This article is part of a guide to Melbourne from FT Globetrotter

Ask somebody in Melbourne to recommend a wine region around an hour’s drive away, and chances are they will point you north-east to the Yarra Valley. 

The valley is lovely, of course, but nowadays, a smarter answer would be the lower-profile Mornington Peninsula on Australia’s southern coast.

When it comes to winery restaurants, there is no contest.

The 2023 version of the Good Food Guide, Australia’s answer to the Michelin guide, bestowed a “Chef Hat” award on four wine-based restaurants in Yarra Valley, while lavishing 14 hats on 12 restaurants on the peninsula.

Mushroom forestry parfait at Ten Minutes by Tractor

“That says a lot,” says Martin Spedding, co-owner of Ten Minutes by Tractor, the only winery restaurant that was awarded two hats. The difference would have been even starker, he adds, if another peninsula favourite, the previously two-hatted Laura at Point Leo Estate, had not been closed for most of 2022 because of a fire.

“The peninsula is already well known among wine lovers, but it is only just starting to get the recognition it deserves for its dining and all the other things, like the coastlines and fantastic golf courses, hot springs and sculpture parks,” he says. “It’s still a bit of a hidden gem compared to regions like Yarra Valley, Margaret River and the Barossa.”

Mornington Peninsula’s mix of sheltered bay beaches and wilder surf coast make it an ideal holiday destination, but with water on three sides, it has a cool maritime climate, with mild temperatures in summer and winter, which is unique for an Australian wine region. About three-quarters of the area’s vines are Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, known for their freshness and balance, while aromatic grapes such as Pinot Gris are gaining ground. Variety comes from the differing soils and elevation of rolling volcanic hills.

An aerial shot of the Mornington Peninsula, surrounded by sea
The Mornington Peninsula’s cool maritime climate makes it unique for an Australian wine region © Chris Putnam/Alamy

A history of small land holdings means any use of these fertile soils has been on a small scale, whether it be dairy production, growing stone fruit or winemaking, with family businesses dominating. “That has led to a big focus on driving quality,” says Spedding. “It is simply too expensive to drive scale here, so it has to be a high-value-added product to make it work.”

Peninsula wineries were first commended in a London contest in 1886, but most vines were abandoned for vegetable growing in the 1920s, and apple orchards were predominant for the greater part of the 20th century. The first new vineyards emerged in the 1970s, followed by rapid growth in winemaking in the mid-1990s. There are now 200-plus vineyards, with at least 50 offering cellar-door tastings and direct sales to customers.

At the start of this century, only a few offered food with their wine tastings, but there is now a focus on offering broader experiences with a mix of local produce, wine and scenery. 

Apart from wineries, the peninsula is also home to a plethora of breweries, distilleries, cheese and olive producers, accommodation options and highly rated restaurants such as the two-hatted Tedesca Osteria in Red Hill and Audrey’s (one hat) at the Continental Sorrento, a clifftop hotel that dates from 1875 but reopened last year as a glitzy member of the IHG group. 

Getting there

Helicopter rides are available from the Yarra River in the centre of Melbourne, but you will still need a car to really take in the peninsula. Driving is best as it is just 75km or an hour’s drive south-east of the city centre.  

1. Port Phillip Estate

263 Red Hill Road, Red Hill South, VIC 3937

I rarely dine out alone, but I’m glad I did for this lunch because my solo window seat allowed me to concentrate quietly on the blend of architecture, scenery, food and wine that I might not otherwise have fully appreciated.

The limestone-trimmed main building at Port Phillip Estate is a low arc along the crest of a ridge that makes it feel as much a part of the landscape and soil as the wine that comes from the vines below the window and the produce from the estate’s own gardens.

A curved, windowless, limestone section of Port Phillip Estate’s main building
Port Phillip Estate’s main building makes for a striking architectural statement © Jeremy Blode

This dining room has some of the most elevated views on the peninsula, showing a broad sweep of Westernport Bay with French Island to the left and Phillip Island stretching to the right.

Below the window a galah waddled happily across the lawn and the vineyard formed a large natural amphitheatre with handpicked vines running down the hill to two dams. Lazily watching a team of eight workers hand-pruning those vines brought a special bit of context to my glass of 2020 estate Sauvignon Blanc.

Some of Port Phillip Estates’ vines running down to a dam, with a gardener riding a lawnmower in the foreground and lush trees in the background
The winery’s vines run down a hill to two dams © Andrew Gash

The lush green of the grass, vines and trees was quite odd for Australia in summer, and a reminder that the maritime setting makes the peninsula unusually damp.

