It may not be the hippest wine region in the country, but its hard to beat the Riverina when it comes to value.
There is a lively crowd enjoying Italian food at Vita’s restaurant, the nearby Victoria Hotel is packed to the rafters and many locals are enjoying a passeggiata, an early evening stroll.
Welcome to prosperous Griffith, midway between Melbourne and Sydney - a most surprising food and wine destination.
Since the introduction of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Scheme in 1912, this has always been prime farming country with the grapes for 70% of all New South Wales wines grown here and in surrounding towns and hamlets like Hanwood, Yenda and Leeton.
Locals proudly boast that one in four bottles of Australian wine consumed is made from Riverina fruit – and the names of the leading companies are familiar: McWilliam’s Hanwood (below), De Bortoli, Yellow Tail and Westend Estate among them.
The first vines were planted in the region in 1913 at Hanwood by John James McWilliam, and the first harvest of 19 tonnes was picked in 1916. Today, the wine business is dominated by the descendants of Italian migrant families.
Among them are De Bortoli, which has now expanded into the Yarra and Hunter valleys; Westend Estate, run by the Calabria family, and the Casellas of Yellow Tail fame.
The Casella family from Yenda, thanks to their [Yellow Tail] range, sell more wine in the United States than all the winemakers of France put together. Their total production averages 12 million cases in good vintages and the Casellas now rival the De Bortolis as the most famous wine family in the region.
The De Bortoli business (see old barrels above) started back in 1928 when Vittorio De Bortoli, like so many Italian migrants, crushed some shiraz grapes that he made into wine for his family and friends to enjoy.
Vittorio’s son Deen De Bortoli ran the company with his wife Emeri from 1958 until his death late in 2003 and De Bortoli is now in the hands of the third generation.
Less high-profile producers; names like Yarran Wines and Berton Vineyards (below), both outside Yenda, are well worth putting on your list. You'll be pleasantly surprised at the quality of the table wines on offer - and the extremely reasonable prices.
This is also gherkin country with every gherkin served in a McDonald’s hamburger coming from the 250-hectare Parle Foods property, while rock melon production is the highest in the country.
Visit the Griffith Rotary Markets on a Sunday morning to buy some of the local fresh fruit and vegetables direct from the growers.
Meanwhile, Griffith has a wide range of eateries; and not just Italian, although La Scala, Vita’s and Belvedere all offer good Mediterranean fare with Il Corso and A Tavola specialising in pizzas. Cafe Deli and Mei Amici are popular coffee spots while Bar 188 has good tapas, Novus has modern Australian fare and Tango’s Bar and Grill is a newcomer in the former The Clock building.
Dessert wines are unquestionably what the region does best with De Bortoli’s Noble One the trailblazer for wineries like Lillypilly Estate and Nugan.
Owned by the Fiumara family, Lillypilly at Leeton produces a range of superb stickies along with some good value table wines. It has vineyard, a winery and cellar door on the outskirts of Leeton. Nearby is Toorak Winery.
Leeton’s town centre, like that of Griffith, was designed by Walter Burley Griffin prior to his Canberra work. It's an attractive little town that features some magnificent art deco buildings, especially the Roxy Theatre and the Hydro Hotel.
Gourmets should check out Pages on Pine, a comfortable little Leeton restaurant, which has established itself as a firm favourite with Riverina residents over the past four years.
It is run by husband-and-wife team Eric and Vanessa Pages – the chef having originally worked in Griffith’s much-lamented Michelin restaurant. The menu changes periodically, reliant on the availability of fresh, local ingredients.
Most of the accommodation in the region is in motels but the Clarenton is a new apartment-style accommodation option tucked away in the quiet suburbs of Griffith just a short walk from the cafes and restaurants of bustling Banna Avenue.
An adjunct to the home of owners Clare and Tony Cunial, the Clarenton is a comfortable one-bedroom self-contained apartment that also has a double fold-out sofa in the lounge room, making it ideal for couples or small groups.
|Westend Estate cellar door|
It may be a little off the beaten track but the Italian-accented Riverina is home to several annual gourmet festivals, including La Festa, a music, food and wine celebration held in Griffith each Easter Saturday, and UnWINEd, a celebration of wine and food held at cellar doors and restaurants in Griffith and Leeton each June. Both are well worth a visit.
Coming up in October, however, is the second annual Taste Riverina Food Festival. With over 70 events being held across the region, the program is packed with everything from cooking classes, demonstrations, dinners, farmers markets and agriculture tours.
The 2013 festival will allow local producers, owners and chefs to showcase their products individually. From wine, olive oil, beer, crops and organic foods to licorice and chocolate, the finest quality products will be on display, with no theme this year just pure home-grown excellence. Visit www.tasteriverina.com.au to download a copy of the 2013 program.