I’m ashamed to admit that, for a while, I haven’t been much of a champion for what the Mornington Peninsula has to offer. Always more of a Great Ocean Road girl, I favoured the food and drink the Surf Coast had to offer while I ogled the coastline in all of its finery.
How far from uncovering the truth I have been. Recently, Mornington Peninsula’s food and drink culture has had me sheepishly heading back to this part of Victoria with a newly instated confidence in the region. It started with the many places to go to forage for pine mushrooms around Red Hill, further progressed after tasting a delicious Red Hill Truffle, and has now, thanks to the discovery of lesser known but incredible food and wine businesses along the Peninsula, fully blossomed into utmost respect.
Conducting tours that focus on high quality but perhaps less familiar food and drink businesses in the area is wine-touring company Wine Compass*. Taking Gram around the Peninsula to enlighten us on what is on offer, Founder Adam Nicholls concedes that the area has in some respects developed a lacklustre name for itself in the food and beverage mainstream; but says that, if you delve a little deeper into the area, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
“We love the more boutique wineries of the Peninsula,” Nicholls says, talking us through the type of itinerary his business is likely to create for its customers. “If you want to have some really cool experiences, amazing wines and meet great local characters, the smaller, lesser known producers can be a better option.”
Located just 5km away from Red Hill, the Quealy winery is bursting with character, from the bold design of the Quealy wine labels (designed by the Quealy owners’ friend, the internationally-renowned Ken Cato) that adorn the many bottles lined up at the cellar door, to the passionate owners and the equally passionate people who assist them.
Husband and wide team Kathleen Quealy and Kevin McCarthy are known for their innovation and imagination, and have tread a comprehensive and vibrant path in the winemaking industry. Both graduating from winemaking at uni in the 80s, the pair worked as winemakers in The Granite Belt, Queensland before heading to Victoria and establishing themselves as winemakers in their newly adopted cold climate environment.
After getting the lay of the land, McCarthy and Quealy launched T’Gallant Winemakers in 1990, where they proved unafraid to venture into unchartered territory when it came to developing new varieties and styles of wines. Selling the company to Fosters Beer, they purchased their winery vineyard in 2003.
McCarthy stayed on at T’Gallant as Brand Ambassador for another 10 years, while Quealy, assisted by winemaker Dan Calvert, began Quealy Winemakers in 2006. Along with the winery vineyard, the couple lease and manage five other Mornington Peninsula vineyards to secure the quality and personality of their wines, which are headed up by viticulturist Lucas Blanck.
Quealy takes immense pride in not just her own wine, but the broader region and the beautiful cold climate wines it does, and has the potential to, produce – in particular, the Mornington Peninsula pinot gris. “[I will] always be the champion of Mornington Peninsula pinot gris,” she says.
When McCarthy and Quealy introduced the pinot gris variety in the 80s, Quealy says many local winemakers thought it was madness, initially ignoring the variety… until customers started demanding it. “Now 80% of Mornington Peninsula cellar doors offer pinot gris,” Quealy says. “When you pioneer a variety you always feel a little responsible for its trajectory, [despite the fact that] you have no influence [on that]. We are both very happy with the great success of Peninsula pinot gris.”
While the variety is now grown in many regions of Australia, the Peninsula’s pinot gris remains preeminent. “The cold maritime climate is a terrain of intimate hills and valleys, rich volcanic and clay loams. The late cool season captures the aromatics and fine acidity,” Quealy says. The quality of the wine is also heavily dependent on the “range of passionate vine growers and winemakers who understand the quality is [in the] viticulture, hand-pruning and hand-picking, small batch winemaking and time, time, time [given to] every aspect of the operation.”
Their collective strong character, along with the in-depth knowledge and experience of the Quealy/McCarthy team, is well and truly reflected in their unique and undeniably delicious wines. “Quealy Winemakers have a peasant philosophy. The inspiration is in nature, in the air and whatever the vintage brings, and the discipline is sustainability and thrift,” Quealy says somewhat ominously.
Quealy offer a range of single vineyard Pinot Gris, Pinot Noirs and modern, natural-style skin contact white wine. these winemakers have something for everyone, their wines so good they dangerously barely touch the sides as you guzzle them down.
