As someone who enjoys wine and learning enough about it to be able to drink well on a budget, I’ve visited many cellar doors around Victoria and eaten at many of their cafes and restaurants. The cellar door is not necessarily the cheapest place to buy a winery’s wine, but the more established ones have enough cellar door only special release wines to make a visit necessary.
Some of their cafes and restaurants, whether sophisticated like Montalto in the Yarra Valley or informal like Flynns in Heathcote, deliver a delightful experience. Others unfortunately try too hard, but are incapable of matching their ambitions, and thus disappoint. Examples of this include Bulong in the Yarra Valley and Wild Dog in Warragul. You never know what you’ll get.
Restaurants in regional areas face a number of challenges compared to city restaurants. Access to fresh ingredients may be more of a challenge or may be more expensive due to transport costs. Staffing is a major issue for chefs and front of house staff, with the former not sticking around for long and the latter often being young local people with no formal training and limited skills. Delivering consistency becomes difficult.
Last week I took a dear friend to Tahbilk winery near Nagambie for her birthday to taste at the cellar door and have lunch at their cafe. They specialise in marsanne but have an extensive range (mainly of French varietals) with their primary label and a smaller range (mostly ’emerging’ Spanish and Italian varietals) with their secondary label Dalfarras.
While the Dalfarras wines are obvious in the Tahbilk website, in the cellar door they are not on display on the shelves behind the long counter where you stand to taste, and are not on the main tasting list. I spotted a couple of bottles in a barrel displaying an example of one of the many mixed dozens you can buy, and that prompted me to ask about them.
The staff seemed surprised to be asked, as if they didn’t expect anyone to know these wines existed, but offered a separate tasting list and had three of the nine varieties available for tasting: vermentino, tempranillo and granache. I liked all of them. Over the weekend I opened the Dalfarras sangiovese, which I bought without tasting because I love sangiovese, and was impressed. Why they hide these at the cellar door is a mystery.
After tasting we went to the cafe for lunch (we returned to the cellar door after lunch to buy two dozen between us). We started with pea and parmesan croquettes for her and arancini for me after we learned that the Sardinian salami was not available. The menu said ‘mini arancini’ but the young waitress said they were not available as the chef had ordered the wrong thing so it was a single larger arancini, which was good although the sugo base was too sweet.
Admitting food is commercially pre-prepared and bought in is a mistake. It may be common practice, but customers like the illusion of quality, of dishes made in-house. Don’t tell us what we don’t want or need to hear. Experienced wait staff know how to be diplomatic and spin a story, such as ‘the chef got bored making small arancini so this week they are big!’
My friend ordered barramundi for her main, and I slow roast pulled Berkshire pork shoulder with celeriac and apple remoulade, fried walnuts and apple and vanilla puree. The barramundi itself was delicious but the rest of the plate was mostly decorative. There were cherry tomatoes, garlic chunks and half a capsicum. And lots of fresh basil.
My pork was better, being very enjoyable, though the apple sauce was again very sweet with a little too much vanilla, and the celeriac and apple remoulade was excellent. On the side we got the chunky homemade chips, which were really more like wedges and a bit soggy. They came with Tahbilk farm aioli, but there was little evidence of garlic. It was good mayonnaise though.
We finished with average coffees and a slice of passionfruit slice that was something like cheesecake but not enough like cheesecake to be truly enjoyable. The service was mostly good, and most welcoming and friendly, apart from the oversharing.
Tahbilk have equally friendly cellar door staff and you are encouraged to explore the extensive cellar tunnels. The winery has numerous buildings with white washed walls and red tin roofs, in various stages of dilapidation. It’s been around since the 1860s and picturesque. The view from the deck of the cafe is stunning.
The gardens are lovely and they are proud of their carbon neutral certification and the eco walks around the grounds and adjacent Goulburn river and associated waterways (which we did not do as the day was rained out).
I highly recommend a visit to the Tahbilk cellar door if you fancy Rhone whites in particular and good wines in general. I loved the roussanne, viognier and especially the verdelho. Their marsanne is widely available including at McCoppins on Johnston St, but their other varieties are harder to find or are cellar door only.
Unfortunately I can’t recommend lunch at the cafe. Perhaps we did not experience the best they have to offer, but they need to reconsider the menu and do more staff training. The menu is ambitious even for a city cafe and the experience for customers would probably be better if the menu offered less choice and the kitchen did a few things really well. For an alternative not too far away the cafe at Fowles is very good (though note my review is five years old).