The Macedon Ranges wine region might just be Victoria's best-kept secret.
The first person I meet on a weekend trip to the Macedon Ranges is Shane, not Adam. The better looking one, apparently. As Shane disappears into the next room of the old bakery, turned wine store, turned wine bar to find owner Adam Halliday (no relation of James), a group of women clink glasses as they shimmy off coats and get comfortable around a marble table. What they're celebrating, I'm not sure, but the fact Woodend has a cute new wine bar - Woodend Cellar & Bar - seems reason enough.
"I hear you're about to go for a terrible meal at Kuzu next door," says Adam with a smile as he drops a wine list and bowl of truffle popcorn on our table. As my partner and I soon discover, chummy banter is commonplace in this area - everyone knows everyone and everyone is keen to support one another. There's a rustic, small-town vibe, in the best possible way.
Despite the country feels (mind the kangaroos and wombats) the Macedon Ranges - which take in towns like Woodend, Lancefield, Kyneton, Daylesford and Gisborne - form Melbourne's closest wine region. You can go from city traffic to vino sipping in an hour. Shamefully, however, the Macedon Ranges have been overshadowed by showy cousins, like the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula, with their bigger fruit yields and bigger marketing budgets.
The fact Macedon doesn't do anything "big" is its appeal, though. The region's 40-odd wineries are all boutique, family-owned businesses producing small volumes of high-quality wine; rarely will you see a Macedon Ranges product at the budget end of a wine list. It's the coldest wine region in mainland Australia, with elevations up to 800 metres (Passing Clouds Winery in Musk even gets snow), and local wineries excelling in hang-their-hat-on light pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling, though many supplement their own produce with shiraz and cabernet grapes from nearby Heathcote. Hanging Rock Winery has one of the longest lists in the region, including a sweet-but-not-too-sweet brut rose and a dry and complex brut cuvee, which honour the area's heritage as a sparkling wine region.
When we arrive at Lyons Will Estate, Pickles the boxer meets us in the carpark and, tail wagging, leads us to the bright cellar door, where we meet husband and wife winemakers Ollie Rapson and Renata Morello, who represent a wave of new, younger blood coming into the region.
The couple bought their property in 2013, expanding the vineyard from 1.2 to 6.8 hectares, and building a modern cellar door where a lone shed once stood. "We wanted a blank canvas," says Ollie, who studied viticulture while working in advertising, keen to take a gamble on a new career. "At the time the Macedons were relatively unknown, with several growers but not many winemakers ... we saw an opportunity to expand." The couple now produce riesling, gamay, pinot noir and chardonnay, and won best riesling in the Victorian Wine Show in 2022.
In true Macedon Ranges style, Ollie and Renata sing the praises of their fellow vignerons, adding that Elizabeth and Alex at Hesket Estate - our next stop - "love to talk and love to drink". It sounds to me like they've found the perfect vocation and, when greeted with a smile at their cellar door in a retrofitted shearing shed, it seems indeed they have.
Small-scale production means many of Macedon's bottles don't travel far beyond Victoria, or Australia at a pinch, and in the case of Mount Monument Wines, they're not distributed beyond the cellar door (though you can pick up a bottle online). Therefore, to taste you need to visit, but with a building and sculpture park designed by architect owner Nonda Katsalidis - the mastermind behind Hobart's Museum of Old and New Art - it's worth it. Even more so since an art-filled and unpretentious fine-dining restaurant overlooking the vines opened in March 2023, supplementing the year-old cellar door, which serves snacks in the way of oysters and charcuterie boards.
Mount Monument isn't the only place pairing quality wine with quality food. Mount Macedon Winery, owned by AFL player Dylan Grimes and partner Elisha, also offers beautifully crafted meals, along with Mount Towrong Vineyard, owned by George and Deirdre Cremasco. George's family comes from Veneto in northern Italy, and hence the winery offers an Italian-inspired menu and Italian-style wine, including grillo and nebbiolo.
Oh, and our "terrible" meal in Woodend at Kuzu Izakaya - a 12-course Japanese banquet - was outstanding. My partner announced he was full after 10 courses, but after one bite of the succulent wagyu bao that came next, he was quick to add "nope, I'm good". (We managed to find room for the fluffy tofu donut and plum wine, too.)
Though the Macedon Ranges name may not be familiar, one of the region's most famous landmarks likely rings a bell - Hanging Rock (Ngannelong). The 1967 novel and 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock, about a group of school girls who vanish at the site, paints the rock as a haunting place. In fact, it's a rather short and pleasant climb, with sweeping views of farmland and vineyards.
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If you feel too spooked for a picnic at Hanging Rock, take your rug and a bottle of local vino to Forest Glade Gardens at the base of Mount Macedon. The 5.8-hectare private garden has been lovingly tended to and expanded over 100 years, and now includes an English garden, a Japanese garden, a woodland and a lush fern gully. Carefully manicured, the gardens marry elegance with colour - not unlike the local wine and the local personalities who make it.
Getting there: The Macedon Ranges are about an hour's drive from Melbourne and 40 minutes from Tullamarine Airport. You can also catch the train from Melbourne, with stops at Macedon, Woodend and Kyneton.
Staying there: There are plenty of boutique B&Bs and guesthouses. Try Hanging Rock Views for a magnificent countryside vista, including, you guessed it, Hanging Rock, or the Braeside Mt Macedon country retreat. book.relaxholidayrentals.com.au; braesidemtmacedon.com.au
Top tip: Visit during the November Budburst Wine Festival to see the region in full swing, macedonrangeswineandfoodfest.com.au
Explore more: visitmacedonranges.com
Pictures: Emily McAuliffe; Visit Victoria
The writer travelled as a guest of properties mentioned and Daylesford Macedon Tourism.