"FOR the 12 hours before it was dished up, the lamb on my plate was slowly cooking sous vide. Only hours before that, or perhaps a day or two, it was gaily skipping through the paddock next door.

Local produce? Check. No air miles, check. In fact Michael Chambers — owner of Lake Moodemere winery, at the aforementioned lake just outside of Rutherglen in Victoria — could probably throw Lambikins over his shoulder and meander with it to the table, plonking it down next to a bottle of his excellent durif.

In the city and the country, chefs are searching hungrily for similar star ingredients that they can throw on a menu with a flourish, proclaiming local produce.

The task is unquestionably simpler in the country, though, and around Rutherglen in northern Victoria it seems almost too easy to match fresh and genuinely local ingredients with the solid, earthy wines that give the region credence beyond the fortifieds for which it is so famous.

“We always do lamb because we’re also lamb producers,” says Chambers, presenting a plate of that 12-hour lamb with a crunchy olive crust, smoked beetroot and cannellini beans.

“The family has always been farmers and winemakers, for six generations.”

Family roots run deep around Rutherglen, and it’s common to spot treasured black-and-white photographs on the wall of a cellar door, showing ancestors with a wagon of grapes in the vineyard outside. The region was first settled in 1836, with the first grapevines planted in 1851.

“The thing about Rutherglen is probably over half the wineries here are the original families,” Chambers says.

“There’s always one family member in the line who wants to carry on with what the generations have been doing. You’ve just got to have a passion for the industry — you don’t have to be the winemaker as long as you’re back running the business, whatever your passion is.”

Family and local connections flavour the menu for Tastes of Rutherglen, the annual food and wine festival launched in 1988, which starts this year on March 7.

Seventeen wineries will each offer a food and wine match showcasing the talents of their winemakers and chefs, with two entree-sized courses (from two wineries) included in a $50 ticket and additional courses available for $20 each. These festival lunches will be served from about 10am to about 5pm, depending on the venue.

Separate dinner events (additional to the ticket price) will be held at All Saints Estate, Campbells Wines, Cofield Wines, John Gehrig Wines, Jones Winery, Lake Moodemere, Pfeiffer Wines and Rutherglen Estates.

For a taste of estate-grown lamb, stop by Lake Moodemere or St Leonards, where family-owned sheep features in a zingy lamb and harissa slider prepared by chef Simon Arkless. “This is the smallest carbon footprint you can get,” jokes Arkless, who can be found foraging for wild mushrooms on his days off, season permitting.

“You know where it’s come from, there’s a bit of a story behind it and it tastes great.”

There’s no shortage of stories at Jones Winery, which has been with the Jones family since 1927.

You’ll be tasting the wine in an 1860 barn with original stringy-bark roof, while the grape juice is fermenting out the back in vats from 1862 — about 25 years after squatters first settled.

The dining room, where chef Kate Akrap will serve up a delicious confit duck pie in crispy filo pastry (topped off with local Brimin Lodge shiitake mushrooms), is filled with glorious old timber ­tables, including two that belonged to winemaker Mandy Jones’s mother and grandmother.

Jones, who runs the winery with her brother, spent 14 years working in Bordeaux and returned to Australia with a deeper love for wine and food combinations, spurred along by brief training at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.

“People coming to Tastes of Rutherglen have always had good knowledge and interest in wine, but I think they’re becoming more knowledgeable about food than in the past,” she says.

“People go out looking for things that are a little bit different, and it’s extremely significant to have right mix.”

Akrap, who grew up in nearby Corowa, grows blood oranges, limes, lemons, tomatoes, zucchini and herbs around the vineyards, with several other local ingredients sourced from friends and neighbours.

“I’ve always done that in all the years I’ve been cooking, and I’ve been lucky enough to work in ­places that do that,” she says.

As for the wine — sure, every place has a muscat or tawny on its list that carries on the Rutherglen fortified tradition.

But the winemakers are also keen to have you try their durif, cabernet franc or even a semillon.

A full sweep of Rutherglen’s viticultural offerings can be found at Thousand Pound Wine Bar on Main Street, opened by Eliza Brown — of the Brown family, which owns All Saints and St Leonards — and her husband Denis Lucey (of Melbourne’s Bottega) last month.

An old shopfront has been transformed into an airy wine bar boasting a list brimming with regional, Australian and European wines, with family-owned wineries specially marked.

Cofield Wines has long prided itself on its sparkling wines, and the 2006 reserve release pinot noir chardonnay is a vibrant match for slow-braised pork cheeks with an apple and fennel salad.

“When we started off, we wanted to have something a little different,” says winemaker Damien Cofield, son of Max, who founded the winery 25 years ago, following on from a century of Cofield vignerons in the region. “The area was still known for fortifieds, and making that is quite expensive, it involves a lot of cel­laring.”

If you fancy a fortified and have a sweet tooth, it is hard to go past the range at Chambers Rosewood, where winemaker Stephen Chambers (cousin of Lake Moodemere’s Michael) is also carrying on the family tradition.

Award-winning local pastry chef Louisa Morris has been brought in to provide a selection of cakes (think fig and raspberry slice, chocolate caramel tart) to ­accompany a lightly chilled noble muscatel, but Stephen Chambers also suggests pairing the sweet treats with his “walnut red” — a subtly sweet tawny-like fortified originally created through happy accident.

A misplaced bung left off the cask of an intended tawny (formerly known as port) saw the alcohol level slip below the usual 17-18 per cent, down to about 15 per cent, with the error discovered too late to rectify.

“We had all this wine sitting in bottles that wasn’t at the alcohol level we needed for port — you could still use that word then,” says Chambers.

“We decided not to chuck it away, and somebody said it went well with walnuts.”

A winery has been operating on the Chambers Rosewood site since the 1850s, coming under the Chambers family in the early 20th century. In Rutherglen, family roots continue to bind and nourish the vineyards’ loamy soil.

The author’s visit was hosted by the Winemakers of Rutherglen. Tastes of Rutherglen, March 7-8. winemakers.com.au."

Pia Akerman, The Australian, 17 February 2015

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