Where is King Valley? It's a wine-growing region in north-eastern Victoria, not far from Albury and the border of New South Wales. Recently it's been marketed as Prosecco Road, one of the few places in Australia to be growing prosecco, a grape variety used to produce the popular Italian sparkling wine - a key ingredient in the famous peach bellini.
I was recently asked by Tourism Victoria to visit King Valley on a famil, and I'm more than aware of the scrutiny of "freebies" after the comments on my post about the recent Weekend Australian article "Everyone's a Critic". The response was phenomenal, with 153 comments and 29 retweets of the post to date.
It has been interesting to note how food bloggers have recently been incorporated into client campaigns by public relations consultancies. When I first started blogging in 2004, few people knew what a food blog was -- It's a food and drink website, I would explain to blank and confused faces -- and it's only been in the last couple of years that the perceived "value" of food blog exposure has recently started to gain traction.
Everyday I receive about 30 email press releases. I probably get invited to a dozen events every week. Increasingly I find myself being more selective about which events I choose to attend, particularly as I hold down a full-time job and also undertake freelance writing assignments. Time, for me, is precious.
I am likely to only accept invitations from events that I am genuinely interested in, recognising the opportunities they represent to find out more information, or meet an amazing chef, or experience something I may not have budgeted for in the immediate future.
Is my opinion compromised? Am I a mere cog in the public relations wheel? I don't think so. I've always seen Grab Your Fork as an online diary of my dining and gustatory experiences, not an expert review site. I'm less interested in offering a brutal criticism of a dining establishment based on one visit, and more intent on offering an insight into a new restaurant/cuisine/dish/suburb/country that will hopefully excite my blog readers into venturing outside of their comfort zones and trying something new.
What I won't do is regurgitate press releases as cheap copy, or wax lyrical about something I don't believe in. I will always be more fascinated by the stories of local growers and small-scale producers than multinational conglomerates pushing highly processed foods.
And after returning from King Valley, I'm glad I went. I met so many passionate winemakers and genuine people who love their job, something I may not have thought to experience had I not been presented with this opportunity. They were lovers of good food and good wine, and keen to share themselves and their stories, as I am with you.
King Valley Prosecco Road
Our tiny Regional Express REX plane to Albury
It's so cute!
I don't have any phobias when it comes to flying, and I was more entranced by the petite size of the REX plane we were about to board than terrified by it. There are only 37 seats on the plane and today the passenger count was a mere four.
There's an old-fashioned charm about the sound of twin propellers - the way they hum and clatter. Seating is cosy and the overhead locker space is minimal, but the flight is pleasant and less than 90 minutes after leaving Sydney, we touch down in Albury on the NSW-Victoria border.
It's about a 50-minute drive from Albury to Beechworth, a former gold-mining town that is said to be one the best preserved historical places in Victoria. After exploring the local Town Hall, the Beechworth Honey shop, the chocolate shop and countless bakeries, cheesemongers and gift stores, we stop for lunch at Warden's Food & Wine.
Warden's Food & Wine
Warden's Food & Wine is housed in the former Wardens Hotel, a crackling fire welcoming us in from the cold. The wine bar is a recent modification, offering a casual spot for breakfast or lunch. The more formal dining room is open only at dinner.
The Enomatic wine dispenser is particularly popular, especially as they always have a bottle of the premium boutique multi award-winning Giaconda wine available by the glass.
Clockwise from top left: House-cured bresola salad $14;
Blue swimmer crab stuffed zucchini flowers with beans and pickled mushrooms $14;
Twice-cooked chunky chips with homemade tomato ketchup $9;
Five spiced pork croquette with curried apple and frisee salad $9
Homemade confit rabbit and pea arancini with apple aioli $12
We share a selection of dishes from the wine bar menu, with highlights including the house-cured bresola salad and runny poached egg and the crispy balls of confit rabbit and pea arancini.
Homemade confit rabbit and pea arancini with apple aioli $12
House cured bresola salad with red wine poached pear and caramelised walnuts $14
Beestings and cakes at Beechworth Bakery
We end up at Beechworth Bakery for dessert, home of their famous BeeSting, based on the German Bienestich cake that sandwiches a buttery brioche-like cake with vanilla custard and covers it with honeyed almonds.
King River Cafe
Clockwise from top left: French onion soup with paprika and blue cheese croute $9;
Middle Eastern zucchini fritters with whipped feta cheese dip $10;
Roasted marinated spatchcock on potato puree with glazed beetroot $28;
Lambs fry on a saute of bacon mushroom and Milawa mustard and sauteed spinach $16.50
The King River Cafe is loved by locals. Whomever we speak to from the area, everyone says "Ah, they have good honest food there. And good portions."
