"We should buy some land down here," says my wife all of a sudden. "I love this quiet farm country. We could have a little vineyard, maybe. And it's so close to the sea. I've got a feeling this area could be the next Margaret River."
We're driving up through Victoria's Surf Coast hinterland south-west of Geelong, heading home to Melbourne after a few days on the Great Ocean Road. She's right: this part of the world does feel a lot like Margaret River used to a decade or two ago: it's already home to a few very good vineyards, restaurants and food producers, and it's on the cusp of becoming incredibly popular, as more and more people realise the suitability of the region's rolling country to vines and cellar doors and winery tourism.
There are other strong parallels between Victoria's Surf Coast and Western Australia's premier wine-tourism destination: the spectacular beauty of the coastline; the strong surf culture; the fabulous soaring forests and the mob of tree-changers dwelling within. The major difference, of course, is that while Margaret River is an inconvenient three-and-a-half hours' drive south of Perth, the Surf Coast is just shy of two hours from Melbourne - and this trip will be significantly shorter once the Geelong Ring Road opens (hopefully later this year).
The region is bordered to the north by the Princes Highway running from Geelong to Colac; its western 'boundary' then snakes down through the Otway Ranges national park to Lorne, before returning east along the Great Ocean Road to Torquay and back up to Geelong on the Surf Coast Highway.
A number of vineyards were planted on the southern fringes of Geelong in the region's glorious 19th-century wine heyday. And while a couple of those old sites were replanted in the wine renaissance of the 70s - notably the four-acre organic Prince Albert vineyard at Waurn Ponds, now completely surrounded by houses - the majority of Geelong's modern wine industry was established first north of the city (Idyll Vineyard, Mt Anakie, Bannockburn), then, in the 80s and early 90s, on the Bellarine Peninsula, down towards Portarlington and Queenscliff (Scotchman's Hill, Curlewis).
Then, in the late 90s and early years of this new millennium, a third wave of viticultural pioneers struck out to the south-west of Geelong, into the Surf Coast hinterland and the foothills of the Otway Ranges. In many cases, a visit to these still-new cellar doors - particularly during the annual Toast to the Coast festival in November - feels like sneaking a peek of the Next Big Thing. Perhaps even the next Margaret River.
PRINCES HIGHWAY TO THE OTWAYS
When it opens, the Geelong Ring Road will pick drivers up from just north of the city and deposit them on the Princes Highway at Waurn Ponds. Wine-loving visitors will then be able to start their journey through the region with their first cellar-door visit - and perhaps a spot of lunch.
Pettavel, just to the west of Waurn Ponds, is the region's showcase winery - but it's no show pony: there's plenty of substance behind the style. Winemaker Peter Flewellyn produces a good range of wines here: the standout for me is the gloriously intense late-harvest riesling. The spacious, light-filled cellar door also features a tapas-style wine bar (the wine list includes bottles from other regions in Australia and around the world as well as Pettavel's own), and an excellent restaurant: the daily-changing menu offers three small entrées, a choice of eight mains, and seven desserts and cheese for a remarkable $75. Chef Matt Dempsey's food combines a European cooking sensibility with a few Asian and Middle Eastern touches. Aim to arrive at lunchtime (bookings recommended) and don't make many strenuous plans for the rest of the afternoon.
Once you've walked off lunch, travel west. Just before you hit Colac, and as the country begins to widen out into the broad, low vistas of the Western District, you pass all too briefly through Irrewarra. This tiny hamlet is a hub of artisanal food production: it's home to the excellent Irrewarra Homestead biodynamic ice-cream (go for the strawberry flavour, made from locally grown fruit), and Irrewarra Sourdough breads, baked in an old wood-fired oven in one of the region's original farmhouses. The bakery itself is not open to the public but the breads are widely available across the region - notably at the Irrewarra Sourdough Café in Geelong.
A little to the north of Colac, the Red Rock winery, restaurant and vineyard sprawls across the base of what was once a powerful volcano, whose mighty lava flows formed the surrounding country. Good, pungent sauvignon blanc and succulent, spicy shiraz are the highlights here.
Red Rock is owner Rohan Little's second winery: in the mid-90s he was involved with the winery now known as Otway Estate. Found down a side road in the forest south of Colac, this 20-year-old vineyard has recently undergone a major makeover and now boasts a modest function centre, accommodation, café and, from the beginning of 2007, a brewery. This is marginal grape-growing country - it's much cooler and wetter than the vineyards of Geelong, further east - and the beer, sold under the Prickly Moses label, easily steals the limelight.
INTO THE HINTERLAND
The most exciting news in the region is that George Biron and Dianne Garrett's legendary Sunnybrae restaurant and cooking school just outside Birregurra, east of Colac, has reopened after an eight-year hiatus. Biron's passion for the region and for its food infuses everything at Sunnybrae, from the vast kitchen to the wood-fired pizza oven, from Biron's famous vegie patch, olive trees and young pinot noir vines to his precious old 50s espresso machine, stashed in the shed as though it were a classic motor car. The format of service in the restaurant (open only for Saturday and Sunday lunch) is less structured, less restaurant-like than it used to be, and Biron is working on a dedicated wine room - a haven within the restaurant itself - for tastings, to encourage wine-lovers to come to Sunnybrae and bring precious old bottles.
Biron's influence on the region's food culture is enormous - and can be seen just up the road in the town of Birregurra itself. Established in the town's old butcher shop, Birregurra Farm Foods sells very good local beef and lamb, plus local olive oils and wines: this is a good place to buy the elegant shiraz, pinot and gently pink sparkling from the cellar door-less Kurabana Vineyard at Mt Moriac, in the hinterland to the east of Birregurra. Once you've stocked up, make the time to stop and enjoy the excellent coffee and authentic Lebanese-style pizze a few doors up, at the Birregurra General Store.
