Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Bounty of the Yarra Valley

While spending some time in Melbourne, we decided to get out and enjoy the nearby countryside for a day.  What better way to do so than with a food and wine tour of the Yarra Valley?  We turned to our trusty Viator, one of our favorite resources for tours when we travel--it's a well-structured site with easy navigation and quality tours.  Through Viator, we located a small group food and wine tour run by Epicurean.

On Sunday morning, we were picked up at our hotel to join one other couple for the day.  Even if the van had been full, the tour is kept at a nice size to be able to enjoy the day and not feel herded around with a group.  Our guide was knowledgeable, fun and unobtrusive.  She set the expectations for the day as we drove out to the valley (always the least favorite part of these trips--kind of a boring drive out of town) and got us looking forward to a yummy day.  The little details were covered for us, such as a cooler of bottled water in the back and free wifi on board the van.

We arrived at DeBartoli winery for our first cheese and wine tasting.  DeBartoli in Yarra was established in 1989, following the purchase of the estate in 1987 by this Italian wine-making family. The estate is managed by third generation Leanne De Bortoli and her husband, De Bortoli Chief Winemaker Steve Webber.  We looked around the beautiful grounds a bit and then went inside to begin our tasting. A couple of knowledgeable staff members led us through the selections, while we tasted some amazing local cheeses.  They shared their opinions on favorite wines and you could tell they felt lucky to do this work.  We tasted one of their famed wines, "Noble", a sweet dessert wine and learned a real lesson in pairings.  The sweet wine and powerful blue cheese were a match made in heaven--neither element on its own really appealed to us, but together they brought out the best in each other. 

We left DeBartoli for Yering Station, which has a beautiful grounds with a nice produce and wine shop, a cafe and restaurant and an inn.  We were offered a huge tasting, but each of us narrowed down the options based on our preferences.  Our host gave us a time frame and told us about the layout of the grounds and things to see and do so we could enjoy our time on our own.  We sat upstairs at the cafe and had a mid-morning coffee break while we looked out at the surroundings and took a moment of wine respite. 
We had tasted a lot of the bounty of Yarra Valley, but there was a lot more to come.  We headed towards Domain Chandon for our included lunch.  Domain Chandon is part of the international company of Moet Chandon (Louis Vuitton etc.), which has certainly made its name as a luxury brand.  Sparkling wines are a big part of the repertoire here.  And, they continue their tradition of good branding and marketing with a wonderful commercial setting that draws in big crowds.
Not my favorite winery of all time...but a nice lunch spot.  We were seated with a great view of the vineyards and mountains beyond for our two course lunch.
The starter, a mix of antipasto, was quite good and fresh and served with one of their signature sparkling wines.  I chose a vegetarian tart for my main and really enjoyed its freshness.  The rest of the table chose the duck, which was good if not super inspired.  I think with the amazing array of seafood, beef, lamb and produce in the area--and being such a "foodie" hot spot, you could do better for a meal.  However, realistically, given all that was included in our tour--no complaints here.  After lunch, we were free to wander around or participate in their wine tasting, with a huge variety to try.  We took some pictures, enjoyed a few minutes in the sun on the chairs overlooking the vineyards and did a quick tour around their educational display.
Our last two stops of the day had a much different feel.  We went to Coldstream Hills, a small tasting room where we chatted amicably during the great tasting (while our host attempted to goad us in to a discussion of politics after telling the story of riling up another group about gun control).  We stayed neutral and kept the conversation to wine.  Coldstream Hills was founded by James Halliday, aka the Robert Parker of Australia (that's how the tour guide basically described him at least--anyway, he's an expert, who writes a lot about wine).  He knows his stuff, because they have consistently won awards and it was the first place to tempt our tour members in to shipping some home (not an option for those heading back to China).

Yarra Valley Dairy was our last tasty treat to round out the day.  This cute little farm/produce stand provided us with an outstanding cheese tasting and all types of tasty treasures.  Our host offered up some suggestions, from getting one of the local microbrews to a coffee and cake (all included) or shopping for some cheese and snacks to take home.  We took her up on the cake and coffee as all the treats looked so tempting and we couldn't fill up our suitcases with cheese (a pity!).