It's a cosy spot and the only place open in Oxley at night, it seems. The menu is ambitious, with 25 dishes across entrees and mains, ranging from pizzas to Asian pork belly, and lamb fillet souvlaki to grain fed wagyu.
The French onion soup is a little too oily for us, and the date risotto beneath the tea smoked quail is bewilderingly sweet, but I'm impressed by the lambs fry which is cooked just-so (and big enough to do for a main) and we enjoy the richness of the rum, prune and chocolate flan.
My glass of 2009 Piano Piano Tempranillo ($6.50) went down with ease.
Tea smoked quail on an English pork sausage and date risotto $18
Rum, prune and chocolate flan $8
We stay at Lindenwarrah Hotel for our first night, and the view of vineyards from our balcony is quite romantic!
Potato and Milawa cheddar cheese pancake with smoked Atlantic salmon;
Thick and light country hot cakes with local blueberries and vanilla ice cream
Breakfast is included with our stay, and options range from a continental selection to cooked breakfasts and French toast. I have a weakness for hot cakes which are ceremoniously drowned in maple syrup.
Even though Brown Brothers is such a huge company, it still remains a family-owned and run business. Today the company is run by the third generation of Browns. John Francis Brown planted the first grapes in Milawa in 1885.
There are 51 wines available for tasting at the cellar door, and we get through only a portion of them. It's barely 10am but we find room to sample the Prosecco NV (non vintage) and the Prosecco 2010 Vintage. The vintage grapes are picked as early as possible; the non-vintage is picked later which gives a slightly sweeter taste. We find the vintage has crisper bubbles.
In Italy, prosecco is commonly consumed as an aperitif and is often the first drink for teenagers. As a light and refreshing sparkling wine, prosecco is most commonly matched with seafood, antipasto or Asian dishes.
We also try the Patricia Noble Riesling 2006, winner of eight gold medals. It's a sweet tooth's delight with notes of marmalade, and reminds me of buttered raisin toast. This was the first botrytis riesling in Australia and we're told that the grapes can be so difficult to harvest that sometimes winemakers will only get one glass per plant. If the riesling is left to age for ten years in the bottle, it will eventually darken and turn into a tokay, taking on more jammy characteristics.
The new release Shiraz, Mondeuse and Cabernet 2006 is only available at the cellar door and one we enjoy so much we add it to our order. It's unusual in that it's a co-ferment of three grapes, mixed before not after fermentation. All new release wines are available at the cellar door only, with feedback from customers gauged before the wine is released nationally to bottle shops.
Fireplace in the dining room at Sam Miranda
For lunch we drive past paddocks of sheep to Sam Miranda, its cellar door boasting a modern dining room and gourmet providore section. A crackling fireplace provides a perfect backdrop.
Prosecco tasting plate
The prosecco tasting plate is a creative offering of canapes that all incorporate prosecco. We start with oysters, flown in from Dune Valley in Tasmania, that are topped with soft wobbling cubes of prosecco jelly and freshly grated wasabi.
We continue with chicken poached in prosecco, boozy prosecco tempura prawns and arancini with prosecco and pinenuts. My highlight is probably the white anchovies with prosecco, curled around a toothpick and battered and deep-fried.
Sam Miranda vineyards
Wood Park Wines
We happen upon Wood Park Wines next door to the Milawa Cheese Company and stop in for an impromptu tasting. The Wood Park vineyard was established by owner John Stokes in 1989. They are one of the few vineyards to offer a preservative-free wine, the Wild's Gully Classic Dry White 2010. Because no sulphites are used, the wine does deteriorate faster, and should be drunk within six months.
Clockwise from top left: Silver leaves by Rudi Jass $5,500;
frill neck lizard sculpture; flashing Ned Kelly $495 and cockatoo; echidna
The adjacent Muse Gallery has plenty of quirky and interesting sculptures to look at. The Silver Leaves kinetic sculpture is a calm and soothing sight, with the leaves spinning gently in the breeze.
Milawa Cheese Company
There's no shortage of cheeses to sample at the Milawa Cheese Company. Their King River Gold, a washed rind cheese, has won many awards but I prefer the aged Milawa blue which reminds me of my beloved Stilton.
