It was so different to London on a Friday afternoon: we set off on our journey to the Yarra Valley in prime-time rush hour, expecting the worst. However it seemed that most of Melbourne had already headed home and were relaxing in the garden with a beer. We were out of the suburbs in less than an hour and the low red-tiled houses gave way to gentle hills and smallholdings.
The Yarra Valley is a wine buff’s paradise, and a gourmet’s pantry. A network of small towns offer boutique accommodation, spa getaways and gastronomic experiences as well as a plethora of small and no-so-small wineries to tour and sample.
Soon we were well into wine country with vines covering the low hills into the distance. Many of the vines were covered with muslin, and it made some of the fields look like lakes from a distance.
The countryside was gentle but beautiful. The small towns we drove through were modest but attractive, low-rise wooden buildings with generous verandahs lining the wide main streets. Beyond the towns the darkening horizon was broken by the outline of majestic gum trees, their red or silver or fire-blackened spindly arms offering clumping umbrellas of dark green leaves to the enormous sky.
In time we approached our destination. Healesville is home to a famous native animal sanctuary where people can see koala, platypus, wombats and possums up close. We sought out the Sanctuary House Hotel as the sun started to set, and found a retro-looking American-style motel amongst the gum trees, rooms set around a small pool in which a family was splashing. Our room was waiting for us – a simple but clean room overlooking the pool, straight out of the 70s. We tidied ourselves up and went in search of Katharine and Pete’s campsite, where they were waiting for us in their small but perfectly formed three-berth camper van.
After a convivial (and extremely intimate given the surroundings!) evening of pasta, wine and chat, Orlando and I set off again through the darkness to find our hotel again. We stopped at a side road to gaze at the most amazing night sky emblazoned with an infinity of stars. The Southern Cross and Orion were easily picked out, but the most spectacular thing was the white stain of the Milky Way clearly laid out before us.
Morning saw us in search of a winery or two. We headed off through the hills again, clocking up at least one winery sign per kilometre at one stage. Familiar names like de Bortoli and Domaine Chandon jostled amongst tiny family-run vineyards. We stopped at the famous Yering Station, Victoria’s very first winery. The wine tasting area was through a gourmet’s delight of a shop, with everything from fresh sourdough bread, preserves, salamis and chocolate on sale. Katharine slowed, but I resisted and headed straight for the wine counter. Well, somebody has to show backbone, I reasoned.
Friendly young waiting staff waited until we chose and poured a modest amount of our choices into glasses for us to try. Enthused by a couple of mouthfuls of amazing cabernet sauvignon before 11.30 in the morning, I vowed to try every red they had. Three of four tastings later, I was a slightly confused and not a little tipsy. Steady, I told myself.
I allowed myself to be led outside into the glorious sunshine where we wandered through the gardens and into the restaurant pavilion, where you can peer through well-placed windows into the cellars and wine-making area below. The view from the lawn (and from the restaurant) across the valley was panoramic, with hills echoing into the haze as far as the eye could see.
Back at the wine counter I couldn’t resist a bottle or too of one of the loveliest Sangioveses I’ve ever met, and tried a couple more wines while I was waiting for the sale to go through. I think I’ve found my calling.