Wonderful Wangaratta

“I’m going to Wangaratta,” I said to a friend, several days prior to my trip to Australia’s Victoria state.

“Wa-what?” came my friend’s confused reply.

“It is a wine-producing region, close to Melbourne,” I said.

“Oh! You mean Yarra Valley! It’s lovely and you’ll get to drink a lot of wine there!” he joined.

I’m sure Yarra Valley is lovely, but I wasn’t going there. I wanted to explore Wangaratta, another region in Victoria that produces wine and fine foods.The more non-Australian friends appeared clueless at the sound of the region’s name, the more motivated I became to make a beeline there.

So on February 24, I departed Melbourne’s city centre and made my way to Wangaratta by car. The three-hour ride took me down long empty roads that divided wide open fields, baked yellow by the unforgiving sun. A bush fire had consumed some of these fields the weeks before.

Although I did not mind continuous car rides, my guide proposed that we stop for coffee and a rest room break. Malaysia’s simple highway stops (read toilets with wet floors and an ammonia stench, and coffeeshops swamped by houseflies) immediately came to mind and I cringed. Surely Australia would never have such highway stops!

So when the building below loomed into view, my heart did a celebratory dance.

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Our break was had in beautiful Fowles Wine Cellar Door Café, a spot of indulgence in the middle of nowhere. Guests could sample its wines and feast on a menu of European dishes.

After a cup of lovely cappuccino, we proceeded onwards to Dal Zotto Cellar Door Trattoria in King Valley, on the outskirts of Wangaratta.

Let’s pause a moment here to give you a clearer idea of where Wangaratta is. The city centre of Wangaratta is about three hours from Melbourne city centre by car, and it is the gateway to several fine foods towns such as King Valley and Milawa. All these delicious destinations are located very close to one another, making it easy for travellers to combine them all for an indulgent gourmet vacation.

It was probably 1.5 hours from Fowles to Dal Zotto (image below). I love the cellar door and restaurant’s simple exterior, which gives you such a pleasant surprise when you step through its doors.

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But before we had lunch, we took time to taste a few of Dal Zotto’s creations, and I fell in love right away with its Pucino Prosecco. It was light, fresh and so easy to drink! So much so, I bought two bottles. The girls are coming over to my place on March 2, and I’m sure they will enjoy it too.

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The lunch menu was written on the wall and the mains are paired with one of Dal Zotto’s wines. There were limited choices but every option was most seductive! I eventually chose a seafood risotto and it was paired with a Riesling. Yummy!

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After lunch, we drove on some more, passing more yellow fields. We soon arrived at another vineyard and cellar door.

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This time it was Pizzini Wines. I love the lawns and pretty little flowers surrounding it. It is always lovely to see so much open spaces when everything in Singapore is packed shoulder to shoulder. And we were not there just to sample more wine. A cooking class was awaiting at the A Tavola! Cooking School. Hurrah! I love such activities. Over the next half-hour or so, we learned how to make an apple strudel from the vivacious wife of the vineyard owner.

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I was so proud of my creation, but was not able to taste it because we could not possibly sit around and wait for our strudel to bake. Instead, we were served a strudel baked ahead of our arrival by our teacher. It was perfect with a pot of Earl Grey!

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We arrived in Wangaratta city centre around 3pm and checked into our hotel. There was time for a relaxing shower and a chat with the husband on Skype, before moving on to dinner (I sure ate a lot in one day!) at Rinaldo’s Casa Cucina. Owner and chef of Rinaldo’s is Adam Pizzini. No points for guessing who he is related to. :)

The restaurant was buzzing with activity that evening – someone was celebrating his/her birthday and the whole world was invited to party. It was lovely!

We had some bubblies in the backyard of the restaurant first, and even played a game of lawn bowl. Hardly a surprise that I suck at it. I was just thankful my ball did not hit anyone in the head.

Dinner was most indulgent. Besides having my own main, I had a table full of starters to pick on, from liver pâté to handmade gnocchi and deep-fried calamari. Oh, and we had loads of wine!

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The next day was also filled with activity, but the kind that burns calories. We were going to explore the Milawa Gourmet Region on bicycles!

We started off at Brown Brothers Milawa Vineyard (hands up those of you who love love LOVE Brown Brothers’ moscato!) where we each picked up a complimentary set of wheels.

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There’s this tour called Pedal to Produce, which invites visitors to the Milawa Gourmet Region to cycle from one food producer to the next on bicycles. You can sample the various food products at these producers, and if you liked what you had, you could buy home something.

We swung into a cheese factory where free tastings are offered. The lovely cheese factory has a cosy cafe within, and families were enjoying cheese platters and sandwiches there.

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I’m not quite a cheese person, but it was still fun to see the variety of cheese boards and knives, and dried fruits and nuts that go well with cheeses sold there.

We also stopped by a mustard factory. There, I found something that I must keep away from Joshua. Hehe!

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It was easy to cycle around Milawa because the roads are flat and there are amazingly few cars around. And drivers are very mindful of cyclists. I noticed how they would slow down when passing by cyclists. If only Singaporeans would learn to be this considerate!

My eyes caught sight of a row of letterboxes on a quiet strip opposite a cellar door, and I just had to jog over for a shot. I would love to have a letterbox like that!

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Besides tasting cheese, mustard and more wine, I also had a chance at sampling local boutique beers.

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As we approached noon, we made our way back to Brown Brothers for a quick tour of the facility.

Now for the highlight of my visit to Wangaratta:

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A helicopter ride over the vineyards! Oh, the life! :)

The flight lasted mere minutes, but it was exhilarating. We landed atop a hill, some 400m above sea level. There, chilled Brown Brothers Prosecco and canapés awaited. :)

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A wine educator from the vineyard joined us and talked to us about the wine business, the variety of grapes grown in the region and how they are harvested (the machinery is impressive!).

On the flight back, I got to sit in front with the pilot, a dashing young man who would look more at home on the cover of a fashion magazine. He offered his knee for me to squeeze should I freak out mid-air. Awww.

My tour of Wangaratta and its lovely surroundings culminated at Brown Brother’s Epicurean Centre, a handsome and spacious restaurant with strong wood elements. It specialises in food made with local produce and paired with Brown Brother’s wines, of course!

There I had the best meal of my entire week in Melbourne and Wangaratta. My salad of locally-grown tomatoes and mozzarella was so fresh and appetising, and the colours were an instant pick-me-up. My main course of pan-fried Barramundi set on a bed of smoked trout and some kind of grain was also immensely satisfying.

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These days, with work piling on heavily and more than I can bear sometimes, I realised that fine food and wine, and the loving company of Joshua and very close friends, are the only things that make me happy.

And with that, I round off my post on Wangaratta. If you have not heard of this destination, I hope you will do yourself a favour and go on a gastronomic adventure there. :)

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