking out onto a flock of grazing sheep. They are known for their structured tastings in which you sit down in front of 20 wines and are guided through them by an expert. The winery's Olleyville Restaurant is locally popular for its wood-fired pizza, slow-cooked dishes and share plates. shawvineyards.com.au
The historic village of Gundaroo, by the banks of the Yass River, was settled in 1825. Soon after, The Royal Hotel was built from local stone as a travellers' inn. Today it is home to Grazing Restaurant, where chef Kurt Neumann cooks a wine-friendly menu from local produce such as yabbies, smoked rainbow trout and pork. Come for the succulent pork belly, the garden's sprawling willow trees, the Gundog Estate cellar door, and local wines by the glass. grazing.com.au
Also in town is the 1872-built Gundaroo Colonial Inn, recommended by local winemakers for value-for-money pub meals in a historic setting. gundaroocolonialinn.com.au
Down a long driveway, past sheep resting in the shade of towering pine trees, is Poachers, home to a popular smokehouse, restaurant and the cellar door at Springrange, south of Murrumbateman. The old farmhouse has been transformed into a light-filled dining room. Call in for charcuterie (including award-winning smoked duck breast and smoked chicken with tarragon and lemon), take a picnic hamper into the garden, or stay for the good-value three-course set lunches ($69). poacherspantry.com.au
Trader and Co, in the historic town of Yass, is a collective of businesses focused on social change. Call into the old garage to refuel with good coffee from specialty roaster Six8 and a healthy breakfast from The Kitchen made with local eggs and vegetables. traderandco.com.au
The pandemic gave UK-trained chef Adam Bantock time to pause and reflect on what he and the Yass community really needed. He's closed his hatted restaurant, Clementine, replacing it with Clementine Bakery, on Yass' main drag Comur Street. Along with perhaps the best sausage roll in regional New South Wales (local pork, caramelised onions and fennel seeds bound with breadcrumbs and encased in a golden butter puff pastry shell), he's making excellent sourdough bread, pasta and condiments. clementinerestaurant.com.au
Award-winning chocolatier Robyn Rowe uses top-quality Belgian Callebaut couverture chocolate, along with ingredients such as walnuts from her garden and muscat from Clonakilla, to make her petite chocolates by hand. Strikingly glossy finish and deliciously smooth, Robyn Rowe Chocolates are available at her Murrumbateman studio (not far from Poachers Pantry). robynrowechocolates.com.au
The Murrumbateman Village Market is held under the old oak trees in the town's recreation reserve every second Saturday. It's the place to take an empty Esky and load up with locally grown and made produce such as organic vegetables, bread and pastries, honey, jams and sauces, olives and olive oil, and wines. mvmarket.com
For more details, contact visitnsw.com. Richard Cornish was assisted by Destination New South Wales.