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Ripe for the Picking
With hearty soil and cool-climate vineyards aplenty, Victoria’s Central Gippsland region at the base of the Victorian Alps offers a veritable wealth of undiscovered foodie delights
Words and Images by: CATHY ANDERSON

Victoria’s Gippsland region is immense. Covering 41,600 square kilometres, it stretches from the fringes of Melbourne’s suburbs to the NSW border, and from the high country to the coast. Within a region this size, there is plenty of diversity to be discovered! 

The Central Gippsland region surrounding the city of Sale encompasses everything from the epic high country surrounding Dargo and Licola, to the magnificent 90 Mile Beach. 

The northern areas around the townships of Heyfield, Cowwarr, Maffra and Glenmaggie have traditionally been dominated by dairy farming thanks to its rolling verdant landscape. While it still has an enviable reputation for firstclass milk, cheese and beef, the region now boasts a burgeoning vegetable farming rep, wineries have been established and gourmet food makers have crept in to sleepy towns to take advantage of fresh, local produce and create fare that would be equally at home in fine dining institutions of Melbourne. 

Central Gippsland also has four RV Friendly Towns in its borders: Heyfield, Maffra, Sale and Rosedale. Combined with the many low-cost campsite options in the area, there’s a fantastic food and wine trail capitalising on the close proximity of Vines on Avon, Blue Gables, Glenmaggie Wines and the Tinamba Hotel that is literally ripe for the picking. 

But don’t just take our word for it. Here we meet local food and wine operators who were born and bred in the area and are dedicated to spreading the good word about their slice of Gippsland. 

MEET THE WINEMAKERS 

When Tony and Fleur Dawkins decided to start a vineyard on a parcel of land Tony bought from his parents’ dairy farm, it was a big dream. The pair were unhappy with their city careers, wanted to start a family and saw an opportunity to create a home and business in one out in the country. 

“That was the dream and we did a back-of-the-envelope plan; you know, you plant this many vines and you make this many bottles and you sell them for this, you make this,” Tony Dawkins tells The Wanderer. “We thought there could be a living there, so let’s give it a go!” 

In the mid-1980s they did a trial run of the vines but didn’t plant the majority of vines and start to make a decent amount of wine until the mid-1990s. To make ends meet Tony share farmed his parents’ dairy farm, but wine was always going to win in the push-pull as dairy farming techniques become more high-tech and vineyards are a long term prospect (and wine lasts a lot longer than milk). 

Fast forward to now and he admits the couple have made “every mistake you possibly could” but they produce six varieties of wine each year (shiraz, chardonnay, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and sparkling blanc) and are winning awards, especially for their cabernet sauvignon. 

A long lunch at Blue Gables 

The reputation of Central Gippsland’s winemakers is slower than what he and owners of other surrounding vineyards, including Blue Gables Vineyard, The Vines on Avon and Narkoojee, would like, but Tony says visitors are always pleasantly surprised by the quality of the wines. 

“People are still discovering Gippsland,” he says. “There are quite a few vineyards and they are growing across the region and they are building more and more cellar doors. And when you go there, you will meet the winemakers. It won’t be staff that you are talking to — you will be talking to people who own and run them. It is very refreshing. 

“We act as a de facto information centre when we open our cellar door. We are often referring people where to stay, where to go fishing, how far away the snow is and who’s got the best counter meal at the pub at the moment — people love that sort of stuff.” 

“We give our time to do that and I think you’ll find all Gippslanders will do that,” he says. “They are proud of what they do and very happy to welcome visitors through.” 

The pair are building a separate cellar door but at present invite guests to sample their wines at their kitchen bench inside their mud brick home on Sundays and by appointment. They also host weddings and functions. 

Tony & Fleur Dawkins from Glenmaggie Wines 

Nearby, Blue Gables is appropriately named after the charming farmhouse on the property where winemakers Alistair and Catherine Hicks and their three children live. Catherine’s dairy farming father, Keith, has been on the property for over 40 years and was seeking a use for the northfacing slope which he could not irrigate, growing grapes was the ideal solution. 

The combination of an exposed site with warm days and crisp nights enable Blue Gables to produce four varieties, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot gris and shiraz, spread across their seven acres. 

Their cellar door is open on weekends offering up wine tastings and authentic wood fired pizzas, along with cheese and antipasto platters from local producers. They regularly have live music on weekends, and bookings are essential for this popular cellar door. 

Further down the line, The Vines on Avon cellar door overlooks the vines and offers up a laid-back atmosphere, with plenty of space for the kids and regular live music sessions. Winery for breakfast? Yes please! The Vines on Avon are open for breakfast and lunch on weekends, with a menu of specials to complement Avon Ridge Wines. 

Back in 2008, the Gray family, who shared a passion consuming wine, yet not much knowledge of winemaking nor viticulture, decided to breathe life back into this run-down vineyard. Fast forward a decade and the fruit of these 30-year-old vines are hand-crafted into award-winning Avon Ridge cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. 

Food and wine events in the region are spreading the good word as well, including the Tinamba Food and Wine Festival (held on the Sunday after Easter), the East Gippsland Food, Wine and Beer Festival and the Heyfield Food and Wine Festival to be held on 20 October. 

FINE DINING IN TINAMBA 

The tiny town of Tinamba has been put on the culinary map over the last 10 years thanks to the co-owners of the Tinamba Hotel, Damien Gannon and Brad Nielson. 

