“Please sign this form,” instructs the blonde woman at the reception of Horseback Winery Tours. “It basically ensures you realize you’ll be drinking wine while riding a horse.”
While I’ve been horseback riding many times, I’ve never done it as a wine tour. My horse, Twisty, is one of the more docile horses, which allows me to enjoy the rolling vineyard hills and country landscape as we trot along to some of the area’s most respected wineries. Passing acre upon acre of grape vines is the perfect way to work up an appetite for the area’s signature Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays.
Our first stop is T’Gallant, one of the more well-known wineries on the Mornington Peninsula. The rustic cellar door has their wines whimsically written on chalkboards around the shop, and the group gets to try a variety or whites, roses, reds and dessert wines, all made in European fashion with an Australian twist. Winemaker Kevin McCarthy is a natural artist, producing vintages that are “artisan and pure, reflecting the character of the maritime Mornington Peninsula.”
While their 2006 Ophelia Sparkling Pinot Noir/Chardonnay Vintage is full and rich with fruit, their 2010 Tribute Pinot Grigio is created in honor of the Alsatian winemakers of France, with flavors of pear, almonds, green loves and a mushroom finish. Personally, I fall in love with their 2011 Romeo, a bright red wine with a plump palate and sweet raisin finish.
“This wine is a blend of Shiraz and Muscat that resembles a port and goes great with cheese,” explains our tasting guide. “Remember, the foods you eat will affect the flavor of the wine.”
The progressive tasting ends with a sample of their 2011 Juliet White Moscato, a straw-colored wine with a nose of fresh fruit, flowers and ends with a crisp finish.
Once the group is satiated, we begin our journey to the next winery, Green Olive at Red Hill. This farm-to-fork operation not only makes vino, but also produces olives, herbs, vegetables, jams, relishes, olive oils, chutneys, marmalades, dukkah, salts and in-house roasted coffee. In terms of protein, free range Isa Brown hens produce farm-fresh eggs, while their onsite bred Wiltshire Sheep help them to make handmade lamb sausages, salami, meatballs and salt cured lamb. These products pair perfectly with their Kelpie Bridge wines, which include a 2010 Chardonnay, a 2008 Shiraz and a 2011 Chardonnay Pinot Noir Sparkling.
While they may not produce a lot, what they do make is high quality. According to winemaker and owner Greg O’Donoghue, they work to create wines that reflect the vineyard as an expression of the soil, climate and proximity to the ocean.
“We want to grow very small parcels of grapes and turn them into good wines,” he says. “We use minimal chemical intervention. We also use different composts that are sourced locally with a major enthuses on healthy soil – healthy vines.”
This becomes clear once the tasting begins, as each vino has something special to bring to the table.
While their Kelpie Bridge 2010 Chardonnay is an easy drinking wine with flavors of oak and a definite citrus twang on the nose. Moreover, the Kelpie Bridge 2008 Shiraz has smokey, charred fruit flavors, chewy tannins and a spicy finish.
Getting back on my horse, I’m thankful at how well-behaved Twisty is. Although my buzz has made me a more confident rider, I’m nervous it may have also affected my coordination.As we ride, however, the natural beauty of the area seems to sober me up and I make it back to the barn without incident.
Just because the horseback riding is over, however, does not mean the wine drinking is, as the Mornington Peninsula is home to myriad boutique wineries. My growling stomach brings me about five minutes up the road to Montalto. The upscale restaurant resides in a rustic space set on 60 acres of vineyard, ponds and sculptures. Because the walls of the restaurant are floor-to-ceiling glass, diners can stare off at the perfectly manicured lawns and rows upon rows of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay while sampling meals made with onsite and locally sourced ingredients. In fact, the restaurant and winery boasts an herb and vegetable garden, fruit and nut orchard, olive trees and berry garden. With each menu item, you’ll get a perfectly paired wine suggestion.
“With your seared scallop entree the suggested pairing is a 2010 Montalto Single Vineyard ‘Hawkins Hill’ Chardonnay,” explains our server. “With your main course of duck breast, I recommend the 2011 Motalto Pennon Hill Tempranillo.”
Their wines are produced with care as owner John Mitchell ensures each varietal is a true expression of its terroir.
“It’s about letting the environment in which the grapes are grown shine through in the wine,” explains Mitchell. “We do this by keeping our yields low and our viticulture and winemaking inputs low. We let our vines strike a natural balance, with sensitivity to their environment.”
All wines are made using sustainable viticulture practices, using no irrigation or plant sprays and fertilizing the soil with compost, which becomes obvious in the honest flavors. While the Chardonnay is ripe with generous notes of quince, peach and nectarine, the Tempranillo is young and approachable with gentle tannins, red cherry and a hint of oak. Each pairs perfectly with the selected dish, decisions of genius epicures.
As the sommelier, a jolly man from Venice, comes to refill my glass, I put my hand over it.
“I think I should slow down,” I say. “I’m getting a wine belly.”
He laughs, pointing to the forming pouch on his own stomach. “This is not fat. It’s memories.”
Although already relaxed enough to fall asleep and have delicious dreams of tapenades and single vineyard wines, I continue my journey of inner peace. Local Charles Davidson adds to the relaxing atmosphere of the community with his Peninsula Hot Springs. While he originally designed the property to help the locals relax, he loves welcoming travelers to experience pure tranquility.
For $25-$35, visitors can spend the day hopping from hot spring to cold spring, each natural bicarbonate pool full of minerals like sulfur, sulfates, sodium chloride, boron, magnesium and potassium. Many of the pools assist with ailments like arthritis, skin conditions, high blood pressure and issues with the lymphatic system. For an added benefit, there is an onsite spa, Zen Chi massage machines, Turkish baths and massaging thermal mineral showers as well as classes like sunrise yoga and meditation.
While there are myriad pools to choose from, I make my way up the paved trail — past the mediation platform, cave pool and reflexology walk — to the top level pool overlooking the entire peninsula. As I slowly submerge myself in the soothing minerals, my sore muscles instantly loosening, I stare out over the vineyards, farms, trees and rolling green. I’m completely immersed in relaxation and beauty. It’s hard to believe I’m less than two hours from the city of Melbourne, consumed in Australian wine country culture.
For those staying overnight on the Mornington Peninsula, one accommodation that perfectly represents the culture of the area is Peppers Moonah Links Resort. With an expansive links golf course, luxurious accommodations in natural tones and an eco-friendly philosophy, this is a great option for the conscious traveler. Their onsite restaurant features a creative menu created by Chef Karl Winsborough, with local wines and beers as well as ingredients sourced from their onsite herb garden and the surrounding area. For rest and relaxation, indulge in the Endota spa’s signature “Drenched” treatment, where you’ll be covered in a custom blend of hot aromatherapy oils, sweet hone and natural clay before being rinsed with water to “wash away your worries.” At night, bring a bottle of wine back to the room and soak in the deep bathtub overlooking the vibrant green golf course and rolling hills through floor-to-ceiling glass.
Featured image via Horseback Winery Tours