“[Our Pobblebonk] is what ‘natural’ wine is all about,” Quealy says. “Each variety [in the wine] is selected for complementing attributes. In this case, pinot grigio blended with other white varieties opens up the ‘noir’ aroma of raspberry and pink fruits. Friulano is stern and structured, chardonnay is lean muscle and then the riesling and moscato giallo add another dimension to the aroma and steel to the palate,” Quealy explains colourfully.
Quealy Winemakers grow their pinot noir and pinot gris/grigio varieties at their winery, and at the vineyards they lease at Hickson, Musk Creek, Campbell & Christine and Tussie Mussie. “They all bathe in the warmth of sunny sites, no irrigation, and hard pruning that commit the vineyards to small sustainable yields every year,” Quealy says.
For those that love the now very fashionable skin contact wines, Quealy’s Friulano is a great place to start.
“Friulano is a new Italian varietal that we have pioneered in Australia,” Quealy says, further explaining that the variety is overlooked by many in the industry as the variety suits skin contact, which is a fairly new winemaking technique in Australia.
Another highlight is Quealy’s Secco Splendido, a dry and delicious sparkling wine made by a Metodo Ancestrale, which means ‘a rural method’.
“Quealy Winemakers pioneered muscat on the Mornington Peninsula, reinterpreting Australia’s love affair with sweet warm climate wine,” Quealy says. “[We] grow these premium varietals in a cool climate with the same kind of love and attention as a pinot noir or gris is attended to.” The Quealy Secco Splendido Metodo Ancestrale – which can be described as a Pet-Nat style wine, where the ferment finishes in the bottle – has no sugar or sulphur added.
Their rose version of the Secco Splendido, the headily perfumed Metodo Redmondo, is named after their son Redmond McCarthy. A definite favourite with customers (and us), this wine is also made without sulphur and, like its white counterpart, finishes the fermentation process in the bottle, allowing for extremely gentle natural bubbles to develop.
Despite working in a difficult industry full of environmental and industry-driven challenges, Quealy has a positive story to tell about winemaking.
“I think Australian consumers and the wine industry are growing up together,” Quealy says. “Winemaking is not about vast resources poured into the bottle, it’s about winemakers and viticulturists capturing their region’s quality and style with their skill, their vision and confidence.”
Founded in 2009 by Wayne Klintworth and Bob Laing, Bass & Flinders initially started as a hobby and passion by the two semi-retired men who were looking to create a very different kind of spirit using local grapes.
The pair saw a lot of vineyards and apple orchards around the region, but noticed no-one was using the fruit to distil spirits, a practice more common in Europe.
Inspired by the traditional aged spirits of France such as Calvados and Cognac, Klintworth and Laing created the Bass & Flinders aged grape spirit known as Ochre, a premium brandy aged for five years in French Oak barrels.
“We source local wine to produce our own grape-based spirit firstly because, being surrounded by vineyards, it seems only natural to want to use wine as a base for all the products we make,” Klintworth’s daughter and recently appointed Bass & Flinders Co Director, Holly Klintworth says.
“Grape-based spirits are very smooth, and have a unique texture and viscosity that works extremely well, particularly in our gins. We choose to take the extra time to make our own base spirit rather than purchase commercial-grade ethanol, because we have a lot more control over the end product.”
Klintworth says they are able to extract the unwanted alcohols this way, which results in an extremely smooth finish.
“It’s really important to us that we are able to account for everything that goes into each bottle of spirit we produce. The more control we have over each element, the better.”
Bass & Flinders work with both Chardonnay and Shiraz wine, extracting the ethanol, which then forms the base of all of their products, of which there is an astounding variety.
One product that has a particularly compelling and heart-wrenching story is their recently-released Angry Ant gin.
Klintworth and Laing wanted to create a uniquely Australian gin. The pair were inspired by an episode of Australian Story about Wooleen Station, a property focused on protecting and regenerating the land for ecotourism rather than unsustainable pastoralism. Klintworth and Laing made contact with the owners, and a most unusual collaboration was born; the distillery setting about making use of the environment and the botanicals available on the property to infuse gin, including one very intriguing ingredient: ants.
“Angry Ant Gin is a beautiful gin and, contrary to its name, has a delicate flavour due to the native Australian botanicals like native lemongrass, mulla mulla, purple vetch, and the pheromones of the native black ant [which] we were able to extract, to use their dramatic and unique flavour,” Klintworth says.
The pheromones are characterised by the environment the ants inhabit at Wooleen, where they were selected and harvested. Bass & Flinders were assisted in this endeavour by Professor Mark Elgar from Melbourne University, who helped the distillery further understand the ant pheromones and how to use them.
