Healesville and the Yarra Valley, Australia

After stopping off at the lake for a little while we hopped back in the van and hit the road again. We had just over 400km ahead of us to drive, which took about 4 hours – the Yarra Valley, we were ready!

We arrived into the Yarra Valley area and Miles announced that there was somewhere he wanted to stop at first, before we headed to our holiday park accommodation for the night. With an address already loaded on the Sat Nav, Miles navigated the van around the town of Healesville before pulling over outside a very large industrial building; ‘Four Pillars – Small Australian Gin Distillery’ – yes!!

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When it launched back in 2013, Four Pillars Gin was amongst the first wave of craft distillers to produce a gin in Australia.

Four Pillars is the brain child of wine making and marketing duo Stuart Gregor and Cameron Mackenzie, along with brand guru Matt Jones. The trio had a core objective right from the start when it came to founding their distillery: to create the best craft spirits that Australia has to offer.

Not that distilling was their first aim. Initially, the trio thought that they might like to make a tonic water, but the idea kept on growing until they decided to go the whole hog and create a great, modern Australian gin. They spent years researching, running tests and building recipes, then they ordered in a still, got all their licensing in place and tweaked designs until they had strong enough branding to launch.

The launch of the distillery was funded through Pozible, an Australian version of Kickstarter. The chaps set an initial AUD10,000 target, offering fundraisers a bottle from the very first batch of their flagship effort, Four Pillars Rare Dry Gin, amongst other ‘prizes’.

They smashed through their target on the second day and sold all 420 bottles of gin within four days. In the end, their crowd funding raised AUD31,200, demonstrating a huge thirst for craft distilling inside Australia and giving them confidence – if it were ever in doubt – that they were definitely onto something.

The trio spent a good 18 months experimenting with botanicals, eventually settling on a recipe comprising just 10: juniper, coriander, cardamom, lemon myrtle, Tasmanian pepper berry leaf, cinnamon, lavender, angelica, star anise and, most unusually of all, fresh whole oranges. It is quite rare for a distillery to use entire fresh fruits, but Four Pillars believe that Australian citrus is hugely aromatic, and that the use of the entire fruit will support the spiced botanicals.

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We certainly can vouch for their delicious gins which we happy sampled and washed down with a delicious cheeseboard – what a treat!

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After a couple of hours in the distillery Miles (who – was sober I should note!) drove us up to our accommodation for the night – the Yarra Valley holiday park where we made a delicious dinner of pesto pasta.

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The next morning we woke up to our very own little piece of drama as we tried to leave the holiday park ready for the day ahead exploring the area – we got literally stuck in the mud. Full.On.Stuck.

Some extremely friendly park residents set about to our aide and helped pull the van out of the mud, much to our delight as spectators. Not Miles’ delight as driver though! But it did indeed provide some excitement to our early morning routine.

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Safely out of the mud, we encountered our second drama of the morning – or display I should say! We were driving down one of the back roads when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a whole family of kangaroos ran out of the bushes and onto the road. They must have been spooked by the cars as they would jump from one side of the road, back across to other, back and forth back and forth. Only in Australia! We were right at the front of the cars so had a great view of a very strange event – we must have been sitting there for a good 5-10 minutes watching these things go forward and back right in front of the van! After all that excitement we were definitely due a large glass of wine – lucky we were about to spend the day exploring one of Austalia’s most renowned wine regions…!

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The Yara Valley, about 45km East of Melbourne, is home to more than 80 wineries, ranging from small, family-owned operations to large estates. The region is renowned for producing Australia’s finest pinot noir and sparkling wine, along with a range of other cool-climate wines. It was Victoria’s first planted wine region back in 1838. The region is known for its fresh produce including freshwater salmon, trout and caviar, organically grown fruit and vegetables and handmade cheeses and preserves. The Yara Valley really is a foodies’ heaven and we couldn’t wait to spend the day exploring.

We first stopped off at De Bortoli wines; a family owned, Italian descended vineyard which has been in operation at the Yarra Valley since 1928! For a tiny fee of $5 we sampled 16 different wines; bubbles, quirky white, rose, posh reds to stickies and fortifieds. Let’s just say we were in wine tasting heaven! Miles very much took one for team that day and offered to be designated driver. He therefore became very familiar with the spittoon, me on the other hand….

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The next stop on our tour was the very fancy Balgownie Estate. This vineyard is much younger than De Bartoli wines, with the vines only being planted in 2002. What the vineyard lacks in age however, it certainly makes up for it in its grandeur – we couldn’t wait to sample some of their highly renowned wines. Again, for a small fee of $5 we were treated to 16 wines, including one particularly special vintage; did I mention that we were in heaven?! What we really loved about the vineyard visits was how passionate the vineyard owners were about their wines; it was great to learn all about the production and the different types of grapes that make these distinctive tastes!

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A few hours in, we weren’t finished with our day of tasting yet, so we hopped back in the van and ventured further into the valley. We thought we’d give something other than wine a taste, so we headed to Stones, where we sampled some of the resident, Napoleone Cider. The ciders were absolutely delicious and we thoroughly enjoyed sitting in the beautiful stables soaking up the atmosphere. It was Catriona’s birthday so we took the opportunity to skype home; of course we couldn’t help but make them all jealous on account of our fun wine sightseeing tour down unda’!

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After a little while in Stones, we returned to the camper and made ourselves a quick lunch to, erm, soak up a little of the morning tastings…!

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Feeling refreshed after lunch (I think we made some strange pasta/soup concoction – oh the traveller’s life), we made our way across to the stunning vineyard; Chandon. That’s right, Chandon as in Moet Chandon; we were on the hunt for the good stuff! Chandon market themselves as the only Australian sparkling wine specialists with genuine French heritage. Sparkling wine is my absolute favourite and this particular vineyard was picture perfect stunning. We had found our happy place…!

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We tasted four different wines at Chandon; I made pals with the server who was from Queenstown, New Zealand. He must have taken pity on my tales of bungee jumping mishaps in NZ as he made sure our glasses were kept topped up.

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After spending the day sipping on the most delicious wines, we decided it would be rude not to make one final tasting stop; you know, just to make sure they’re all good. We stopped off at Oakridge which was a really  cool vineyard with a modern vibe to it. We sampled six of Oakridge’s delicious wines sitting out looking over the vineyard – it was fantastic, and a brilliant way to tie up our day of exploring the valley. We. Were.fans.

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After an amazing day exploring the area and the incredible vineyards we decided we would head back to the campsite for showers, before heading back into Healesville for some dinner. We ended up at this really cool pizza place in town owned by one of the vineyards – ‘Innocent Bystander’. This trendy restaurant had a fantastic menu and of course, a brilliant wine list to boot – it was brilliant we had a great meal, starting off with fresh local Oysters in Miles’ case… not mine!

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That evening we slept like perfectly after a day full of fantastic food and drink. We made an extra special effort this time however not to park too deep into the mud! The next morning we were up early and ready to start the last stretch of our Australian road trip, but perhaps the most exciting section – The Great Ocean Road!

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