Travellers' Table: Rutherglen

Jones Winery.
Jones Winery. Photo: Richard Cornish

One of Victoria's oldest wine regions offers more than just port.

Sitting on a rise above the Murray Flats, the historic gold mining town of Rutherglen looks out on old farmsteads and vineyards – seemingly endless gently undulating fields of green and gold that stretch out to the snow-capped mountains to the east. And dotted about this region, nestled into the meandering bends of the Murray River, are great winery restaurants, cafes, farm gates and cellar doors.

LONG LUNCH ON A BRIDGE
Every year the Pfeiffer family put on a long lunch on the bridge that spans the waters of Sunday Creek. On the weekend before Melbourne Cup, they are pouring their new vintage of light and summery gamay to visitors lunching under umbrellas, listening to birdsong and watching the turtles in the creek below.

Rutherglen Estate.
Rutherglen Estate. Photo: Richard Cornish

Pfeiffer Pfrolic, Sunday, November 1, Pfeiffer Wines, 167 Distillery Rd, Wahgunyah, 02 6033 2805, pfeifferwinesrutherglen.com.au

TO EAT
Where there's good wine there's good food, and the eateries in and around Rutherglen can be found in the historic wineries and 19th century buildings around town. Taste restaurant occupies a shop built in 1866, its walls now painted temple-red and Japan black. Chef Gavin Swalwell, a Hermann Schneider alumni, uses great technique and finesse to cook the best produce, sending out dishes like seared scallops with leeks cooked in sparkling wine, and crisp prosciutto and tasty rabbit spring rolls. Consider the pillow-like gnocchi with duck and local mushrooms, too.

Tuileries restaurant is set in the former Seppelts winery. It has a smart, modern and comfortable interior, and an extensive wine list to complement dishes such as chicken terrine with orange and pistachio, or backstrap of lamb with shiraz glaze. For $23.50, however, you can order the wine buffet and top your glass up with a dozen mostly local wines.

Stanton and Killeen.
Stanton and Killeen. Photo: Richard Cornish

Just out of town is a winery shed established in 1860 that has been beautifully restored by the Jones family. They are the third generation to make wine here, still using open wooden barrels to ferment their grapes. The dining room, with its mis-matched antique chairs and tables, looks into the winery and out to the deck. Come here for wine-friendly dishes such as thyme and chicken quenelles, or a lovely dish of spiced sausage. Order the casoulet – confit duck leg with white beans and sausage, excellent with the LJ shiraz.

Head north towards the Murray River, out past the Carlyle Cemetery with its Chinese burning towers, and you'll find The Pickled Sisters Cafe. Housed in the great tin shed that is Cofield Wines, it overlooks the grape crushing area; come here for brunch, lunch and dinner. Chef Stewart Gilchrist was trained in classic French cookery in Britain, so expect well-finessed and seasoned dishes. Order the free range eggs florentine with deep yellow hollandaise sauce, or the stuffed Milawa chicken breast on a potato rosti for lunch.

Out on All Saints Road is a magnificent castellated winery at the end of an elm-lined drive. All Saints is a family owned winery pouring some excellent Rhone varietals at the cellar door that match dishes served in the award winning Terrace Restaurant. Start with a plate of spring veg and goat's curd with a glass of viognier, and perhaps a nutmeg-laced spinach mousse with mussels in a rich sauce with a splash of chardonnay. A short drive away is their sister winery, St Leonards, offering very casual meals and platters from their rustic cellar door by the banks of the Murray.

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Back in town is Parker Pies, a little bakery who call themselves Australia's greatest piemakers. They are certainly in the running, with affordable but excellent pies with really delicious, succulent, well seasoned and considered fillings. The braised steak and onion is a classic but look out for specials such as lamb's fry and bacon.

Taste, 121b Main Street, Rutherglen, 02 6032 9765, taste-at-rutherglen.com. Tuileries, 13-35 Drummond Street, Rutherglen, 02 6032 9033, tuileriesrutherglen.com.au. Jones Winery and Vineyard, 61 Jones Road, Rutherglen, 02 6032 8496, joneswinery.com.au. The Pickled Sisters Cafe, Cofield Wines, Distillery Road, Wahgunyah, 02 6033 2377, pickledsisters.com.au. All Saint's Winery Terrace Restaurant, All Saints Road, Wahgunyah, 02 6035 2222, allsaintswine.com.au. Parker Pies, 88 Main Street, Rutherglen, 02 6032 9605, parkerpies.com.au.

TO DRINK
In the main street of town is a newly opened wine bar founded by the children of the Brown family who own All Saints. It is a fun open space fitted out in a modern rustic style, with shared central table and stools, bar staff in leather aprons and an intimate enclosed laneway bar for a late-night tete-a-tete. Expect an eclectic mix of local and global wines linked by a common factor – they are all made by small family firms.

Risotto at Pickled Sisters, Rutherglen.
Risotto at Pickled Sisters, Rutherglen. Photo: Richard Cornish

Thousand Pound Wine Bar, 82 Main Street, Rutherglen, 02 6035 2222, thousandpound.com.au.

CELLAR DOORS
Rutherglen is best known for its multi-generational wine makers producing big blokey reds and outstanding fortified wines. Just out of town in what is ostensibly a big tin shed is Chamber's Rosewood Winery. Line up at the long bar and try over 30 different wines. While tasting their famous muscat and topaque (formerly called tokay) look out for their wine made from arcane French variety gouais, a light-bodied white said to be the ancestor variety of chardonnay.

Showing off the region's ability for diverse wine making is Scion Winery and Vineyard. Perched on a hill on the edge of town, young winemaker Rowly Milhinch turns durif – a variety known for its strong tannins and earthy flavours – and shiraz, into a crisp, dry French-style rosé. He also uses his orange muscat grapes to make a fortified in the French style, muscat nouveau. Clean and sweet, it is made to be enjoyed as an aperitif.

Cofield Wines are known for their sparkling shiraz.
Cofield Wines are known for their sparkling shiraz. Photo: Richard Cornish

Still in town is Rutherglen Estates. Sharing the old Seppelts facility with Tuileries restaurant, here you'll find Italian varietals such as a light and gently textural pinot grigio, a lovely, clean finishing fiano and a slightly fruity sangiovese. You can taste Rhone varietals such as a very good viognier, roussane and marsanne blend and a Beaumes de Venise style fortified muscat. The wines here are very good value for money.

Out near the Murray River at Wahgunyah is Lake Moodemere Vineyards. Perched on a great billabong formed by an anabranch of the Murray, this attractive cellar door is set in the family's 1850s farm house with a century-old orangerie. While the view and bird life are quite remarkable, people come here for the lightly oaked and aromatic chardonnay. This and the other wines are only available at the cellar door.

One of the classic cellar doors is Stanton and Killeen, a great old corrugated iron palace quietly ageing thousands of litres of fortified wines in oak barrels. Come here for the fortifieds, then try The Prince – a table wine made from four different Portuguese varieties.

Chambers Rosewood Winery, Barkly Street, 02 6032 8641. Scion Winery, 74 Slaughterhouse Road, 02 6032 8844, scionvineyard.com. Rutherglen Estates, 13-35 Drummond Street, 02 6032 7999, rutherglenestates.com.au. Lake Moodemere Vineyards, 12 Moodemere Road, 02 6032 9449, moodemerewines.com.au. Stanton and Killeen, 440 Jacks Road, 02 6032 9457, stantonandkilleenwines.com.au.