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Sunday 21 June 2015

Levantine Hill - a massive Yarra Valley wine project comes to life

I sat down for lunch last week with Elias and Colleen Jreissati, the Melbourne couple behind Levantine Hill, which is one of the most ambitious and expansive wine/tourism projects Australia has seen. 

The Jreissatis were not at all what I had expected. I'd thought maybe brash and loud, what I found was charming, laid-back and reflective with an unrelenting focus on quality; both when it comes to their wines, and to their lavish new cellar door/restaurant complex at Coldstream in the Yarra Valley. 

It's a family business, with Elias's daughter Samantha as joint managing director, and blocks in the vineyard named after all three of his adult daughters. 

If you haven't heard of Levantine Hill, which should be fully up and running in a month or so, you have been living a sheltered lifestyle.
It is an operation set up to make benchmark wines - and a big noise. 

Elias Jreissati arrived in Australia aged 18 from Lebanon, speaking no English. He started out with a sandwich shop, amassed a property fortune by age 25, only to lose it all. He then built it again through his Bensons Property Group. 
He now speaks four languages and wields a lot of clout. Quietly. A Christian, and a supporter of many charities and the arts, Jreissati, who recently celebrated his 50th birthday, enjoys wine but rarely drinks more than a glass or two.
But he thinks big and with former Yarra Yering winemaker Paul Bridgeman at the helm and the almost-completed high-tech cellar door at Coldstream (celebrity chef Teage Ezard is also on board with an on-site restaurant) everything about Levantine Hill screams quality.
The Jreissatis visited more than 50 cellar doors in South Africa, an acknowledged leader in wine tourism, looking at ideas for their new facility.
"We stunned our driver in South Africa, who could not believe we would visit cellar door after cellar door and not stop for a tasting," Elias recalls. "But we did find lots of ideas we could adapt and improve. We were very impressed.

"It was an eye-opener because until a year ago we hadn't done any wine tourism at all." 
Ezard @ Levantine Hill, from the chef who created Ezard and Gingerboy, will feature the best seasonal produce, using small local producers. “We are extending our culinary boundaries by creating dishes inspired by classic food styles of Europe and enhancing them with new flavours and combinations,” Ezard says.

"I'm awake at night right now, worried about the cellar door and restaurant," Elias admits. "There are incredibly high expectations - and we are all too aware of that, but we have employed people who believe in what they are doing."
Levantine Hill takes its name from the Levant, the blessed, ancient biblical lands known as 'the lands in the east where the sun rises' – and Elias Jreissati was born in the Beka'a Valley, Lebanon's prime wine growing region.

The estate comprises two vineyards, one planted in the 1990s; the other with family blocks created alongside a truffi√©re. The first vintage was in 2012 - fortunately a cracking year in the Yarra. 

"We are aiming to make wines in the style we like to drink," says Elias, whose wine epiphany came on a visit to France in 1992, although he remembers playing as a child in wine caves in the Beka'a, near his home town of Zahl√©.  

"The aim is to produce great wines and price them accordingly. There will be no compromise," he says.

In addition to the spectacular architect-designed cellar door and restaurant, situated on top of the hill is the Levantine Hill Homestead – the most luxurious accommodation in the region.

The opulent $30 million Homestead is available only to selected guests as the Yarra Valley's most exclusive B&B and venue for prestige events.
Each suite features uninterrupted views of the valley and city skyline and comes complete with a butler and an estate Mercedes M-class for personal use. The tariff (if you need to ask you probably can't afford it) includes helicopter transfers from the Melbourne CBD, full use of the Homestead's facilities and access to the private 3,500 bottle cellar.
Levantine Hill is at 882-886 Maroondah Highway, Coldstream. (03) 8602 0874. 

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