Clockwise from top left: Milawa Factory Bakery breads; salami on Turkish toast;
another fireplace; chocolate beetroot mousse cake with Gundowing chocolate ice cream $8
I'm sure the cold makes us extra hungry and we sit down for a spell at the Milawa Factory Bakery. Here they make their own sourdough on-site using an 18-year-old culture known as George. His little sister is called Georgie, explains the blackboard, and each sourdough bread takes three days to make before being baked in a stone-based oven. I can't resist buying a loaf of the walnut and raisin sourdough ($8) and staff are more than happy to cut a few slices of the loaf for me to nibble on for afternoon tea.
Although the beetroot chocolate mousse cake is denser in texture than I'd expected, the slice is big enough to feed three. The scoop of Gundowing chocolate ice cream is deliciously intense, with a strong cocoa flavour that isn't too sweet.
Mountain View Hotel
Clockwise from top left: Complimentary amuse bouche of roasted potato with black olive and tomato
Duck charcuterie board $24;
Tortellini of roasted sweet potato and Lecheilan with romesco sauce and parmesan crisp $28;
"Are you dining at the hotel tonight?" we're asked, and we think for a moment before replying that we're actually eating at the Mountain View Hotel.
"There's only one hotel around here. That's the one," comes the reply, and I have to smile and how different things are in the country.
The food at the Mountain View Hotel, however, could easily be mistaken for fare from a Sydney restaurant. The hotel has recently returned into the hands of local winemakers, the Pizzini family, and new head chef Bryan Alley is working wonders.
A complimentary amuse bouche includes a delicate tower of microscopically thin potato slices paired with a black olive mousse and sweet tomato. Wings of parmesan crisps adorn the sweet potato and feta tortellini, and I can't get enough of the duck charcuterie board, especially the light-as-air quenelle of duck parfait smothered on toasted mini brioche slices.
There's plenty to explore on the plate: duck rilletes, rich slices of tea-smoked duck, fatty shavings of duck prosciutto and a beautifully meaty and plump house-made duck sausage.
Wagyu dry-aged sirloin with roasted bone marrow $45
It was the mere mention of roasted bone marrow that prompted me to order the wagyu dry-aged sirloin. The thick-cut steak is tender and juicy, complemented by morsels of bone marrow I find myself sighing over.
The steak sits on a mountain of smooth mashed potato, served with braised baby beetroots, a scoop of celeriac remoulade and a generous puddle of Bordelaise sauce.
Orange blossom parfait with mandarin curd, quinoa crumbs, caramel and rum $15
After a huge meal, we can only share dessert which the chef splits across two plates for easier eating. The orange blossom parfait is a strong citrus note, refreshing in its iciness. Quinoa in dessert is a little unusual and I'm not sure I'm a fan of the texture against the silky parfait, but overall the dessert is light and acts as a welcome palate cleanser.
La Trento Bed and Breakfast
DIY breakfast hamper
We stay overnight at La Trento Bed and Breakfast, a cute two-bedroom cottage on the Pizzini wine estate. Breakfast is a DIY hamper which we find in the fridge and it doesn't take us long to whip up our own home-made feast. We even make use of the Good Morning toast stamp we'd picked up the day before from a kitchenware store in Beechworth.
Making rocky road
In 2007 the Pizzini family lost all their crops due to bushfires. Government grants were available but locals had to justify their applications, demonstrating how the money used would increase tourism to the entire area, not just their business.
Katrina Pizzini had always wanted to create a cooking school and put in her grant application with the help of her daughter. The application was accepted and today the cooking school is popular with locals, tourists and corporate groups. Her most popular class is the pasta making class, but today we're lead through a quick hands-on demonstration of her rocky road.
Katrina's rocky road uses a jelly made with brachetto, a red Italian wine grape. She spent months perfecting the recipe, mixing the brachetto toffee with cornflour and tartaric acid and then heating it whilst stirring for about an hour. She adds rose syrup at the end and then allows it to set so it becomes almost like a Turkish delight.
We mix together homemade marshmallows, coconut, pistachios, almonds, glace cherry and the brachetto jelly with melted chocolate to create her rocky road. Her tip is to coat the marshmallows in coconut first before adding the rest of the dry ingredients. She also melts the chocolate in the oven by placing it in metal bowls and setting the oven on low (about 80C).
Next stop is Chrismont Wines where Arnie Pizzini takes us on a behind-the-scenes tour of the winery.
The wine production area
The wine tanks behind-the-scenes in the production area of Chrismont hold 50,000 litres of wine. Arnie is a wealth of knowledge as he leads us around the site to sample different wines at varying stages of fermentation. The process of fermentation makes a significant difference to wines, he explains. Cold and slow fermentation maintains aromatics but tends to lose colour. Fast fermentation maintains colour but tends to diminish delicate aromatics.