My starter from the three-course menu (A$100, about £54) was a nicely moist roasted blue mackerel with a rich beetroot that had been baked in a salt crust thick enough to be broken off intact.

A seafood dish on a plate in Port Phillip’s restaurant
Much of the produce at Port Phillip is local
A set table in the estate’s dining room, with views of hills and the sea
The estate’s dining space looks out towards Westernport Bay

Next was a fillet of kingfish and marinated shiitake packed with flavour and several strips of more delicate poached calamari.

A single plump scallop served on a plate of hot stones had crossed the country from Western Australia, and the oysters were from Tasmania, but almost everything else was much more local, including whiting and mussels from Port Phillip Bay, game meats, olive oil and vegetables from the peninsula, and quinces, radishes and herbs from the estate.

The entrance to Port Phillip’s main building – large dark-wood doors in a concrete facade, with trees and the sea in the background
The entrance to Port Phillip’s main building
Large wooden vats in the dimly lit barrel room at Port Phillip Estate
The estate’s barrel room

My highlight was the dessert, a white chocolate and Veliche sorbet “wagon wheel” that gave off a white fog and was topped with strawberries grown a few kilometres away in Tuerong.

All recommended wines on the menu come from the winery’s own range except the dessert wines, which are not suited to the maritime climate. There is also a more extensive wine list available, showcasing current and older vintages alongside a selection of imported fine wines, predominantly red and white Burgundy and red varieties from Piedmont.

The polished concrete floors of the dining room open on to a large timber viewing deck, while a grand internal staircase leads down to a wine library and the operation’s bottling facilities. There are also six luxury suites that have their own sweeping views and private terraces. Website; Directions

2. Montalto

33 Shoreham Road, Red Hill South, Vic 3937
A thin, angular metal sculpture in front of rows vines going down a hill at Montalto vineyard
As well as a winery, Montalto is also a sculpture park

There are no sea views at Montalto, so the estate has constructed its own relaxing setting with its dining and wine-tasting rooms looking out over not just vines but a sculpture park, kitchen gardens and lawns dotted with picnic tables and umbrellas.

Throw in the most-feted Chardonnays on the peninsula and the result is an obvious success, where a workforce that has reached 120 helps to make Montalto one of the busiest estates in the region, along with Jackalope and Port Leo.

Montalto’s fine-dining restaurant offers a sunny long-lunch experience through a curated four-course set sharing menu (A$115, about £62) that is heavily driven by produce from the estate’s three acres of gardens and orchards, which grow its vegetables, salad leaves, herbs, pears, apples and berries.

Marinated-prawn pizza on a plate at the Piazza
Marinated-prawn pizza at the Piazza . . . 
Outdoor seating shaded by umbrellas at the Piazza
. . . which is the more casual of two dining spaces at Montalto

A second restaurant, the Piazza, is more casual and much busier. Pizza is the mainstay — the marinated-prawn pizza is good value at A$35 (about £19) — alongside just a few other main courses, such as gnocchi with tomato and zucchini (A$34), market fish with anchovy crumb and garlic purée (A$40) and duck confit leg with raspberry (A$38). According to operations manager Luke Gooley, it can handle up to 600 people for Saturday and Sunday lunch.

There has been a lot of development and investment in the region over the past five or six years, says Gooley, with wine tourism both booming and evolving.

“There has been a shift in the way people visit cellar doors,” he says. “They used to come once a year to buy boxes of wine. Now they make multiple visits and make it a dining visit instead of just tasting and shopping.

Bottles of wine and glasses on a table set for a picnic in a glade overlooking vines at Montalto
Montalto also offers a picnic experience where guests select a wine before receiving a map to guide them to a private site in the grounds where their food awaits them ©

“You can have a proper wine tasting if you like or just a drink on the lawn, or a casual picnic, or a long lunch.”

The “picnic experience” involves choosing a wine then being given a map to guide you to a private site in the grounds where a table has been set with linen and food. The “Estate to Plate” option is a garden tour followed by a wine tasting and lunch.

Australian wine guru James Halliday awarded just three gold medals to Mornington Peninsula Chardonnays in 2022, and all three went to Montalto, with its Pennon Hill 2021 label named the best Chardonnay in the region.

Trees in the foreground, with vines and one of the estate’s buildings in the distance
There are 30 acres under vine at Montalto, with a distinct difference between its ‘up the hill’ and ‘down the hill’ labels
Three bottles of Montalto’s wines
‘Elegant, well structured and surprisingly diverse’: three of Montalto’s wines

The wines are elegant, well structured and surprisingly diverse, with fruity and delicate floral Sauvignons and a fumé blanc that tastes of pavlova. The Pennon Hill 2020 Sauvignon Blanc is a dry, New Zealand-style product, while the 2022 Pennon Hill rosé packs a veritable fruit salad, rich in strawberries, raspberry, cherries and watermelon with an intense bouquet of rose petal and spice.

