When visiting Melbourne in Australia, many tourists head to the Yarra Valley, Victoria’s flagship wine region. But while Yarra Valley is well worth a visit, I personally prefer Red Hill, a comparatively small wine region about an hour from Melbourne on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula.
So much so that I make a point of doing a day trip to Red Hill each time I return to Melbourne for some sun to see family. But as is my way, every time I do, I tend to (always) go back to the same winery (Montalto – see below).
I’ve just returned from my latest visit, during which I decided to spend a couple of nights in Red Hill so I could branch out and see what else was on offer. I wasn’t disappointed. It was three days of great wine, delicious food and spectacular Australian scenery, cementing my view that Red Hill really is my special place.
A little about Red Hill
Red Hill is wedged between Port Phillip Bay and Western Port Bay, meaning you can drive from the vineyards to the beach in around 15 minutes in either direction.
Compared to the sprawling suburbs of Melbourne, it’s somewhat of an oasis. Elevated above the rest of the peninsula, the landscape is dominated by rolling hills dense with native bushland, with views that extend down to the bays below. Every so often, the disorder that is the Australian bush is broken by perfectly manicured vineyards, creating the striking contrast that makes Red Hill both unique, and distinctly Australian.
For a small rural community, Red Hill takes food and wine very seriously. What it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in boutique wineries (around 50), outstanding restaurants and artisan producers. Many of the wineries have outstanding restaurants on site, three of which have been awarded ‘Chef’s Hats’ by the Good Food Guide 2018; Australia’s version of Michelin Stars.
And true to every cliché that exists about rural communities, the locals are ridiculously friendly. During my visit, they practically bent over backwards to help in any way they could. After eight years in London it made me incredibly suspicious, but on reflection, I think they were actually just really nice.
For the wine aficionados out there, Red Hill’s microclimate means the area concentrates on cool climate grapes. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the dominant varieties, but there are plenty of other options including Pinot Gris, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and cool-climate Shiraz (which is not as big and bold as your typical Australian Shiraz).
The wineries I loved
Montalto winery and olive grove
Montalto is where my love affair with Red Hill began. It was the first winery I ever visited and I still remember being taken by how perfect it was to sit back and drink the day away amongst the vines. Since then, I’ve spent many a wine-soaked day at Montalto on boozy tours with friends, celebrating family birthdays, and even the odd date or two.
Montalto is a winery, olive grove and sculpture garden all in one. This combination means it boasts one of the most picturesque outlooks in the area. Sitting in the wooden-framed restaurant behind ceiling-to-floor windows, you’re presented with a far-reaching view of hills loaded with vines, olive groves and larger-than-life sculptures dotted across the grounds as far as the eye can see.
The restaurant is consistently excellent, although on this visit, I discovered they have changed the style to be less formal with a focus on sharing plates, which I thought made the experience a little less impressive. There’s also a more casual outdoor piazza café serving wood-fired pizzas, or you can order a picnic to have in your own private area of the vineyards.
My standout wine: Mont Alto Estate Pinot Noir
Ten Minutes by Tractor
You could just stop in for a tasting at Ten Minutes by Tractor for some of the best wine in the region. But for a treat, come here for their outstanding restaurant, which has two Chef’s Hats. The food is modern European using local ingredients, and the quality is exactly what you’d expect from one of Australia’s best restaurants.
The small, sophisticated dining room creates an intimate atmosphere that’s welcome compared to some of the larger restaurants in Red Hill. This, combined with the food, wine and on-point service, makes Ten Minutes the place to go in Red Hill when you want to impress.
My standout wine: Ten Minutes by Tractor Estate Pinot Noir
Foxey’s Hangout may be tiny, but visually it packs a punch. Walking in, it doesn’t appear much – basically just a shed. But once you’re through the front door you’re confronted with an abundantly green valley that seems to come out of nowhere.
The restaurant here is a casual affair, with a small selection of sharing plates and no bookings taken (if you’re more than five people, expect to wait for a table).
My standout wine: Not being a massive fan of Australian Chardonnay, I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed Foxey’s version. It was smooth and buttery without the overpowering ‘oakyness’ that’s so common in the Australian variety.
Polperro is another magnificent spot, with striking Eucalyptus trees bordering the property. It felt very relaxed and had it not been close to closing time, I would have been very tempted to spend the afternoon lazing underneath the trees in one of the deck chairs with a
bottle glass of wine in hand.
We didn’t eat at Polperro, and I’m kicking myself that we didn’t. The restaurant is chic and extends onto a large deck that overlooks the 25 acres of vineyard below. It all looked very inviting. We did take advantage of the tasting though. The sleek, intimate cellar door makes a tasting here feel a rather exclusive affair.
My standout wine: Polperro Estate Pinot Noir.
Red Hill Estate
This may be a larger winery, and therefore more touristy, but Red Hill Estate’s stunning view makes it well worth a visit. Sitting on its famous bench (they’ve named a wine after it), you can see beyond the vineyards to the bay below and across to Phillip Island (on a clear day).
It has a large tasting room primed for accommodating busloads of visitors, so be prepared for this one to be busy.
My standout wine: the limited edition Cabernet Sauvignon (although there’s only a few cases left, so be quick!). For something more economical, try the Heathcote Shiraz.
Once you’ve had your fill of wine
Merrick’s General Wine Store
Inspired by an old-school general store, this charmingly rustic café had me declaring “Oh my god, this place is sooo cute”. (I have a few New Yorker friends…) It’s also a great spot for brunch.
Merrick’s General Wine Store is popular with locals and out-of-towners alike, which is in large part due to the country fare that relies on local seasonal ingredients. They also have a cellar door and sell local artisan produce to take home. So. cute.
Red Gum BBQ
An American-style BBQ restaurant in a giant shed behind a service station. Doesn’t sound like it belongs on a wine tour, right? Wrong! As much as I loved the scent of eucalyptus across Red Hill, I just couldn’t resist the smell of smoky BBQ drifting through the air.
Time Out Australia calls Red Gum some of the best BBQ in Australia. The meat is slow cooked for up to 10 hours, and is frankly delicious. And because there’s nothing better than beer and BBQ, they have a good selection of Victorian craft beers on tap (and plenty of local wine too, of course).
It may be an unorthodox choice, but Red Gum BBQ is definitely a worthy addition to any visit to Red Hill.
Peninsula Hot Springs
I can’t think of a better way to end an indulgent getaway than a soak in a hot tub. The Peninsula Hot Springs has not one, but 16 of them!
Peninsula Hot Springs is about 20 minutes’ drive from Red Hill (90 minutes from Melbourne). Natural thermal mineral water flows into the various baths, which are nestled into secluded coves across the property. The standout was the hilltop pool – a hot tub with a 360 degree view across the Mornington Peninsula.
It was quite busy while I was there on Australia Day (a public holiday), which I was pretty certain would leave me feeling less than relaxed. But with over 3,700 milligrams per litre of minerals in the water, I left feeling light as a feather! For a less crowded experience, go in the morning or on a weekday.
Quick tips when visiting Red Hill