The mid-winter sun exudes relaxation, with the outside temperature reaching at a pleasant 17 degrees. A crowd is gathering inside the private dining room – an extended group of family friends, many familiar faces, some new. I’ve arrived at Chrismont’s Cellar Door, Restaurant and Larder to celebrate a birthday, and while I’ve visited many times in the past, my eyes are still drawn outside to admire the children’s storybook forested hill that meets the valley floor adjacent to the vineyard. This view always seems to capture my imagination, transporting me to my ‘happy place’. But I’m jolted back with a tap on the shoulder – and with a handshake introduced to the smiling faces of both new and old acquaintances. In readiness to celebrate, the prosecco begins to flow.
Chrismont’s restaurant interior is a crisp modern space: polished concrete floors sweep its wide expanse with floor to ceiling glass, sleek acoustically treated ply panelling lines the ceiling, and a wow factor fireplace of superb granite stone separates the restaurant’s dining area from the wine tasting room. Our group is seated in a prime position to one side of the building, where from two long lunch dining tables we’re treated to a very warm welcome by owner/host Jo. In true Italian style she exudes the warmth of her heritage’s hospitality. While menus are handed around and lunch suggestions noted my father’s friend Trevor – imbibing the convivial atmosphere – calls out: ‘just feed us!’ as he stands to organise a photo of the group.
A collection of freshly-opened bottles from Chrismont’s Mediterranean varietals La Zona label colours the table: the light straw arneis, burnished gold of the pinot grigio, the rose warmth of the moscato; and the deep-ruby-red barbera. I catch the couple beside me engrossed in their glasses of arneis: marvelling at its freshness and fragrance – an exquisite blended scent of apples and pear. A good mate Brian is seated beside me. He’s a building designer, but seems far more interested in the barbera than the modernist construction! Clearly we’re here to relax – enjoy the break from pressing obligations. But while I accept celebration as the order of the day, I’m already keenly awaiting the first plate – for beyond the simple enjoyment of fine food, there’s the opportunity to explore the dishes’ further. To study and learn how carefully chosen ingredients can combine to paint magic on the palate.
And then it arrives: Jo and her staff deliver share plates of octopus salad with Desiree and sweet potato, baby Roma tomatoes and fresh chilli, all lightly dressed in a fragrant and herbaceous premium olive oil with a touch of lemon juice, honey and Dijon mustard. I ask the chef about this deceptively simple dish’s preparation: ‘the octopus is slow poached,’ he says, ‘then bound and compressed together, a little like a salami. Once cooled it’s thinly sliced to order.’ The texture is deliciously tender and the flavour delicate. This quality ingredient combined with fresh and sweet aromatic garden fresh vegetables – including finely-shaved red and green capsicum, makes this the perfect lighter-styled dish. All the colours of a Sicilian seaside market are on display, I think to myself. This dish is an instant hit – it wows everyone at the table.
Another fine wine, Chrismont’s 2018 Riesling is poured, and proves a logical choice working well with the octopus, although I know many of the La Zona whites are also a good match. The Riesling features delicate aromas of lemon citrus and peach stone that leap from the glass. This very modern wine style is in sync with other cool climate whites in the Chrismont and La Zona range. These all feature striking lifted fragrances born of slower ripening periods, and carry a fine acidity which adds a freshness to the palate. While the Riesling is somewhat uncomplicated, it surprises with additional aromas of almonds and musk as the wine begins to open up.
Chrismont Head Chef, Armit Kumar, is relatively new to the business, having arrived to the King Valley in March of 2018. While born in northern India, he was classically trained as a chef in northern Italy. Armit explains that during this time, he learned an impressive array of cooking skills, including many complex cooking techniques; but also how and when to respect fresh seasonal ingredients – to plate them up just as nature intends. But sometimes complexity, time and care is called for, like the methods used in balancing the flavour within his goat and caramelised onion ravioli.
‘Goat can be a very pungent meat, and a series of careful steps is required to soften and improve the flavours. I marinate the goat overnight in juniper, cloves, garlic, cardamom, star anise, plus other mixed spices; the meat is then BBQ grilled and stewed in white wine for eight hours. I rest the meat for 24 hours before making the ravioli’, says Armit.
His hand rolled ravioli is supremely fresh and silk textured. Its accompanying leek béchamel sauce with walnuts and fried shallots is beautifully garnished with fried sage leaves covered with a crispy golden Italian crumb. The care taken to produce the dish makes it outstanding; the subtle inclusion of mixed spices completes a modernist touch that showcases Armit’s skill and creativity.
Chrismont’s La Zona 2015 Barbera pairs well with the ravioli. It displays gentle savoury aromas including bay leaf, spice and mushrooms, softly weighted with the depth of black currant. The wine has a voluptuous mouthfeel, and is pleasingly medium bodied: therefore gentle enough to balance the delicate béchamel and spiced goat meat and caramelised onions. Its silky palate features mixed berries, cherries and mixed spice: cloves, aniseed, juniper and pepper. Chrismont owner/vigneron Arnie later explains that barbera makes a great alternative to pinot noir, also producing earthy/leathery fragrances; and due to a higher acidity, can cut through fattier dishes. ’It’s a fruit-driven style, barrel fermented for 8-10 months depending on the vintage,’ he says. While I appreciate Arnie’s notes, the rest of my group is immersed in laughter and conversation. The food and wine the vehicle, the smiles and friendship the journey.
The autumn sun slowly passes across the vineyard as the laughter mellows. I study the long shadows painted across the vines and sip a lightly sparkling local spring water, also bottled onsite by Chrismont. As I rehydrate, brightly coloured plates stacked high with puffed pastry, cream and freshly picked strawberries arrive at the table. This is Chrismont’s Millefoglie (thousand layers) with coconut Chantilly cream, shaved almonds, blueberries and praline. While appearing extravagantly rich and filling, it is in fact extremely light and utterly delicious. Our wine – the La Zona 2016 Moscato – rewards equally: its fresh and lively aromas of musk, citrus and lime pith make it an absolute pleasure to drink. Slightly spritzy, and softly touched with a clean acidity, it provides a harmonious match to the dessert. ‘Here’s cheers,’ calls Barbara: the lunch is complete.
Chrismont’s cellar door and restaurant complex is a Mies van de Rohe Modernist-inspired style adapted to Australian conditions. Simply step through the stunning spotted gum and stone entrance to appreciate its clean rectangular interior lines and then out onto the expansive deck area with its sweeping balustrade. Below, a sea of vines fills the field of vision. The sight, which encompasses views of this most special part of the King Valley, is one of Australia’s most impressive.
Chrismont is a leisurely 50 minute drive South from Wangaratta via the sealed Wangaratta-Whitfield Road. There are many cellar doors to explore on route, so a comfortable day’s travel is recommended.