"Drop by...Rutherglen

It may only be a sleepy hamlet with a couple of thousand residents tucked away off the main roads of north-east Victoria, but Rutherglen is one of Australia's most historic — and important — wine regions.

Known as the home of Australia's great fortified wines (ports, muscats and tokays), Rutherglen and neighbouring Wahgunyah are also gaining increasing attention for the quality of their table wines.

History here dates to the 1850s gold rush. Pioneering Chambers Rosewood, the oldest winery in the region, was established in 1858; Morris, the biggest producer, in 1859; All Saints in 1864; and Campbells, now being run by the fourth generation of the family, in 1870. Well-known labels such as Stanton and Killeen (1875) and Buller (1921) are relative newcomers.

There is a glorious aroma that greets you when you enter any of the cellars of the great fortified producers. It's the smell of treacle, butterscotch and oak emanating from wines, many of them decades old, maturing in casks or giant oak barrels. Evaporation takes up to 5 per cent of the contents each year, as witnessed by the dark deposits on the winery walls and roofs. The locals call it "the angels' share".

Rutherglen is about 280 kilometres from Melbourne and is a place of pilgrimage for wine aficionados. It can be a sleepy spot, enlivened at weekends by tourists in their hundreds and inundated during the Tastes of Rutherglen festival held each March.

There are about 20 wineries in all, with several branching out stylistically. Cofield specialises in sparkling wines and Rutherglen Estates in European-style table wines. Newcomers Valhalla and Scion offer something different, while a visit to the new John Gehrig cellar door is a step back in time.

At All Saints, which is owned by a branch of one of Australia's most famous wine families — the Browns — visitors taste and enjoy lunch in an imposing chateau.

This is a close-knit community. Many of the winemakers will direct you to their neighbours and rivals if you don't find anything to suit your palate — and there's a history of hospitality handed down from generation to generation. It's a place with a heart, while characters, both grizzled veterans and bright young things, abound.

Campbells and Morris are among the older, more atmospheric, cellar doors, while at Pfeiffer you can enjoy a glass of wine on the Sunday Creek Bridge and gaze down at the busy turtles below....

Best cellar doors

All Saints is a heritage-listed estate run by the fourth generation of the Brown family. Tastings are conducted in an atmospheric old chateau and winemaker Dan Crane produces outstanding rieslings, marsannes and durifs. Visitors can enjoy lunch either at Terrace Restaurant or more casually at the adjacent Indigo Cheese facility. All Saints hosts regular Day on the Green concerts....

Where to eat

The Terrace at All Saints winery, where British-born chef Simon Arkless (formerly of Chester White in Melbourne) is a recent arrival, serves inventive seasonal dishes such as seared yellowfin tuna with smoked tomato and caper saffron dressing, or local rabbit wrapped in prosciutto with tomato, black olives, basil and polenta. The room has recently been revamped and the service is top-notch. It's arguably the best eatery in north-east Victoria — and with wines from All Saints and St Leonards available by the glass.

Lunches Sunday - Wednesday and dinner on Saturdays with a free pick-up/drop-off service. 1800 021 621, allsaintswine.com.au.

What to drink

You must samples some of the venerable old and rich muscats made at All Saints, Buller, Campbells, Chambers, Morris, Pfeiffer and Stanton and Killeen, along with some red wines made from the region's flagship durif grape, which is also known as petite sirah.

Festivals

The Tastes of Rutherglen festival is held over two weekends in March (March 9-10 and 16-17 this year) and is this year celebrating its 25th anniversary, while the Rutherglen Winery Walkabout is held over the Queen's Birthday weekend each June."

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Sydney Morning Herald, Winsor Dobbin, February 2013.