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Magical Melbourne: A Town Done Right

We had glorious weather for visiting Melbourne and the clear skies made everything crisp and beautiful, a stark contrast to the high air pollution and damp cold we left behind in Shanghai. But, Melbourne has a lot more going for it than the great weather of summertime. Here are a few reasons this is one of my new favorite cities:

1.  The parks and green space.  As our driver explained on the way to the airport (sadly, leaving), Melbourne was a planned city and the green spaces were well laid out to ensure there's always a park nearby.  I walked for hours each day amongst these beautiful spaces.  There are great paths along the Yarra river where you can watch the rowers go by, an immense botanical garden, Fitzroy Gardens and numerous little parks and green spaces at every turn. 

2.  The lanes: tiny lanes hide cafes, shops, restaurants and stores and make you feel like you are discovering something secret and special.  This is one place where the ideal location for a hot spot is not right up front on a busy street.  This city keeps its treasures slightly hidden, making a walk about town a small voyage of discovery.  A few favorites we discovered were Chuckle Park (a tiny cafe in its own little lane, with the "kitchen" being part of an old travel trailer at the end of an AstroTurf covered seating area), Meatballs and Wine (yum!) and the "graffiti lane"with one of Melbourne's best known tapas bars.  

Chuckle Park cafe

A lane full of great street art
Wolf's Lair rooftop bar
Though it was not in a lane, Wolf's Lair was another one of these Melbourne hidden gems--a rooftop deck attached to a small restaurant and bar, hidden away from the somewhat touristy "little Italy" area of Lygon Street.  We also found it quite clever that someone had taken the tiny pilings along the river under the foot bridge and turned it in to a small bar/cafe.  This seemed to be a favorite summertime spot--what could be better than pulling up a chair (or a keg which they had set up as makeshift chairs and footrests) in the middle of the river and enjoying the sun and atmosphere?

3.  The international flavor.  I often lament that it is going to be a challenge to live anywhere else after Shanghai for the broad range of international dining options we have at our disposal.  Obviously, we get great Chinese food--from all the regions, but we also can get our hands on just about any cuisine, from inexpensive Thai and Vietnamese to old favorites from home like NY pizza and bagels (really!) and some of the best Spanish food I have tasted outside of Spain.  Melbourne has a great Chinatown and though we took the chance for a respite from Chinese food, we've met some Aussies in Shanghai who promise authenticity.  Melbourne has one of the largest Greek populations in the world, Lygon Street and many places throughout the city had great Italian eats and most every Eastern culture was covered along with plenty of European imports and their own great Aussie cuisine. 
We didn't even have to miss out on Chinese New Year celebrations!   

4.  The markets and availability of local produce/fresh food.  We spent half a day walking around Queen Victoria Market, which had wonderful produce, meat, seafood, cheese (and huge piles of fresh Australian butter, which I tried hard to photo for a good friend who LOVES butter--but the glare got in the way!).  It also had a massive junk market, with everything from the requisite Ugg boots to clothes of all types, toys, souvenirs, housewares--completely junky, but fun nonetheless.  This is the most well-known and touristy market, but still a thriving place to get all types of good food.  However, there are many markets throughout the city and even nice little stands selling fruit on the city streets.  We have a lot of access to fruit and wet markets in China, but the food safety issues make it a less pleasant experience.  We buy a lot of the items like milk and meat from Australia and New Zealand, so there was just a comfort in the freshness, safety---and tastiness of it all.  Oh, and I haven't mentioned the seafood and wine!

5.  The architecture and art.  The city seemed to have the perfect mix of modern with wonderful old buildings...and somehow it all works.  The natural beauty of the parks and river somehow blend well with it all too--the planners obviously knew what they were doing and the growth has somehow been managed well (traffic, maybe less so).  It's a great street art city, too!
The train station at night
Windsor hotel, famed for high tea
Federation Square
We also loved the neighborhood of Fitzroy, and I'd probably add "the many different neighborhoods" to this list when we get more time to go back and explore.  We did have fun checking out Lygon Street and the nooks of downtown, but walking up to Fitzroy gave us a peak in to the different neighborhood personalities with its quirky shops, pubs, and restaurants.  We spent the evening popping in and out of places people watching from the many couches and window seats lining the streets.  Naked for Satan (with that name, it has to be good, right?) was our first stop and a great start to the evening--authentic Basque pinxtos (and homemade infused vodkas, though we didn't try those this time) and a popular rooftop party deck.  
One of the many pubs and restaurants of Fitzroy
I'd also have to add "proximity to Yarra Valley" and all kinds of natural wonders an easy trip from the city.  I'll share more about our Yarra Valley food and wine tour soon.  We can't wait to make another trip back to explore more of the natural wonders of Australia beyond the cities.