Let’s chat about the Riverina. For many, it’s been a region associated with bulk, large-scale wine exports, rather than boutique wineries. It’s probably also a name strongly connected with youthful, ‘first hangover’ memories for some – did someone say cask wine? And it’s perhaps not necessarily a wine region that jumps to mind when planning a visit to Aussie wine country.
But it’s time most of us realise that this isn’t the Riverina you’ll come across when you take the time to visit.
There’s a new wave of faces in the Riverina who are determined to shed light on what the region can offer visitors. They’re turning their focus to engaging and memorable wine tourism experiences at their cellar doors, along with crafting boutique, small-batch wines that showcase some of the lesser-known, alternative varieties found in the area. Their goal? To change the way Australians view the Riverina and encourage more wine lovers to make the journey to discover just how good the wines are from here.
The Riverina encompasses the main town of Griffith, along with the smaller townships of Leeton and Yenda. Winemaking began in the Riverina in 1913, with John James (JJ) McWilliam – of the famed McWilliam’s Wines family – planting 50,000 vines, with a winery to follow in 1917. Soon after, the region saw an influx of Italian immigrants (mainly from Calabria and Sicily), with their farming skills and winemaking passion.
The Riverina prides itself on its Italian heritage – not only with its winemaking, but also its cuisine. You’ll find some incredible, authentic Italian food in the region, along with that famous, warm, family hospitality. Family is also a core value of wineries here. You can stroll into many a cellar door to be greeted by a bunch of siblings, or a father-son winemaking team – dictionary definition of family run winery.
Today, the Riverina is home to around 16 wineries, and 10 cellar doors. There’s a mix between large and small, and there’s always time for a chat with locals keen to share their story and what they love about the region. It boasts a warm, Mediterranean climate, which sees a wide range of varieties thrive. But in particular, botrytis semillon – sweet, dessert wine made from fungus-infected grapes left on vines – reigns. The region is renowned for botrytis semillon. De Bortoli leads the way with its famous Noble One range, but you’ll find pretty much every winery does a take on the grape, from traditional, sweeter styles to more modern, nutty and lighter styles.
Durif is also another popular variety in the Riverina. It’s a powerful, yet elegant red wine, which most wineries experiment with to serve up some impressive varietal styles. But it’s the alternative varieties that are gaining traction. There are great examples of barbera, montepulciano, petit verdot, pinot grigio, nero d’Avola and even the very rare aranel variety is found here.
The shift to wine tourism has been a focus for the Riverina over the past few years. When Covid-19 forced Australians to travel to their backyard rather than abroad, it was a real test for the region and its tourism operators. They passed with flying colours. The Riverina saw a flurry of tourists – the most the region had ever seen – with the success and feedback further cementing the drive to become a destination for quality wine and cellar door experiences. It’s time for a trip to the Riverina, and see for yourself just what this fresh-faced, enthusiastic wine region has to offer.
The town of Griffith is at the heart of the Riverina, and is a six-and-a-half hour drive from Sydney and an hour less than that from Melbourne. You can fly, with Rex Airlines (rex.com.au) offering regular services from Sydney, along with Qantas (qantas.com), which has also recently launched daily, direct flights to Griffith. From Melbourne, EastWest Airlines (eastwestairlines.com.au) offers daily, direct flights from Essendon Airport or there are train and coach services also available. Canberrans, Griffith is only a four-and-a-half hour drive away.
The Riverina’s Italian heritage shines through in its food offerings, so get ready to dig in and enjoy some authentic, fresh and hearty Italian cuisine. Make a booking whenever you can, as restaurants fill up quickly, even on weekdays. Zecca (zeccagriffith.com.au) is a great spot for a fun, relaxed vibe paired with fresh and sophisticated Italian fare. The menu is ever-changing and focuses on supporting local producers. And you can’t leave Griffith (I don’t think the locals would let you) without trying the region’s delicacy – the rocket toppa. It’s a starter you’ll find at most restaurants in Griffith, and is a thin pizza base with a tomato and herb sauce topped with a smattering of rocket. Best place to try it? Head straight for the local favourite La Scala Restaurant (facebook.com/lascalarestaurantgriffith). The food is just plain tasty and served in a great, warm atmosphere – be sure to grab some gelato for dessert.
