The ocean view summarises Australia in a single vista – untamed surf, huge skies, golden beaches, shimmering natural beauty. The Great Ocean Road that stretches along Victoria’s southwest coast brings all these elements together, augmented by luxurious comforts for travellers. And lurking in the background are some of Australia’s best vineyards. Their pristine, cool-climate wines have steel in their spine, fine structure and gentle perfume. Like the road trip, they are a true delight to the senses.
The journey covers 243km of winding, windswept highway that hugs the Southern Ocean, traversing towering limestone cliffs and rolling hinterland from Geelong to Portland. It’s an epic route, so fortify yourself for at least a day in Geelong before leaving. This big rural city is undergoing a metamorphosis, embracing a sophisticated dining and drinking culture that is underlined by prime wineries in the surrounding districts.
Vineyards were first planted here in the 19th century, although it was the first district in Australia to be attacked by phylloxera. Several old sites were replanted during a 1970s wine renaissance, notably the organic Prince Albert Vineyard at Waurn Ponds, and Bannockburn north of Geelong. Winemaker Garry Farr, who made Bannockburn’s fine Chardonnay, taut Pinot Noir and spicy Shiraz famous in the 1980s, has furthered the region’s kudos with his own label, By Farr. Wines made by his son Nick, released under the Farr Rising label, are equally compelling, especially his distinctive Pinot Noir. The Farrs do not have a cellar door, but look for their wines in local restaurants and shops.
By the early 1990s, plantings had been established across the Bellarine Peninsula, to the east of Geelong, with the large Scotchmans Hill winery and cellar door operation signalling a quality benchmark that prompted many more wineries to spring up across the region.
Several newer producers have kept a keen eye on regional tradition. Lethbridge Wines was founded by scientists Ray Nadeson, Maree Collis and Adrian Thomas. Their biodynamic and organic methods have revitalised the Lethbridge Estate Vineyard, originally planted in 1874 by Swiss immigrants, and the Mt Duneed vineyard, first planted in 1858. The wines, produced on site in a unique straw bale winery, are a testament to meticulous care capturing the characteristics of terroir.
Planted area 180ha
Main grapes White: Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc
Red: Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon,
Planted area 780ha
Main grapes White: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling
Red: Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon
Heading south from Geelong, the first Great Ocean Road attractions are the surf beaches of Bells Beach near Torquay (its international surfing tournament is held each Easter), Lorne and Anglesea. Surfboards and wetsuits can be hired from numerous shops, but be aware that swirling currents are especially strong.
Big scenic thrills come after rounding Cape Otway – the national park’s treetop walk is a highlight – and heading to Port Campbell, to see the awe-inspiring craggy limestone outcrops of the Twelve Apostles, and beyond to London Arch and the Loch Ard Gorge. Most travellers aim to take photographs at sunset, although driving the tricky roads at night is made more difficult by abundant wandering wildlife. You can split the route into three sections, which each take about 90 minutes to drive – from Geelong to Lorne; Lorne to Apollo Bay; and Apollo Bay to Port Campbell.
Beyond the beaches, vineyards are popping up throughout the Surf Coast hinterland, from eccentric English expat Will Wolseley’s winery at Paraparap – try his botrytis Semillon – to nearby Brown Magpie Wines for elegant Shiraz and dusky Pinot Gris.
Blakes Estate is planted mostly to Pinot Noir with a little Pinot Grigio, its best wine being a delicate sparkling Blanc de Noir. At Bellbrae Estate near Torquay, Matthew di Sciascio makes peppery Shiraz. Discover these wineries during the annual Toast to the Coast festival in November, or download information from the Otway Harvest Trail.
Its own reward
The prize at the end of this long drive is Henty, Australia’s coolest mainland wine region that gained GI status in 2000. Small pockets of vineyard sit between the merino sheep and cattle country around Portland, the coastal town founded by the Henty brothers in 1834. However, it wasn’t until 1964 that Karl Seppelt identified the region as ideal for producing sparkling and delicate, aromatic wines. Seppelt’s magnificent Drumborg vineyard was instrumental in stimulating greater Australian focus on cool-climate viticulture, and the plot continues to produce celebrated single-vineyard Riesling and Chardonnay.
This district’s beautiful undulating terrain has won the hearts of producers such as John and Catherine Thomson, who planted Crawford River in 1975. Their eldest daughter Belinda makes the brand’s benchmark Riesling.
Fruit from Henty has become so coveted that grapes are sourced by wineries from far and wide. Best’s Great Western wine marketer Jonathan Mogg and Belinda Low recognised this and created Hentyfarm Wines. They employ winemaker Justin Purser, also at Best’s Great Western, to work small wonders with grape grower Alistair Taylor’s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
If vineyard fatigue hasn’t set in, then it’s a relatively short skip west 150km over the state border into South Australia. Here, Penola is the southern gateway to Coonawarra, famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon. Or keep driving the four hours to Adelaide and its surrounding wine regions.
Chef Dan Hunter’s brilliant benchmark of elite regional dining is set on lush farmland near Birregurra, producing ingredients that inform his bold and inventive degustation meals.
Remote Dunkeld, 120km north of Portland, has become a destination dining hotspot thanks to the stellar eight-course tasting menu of chef Robin Wickens, supported by an incredible wine cellar stocked with more than 26,000 bottles.
Chef Matt Dempsey has won high praise for the clean, seasonal flavours he captures in his rural cottage restaurant at Inverleigh, 20 minutes’ drive south of Geelong.
This spectacular clifftop restaurant near Apollo Bay has long been a jewel, serving fine seafood with Greek and Middle Eastern influences. It has villa accommodation perched high above the pounding ocean.
The bright and sunny sibling eatery of Gladioli’s Matt Dempsey and his pal Graham Jefferies. Fresh, clean flavours are the key to their flexible shared plate dining options, with a proudly parochial all-Victorian wine list providing support.
Aaron Turner’s chic contemporary degustation eatery serves bold, elemental dishes informed by the big charcoal pit where Turner cooks most ingredients. The food is clever, complex and memorable, matched by an agile, single-page wine list.
This striking minimalist glass and timber pavilion at Lorne is a fully stocked house with five bedrooms, a rooftop deck with open bath, and wraparound patios that take full advantage of elevated ocean views.
Beside Great Otway National Park, three elegant, boomerang-shaped, two-bedroom timber cottages peek over the hinterland to the sea.
Observe a working sheep farm in action while staying in this grand eight-bedroom heritage homestead at Warncoort.
Shorefront resort at Apollo Bay: a line of attractive one- to three-bedroom apartments with spa baths, and all with commanding ocean views.
JetStar Airlines flies to Melbourne Avalon airport, 22km from Geelong, just northeast of the Great Ocean Road, although most people fly to Melbourne then drive less than an hour to Geelong. To reach the Henty region, fly to Mount Gambier in South Australia, then drive for 90 minutes east to Portland for the start of the Great Ocean Road, or about two hours inland to Dunkeld. If driving from Adelaide, allow about six hours of driving time.
David Sly is food and wine editor of SA Life magazine in South Australia. First published in the December 2016 issue of Decanter.