What a perfect day for a picnic. Warm but not too hot, with a gentle breeze stirring the leaves and no insects on the radar. We're sitting under an umbrella on the old Sunday Creek bridge in Rutherglen, sipping a chilled riesling.
Below us, the creek flows murkily along. The children at the end of the bridge are feeding the turtles with food supplied by the people at Pfeiffer Wines, who seem to think of everything. The large terrapins purposely swim towards the pellets and the sluggish carp join in the feeding frenzy.
This is the sort of picnic I like: real plates and cutlery, a chequered tablecloth, a generous shade umbrella, and gourmet treats from Easdown House. I've cleverly pre-booked a picnic hamper from Pfeiffer Wines, so as we dash up the Hume Freeway, we know lunch is waiting for us at the winery and a table is reserved on the bridge.
Rutherglen is a most civilised destination, with the mighty Murray swerving through the landscape, wineries stretching back six generations, and enough cafes and restaurants to keep any hungry gourmet happy. March is a good time to visit: the weather has usually lost its searing edge and the Tastes of Rutherglen festival means local wineries organise interesting food and wine events.
A few kilometres away, All Saints Estate winery wins the prize for the most romantic setting in Rutherglen. It's a knockout "castle", built in the 1880s with turrets and a tower. It was inspired by the Castle of Mey in Scotland, where the original owner's father worked.
The grounds are beautifully kept and a walk around the back reveals the Chinese Dormitory, which housed Chinese workers who moved to the vineyards after the gold rush.
Dinner at the Terrace Restaurant is rather special, and driving up the 130-year-old elm-lined avenue on a balmy evening feels like a trip to Europe without the jet lag. We opt for the wine-matched menu – after all, it's not every night that one dines in a castle.
The next day, we hire some bicycles from the Rutherglen Wine Experience Centre and ride the short distance to Jones Winery. Winemaker and trained cook Mandy Jones runs a rustic cafe with simple dishes based on local produce to accompany her own wines, made from grapes grown in the vineyard out the back.
That evening, we wander down the main street of Rutherglen. The bookshop, packed with old tomes, keeps us busy. Then it's drinks at the historic Victoria Hotel's leafy beer garden, where we chat to the chef, who's filling in behind the bar. We learn that he's a recent, enthusiastic arrival in town.
No visit to the area is complete without eating at the Pickled Sisters Cafe. Stewart Gilchrist mans the kitchen, while friendly Marion Hansford tells us all about the delicious local seasonal produce. Try the vineyard platter with a glass of sparkling shiraz, made by Damien Cofield of Cofield Wines just next door. Other places worth visiting include Tuileries wine bar and restaurant in the historic Jolimont Cellars, and Gooramadda Olives.
GETTING THERE Rutherglen is 285 kilometres from Melbourne.
STAY The Old Post Office in Howlong is luxurious, with great attention to detail, theoldpostofficebedandbreakfast.com.
Tuileries, 13 Drummond Street, Rutherglen, has an appealing resort-like ambience, tuileriesrutherglen.com.au.
EAT Pickled Sisters Cafe, Distillery Road, Wahgunyah; Jones Winery, 61 Jones Road, Rutherglen; All Saints Estate winery, All Saints Road, Wahgunyah.
Tastes of Rutherglen is on March 9-10 and March 16-17, see winemakers.com.au.
Mary O'Brien was a guest of the Winemakers of Rutherglen.