Limone (limone.com.au) is another must-visit. Owned and run by rising chef Luke Piccolo, the menu at Limone is full of love and passion – and the food is a great expression of the quality produce you can find in the Riverina. Book in for a seasonal à la carte or set menu dinner, but also pop it on the itinerary for a hearty brunch. Be sure to check out the family owned deli La Piccola Grosseria (facebook.com/la-piccola-grosseria). They do a great espresso, ideal for sipping while wandering through shelves of fresh pasta, small goods and homemade sweets.
When staying in the Riverina, most of the accommodation options are in Griffith, which is a convenient, central location for your visit. The exception, though, and a place I highly recommend to spend a night or two if you can, is the Whitton Malthouse (whittonmalthouse.com.au/pages/stay), a tick over 30 minutes’ drive from Griffith.
Whitton Malthouse has 10 self-contained, luxury villas that provide stunning views of the property and Lake Hulong. It’s a destination where you can spend a whole day – just the thing if you don’t want to spend too much time driving – plus the town of Leeton is nearby, which is home to a couple of wineries and the cutest country town vibes.
Back in Griffith, Quest Apartments (questgriffith.com.au) is another good option for your stay, locating you a short stroll from all the main street action and destinations. For those who enjoy the Aussie dream of camping, there’s plenty of caravan parks in the region, along with free camping available at the gorgeous Willow Park and Lake Wyangan.
Yes, we’re here to talk about wine, but there’s also plenty of other notable experiences to be had in the Riverina if you ever find yourself ‘wined out’. For those looking to explore the landscape, take a drive up to Scenic Hill to visit the Hermit’s Cave Lookout and Trails, which boasts panoramic views of the Riverina. Keen bushwalkers should also check out the dramatic scenery of Cocoparra National Park in Yenda.
For those looking for more of a casual stroll, take one along the main street of Griffith, where you’ll find plenty of eateries, delis, and boutique fashion and homeware stores.
While you’re there, walk down Banna Lane to check out the stunning murals by local artists. Each May, there’s the Street Scapes Griffith event, which includes the Banna Lane Festival – a cool, community street party with live music, food and wine. If you find yourself in the region at Easter, you could always take in the popular Griffith Vintage Festival on the Saturday. It’s always a fun day and it’s the perfect opportunity to meet all the local producers in one place.
No, this isn’t a mistake, your first stop in the Riverina is not to a winery, but the Whitton Malthouse (whittonmalthouse.com.au). Rather than tasting your way through local wines here, you’ll be sipping on a range of craft beers and spirits made from Voyager Craft Malt’s local malting grains – think names like Archie Rose, Corowa Distilling Co and Newcastle Distilling.
The ‘cellar door’ is unreal. There’s the whisky bar where you can taste and watch the malting process as it happens; the on-site restaurant and café featuring Riverina produce (try the Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod); the gift shop where you’ll find not only bottles, but locally made homewares and souvenirs; an upstairs events space and don’t forget the luxe villas on the Lake Hulong
After leaving Whitton, you’ll head into the small town of Leeton to meet Robert (most know him as Rob) Fiumara at Lillypilly Wines (store.lillypillywines.com.au). It’s a true vine-to-glass experience at Lillypilly, with Fiumara and his team doing all the winemaking, as well as the bottling and labelling at his Leeton estate – very impressive for a small winery.
The cellar door is a small, but cosy set-up, where Fiumara will take you through his portfolio of Riverina Wines. A must-try wine is the 2018 Tramillon (A$18), which is a unique blend of gewürztraminer (around 80%) and semillon. Fiumara first produced this back in 1982 and since has trademarked the Tramillon name. It’s an off-dry style, displaying a sweet nose, with lemon sherbet and stewed peach notes. The 2016 Lillypilly Muscat of Alexandria (375ml, A$18), as well as the 2019 Barbera (A$19.50) and 2019 Petit Verdot (A$19.50) are also must-try wines in the range.
The following day kicks off with a drive to Bibul to visit the De Bortoli Cellar Door (debortoli.com.au/visit-us/cellar-doors/riverina). If you’re visiting on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday, book in for the Emeri’s Garden Tour and Wine Tasting Experience. You’ll be joined by second-generation Emeri De Bortoli for a tour through her stunning, prized gardens at the estate, followed by a tasting of the De Bortoli portfolio.