The pair, born in Tinamba and nearby Traralgon respectively, ran the successful Nielsons restaurant in Traralgon before making a move to the ‘big smoke’ of Melbourne. But, just like Tony Dawkins, home was calling. The Tinamba Hotel was up for sale and the pair saw the potential to bring fine dining to their town. 

“We spent three months renovating it to change it from just a country hotel into more of a destination restaurant,” Gannon says. 

Part of the renovation was a kitchen garden which now has a full time gardener producing tomatoes, broccolini, zucchini, herbs and tiny Mexican sour cucumbers among other things for the kitchen. Standouts from the menu include twice baked Maffra garlic cheddar soufflé, Glenmaggie blue and cauliflower arancini and 230g Gippsland eye fillet. 

“We use as much local produce as we can,” Gannon says. “The one we really champion is Maffra Cheese, which is just around the corner. It has been operating for maybe 30 years and the cheese is award winning. The Maffra Mature Cheddar and Maffra Pickled Onion & Chilli Cheddar won bronze medals at the recent International Cheese & Dairy Awards 2019 in the UK. 

“If anyone comes in here, almost every dish has Maffra Cheese in it!” 

Gannon keeps his ear to the ground to find out about local producers and, through his involvement with collaborative group Food and Fibre Gippsland, has forged relationships with producers, growers, winemakers and craft breweries including Sailors Grave and Bullant Brewery. 

Gannon says compared to 10 years ago, there’s no shortage of food and wine options to keep travellers sated. 

“When we started 10 years ago there weren’t that many upmarket fine dining places up this way. There was Nielsons and the odd place in Sale but now there are lots of wineries that offer food and there are some really great local wines. 

“We are still a little bit unknown. Everyone knows about Yarra Valley and the Mornington Peninsula and sections of Gippsland, but not realising the size of Gippsland — you could spend weeks just meandering around down here.” 

WORK IT OFF 

Once you’ve had your fill of the gourmet delights of the region, you’ll find plenty of ways to keep the waistline trim in Central Gippsland. 

Unhook your bicycle off the back of your RV and explore the beautiful countryside from Traralgon through to Stratford along the Gippsland Plains Rail Trail. Passing through Heyfield, Tinamba and Maffra, you can pick up the trail nearest to your campsite and see where your legs (and your hunger) take you. 

Lake Glenmaggie is well known for its fishing, specifically for trout, carp and redfin, and it’s a popular boating destination too. The lake supplies town water for Heyfield and Maffra as well as valuable irrigation for the surrounding district. 

Cowwarr Weir is another place to explore, with an extensive grassy foreshore. Plus there’s picnic tables and on-site toilets for day trippers. 

At Heyfield, take a stroll around the Heyfield Wetlands which was once the town’s racecourse. Here you can meander around four different walks to admire graceful water birds and frogs as well as unique water plants thriving in the wetlands mud. 

Visit historic villages such as Boisdale and Briagolong and explore the buildings of yesteryear, including the old courthouse at Maffra (now the visitor information centre), as well as stately old homesteads once owned by elite families in the early days of settlement such as Mewburn Park Homestead, Fulham Park Homestead and Duart Homestead. 

Classic car lovers will get a real thrill from Gippsland Vehicle Collection Motor Museum at The Maffra Shed with its amazing collection of more than 160 special cars, motorbikes, and auto memorabilia. The items on display reflect motoring and transport from horse drawn carriages through to modern racers. 

And if you’re in Sale and keen for a touch of culture, check out the Gippsland Art Gallery. Situated at the Port of Sale, overlooking the historic port and parkland. Every year the Gallery hosts around 30 exhibitions of local, national and international significance, in addition to ongoing and evolving displays of their permanent collection. 

The region is at the base of the Great Dividing Range and there are numerous tracks in the pristine Avon Wilderness Area for those with a 4WD to explore. 

WHERE TO STAY 

Central Gippsland has four RV Friendly Towns: Heyfield, Maffra, Sale and Rosedale. In Maffra, short term parking is available at Old Gordon St Reserve, cnr Macfarlane St & Clark St while longer stays for $15 per night are available at Maffra Golf Club & Sale Showground. 

In Rosedale, 48-hour stays are available at Willow Park on the A1 Princes Hwy before Heyfield turnoff with a donation payable to the donation box, and for longer stays try Holey Plains State Park on Stradbroke Rd. Stay for short or longer periods in Sale at the Sale Motor Village Princes Hwy for $10 per night.

Tags: Wellington Victoria VIC Gippsland Heyfield Cowwarr Maffra Glenmaggie Tinamba Festival Event Rosedale
Category: Features
Written: Tue 01 Oct 2019
Printed: October, 2019
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FAST FACTS

Central Gippsland is a two-hour drive east of Melbourne. Its borders stretch from Cowwarr in the west to Tabberabbera in the east and from the sea at Port Albert along the coast to the Gippsland Lakes, and then north-east to Victorian alpine snow country. 

MORE INFO: 

Central Gippsland visitor information 

www.centralgippsland.com.au 

Tinamba Hotel 

https://tinambahotel.com.au/ 

Glenmaggie Wines 

http://glenmaggiewines.com 

Blue Gables Wines 

www.bluegables.com.au 

The Vines on Avon 

instagram.com/thevinesonavon/