Sparkling wit

Drink it in ... Dal Zotto's King Valley Vineyards.
Drink it in ... Dal Zotto's King Valley Vineyards.

Once prospectors and bushrangers held sway in the King Valley, but today the legacy of Italian migrants steals all the plaudits, writes Julietta Jameson.

The rambling bush country to the west of the Hume not far from Wangaratta has long been known as gold rush and Kelly country. Glenrowan, Bright, Beechworth and Mansfield feature prominently in school lessons of bushrangers, pioneers and Chinese settlers.

But wine country? Well, perhaps not in the history books.

But, actually, there have been vines at Glenrowan since Ned Kelly's time and grapes grown by Brown Brothers at nearby Milawa since 1889.

More recently, some passionate folk in this, the King Valley pocket of the Victorian high country, have been writing another chapter into the annals. In it, the area has become wine country to be reckoned with.

Italians moved to the area in the early 20th century when tobacco growing thrived. Brown Brothers found a ready-made market for its wines in the European workers.

The tobacco is long gone but the Italian influence remains. Award-winning cheeses, nuts, honey and olives are produced in the undulating paddocks of Milawa and the King Valley, which, when combined with gorgeous mountain and river scenery, constitute one of Victoria's, if not Australia's, finest gourmet regions.

As the Mediterranean people have prospered here, so, too, have Mediterranean varietals such as pinot grigio and tempranillo. This is not just because these are some of the highest-altitude vineyards in Australia and not just because of terroir - there are distinct microclimates among the valleys and hills - but also because of the Italian heritage of those now cultivating vines and making wine.

The patriarch of the Dal Zotto family, Otto dal Zotto, who grew up in a prosecco-growing region of Valdobbiadene, came to Glenrowan during the tobacco boom of the 1960s and became the first to plant prosecco in Australia at what was his tobacco farm, now his King Valley winery.

Since the first vintage in 2004, the Dal Zotto prosecco has been garnering accolades.

Now, six King Valley winemakers are producing the fruity, fun sparkling drop that Italians favour at aperitivo time but which is easy drinking any time. They have collaborated to create "the Prosecco Road", a food and wine trail abundantly furnished with quality food, wine and accommodation options as well as atmospheric little villages, some of which still maintain gold rush-era architecture. And, of course, plenty of prosecco.

Unless heading down the Hume to the Victorian snowfields or looking for a stopover on a road trip to Melbourne, the most expedient way to reach the Prosecco Road is to fly into Albury and rent a car.

Good starting points are Oxley and Beechworth. If arriving in time for lunch, Warden's Hotel in Beechworth or the King River Cafe in Oxley are popular choices.

The Brown Brothers Epicurean Centre in Milawa is another great jumping-off point. Adjacent to the cellar door, it serves small degustations tailored to the range of Brown Brothers wines, as well as an excellent a la carte menu.

As part of the Prosecco Road experience, the Milawa vineyard offers free tastings or, for $60 a couple, a prosecco picnic for two, the wine accompanied by a cheese and charcuterie plate served alfresco on a rug in the Brown Brothers gardens.

Did someone say cheese? Milawa's other must-do is the Milawa Cheese Company, which hand-makes award-winning cheeses with no preservatives.

Not far away - in fact, just down the road in the old butcher's shop - is the Ciccone Estate cellar door. Here you can indulge in chocolate fondue and fruits to accompany your prosecco.

From cheese to chocolate, along this road it becomes clear just how versatile this bubbly is.

In Whitfield, it delivers another taste sensation. The town, popular with bushwalkers because of its waterfalls, mountain streams, gorgeous mountain vistas and spring wildflowers, is also home to the Mountain View, a pub-turned-restaurant and boutique accommodation run by the Pizzini family, who are well known for their pinot grigio and, in these parts, for their prosecco.

They serve it as a granita to accompany oysters.

The Pizzini winery is further afield but on the Prosecco Road (everything is within an hour of the next attraction) and close to it is Chrismont, the southernmost winery on the road.

Back at Oxley is Sam Miranda, where more delicious prosecco is dished up with tasty canapes, just the way it would be for an Italian aperitivo.

It's perhaps a fitting way to end a journey along the Prosecco Road, back where it began, in more ways than one.

Trip notes

Getting there

The King Valley is about a 3½-hour drive north-east of Melbourne on the Hume Highway, then via Milawa. Follow the Hume Highway (National M31) until the Glenrowan exit. Turn left and follow signs for the C521 road for Whitfield and the King Valley.

Alternatively, Albury airport is a 90-minute drive down the Hume Highway, turning off at the Glenrowan exit for the C521 for Whitfield.

Staying there

Lindenwarrah Country House Hotel, 223 Milawa-Bobinawarrah Road, Milawa (03) 5720 5777,
Casa Luna Gourmet Accommodation, 1569 Boggy Creek Road Myrrhee (03) 5729 7650,
Mountain View Hotel, 4 King Valley Road, Whitfield (03) 5729 8270,
Provenance Luxury Suites, 86 Ford Street, Beechworth (03) 5728 1786,

For more information

This story Sparkling wit first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.