The Taste the Noble Experience is also a must-do, as it’s a good way to get to know the famous botrytis semillon of the Riverina. Noble One is the benchmark for the style, and you’ll get to taste the 2011, 2013 and 2017 vintages, along with the exquisite Black Noble. The 2013 was a favourite of mine with hints of marmalade and quince, and toasted almond. But the Black Noble was a highlight, with a fresh palate of dried fig, apricot and golden syrup sweetness.
Next is Berton Vineyards (bertonvineyards.com.au). The cellar door has an inviting feel to it and there’s something for everyone in the Berton portfolio. Berton also has sites in the Eden Valley, where the story of Berton Vineyards actually began with Bob and Cherie Berton in 1996. But after moving to the Riverina in 2005, the Bertons have made the region home and it’s evident they hold a strong understanding of what grows well here.
The 2020 Metal Label Durif (A$14), 2021 Winemakers Reserve Fiano (A$16) and 2019 Winemakers Reserve Aranel (A$16) are some of the stand-outs from the range. The Aranel is a must-try as it is a very rare, hybrid (grenache gris and Saint-Pierre Doré) grape variety from Southern France, with Berton Vineyards the only winery in Australia growing and producing it. It’s a fragrant, fresh wine with citrus and nashi pear notes and a creamy palate from some French oak influence.
Last stop of the day is a chance to spend an afternoon at the picturesque Yarran Wines Cellar Door (yarranwines.com.au). It’s a true wine country feel here, with Yarran really leading the way with its ability to absolutely nail the cellar door experience. Take a seat on the verandah if you can for the surrounding vineyard views, and then tuck in for a tasting of the range. Make sure you’ve left some room for food, too; Yarran offers up a tasty bar menu.
Winemaker Sam Brewer has been producing top-notch wines that really embody the region’s new approach to the craft. Be sure to try his take on alternative varieties through the 2021 A Few Words Montepulciano Rosé (A$20) and 2018 Block Series Yenda Petit Verdot (A$28). You also won’t want to miss Brewer’s take on the regional heroes, with the very impressive 2018 Block Series Yenda Durif (A$28), and the 2018 Botrytis Semillon (A$26), a lovely example of the modern, fresher take on botrytis semillon.
Your last day kicks off with a visit to the Calabria family at the Calabria Family Wines Cellar Door (calabriawines.com.au). It’s likely you’ll bump into the whole family during your visit, with second-generation Bill and Lena Calabria, along with their children, Andrew, Elizabeth, Michael and Frank, all having a part to play across the winemaking, cellar door, sales and marketing. The Calabria team is another leader in wine tourism in the Riverina. The winery has recently launched a whole suite of tasting experiences with ‘Riverina & Regional Flavours Experience’ and ‘Museum Calabria Three Bridges Durif Vertical Tasting’ my top picks to experience the best of their portfolio. There are also plans to create a Wine Museum and Sensory Experience in the future.
The Calabria portfolio boasts quality, consistency and affordability, and it’s a superb expression of the Riverina. Calabria produces the only non-botryitised semillon in the Riverina – the 2018 Three Bridges Reserve Semillon (A$29.95) – and it’s a goodie. Fresh, approachable, granny smith apple characters paired with a long, nutty finish. While there’s plenty of standouts, be sure to taste the 2019 Three Bridges Durif (A$25), the 2019 Private Bin Nero d’Avola (A$14.95) and 2019 Private Bin Montepulciano (A$14.95).
Round out your Riverina visit with the Mino & Co Cellar Door in Hanwood (minoandco.com.au). The Guglielmino family, along with winemaker Sam Trimboli, craft a range of boutique wines from the Riverina and vineyards across South Australia. Their Italian heritage shines through in the wines, in particular with their impressive range of alternative varieties, including nero d’Avola, aglianico, sangiovese, nebbiolo and vermentino. Settle in for a tasting with the friendly Mino & Co team, who are so welcoming, making for a wholesome wine tasting experience.
Be sure to dive into Mino’s Growers Touch range, which is dedication to the Riverina with a local sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, durif and botrytis semillon. You also can’t leave without tasting the Signor Vino range showcasing the Mino & Co flair with alternative varieties – the 2016 Aglianico (A$23) and 2019 Nero D’Avola (A$23) are an insight into the bright future of the Riverina.