Arnie Pizzini giving us a taste of wines still undergoing fermentation
There's not much flavour in wines that are in the initial stages of fermentation. Arnie says it's harder to make white wine as temperatures must be controlled within a specific range, whereas red wines can go up to 30C without an issue.
It can be hard to get big reds in cool climates like King Valley, Arnie explains, "but ours have more elegance," he counters.
Tasting red wines
The red wine cellar is heated, and we welcome the warmth. Arnie removes a plug from one of the barrels and tells us to put our ear to it. "You can hear it fermenting," he says, and he's right. You can hear the wine bubbling and fizzing like a mystical potion.
Tasting a Barbera that won't be ready for another two years
Science equipment in the laboratory and a turbidity meter to determine how clear a wine is and the filter required
Chrismont La Zone prosecco
We conclude with a tasting of the Chrismont La Zona prosescco, probably the favourite of all the proseccos we taste that weekend. The prosecco is fresh and crisp with a smooth clean finish.
Clockwise from top left: Dal Zotto wines; Dal Zotto trattoria;
Dal Zotto timeline placemats with a 3D viewer of Dal Zotto's history; Michael Dal Zotto
Our final stop is at Dal Zotto where Michael Dal Zotto joins us for lunch at their trattoria. The Dal Zottos were the first to plant prosecco grapes in the area, prompted by a visit back to Italy by his father Otto Dal Zotto.
Otto grew up in Valdobbiadene, known as the home of prosecco in Italy. He says he had his first sip of prosecco at age four.
In 1967 Otto moved to the King Valley, already popular with Italian immigrants who found the distinct four-season climate very similar to home in northern Italy. Initially the area was primarily a tobacco-growing region, before eventually evolving into vineyards.
Dal Zotto prosecco
Otto planted his first vines in the King Valley in 1986, and his first prosecco vines in 1999. In 2004 he released the first prosecco wine in Australia.
Oyster infused with parmesan oil served with lemon and orange juice;
We're treated to a prosecco degustation, an offering that must be booked in advance through the trattoria. The dishes have been designed to be eaten with prosecco, and we find the bubbly freshness of the wine complements each dish well.
Oysters infused with parmesan oil are a good start, followed by a button mushroom stuffed with gratinated ricotta cheese. I'm a fan of the sage leaves, fresh from the garden, that have been sandwiched with anchovy spread and then deep-fried in a crisp beer batter.
Pork with sage and fennel and pear salad
Our main is a perfectly cooked pork loin fillet coated in breadcrumbs and served with a salad of fennel shaving, rocket and slithers of pear.
Apple tart with vanilla bean ice cream and lemon curd
Dessert is a comforting apple tart, baked in a cute terracotta pot. The pastry is the real winner, short and buttery, and we alternate mouthfuls of creamy vanilla bean ice cream with tangy house-made lemon curd.
Elena Dal Zotto in the vegetable garden and the grandkids plundering the mandarin tree
"Here comes the boss," says Michael as his mother Elena wanders into the trattoria. In tow are three of Michael's four kids who all come over shyly and say hello.
Elena is happy to take us on a tour of the vegetable garden, clucking over the last of the sage leaves and pointing out her rows of chicory, garlic and spinach. Elena is jovial but no-nonsense, and you get the sense this is a wonderfully tight-knit Italian family. Son Christian looks after the marketing for the company and Michael, who originally trained as an accountant, eventually returned to the fold as a winemaker. The kids, meanwhile, have discovered the mandarin tree and plunder it with giggling glee.
It's this immediacy of family history between the vineyard and the wine bottle that strikes us most about King Valley. The area is young but we find the people are deeply invested in their product with exuberance, warmth and hopeful optimism.
The Dal Zotto family: Christian, Elena, Michael and Michael's kids
And because I seem determined to make this the longest post ever, here's one more addition: Grab Your Fork was included in a list of Top 15 Food Blogs from around the world by the New Stateman in the UK.
These types of lists are always arbitrary, but it's a welcome surprise regardless. What I love most is the photo they chose to accompany my blog description - if that isn't a photo to throw people off the identifying trail, then I don't know what it is! Mum... I got a couple of tattoos...
Grab Your Fork visited King Valley Prosecco Road as a guest of Tourism Victoria. Her travel companion covered own flights and some dining. Places with an asterisk were included on the famil. Car hire was provided by Avis.
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6/27/2011 04:46:00 am