Victoria's Mornington Peninsula offers a vineyard haven for golfers. ANDREW MARSHALL experiences golf among the grapes.
"I've got something I really want you to try," says Red Hill Estate's resident winemaker as he strides purposefully down a row of wine barrels behind the cellar door. With evident delight he draws some wine from a barrel and pours the golden liquid into a glass. "Ripe, multi-layered, complex, focused without being broad," he enthuses, warming to his topic as he holds the glass up to the light. "But the wine speaks more articulately than I do." Red Hill Estate typifies a large number of enthusiastic wine growers clustered on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula situated only one hour's drive from Melbourne. Dozens of vineyards such as Willow Creek, Dromana and Paringa Estate are set against a backdrop of stunning rural landscapes and rugged coastlines. From classic grape varieties such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon to Merlot and Shiraz, it's an area where some of Australia's finest cool climate wines are produced.
But it's not just the grape that reigns supreme here. There is golf among the grapes, with a concentration of challenging and affordable courses for players of all abilities. The combination of rich red volcanic soil surrounded by rolling sand dune country makes the Mornington Peninsula a world-class destination for the connoisseur of both golf and fine wines.
From Red Hill Estate's elevated restaurant patio, acres of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir form abstract patterns of green vines that march down the hillside towards stands of eucalyptus trees backed by the sparkling blue waters of Western Port Bay - boasting one of the best views of any vineyard in the world.
Indeed, it might still have been one of the prettiest cattle stations in Victoria if not for the vision of its founders Sir Peter and Lady Derham. They intended to retire here when they bought the property in 1979, but Sir Peter saw the potential for wine and planted the first vines in 1989.
Red Hill Estate wines continue to win Gold, Silver and Bronze medals at Melbourne and other prestigious Wine Shows including a Gold medal in the London Wine and Spirit Challenge. The Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio are fast becoming cellar door sell-outs with some stocks being exhausted before the next vintage is released.
Grapes and golf live side by side on the Mornington Peninsula and both have their own special challenges, like the testing layout of the National Golf Club's Old Course the following day. This classic Robert Trent-Jones Jnr. designed course is situated in rugged sand dune country high above the Cape Schanck Coastal and Point Nepean National Parks and offers ocean views from 16 of it's 18 holes. Trent Jones has moulded his course to take full advantage of the visual beauty.
As a stiff southwesterly wind whips across the tee, I line up my ball and take one last look at the green - an emerald island high above a no-man's land of ball-hungry woodlands. Hit it left, hit it short or hit it too long and it's a lost ball. There is little room for error. This is the 121 metre par-3 second, the course’s signature hole and one that typifies the National.
On coastal land next to the National's Old Course are its two other courses; the Moonah course, which is a links-style layout designed by Greg Norman and debuted in the top ten golf courses in the country, and the Ocean Course designed by Thomson, Wolveridge and Perrett, and based on the great links of Scotland and Ireland. These three top-drawer courses add up to the only 54-hole golfing facility of its kind in Australia.
After my encounter with The National's deep bunkering, multi-tiered greens and the howling winds, my golf ego is well and truly broken. Just as well that I am basing myself next door at the RACV Cape Schanck Resort, complete with another top-quality Robert Trent Jones Jnr. Layout. Slipping into the hot bubbling spa is just reward for a demoralised golfer.
From my window-side table at the bistro, the first fairway has topography that bucks and plunges like a raging river, and it draws my eye along its wide ribbon of grass before it crests a final hill between the tea-trees, leaving me with only the tantalising promise of a green.
The view is enough to whet my appetite for a game tomorrow, and vies for my attention from the masterpiece of an entree placed before me; long slivers of lamb fillets marinated in a Thai honey and ginger glaze climb into a complicated spire over a bed of Asian cress. The wind outside is rising in strength whipping the tea-trees into frenzy. Not exactly the weather for golf, but that's Cape Schanck for you, as tempestuous and unpredictable as the devil.
The RACV Cape Schanck Resort is proving to be and an excellent base for my golf forays in grape country. Close by is the Dunes, a classic links course of championship quality and always highly ranked in Australia’s annual Top 100 Golf Courses. Other quality courses in the region include Portsea, Sorrento, Flinders, Eagle Ridge and the Open and Legends courses that make up the Moonah Links. The Legends course is a resort-style course, and the Open course is an 18-hole championship links designed by Thomson, Wolveridge and Perrett specifically to host the Australian Open that had its debut here in 2003.
Over the next few days, I knock on cellar doors and sample some fine drops while playing some of the most challenging and affordable golf courses to be found anywhere. The driving in between is pure pleasure around the scenic hills of Red Hill. Farmlands interspersed with woodlands, vineyards, craft-wise villages and sudden views over either the ‘Bay’ on one side or the ‘Straights’ on the other.
Along the coast, old resort towns still retain their old charm. Portsea is ‘old money’, boasting more private tennis courts than most suburbs have players. Situated at the end of the long boot-shaped peninsula, it offers both wild ocean beaches and safe bay beaches of golden sand, and if it gets too hot its only a short stroll to the local beachside pub.
Golfing in wine country, or drinking fine wines in golf country? It’s difficult to prioritize, but with soil this good under the greens and vines, it doesn’t really matter.
MORNINGTON GOLF COURSES
The National Golf Club
The Dunes Golf Club
Portsea Golf Club
Moonah Links (Open & Legends Course)
Red Hill Estate