Laing had been working on different recipes for Angry Ant Gin when he passed away in February 2016. The gin was launched in the insect room of the Melbourne Museum in March 2016, sadly before Laing was able to see the fruits of his labour. “The event honoured the passion and dedication Bob poured into the business,” Klintworth says.
Since its launch, Angry Ant Gin has been extremely well-received, winning a silver medal at the 2016 San Francisco World Spirits competition in the same month.
Along with Angry Ant, Bass & Flinders has an array of intriguing and unique products. The distillery also recently launched Cerise, a pink gin flavoured by local cherries and raspberries with a hue reminiscent of the flamingo pink made popular in the 80s.
In addition, to celebrate the launch of the June-August truffle season, the distillery has launched a truly delicious truffle gin and truffle vodka using Black Perigord truffles from Red Hill Truffles (the gin is REALLY good in a G&T using Fever Tree tonic and a sprig of rosemary for garnish). They also have a new Winter Gin, with flavours of a Winter Christmas including apple, orange, cinnamon, nutmeg and star anise, which is very tasty when drunk neat.
Bass & Flinders Distillery is open for tours and tastings on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and some public holidays, as well as a fantastic gin masterclass where you can learn about the craft of gin making and its history, as well as the chance to create your own gin recipe, going home with a 500 ml bottle of your own customised version of the delicious spirit.
Willow Creek Vineyard was established in 1989 on an old grazing property in the heart of the Mornington Peninsula. Planted on the deep volcanic soils of the region that are well known for producing rich flavours, the 28-acre vineyard grows pinot noir, chardonnay and cabernet, as well as small parcels of pinot gris and sauvignon blanc.
Long time vineyard manager Robbie O’Leary hand-tends the vineyard with a focus on pruning, canopy management, yield control, and harvest. Winemaker Geraldine McFaul has worked closely with Robbie since 2008, and their collective comprehensive knowledge of the site is central to the wines it produces.
The Willow Creek Vineyard site recently underwent a dramatic transformation. The brand new – yet already award-winning – hotel, Jackalope, now cuts a striking and mysterious figure on the property; along with fine-dining and already much-revered outfit Doot Doot Doot; and the more casual but equally awe-inspiring eatery, wine bar and produce store, Rare Hare Wine & Food Store.
Overlooking the hotel’s striking silhouette against the vineyard-laden hills, the Willow Creek’s makeover has propelled the site into the upper echelons of Victoria’s food and wine industry.
“Expanding on the traditional ‘cellar door’ tasting experience, Rare Hare offers two distinct options: the wine bar affords guests the chance to sample in a social setting, while private tastings remain for those who want to delve deeper into an outstanding selection of wines and the vinification (the conversion of the grape juice by fermentation) behind them,” McFaul says.
Alongside Willow Creek, McFaul has released a selection of wines under the new Rare Hare label. Extremely drinkable and light on the palate, the Rare Hare range has afforded McFaul the opportunity to employ the creative use of skin contact winemaking methods. These easy drinking wines work well for the Rare Hare restaurant, complementing the diversity of the food on offer at the establishment.
Seating 90 people, Rare Hare’s atmosphere and fit-out is warm and welcoming.
Under the direction of the Jackalope Hotel’s Executive Chef, Guy Stanaway, the Rare Hare eatery is drawing on a number of cultural influences (as is the way with much modern Australian fare), while capitalising on local produce.
A rich duck leg is lacquered with sweet soy and five spice and cooked until tender, then finished in the wood fired oven, where the skin is brought to a crispy caramelised state that you can crack through like the top of a crème brulee. Just as superbly tender is the local squid that is finished on the char grill and served with burned lemon and a squid ink-laden romesco nero. Eggplant is glazed with miso and baked in the wood fire oven, finished with furikake and chilli. For dessert, the vanilla honey panna cotta is made with cream from local producer St David’s, and finished with Balnarring honeycomb, toasted sesame biscuits and shaved caramelised white chocolate. It’s a delicious meal of sharing plates delivered to us with warm and attentive service.
Even on the middle of a workday with the pouring rain outside, Rare Hare was absolutely packed out. And with top notch food, wine, service and atmosphere, it’s easy to understand why this place is on the radar of so many, so quickly.
Rare Hare is open every day of the week and takes reservations for parties of eight and above, with smaller groups welcomed on a walk-up basis.