There are only 30 acres under vine in this Red Hill holding but even there the difference between the “up the hill” and “down the hill” labels is intriguing. Website; Directions

3. Ten Minutes by Tractor

1333 Mornington-Flinders Road, Main Ridge, VIC 3928

The only peninsula winery-restaurant to win two Chef Hats in the 2023 Good Food Guide, Ten Minutes by Tractor also romps home with the title of “quirkiest name on the peninsula”.

The business began in 1997 with three families operating a grape-growing co-operative small enough to be crossed in that amount of time by its two shared tractors — hence the 1947 Allis-Chalmers that adorns the estate’s labels. Owner Martin Spedding has made a point of displaying the two original vehicles as symbols of the region’s farming heritage.

Vines with trees in the distance at Ten Minutes by Tractor
Ten Minutes by Tractor started out as small co-operative run by three families

“The original 1950s Massey Ferguson is still here ageing gracefully under a windmill, and the 1940s Allis-Chalmers tractor is parked for good in an alcove in the middle of the restaurant,” he said.

Spedding and his wife Karen took over in 2004 and opened the winery’s restaurant two years later. They made a point of offering wine lists featuring a number of regions “to provide a context for what we are doing here”, a strategy that has seen it win several awards for the best wine list in Australia.

The restaurant won its first Chef Hat from the Good Food Guide in 2011, and two years later it became the first eatery on the peninsula to win two hats (three hats is the highest award).

The restaurant’s views are not as spectacular as some others but we were pleased to watch a wedged-tail eagle circling above the gum trees and newly planted vines just outside the window.

A dining room at Ten Minutes by Tractor, with a long dark-wood table, bronze global pendant lamps and floor to ceiling windows overlooking vines and gum trees
Ten Minutes by Tractor is the only Mornington Peninsula winery-restaurant to win two Chef Hats in Australia’s 2023 Good Food Guide

The waiting staff were confident and articulate as they walked us through a very seasonal five-course lunch menu (A$195, about £105) and a choice of wine pairings for A$125 and A$185.

You could not find more local dishes than the cured Port Phillip Bay snapper served with Dromana mussels, but there were a few air miles in the accompanying Oscietra caviar, a nutty-flavoured treasure from Uruguay.

The Western Australian marron (a shellfish similar to a yabby) with white asparagus was tremendous, and the tender beef short rib was accompanied by foie gras, onion charred in duck fats and another dollop of caviar.

A bowl of miso-glazed eggplant, salt-baked kohlrabi and Vegemite consommé at Ten Minutes by Tractor’s restaurant
Vegetarian options on the restaurant’s menu include miso-glazed eggplant, salt-baked kohlrabi and Vegemite consommé
Two bottles – one of them blurred – of a Ten Minutes by Tractor Pinot Noir
A Ten Minutes by Tractor Pinot Noir

Particularly strong vegetarian options were led by miso-glazed eggplant and a mushroom forestry parfait that had my dining partner raving, and we both enjoyed a sweet salad of edible flowers.

Our Aperol cocktail was lifted by the estate’s own rosemary syrup but the point of the whole exercise was the wine, and it was superb. The main focus is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which come in three tiers: the estate label (from the core vineyards), 10X (from any of the business’s nine vineyards) and single-vineyard labels.

The UK is the biggest export market for a range that includes four single-vineyard Chardonnays (retail price A$82, about £44) and four single-vineyard Pinot Noirs (A$86). Website; Directions 

4. Polperro

150 Red Hill Road, Red Hill, VIC 3937 

Sam Coverdale has the happy confidence of somebody who has worked tremendously hard at a passion project and is now happy with the results.

In 2006, he set up his first winery in Canberra at the age of 29, and three years later he and his wife Emma launched Polperro, focusing mainly on single-vineyard wines from the Mornington Peninsula.

Shelves of bottles of wine at Polperro
Polperro added a cellar door and restaurant to its offering almost a decade ago
Polperro co-owner Sam Coverdale holding a wine glass above a wooden vat
Co-owner Sam Coverdale established his first winery in Canberra in 2006 © Nina Ryan (2)

Coverdale’s Polperro and Even Keel labels are both distributed in the UK, where wine writer Matthew Jukes is a fan, calling the 2021 Polperro Estate Chardonnay “a legendary creation . . . utterly sensational and half the price of an equivalent Burgundy”.

“I have always admired the wines from this impeccable estate but this 2021 vintage has completely blindsided me with its awesome quality,” wrote Jukes.

