When you think food and wine destinations in Victoria, where do you think of? The Mornington Peninsula? Gippsland? There is some very good eating and drinking to be had in those places, but you should definitely also consider the King Valley, in northern Victoria.
If you're on your way to the snow, the King Valley is a very appealing option for a foodie stopover on the way to or from the mountain. It's also a destination in its own right, offering award-winning wineries, food and oh my God, that cheese.
Where to eat and drink
The Pizzini family planted their first vines on their Whitfield property in 1978, initially growing grapes for nearby wine behemoth Brown Brothers. In the 1990s the Pizzinis decided to go into business for themselves, releasing their first wine under the Pizzini label in 1994. The winery is still a family affair. As you can probably guess from the name, that family is Italian, and their specialty wines are too. The King Valley is known for its prosecco, and Pizzini makes a ripper one. The winery makes excellent riesling, sauvignon blanc, shiraz and merlot, but the Pizzinis' real passion is Italian varietals. There are numerous styles, price points and vintages of nebbiolo and sangiovese, all of them completely delicious. These are wines you don't usually find at Australian wineries, so settle in and make the most of a trip to the King Valley by tasting them all (and buying a few to take home; you won't regret it). You can also stay at Pizzini (maybe the best option if you try a few too many of those Italian wines), with a self-contained two-bedroom cottage available for hire on the property. There is also a cooking school on site, A Tavola, run by Katrina Pizzini. Most classes focus on Italian cooking, but there are also sessions on pickling, pastry and tapas.
If you love cool-climate King Valley wine, a visit to Chrismont is a must. It's owned by the same family as nearby Pizzini Wines (co-owner Arnie Pizzini is a cousin of the Pizzinis), and this is a family that knows its wine. As it's in the King Valley, the prosecco here is excellent, but our favourite was the riesling, which is in the happy medium between sweet and dry, pairs beautifully with food, and at $18 is perfect for everyday drinking. Most of Chrismont's wines are like that – unpretentious, delicious and at a very affordable price point. If you want to get fancy, the Riserva range represents the creme de la creme and is extremely moreish. Speaking of moreish, make sure you have lunch at Chrismont's excellent restaurant, open from noon. It specialises in local produce and fresh ingredients, and the food is as jaw-dropping as the views. If it's in season, try the winter salad – no, really. A riot of colour – red onion, spinach, carrots, beans, legumes – is shot through with perfectly spicy salami. Surely all that colour and all those vegetables are good for you, but it is the kind of food where you want to shove the next forkful in your mouth before you've even finished the previous one. Chrismont is fiercely guarded by a chocolate labrador, who would no doubt cuddle a malefactor into submission. Make sure it's on your King Valley itinerary, winter or summer.
Brown Brothers is one of the country's oldest and most loved wineries, its Milawa vineyard located in the northern reaches of the King Valley in north-east Victoria. The winery was established all the way back in 1889 and has been a family-owned company throughout its long history, with the third and fourth generations now running the show. And they go through a LOT of wine – many millions of bottles a year go through the Milawa hub. There are more than 50 varieties to try at the cellar door, and with varieties from light and fruity through to zippy and sparkling, big and bold and sweet and sticky, there is something for everyone. Brown Brothers' winemakers have a dedicated 'kindergarten', where they work on developing new techniques, styles and varieties, as well as perfecting classics. Take a break from all that wine tasting (it's a hard life, after all) for lunch at Brown Brothers' hatted restaurant, Patricia's Table. Head chef Jarrod Kelley focuses on local, seasonal produce, with a menu that is always evolving. You can get two courses for $65 ($75 with matched wines), three courses for $83 ($98 with matched wines) or go the whole hog five courses for $105 ($120 for half-glasses of matched wines). Vegetarian options are also available.
When David and Anne Brown bought an old butter factory in the King Valley town of Milawa and turned it into Milawa Cheese Company, did they know what an important contribution to the dairy world of Australia they'd be making? We like to think so, because Milawa Cheese is making some incredible cheeses. The team make a full range of cow and goat cheese, and they run the gamut from smooth and creamy to sharp and crumbly to gooey and cheesy. Our favourites are the slightly stinky King River Gold and the Milawa Club Blue, which is a perfect blend of aged and mild blue for just the right amount of kick. Milawa Cheese offers free tastings daily, and the shop also sells plenty of accoutrements (charcuterie, crackers, jams and spreads) to make the perfect cheeseboard. If you want to stay a while, there is a restaurant and café on site. You can even just get a takeaway coffee and skip the cheese entirely – but we're pretty sure you're not going to.
Where to stay
If you're in the King Valley to enjoy some of the foodie treats the region has to offer, you'd do well to base yourself at Lindenwarrah. The hotel is in a prime position to visit all of the gourmet delights of Milawa and the surrounding valley, with wineries, smoked meats, fancy mustards and chutneys and some of the best cheese in Victoria within walking distance. Lindenwarrah has the atmosphere of a country house, with comfortable lounges for playing games if it's too cold or wet outside and lovely views of vast swathes of vines right outside the windows. The hotel is family friendly, and when we visited there were children tearing up and down the halls and firmly ensconced in the lounges, playing games to while away the time. Rooms are spacious and comfortable, with a connecting balcony for enjoying the views over the vines or the hotel's pretty garden (ground-floor garden rooms have direct access to the outside). The hotel's Merlot restaurant (named after the vines it overlooks) is open for breakfast and dinner. Breakfast is buffet style, which as everyone who has been to a hotel knows, is the best way to do breakfast, as you can load up on bacon, eggs, mushrooms, beans, tomatoes, cereal or pastry without judgement. Dinner is a la carte, with an emphasis on high-quality, fresh produce and extra little touches like bread with olive oil and housemade dukkah. The room itself does not quite match the delights on the plate – it feels cold and a little sterile, more like a