Gourmand grandeur in The Grampians

In The Grampians, one of Australia’s most picturesque and under-rated regions just two and a half hours northwest of Melbourne, you’ll find the modest, red-gum slab cellar door and homestead of Best’s Wines.

The curios at the cellar door – from vintage maps to pianos – leave me feeling I’m more in a museum than a winery. But when the winery has been producing wines for 150 years, one should expect a proud display of archive material.

Best’s Wines has been owned by just two families since it was founded in 1866 in the Great Western wine region of Victoria: the Best family and, since 1920, current owners the Thompson family. The first vines were planted in the late 1860s by Henry Best, who experimented with countless grape varieties.

Visitors to the cellar door can take a tour to view the handiwork of miners who, from the 1860s, hand-dug the cellars. More vintage treasures await, including old riddling racks, vintage doors with etchings from the World Wars, copper pot stills and a wooden toy truck that belonged to Viv Thompson – now in his 80s – who completed no fewer than 50 vintages at the family-owned winery. Viv’s son Ben Thompson is now the managing director.

The winery attracts 12,000 visitors a year who come to try its 20-plus current release wines and back-vintages at cellar door. This year is a celebratory time to visit, as 2016 marks the winery’s 150th birthday.

Despite their longevity, dedication and successes – including winning Australia’s most coveted wine award, the Jimmy Watson trophy in 2012 for the Best’s Great Western Bin 1 Shiraz 2011 – you won’t find too many airs and graces here. Amid all the medals, the real treasure and luxury of a visit to Best’s is the chance to chat with this generous and hard-working family, who are not only dedicated to the future sustainability of the Australian wine industry but also to their beloved Grampians region.

For a fantastic overview and an aerial perspective of the beauty of the region, head skyward in a chopper with Grampians Helicopters.

Over lunch at his dining table in the family home – where Viv and wife Christine raised their four children – Viv explained his thoughts on aged wines.

“I tend to think wines are a bit like people”, he declared. “They go through ‘stages’ of childhood, adolescence, young adulthood and middle age. A lot of people now don’t see a lot of aged wines. I try and get people to understand aged wines in this way. I think with a lot of old wines, it’s a matter of respect.”


What to try

There are three ranges of wines to try: The Icon Range, The Concongella Collection and The Great Western Range. Their flagship wines include the Thompson Family Shiraz and Bin O Great Western Shiraz – both have been designated ‘Outstanding’ and ‘Excellent’ respectively by Langton’s Auction house.

To commemorate the 150th anniversary, winemaker Justin Purser kept aside small parcels of grapes in the past few years to make a limited release collection that became available in May 2016. The range includes 2013 The Concongella, 2014 PSV 141 Pinot Noir, 2014 Sparky’s Block Shiraz and 1999 FHT Shiraz Museum Release – all priced at $150 per bottle.


Where to stay

The most luxurious accommodation in the region is the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld, at the base of Mt Sturgeon in the southern tip of the Grampians National Park.

Not your average rural hotel, it’s come a long way since it first opened in 1855 as a bluestone inn. Historically, the town of Dunkeld provided a vital link to the western district for the Cobb & Co Royal Mail Service – the current name of the hotel is a nod to its past. The hotel was modernised in 1997, with the goal to retain its historical significance. Local Grampians sandstone retained part of the original structure and the distinctive curved green roofline makes a striking entrance among lush vegetation.

Staying on a Saturday night, the formal restaurant Dining Room and the more casual eatery Parker Street Project (launched in March 2016) were both brimming with a crowd to rival patronage at any Sydney or Melbourne hot-spot. The Dining Room, run by executive chef Robin Wickens, was awarded two Chef’s Hats by The Age Good Food Guide in both 2015 and 2016.

Many guests were settling in for the hotel’s signature experience – an eight-course Chef’s Tasting menu, served Wednesday-Sunday evening, with matched wines from the extensive cellars compromising some 26,000 bottles. Each dish, though there can be a little wait between courses, is proudly presented on stone plates like works of art.

During my stay, I took a tour of the kitchen garden, a complimentary experience with the chefs that guests can book during their stay. Said to be one of the largest kitchen gardens in Australia, the scale is certainly impressive. The fully organic garden boasts zucchini, melons, artichokes, pumpkins, 28 varieties of tomato and 800 varieties of seeds – with its own ducks to eat all of the bugs.

“If it’s not regional, we don’t serve it,” explained Kylie Schurmann, Royal Mail Hotel marketing manager.

During the summer peak, when the garden blooms, the restaurant can source 80 per cent of its ingredients from the garden, explaining why the chefs visit up to three times per day.

Up to 120 guests can be accommodated at the hotel, in a mix of garden rooms, mountain rooms, apartments, cottages and homesteads.

In my room, a timber deck with a perfectly positioned low-slung chair overlooked the Mt Sturgeon range. Contemporary fixtures and neutral tones of earthen and grey colours ensured the star of the show was the view, and the accompanying sounds of nature.

All accommodation options include breakfast, which you won’t want to miss before heading out on a day exploring the mountains, wildlife or local wineries. Fortify yourself with Pepe Saya butter on a range of breads, locally made honey, house-made muesli, Grampians pure sheep yoghurt or free-range eggs.

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