Ode to Levantine
Levantine Hill in Victoria’s Yarra Valley is a slice of heaven for those with a penchant for the finer things in life. WORDS: Michelle Hespe
Matches made in heaven
Ceasar is sitting under a big white umbrella on Levantine Hill Estate, happily surveying the vineyards and his Perigord truffle grove. He’s just finished his favourite meal — medium rare wagyu with truffle shavings — and so runs a tongue over his lips to savour the lingering flavours. Shelves of fine wines are behind him, and he can see that his staff is busy taking care of guests and business.
It’s a fine place to call home, and today the sky is particularly blue, setting off the thriving Syrah plantations before him, laden with the some of best grapes Caesar has ever tasted. Today he has a book signing in the restaurant — Ezard @ Levatine Hill — and his people have put a lot of effort into ensuring that he looks smart – his eyes are bright and he’s wearing his favourite blue and white checked cravat.
Inside, Caesar’s owner, Elias (Eli) Jreissati, lifts him into place on a stool, and as the first woman steps forward to have her book — Wine Dogs Australia — signed, Eli presses Caesar’s manicured paw on to the ink pad and then gently imprints its shape on to the book’s first page. The woman smiles, thanks the grinning Shih Tzu, and is guided into Signature restaurant, where five courses of fine wines by Paul Bridgeman have been matched superbly with a degustation menu created by one of Australia’s leading chefs, Teage Ezard.
Ezard @ Levantine Hill is all about matches made in heaven, which is aptly reflected the jaw-dropping surrounds — vineyards sprawling in every direction with the Levantine Hill Estate house perched on a hill-top in the distance, like an extremely high-end Little House on the Prairie. Guests can stay there — for $10,000 for two nights — but Levantine guests mainly visit for the day and enjoy the restaurants and cellar door.
The idea for the estate’s restaurant (which opened in July 2014) was born due to Eli becoming one of Teage’s loyal diners at his flagship Melbourne restaurant, Ezard. Eli (a property developer) owned Levantine Hill, Teage produces some of the best meals in the country, and Paul Bridgeman, one of Australia’s top winemakers (with a knack for producing some of the country’s best European style wines) wanted a new challenge after having been the head wine maker for Yarra Yering for five years.
And so the collaboration began.
Teage and Paul
“From the very first conversations we knew that the wine had to be the hero if we went ahead,” Teage says. “And as soon as I saw the estate and learnt about the people involved — such great people and what a family — I knew it would be an inspiring venture. I needed to create menus to complement Pauls’ wines, as his wines are some of the best in the country, and I wanted to create something like Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in regional Victoria.”
The estate is divided into Family Paddocks, with the three daughters — Katherine, Samantha and Melissa, having their own paddocks dedicated to a grape varietal. Katherine’s vineyards produce chardonnay, Samantha’s creates Left Bank Bordeaux varietals, Melissa’s is dedicated to Syrah, and Eli’s wife Colleen’s paddock grows Pinot Noir. Caesar also has a paddock, but his is dedicated to a grove of over 400 oak trees carrying black Perigord truffle spores. The first harvest from the truffiére will be in about two years, and everyone is looking forward to it.
Samantha’s Paddock is often discussed at Levantine, and it is testament to Eli and Colleen’s determination to succeed in a tough industry. It’s on an incredibly steep sloping block filled with rocky veins and harsh outcrops. Experts considered it ludicrous to even try to plant vines on the incline. “It was the paddock that they said could not be planted!” says Eli with pride. But with a diamond-tipped drilling rig and seven months of hard work, a perfect vineyard was brought into existence.
“The wines produced at Levantine are European in style,” explains Paul. “They are more subtle, have less alcohol, and are savoury. When you consider that most Australian whites are really overt – lush expressions of really ripe fruit, our wines are so different. They are subtle, restrained, and more structured. They are less sassy and so integrate so much better with food. We pick our grapes earlier, and seriously, they are like sunshine in a bottle.”
Although Teage is focussed on creating a menu that complements Paul’s wines, this does not mean that the food is not on the same level. It is exceptional, and together, the wines and Teage’s edible works of art presented so delicately (think botanical whimsies) make a seriously impressive duo. And that of course, was the point of the creative collaboration born at Ezard.
“Paul and I sit down on a regular base and I try to get into his head about the next vintage and next release – and together we explore the matching notes and some points of difference — basically things he might have done with the grapes and wine to make something different,” says Teage. “It’s really important to get his approaches and ideas for me to work with.”
Teage’s offerings have a strong emphasis on produce grown on the estate’s own land, complemented by fresh regional and seasonal selections. The local producers play an integral role in bringing Teage’s ideas to life, always sourcing the best ingredients available for him and his team.
There are so many dishes that encapsulate the talents of the duo, but one that Teage thinks is a current standout is a dish of iberico ham with figs, and French goats curd, with crushed hazelnuts. ‘It’s so good with Paul’s rose,” he says. “But there are so many other great flavour combinations on the menu it’s hard to choose a favourite.”
An ode to food and wine
For lunch seatings at Signature, guests can choose from a five-course degustation menu with or without wines (however it’s pretty much a crime to visit Levantine and not try the wines), or a five course vegetarian degustation. A pairing to swoon over is the Kingfish sashimi with miso, cucumber, white soy and squid crackers (delicate purple borage flowers add that extra bit of Teage art) with the 2014 Levantine Hill Estate Sauvignon Blanc Semillon.
For dinner, guests can also opt for an eight-course degustation with wines, and there’s also a full vegetarian offering. For meat lovers, the Wagyu beef with nettle, onion cream, potato terrine with a native pepper berry, is hard to go past. Match that with a 2013 Levantine Hill Estate Syrah and you’ll start to grasp the wonderful results of Paul and Teage’s creative pairing.
The fund doesn’t stop at mains, with desserts such as the Amaretto bavarois with bergamot, raspberry and stone fruit, enjoyed with a glass of 2012 Domaine de la Pigeade Muscat. Levantine does not have its own dessert wine yet – so watch this space.
Food and wine aren’t the only things to be engrossed by at Ezard @ Levantine. Admirers of avant-garde architecture will also be blown away by the wine barrel inspired booths with views of the Syrah plantings. It’s as close as you can get to sitting inside a wine barrel, and the leather seats within seem to be suspended in air from some angles. The arresting sculptural facets and the building itself were created by Fender Katsalidis Architects, who are also responsible for Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art and Melbourne’s Eureka Tower. Founding Director of the firm, Karl Fender, personally designed Levantine Hill’s cellar door and restaurant.
Outside the building, there are perfectly manicured lawns filled with interesting sculptures that meld into the surrounding vineyards. On the weekends a local band sets up before a half ring of wooden bench seating, so many guests choose to sit outside with a cheese platter and a glass of Paul’s finest, to listen to the music and meet other lovers of food and wine.
That is exactly what Caesar likes to do after his book signings. He makes himself comfortable on the lawn and looks out across his paddock, his nose slightly lifted just in case the scent of freshly sprouting truffles might be carried to him upon a breeze. That will be the day when everything comes magically together, like a finely tuned ode to fine food and wine.