From a stunning vineyard retreat – the most avant-garde hotel to open in Australia this year – Kendall Hill explores the food, wine and design of the Mornington Peninsula.

Charles Davidson calls it the “renaissance Peninsula”. His ancestors first came to Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula in the 1840s when pastoralist Alexander Balcombe – his great-great-great-great-grandfather – built The Briars in Mount Martha and planted the region’s very first grapevines. (The wine was so sour that locals dubbed it “Balcombe’s vinegar”.)

Davidson made his own indelible mark on this area by tapping its thermal waters and opening Peninsula Hot Springs with his brother, Richard, in 2005. He views the region as a sort of rural counterpoint to Melbourne’s cultivated cultural life. “It’s a place of food, wine, beaches, lifestyle... where creativity thrives and flourishes and everybody feeds off each other, whether they’re making wine or music,” he says. “It’s always been an escape for Melburnians... but what’s happened is, it’s refined.” This claw of land due south of the Victorian capital and fringed by about 200 kilometres of coastline has been a summer playground for the city’s elite since the 19th century. But it is only this century that the peninsula has come into its own.

It’s always been charmed: serene bays and wild ocean beaches, millionaire estates in the hills and crowded camp sites by the shore, with an unusually civilised approach to food and wine. But with the advent of the Peninsula Link freeway, putting Melbourne an easy hour’s drive away, and international-standard drawcards such as the hot springs, the new Eagle chairlift at Arthurs Seat, the architecturally daring Port Phillip Estate winery and the thrilling new Jackalope hotel, this once-sleepy seaside stopover has become a thriving, year-round magnet for the leisure set. It’s now the country’s most searched wine region online, along with the Hunter Valley in NSW.

First Look: Jackalope Hotel, Mornington Peninsula

Jackalope is like nothing the peninsula – or Australia – has seen before. Surrounded by 11 hectares of vines and rustic winery buildings on the Willow Creek estate, this hotel is a bold amalgam of 1876 homestead and hard-edged sculptural extension that houses 46 rooms, provocative art and furniture, a gastronomic restaurant and a ravishing hotel bar that wouldn’t look out of place in Moscow or London. The $40 million development feels a bit like a mini Mona, the private art museum that turned Hobart from backwater to boom town. It’s entirely possible Jackalope will do the same for the peninsula.

It’s hard to know where to begin describing the arresting vision of 28-year-old owner and entrepreneur Louis Li, who hails from China’s Yunnan province but moved to Melbourne nine years ago to study filmmaking. His cinematic passions are expressed – David Lynch style – in the high-gloss, neon-lit world he’s created against a bucolic backdrop of vines and softly curving hills scented with pine and eucalypt. 

At Rare Hare, the cellar-door bistro serving estate wines and gratifying produce-driven share plates, visitors leave their coats in a cloakroom lined entirely with rabbit pelts – even the coathangers are furry. Diners feast communally on supple squid with inky romesco and juicy lamb rump slices paired with Willow Creek winemaker Geraldine McFaul’s finest. McFaul is known as the queen of chardonnay but all her wines are lovely.

First Look: Jackalope Hotel, Mornington Peninsula

At the flagship restaurant, Doot Doot Doot, guests sit at whimsical chairs with soaring coat-rack backs beneath a ceiling installation of 10,000 light bulbs designed by Victorian lighting artist Jan Flook to symbolise the froth and bubble of wine fermentation. Chefs Guy Stanaway and Martin Webster create food that tastes even better than it Instagrams, including Lakes Entrance bug dressed impeccably with finger lime and roe butter.

Rooms are sedate by Jackalope’s theatrical standards – Zen-like havens in neutrals, metallics and black with generous terraces and, in some, black Japanese stone baths. Black dominates, from the seven-metre-high sculpture of the mythical jackrabbit-antelope beast (“jackalope”) to the tiles lining the 30-metre infinity pool. The hotel’s overarching theme is alchemy (ask staff to explain the myriad ways it’s expressed in the design) and it’s an apt fit for the Mornington Peninsula, circa 2017, where there’s a bit of a Midas touch afoot. 

The Davidsons’ thermal spa now attracts 450,000 visitors a year – more than double the permanent population – and is about to expand further, with a new bathing section by year’s end and a 126-room hotel coming soon.

At Crittenden Estate, where pioneering winemaker Garry Crittenden turned paddocks to vines in 1982, a contemporary tasting centre allows visitors to savour the 25 wines his son, Rollo, makes; from the scrumptious Zumma chardonnay to more experimental tastes like his flor yeast savagnin. The secret to the Mornington Peninsula’s winemaking success, says Rollo, is that “we have small blocks that people tend with love and great care”.

Other vineyards, such as Montalto and Port Phillip Estate, have led the way in winery tourism, with destination dining rooms and panoramic views. But the peninsula’s true gastro strip is the eucalypt-lined Mornington-Flinders Road. Here you’ll find the two-hatted Ten Minutes by Tractor – which marries great produce and wine in one of the state’s most sociable dining rooms – and its sibling bistro, Petit Tracteur. The latter honours the peninsula’s French connection (Matthew Flinders narrowly beat Nicolas Baudin to claim Australia’s southern coastline) with a winning menu of canard à l’orange and tarte Tatin.

There’s a relaxed farmhouse-restaurant vibe at neighbouring Green Olive at Red Hill, while Johnny Ripe bakes melting apple pies. Expect more apple-related goodness at Mock Red Hill, where the Mock family – fourth-generation orchardists – turn Royal Galas, Pink Ladies and Jonathans into biodynamic ciders, juices and vinegars. They also make a sparkling pear juice that mixes very well with gin. Luckily, there’s an excellent distillery 10 minutes away. At Bass & Flinders Distillery, father-and-daughter team Wayne and Holly Klintworth perform their own kind of alchemy, turning shiraz and chardonnay grapes into vodkas, limoncello, an exceptional “aged grape spirit” (aka brandy) called Ochre, which spends five years in French oak and retails for $185 a bottle, and gins – including one infused with black Périgord truffles grown in Red Hill.

For hands-on insights into peninsula life, sign up for a class at Georgie Bass Café & Cookery and join chef Michael Cole at Mornington Park – a typically grand peninsula estate with distracting views across Westernport Bay to Phillip Island and Seal Rocks – to ransack the kitchen garden then whip up an impressive lunch at his café.

Despite recent developments, the soul of the peninsula remains the same and it’s easy to find. Just book dinner at veteran Red Hill restaurant The Long Table on a weekday night and you might very well end up dining alongside the clever person who made your wine. In my case, it’s local legend Kathleen Quealy, creator of the pinot gris I’m enjoying while swooning over chef Andy Doughton’s inspired take on dolmades – umami bombs of crab and rice bound in gai lan with miso mayo and wakame.

Andy and his wife, Samantha, a Red Hill native, have run this place for 14 years; their parents have hobby farms nearby and supply the kitchen with herbs, vegetables and fruit. It’s a favourite hangout for winemakers, especially on BYO Sundays, when they raid their cellars and gather at the restaurant’s antique tables and church pews for great food and conversation. If you drop in, it’s
a fine way to get the pulse of the peninsula. Back at The Briars, one of the original 1840s vines is still alive today. Charles Davidson is unsure what sort of grape it is but he’s propagating it anyway in a bid to repair his family’s reputation for winemaking. He hopes to have the first vintage in hand within five years. That’s the spirit of the peninsula right there, in a vine cutting – rooted in tradition but always evolving.

First Look: Jackalope Hotel, Mornington Peninsula

SEE ALSO: Unravelling the Secrets of the Great Ocean Road

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