By Angela Macdonald-Smith, Australian Financial Review
Mildly undulating . . . the riding is hardly arduous on the vineyard circuit, although the author did find a mountain bike trail on which to cut loose.
We pull off the road onto a granite gravelled path, and with tyres scrunching, pedal down the avenue between magnificent rows of elm trees towards what looks like a castle in the distance.
Not for the first time that weekend I could have sworn I was in France.
In fact, as the ever-weightier wicker basket on my handlebars bore proof, we were coming to the next welcome stop on our cycling tour around the wineries of Rutherglen and Beechworth, in Victoria’s High Country.
Not that there seemed to be anything “high” or remotely hilly on our sun-dappled path towards All Saints Estate, one of the country’s original wineries. Which was just as well given our sedate transport, whose three gears were a good 20-odd fewer than I was used to.
“You’ll find three gears will be plenty,” Lennie at Destination Rutherglen had assured us that morning as we cast rather doubtful glances at our designated transport for the most recent extension to the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail.
Like the rest of the trail, the nine-kilometre extension, running from Rutherglen to Wahgunyah, was evenly sealed and flat – as you’d expect for a path developed from a disused rail line – and we needed to make only short diversions on open roads to get to our vineyards of choice.
The biggest problem was keeping to our schedule, given the various temptations along the way, both of the liquid kind and of the photographic variety. Every few minutes I’d be wanting to stop and try to capture for posterity those moments that took me right back to my days as an au-pair one endless summer in rural France.
We’d spent longer than we should have at Pfeiffer Wines that morning, chatting to chief winemaker Chris, who did a pretty good job of educating me about Rutherglen muscat and its less well-known sister, topaque.
“Australia’s gift to the wine world is muscat and Hunter Valley semillon,” Chris told us. “Some people would argue about Hunter Valley semillon, but there wouldn’t be an argument about Rutherglen muscat.”
His enthusiasm persuaded me to abandon my habitual avoidance of fortified wines and give them a go: as was clear by the increasing array of emptied glasses around us. Yes, definitely something to appreciate, although a bottle of the $123 Rare Rutherglen topaque would be sadly wasted on me.
But we did add to our straining bike baskets a bottle of Pfeiffer’s new “apera”, an aperitif-style drink with a fresh modern twist that renders it almost unrecognisable from the sherry my mum appreciates on the odd occasion.
Wandering with Chris down to the broad wooden bridge on his historic property spanning Sunday Creek, a tributary of the Murray River, we found a party leisurely enjoying a cheese platter with their wines at tables set out along the bridge. It looked an ideal way to while away a leisurely Sunday afternoon.
Chris tells us that for cyclists looking for a bit more adventure, an unsealed road at the back of his property offers a stunning ride from the John Foord pioneer cemetery along the Murray taking in Lake Moodemere. Sounds great, but maybe not for our bikes.
Fortunately we’d had a few more gears the previous day, when we joined one of the periodic Vineyard Back Road cycling tours around the picturesque old gold town of Beechworth.
Local winemaker Andrew Doyle, supported by a couple of enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteers, shepherded our group of about a dozen around five of the numerous vineyards scattered across the region, most of which are easily accessible from the Rail Trail.
However, while billed as “a mostly downhill 15-kilometre cycle”, there were still more than enough “undulations” on the off-road tracks to the various wineries to have a good few of the group off the bike and pushing at times.
No such trouble on our first stop, literally a few hundred metres around a park from our meeting point, at the picture-book Sorrenberg vineyard, only open to the public by appointment.
With just 2.5 hectares of vines, the family-owned business produces handmade wines in its tiny traditional cellar that have a cult-like following and are sold to top-notch restaurants such as Sydney’s Quay and Melbourne’s Rockpool, as well as being exported to Japan.
But while the wines are to die for, even for a non-connoisseur such as myself, what captivates me is the unbelievable setting, a million miles away from the ambience of my local bottle shop.
Reaching Pennyweight, just off the Rail Trail, I am again entranced by the beautiful courtyard at the Cellar Door, which transports me to another world, and certainly far from the Hume Highway.
We had a few kilometres to cycle along the trail, past the old alluvial gold workings dating from the 1850s after gold was discovered in Beechworth in 1852, to get to our next stop at Fighting Gully Road.
Another of the artisan vineyards that typically doesn’t open to the public, its offerings include the unique Aquila white, a dry blend of chardonnay, viognier and petit manseng, and a delicious fresh rose.
Winemaker Mark Walpole talks us through the other different cool climate wines of the “terroir”, where the first vines were planted just three years after gold was discovered, but which died out in the 1920s before the industry was revived in 1978.
Despite the area’s long history of wine-making, however, the vineyards typically remain in the hands of families, their tiny size dictated by Beechworth’s rolling countryside – keeping the majors off the scene.
Pedalling on, I am briefly lured away by the Flame Trees mountain bike trail, a six-kilometre single track which meanders along beside the Rail Trail. Designed by world-renowned course designer Glen Jacobs, it proves huge fun before I realise I’ve become the “lanterne rouge” of our group and nip back onto the sealed surface to catch up.
By the time we reach our lunch stop at Indigo Vineyard, we’ve had to negotiate a few hillier bits on private dirt roads past curious cattle and premium views across the foothills of the Victorian Alps.
After enjoying the professional cellar door experience, we sit down at a white table-clothed rustic banquet that looks straight from one of those outdoor cooking programs on the continent.
Continuing by bike is – quite sensibly by that time – optional to reach our last destination, Amulet Vineyard, and several of our party choose the minibus instead. Alongside the variety of wines we sample the winery’s spritzy Beechworth cider, so refreshing after all our pedalling.
After checking our sobriety – still well under control – we decide to ride the 11 clicks back to Beechworth in a bid to offset our indulging over the past five or so hours, or at least salve our conscience.
One extra stop – and one my partner has been particularly looking forward to – is Bridge Road Brewers, one of several craft breweries in the area and often included in the Vineyard Back Road trip.
Mountain bike enthusiasts will find the breweries conveniently located close to several of the tracks, all handily documented in the Brewery Trail guide.
Settled in the sunny former Cobb & Co courtyard, we get stuck into the 10 hand-crafted samples on today’s tasting paddle. The hefe weizen wheat beer and the cider have my vote, while my partner took a shine to the pale ales but had no difficulty finishing up the treacly darker brews too.
We were definitely walking home from here.
The writer was a guest of Tourism North East and Tourism Victoria
Dated - 08.11.12