Vineyards are popping up everywhere across the Surf Coast hinterland. Eccentric, elusive expat Pom Will Wolseley was the first to explore the region between Birregurra and Anglesea, planting pinot noir, cabernet and semillon at the wonderfully palindromic hamlet of Paraparap in the early 90s. His cabernet is variable but can be fine and blackcurranty. The best wines, though, are the extraordinary, intensely flavoured golden sticky fluids made from botrytis-affected - nobly rotten - semillon. What this place lacks in glamour and glitz (opening hours are sporadic and the 'cellar door' is some hastily upturned barrels in the cluttered tiny winery shed), it more than makes up for in character. Wolseley has also constructed some solar-powered airy cabins on the property, and expects to rent these out as accommodation within the year.
The small cellar door at nearby Brown Magpie Wines is, by contrast, purpose-built, modern and open regularly. With just a handful of vintages under their belts, corporate refugees Shane and Loretta Breheny's vineyard and winery has established itself as one of the burgeoning region's best; producing earthy, delicate and supple pinot noir, spicy and elegant shiraz and, more recently, ripe, honeyed, dusky pinot gris.
An earthy, spicy pinot noir is also my pick of the reds at Jan and Peter Greig's Kinsella's Bridge vineyard, draped across a north-facing hill in the higher, rolling pasture country near Deans Marsh. The taut and lime-juicy riesling is good, too - as you'd expect, perhaps, from this cooler, higher site.
Just outside Deans Marsh, the tiny, lovingly tended Blakes Estate vineyard is tucked into a gentle, bucolic hollow. The vineyard is planted solely to pinot noir, but Roger Blake manages to produce four wines: a dry rosé, two pinots (a standard and reserve) and - the best wine by far, in my opinion - a fine, delicate, redcurrant-and-apple flavoured blanc de noir sparkling.
Drive north to Winchelsea, out of the hills and onto warmer, drier, flatter country, and you come across Dinny Goonan Family Estate. This cellar door has more than a touch of Brunswick Street-chic to it, with its proper cappuccino machine and lovely, solid, green-blue leather 50s furniture. The retro-urban mood makes sense when you realise that many Melburnians pass by the cellar door each summer on their way down to the Great Ocean Road resort town of Lorne. So far, Dinny Goonan's best wine has been a tangy and intense dry riesling, but he plans to join Wolseley in the quest to make great botrytis-sweet whites.
Before the vineyards arrived, this part of the world was well known for fruit-growing, particularly berries. At Gentle Annie Berry Gardens, maker of possibly the best jams in the region, you can pick your own berries from November to April. Or try some of the preserves at the Freshwater Cakes bakery in Freshwater Creek on the Anglesea Road, a must-stop destination if you're a fan of the old-fashioned, CWA-style passionfruit sponge (you can't miss the cake shop - there are only about half-a-dozen buildings in Freshwater Creek, and the bakery's the one with all the cars parked outside).
ON THE ROAD
While the hinterland is a hive of activity, there are also some good places to eat and drink much closer to - even right on - the Great Ocean Road itself.
A whole generation of locals and tourists visiting the Road have been fed and watered and sent on their way with a smile by Kosta Talimanidis and his family. First at Kosta's in Lorne, now at A la Grecque in Aireys Inlet, the casual but enthusiastic hospitality and bright, bold food have kept the tables turning over at a steady rate. The cooking is simple but assured - roasted mushrooms on toast with feta and thyme is lifted to the status of memorable lunch dish by top-quality ingredients. The short wine list is well stocked with good Geelong region wines at fair prices.
Bellbrae Harvest restaurant is tucked away down a track a few minutes' drive inland from the Great Ocean Road. It has a 'secret garden' feel to it: the entrance is through an unremarkable opening in the fence off the small car park. Chef James White's food includes the Sichuan-spiced pork belly and fried soft-shell crab with green papaya and grapefruit salad, as well as traditional and Eurocentric house-made preserves. You don't find medlar jelly everywhere, but you'll find it here. There's also boutique accommodation, should you wish to stay overnight.
One of the region's newest and most impressive small vineyards is Bellbrae Estate, just outside the popular surf town of Torquay. Winemaker Matthew di Sciascio produces some excellent, bright and breezy wines: the spicy, peppery shiraz is my pick, but all are good, as demonstrated by Bellbrae Estate winning the award for most successful exhibitor at the Geelong Wine Show in 2007.
While most people think Torquay is all about surfing, it also boasts a few delights for food-lovers. The excellent Screaming Seeds range of spice mixes, rubs and marinades is produced just outside Torquay (no visits, but the products are available in many places in the region, such as Bellbrae Harvest, and can be ordered online); Flippin' Fresh on the Surf Coast Highway is the kind of superb, deservedly busy fish 'n' chip shop you wish was around the corner from your house; and Scorched restaurant, right on the waterfront, is a marvellous outpost of smart fine dining. Hope for a balmy evening and enjoy dishes such as prawn baklava with cardamom clotted cream while choosing fromthe tight but mouth-watering selection of wines.
Ken and Joy Campbell were pioneers when they established the Mt Duneed Vineyard in the early 70s on Feehans Road, a gentle rise off the Surf Coast Highway. While they no longer produce their own wine, they continue to inspire others to plant. One of the latest is Peter Logan, who has established a vineyard right next door to the Campbells and called it, simply, Feehans Road. The first few vintages have been excellent: the Feehans Road shiraz in particular is intense and spicy, with a core of plush fruit and fine-grained tannins - and immediately up there among the region's best reds. Again, production is small, so almost the only way you'll get to glimpse this rising star in the Geelong wine firmament is to hit the road.