Polperro’s restaurant is set among gum trees, with a deck looking over vines and bushland
Polperro’s restaurant is set among gum trees, with a large deck looking over vines and bushland © Motta Weddings

Coverdale joined me at a lunch table in Polperro’s restaurant, a sunny space set among gum trees beside an open-air deck overlooking vines and bushland, to explain how the introduction of a cellar door and restaurant in 2014 were natural progressions for his love of winemaking.

“Wine on its own is great but if you can create experiences around it, that makes it so much better because wine is at its best when it is drunk in context,” he said. “The connection is so much deeper when you are eating food from this soil and looking at the actual vines that produced the grapes.”

Canapés on Polperro’s set menu include shrimp, caviar and salmon mousse in a crispy roll
Canapés on Polperro’s set menu include shrimp, caviar and salmon mousse in a crispy roll
The winery’s resident chickens beside a coop in a glade
The winery’s resident chickens provide eggs for the restaurant © Christina Nina Photography

Our four-course lunch set menu (A$140, about £75; drinks pairing A$80) began with canapés, the star being a shrimp, caviar and salmon mousse in a crispy little roll.

Next was a sharply flavoured artichoke soup under a parsnip froth that made it look like a coffee, kangaroo tartare mixed with eggs from the estate’s own chickens, and salads mainly grown from Polperro’s 2.5-acre farm.

The second course was roast kingfish with curry leaf and a tamarind and tomato sauce, which went well with a 2022 Pinot Gris with notes of apple, followed by dry aged duck with plum and confit leg.

Tables and chairs in Polperro’s restaurant, looking out over the deck
Dishes on Polporro’s four-course menu might include . . . 
A bowl of roast kingfish with curry leaf and a tamarind and tomato sauce in Polperro’s restaurant
 . . . roast kingfish with curry leaf and a tamarind and tomato sauce

Polperro offers accommodation for six couples next to its main vineyard. Coverdale’s wife Emma Phillips leads yoga classes on site, and runs a small fashion and homeware boutique in a nearby shopping strip, where the couple have also opened a second restaurant, Many Little. It offers a Sri Lankan-themed menu and has become a destination restaurant of its own. We sat at the bar in the evening for superb rotis, with exceptional starters of chilli salted squid and hot butter cauliflower with mushroom and mains of butter chicken, and pork-shoulder curry with black pepper lifted by coconut vinegar. Website; Directions

5. Jetty Road Brewery

12-14 Brasser Avenue, Dromana, VIC 3936

It is not all wine and hedonism on the peninsula. There is beer too.

The Jetty Road Brewery is perhaps the best known of the area’s 20-plus microbreweries, distilleries and cideries. Oddly enough, it is not on Jetty Road at all, instead tucked away in the industrial zone at the back of Dromana. (Don’t ask, but we suspect it has something to do with investing in the brand before tying down the lease on the intended site).

Concrete floors and a factory decor fit well with the large viewing window through to the brewery vats, while the super-casual atmosphere is helped by an indie acoustic soundtrack and occasionally live music.

The industrial-chic interior of the Jetty Road Brewery
Jetty Road Brewery is one of about 20 microbreweries, distilleries and cideries on the Mornington Peninsula

The brewery is known for a pale ale that is distributed throughout Australia but it also has an adventurous repertoire, ranging from a successful pale wheat beer (3.5 per cent ABV) to a passion fruit mojito sour  (4 per cent), a pineapple sour that doesn’t quite work (4.2 per cent), a mango session IPA (5 per cent) and a meatier Infinite 8 IPA (8.8 per cent).

A group of diners can happily fill a table with a selection of salads, fried cauliflower or chicken, calamari, a few burgers and perhaps a sharing board for two of 1kg of slow-cooked lamb shoulder with pumpkin salad and Turkish bread, topping it all off with some tasting flight boards of four different beers.

A membership programme offers discounts to regulars, and the brewery works with other small local firms to try to build a regional reputation.

“It’s not like Melbourne, with a million competitors,” says Emily Walker, the 30-year-old assistant venue manager. “It’s a small community down here, and we all win if people realise there is more than one great venue down here.” Website; Directions

Which winery or brewery restaurants on the Mornington Peninsula would you recommend? Tell us in the comments

Follow FT Globetrotter on Instagram at @FTGlobetrotter

Cities with the FT

FT Globetrotter, our insider guides to some of the world’s greatest cities, offers expert advice on eating and drinking, exercise, art and culture — and much more

Find us in Melbourne, Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York, London, Paris, Rome, Frankfurt, Singapore, Miami, Toronto, Madrid and Copenhagen

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article