Booking yourself onto a wine tour is a great way to be chauffeured about the Highlands so you can get on with some serious sampling. Escape Southern Highlands climbed aboard to learn about your local industry and enjoy some merry making.
If you are off on an all day wine tour of some of the renowned Southern Highlands vineyards and cellar doors, it’s a given you’ll enjoy an alcoholic bevvy or two, especially the cool climate wine varieties our local vintners excel in making.
John Scott, operator and friendly tour guide of Highlands Food & Wine Tours also recommends you pace yourself. ‘It’s not a good idea to start off drinking everything in sight only to spend the rest of the day snoring on the bus.’
With these useful pointers in mind, one Saturday morning I am ready and waiting for John and his 15 seater mini bus out the front of my home. I have my water, wallet and sensible head on, and I am looking forward to enjoying one of those experiences so many locals like me always mean to do but somehow never get around to.
When Hill Top local John is not hosting wine tours, he’s a fulltime firie at Picton, and he is also president of the Southern Highlands Food & Wine Association. This morning he’s already picked up a group from Paddy’s River where they are weekending at an Airbnb property. Chris and Jo are English, but recently relocated from Hong Kong to Sydney. Also along for the tour is Simon from South Africa, his English wife Juliet and their young daughter. Then in Bowral we pick up Peter and Kim, Christine and Matt, and Nicole and Chris, who all live in Sydney.
With a full contingent, John takes Centennial Road to Greenhills Road in Berrima, giving his visitors their first glimpses of our picture postcard landscapes. It’s quiet on the bus but John assures me that as the day goes on and people start tasting, everyone tends to get noisy and sociable.
We arrive at our first vineyard and cellar door, Joadja Estate Winery, which is the Highlands’ oldest. And, sure enough, with the help of Siobhan Maloy’s pouring skills, it doesn’t take long for our crowd to loosen up.
Siobhan runs Joadja Estate with partner and winemaker Matt Toomey. The couple moved to their new life as vignerons four years ago after first seeing these 15 acres of vines for sale on the internet.
Joadja’s 2017 and 2018 vintages are the first produced by Matt and are given the seal of approval this morning. The 2018 pinot grigio is a lovely drop, and a classic cool climate pick. Joadja’s merlot and new sparkling moscato are delicious, the moscato with its nose of peach and orange blossom. I make a mental note to remember it for a lunch on a summer’s day, preferably here at Joadja during one of their frequent Music in the Vines events. I finish with a quick snifter of Joadja’s Summer Rose for good measure. Made from cabernet grapes it is my favourite here, and being only 10% alcohol is a definite bonus.
Back onto the bus and conversation is now flowing. Accustomed to taking hens or stags on wine tours, and not averse to dressing up in theme when requested, John is a pleasant and knowledgeable tour host. He gives out little snippets of information about Berrima as we pass through (did you know the National Heritage Council declared the village a historic precinct in the 1960s, for example?). John has also become a keen wine collector. ‘Thanks to these tours, I now have quite a substantial wine cellar at home myself.’ Respected within the industry, John shares the tours around all the vineyards and cellar doors locally, so visitors get a really good feel for what the winemakers in the region are doing.
Ten minutes down the road, Cherry Tree Hill Wines at Sutton Forest (read more about this winery on page 60) has just finished harvesting its sauvignon blanc and pinot noir grapes. Set on more than 1000 acres, it has a very pretty cellar door with tables and umbrellas looking out on the 35 acres under vine. Cellar door manager Duncan Macdonald introduces our group to Cherry Tree Hill’s flagship wines, its award winning 2018 riesling and 2015 chardonnay. Both are delicious, full bodied and a hit with the tasters. Chris and Jo are very taken with the 2016 sparkling red made from a blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes, and disappear with Duncan to get supplies to take home. I follow and buy a 2016 riesling as a take home memento.
Back on the bus we’re feeling relaxed as we head off towards nearby Eling Forest Estate for lunch at the cafe there. We share a long table and over beef burgers and fries learn more about why we all came on this Highlands’ vineyard and cellar door tour.
‘We’ve had several weekends away in the Hunter Valley and have done wine tours there but we’ve never been to the Highlands before,’ says Chris a plumber. Young professionals Christine and Matt booked in at the last moment, wanting to finally visit the Highlands and its vineyards, which are gaining a name in the world of wine.
On the move again, there is much talk on the bus of property prices and the positives of living in the Southern Highlands versus Sydney. Looking out the window at the lovely countryside rushing by, we all agree the Highlands wins hands down.
Our last stop is the new headquarters of the Tractorless Vineyard at a Mittagong warehouse for more tasting and some grape stomping. Inspired winemaker Jeff Aston, formerly of McVitty Grove, is now growing grapes for his two boutique Tractorless labels, Sustainable and Creator, at Canyonleigh and at Blue Metal Vineyards at Berrima, where he recently signed a 30 year lease. Passionate about the chemistry of winemaking and about creating different wines to suit his drinking habits, Jeff is a great ambassador for the local industry. This warehouse is the production and bottling side of his winery, and he hopes to begin serving food here in due course. As we sample Jeff’s wines I find my favourite is the 2014 Lost Flock, a blend of five reds, which he created for drinking in front of a roaring winter Highlands fire. I sit with my glass and watch as some of the others take to some grape stomping with gusto.
A great host to the last, John drops me home safely with cries of ‘Send us a copy of your story!’ ringing out from the bus as I farewell my new wine friends. It’s definitely been a day worth doing and as I trot inside feeling quite merry, I vow to recommend a day wine tour as an experience all locals and visitors must try. highlandsfoodandwinetours.com.au