My first glimpse of the Yarra Valley was at dawn. It was very cold, but the crown of my head was unbearably hot. Silence. Then a dragon's roar from above. Below lay the cityscape of Melbourne, sunlight leaking down long highways in streams of gold. The sun was rising from behind the valley and from the wicker basket of the hot-air balloon I could just make out the folds of the Yarra hills, veiled with mist. At my feet were sparkling skyscrapers but the glimmer on the horizon was enticingly close. The balloon sank almost imperceptibly and the sounds of the city came into range – traffic, birdsong, barking dogs.
Back at ground level – and restored from my 4am wake-up by strong coffee – it was time to give the Yarra Valley a close-up look. Just an hour's drive north east from Melbourne, Yarra is best known for containing more than 100 cool-climate vineyards, including big-name wineries such as De Bortoli, Yering Station and Domaine Chandon (owned by Moët & Chandon).
The region is recognised for its pinot noir, chardonnay and sparkling wines, with sauvignon blanc and pinot gris also gaining plaudits. I know all this, not because I'm an oenophile, but because Rich, my guide from Melbourne Private Tours, enlightened me on the drive up. It was the combination of renowned wine, farm-fresh food and an idyllic setting that drew me to the valley, rather than the desire to play out a Sideways-style road trip.
As we sped past orchards, smallholdings and vines, Rich pointed out the scars of the Black Saturday bushfires that devastated Victoria two years ago. Up to 400 fires were recorded in the state on 7 February 2009, resulting in the destruction of around five percent of the vineyards in Yarra alone; many more had their crop spoiled by smoke. After last year's refreshingly wet winter, most of the land has now recovered; as we drove on, cows munched contentedly on bright green grass, and vines combed the hillsides.
Our first stop was Dominique Portet, a family-run winery overseen by Dominique, a ninth-generation winemaker from Bordeaux. Eyes still bleary from my early start, I was relieved at his suggestion of a gentle immersion in Victoria's viticulture: we were going to blend our own wine. Dominque lead us to the warehouse where a refectory table was set out with three samples of maturing shiraz – the task was to decide the quantities to blend and then present it for tasting.
Mild panic set in. Ask me which reds I prefer and shiraz would rate highly, but blends? Without so much as a sniff of the stuff, my mind was starting to spin. Thankfully, pointers were given: taste and assess each for flavour, aroma and finish, then decide on a harmonious balance. It was surprising how – when guided – each aspect was suddenly revealed – and to my amazement my blend came top of the class.
I didn't have time to be smug about it; next stop was the TarraWarra Estate. Here, as well as prestigious pinot noirs and chardonnays, visitors have the opportunity to soak up culture at the contemporary art museum. Swooping around a hilltop, the dramatic rammed-earth TarraWarra Museum of Art follows the contours of the landscape and tapers to huge windows. Set up by philanthropists Eva and Marc Besen, the public gallery displays modern Australian art from established names such as Charles Blackman and John Olsen as well as Sally Gabori, an indigenous artist who started to paint at the age of 86. TarraWarra is about as avant-garde as things get in Yarra, and the available accommodation is no exception; farmstays, B&Bs and lodges offer charm, but not necessarily cutting-edge style.
The Yering Gorge Cottages are a happy compromise, with a dozen self-contained houses overlooking the Yarra River and Yering Gorge, densely blanketed in gum and tea trees. Each is furnished to a luxurious standard – wood-burning stoves, flat-screen TVs, spa baths and Wi-Fi are all available – but your eyes can't help wandering outside. With glass the only barrier between you and nature, you can lie in bed and watch kangaroos hopping around in the dawn mist, or galahs splashing pink in the eucalypt trees. I watched in amusement – and then exasperation – as a hot-blooded kookaburra pecked away at its own reflection in my bathroom window.
Amorous birds notwithstanding, my sleep that night was deep. I awoke to find a breakfast parcel on my veranda, which I consumed while gazing over the Yarra River.
If Yarra is the best known of Victoria's wine-producing regions, then the Mornington Peninsula, on the other side of Melbourne vies with it for beauty and exclusivity. Around 90 minutes' drive south of the city, the peninsula hugs the south-eastern curve of Port Phillip. Its maritime environment and hilly terrain mean that the 150-plus wineries span a variety of micro-climates, producing cool chardonnays to moderate shiraz.
Lately a number of boutique wineries have sprung up in the region, but rather than making a whistle-stop tour by car, I decided to take a more leisurely trot around the hinterland instead. I say trot, but plod is probably a better description. The last time I'd ridden a horse, it had swiftly decided to part company with me: that was 20 years ago. Happily, Horseback Winery Tours had no expectation of riding ability, and I was introduced to Danny, the stables' 18-year-old "follower".
I saddled up and set off behind owner Bev and her son Paul from their stables in Red Hill. A gentle amble through some fields ensued, with their golden retriever by our side and the wind rustling the trees. Country lanes gave way to tracts of wildflower-strewn forest, and tracks lined with gum trees. Our destination was T'Gallant, a Fosters-owned winery that has held on to its independent character, and which has a delightful cellar door in an inviting vine-painted storehouse.
We tied up the horses and set off to sample a range of 2008 wines: a sparkling Ophelia, Grace pinot grigio, Juliet sauvignon blanc, Tribute pinot gris... then three more reds. The key here, is to swill and spit, particularly before you've eaten lunch. But it's easy to get carried away when the sun is streaming in, and the bottles are so enticingly named and adorned with pink flowers, hearts and butterflies.
By this point I was feeling more than a little wobbly, but definitely more confident of my riding ability. I resolved to be more professional at our next stop. Danny, too, was feeling more self-assured and decided to break into a trot as we took off for Ten Minutes by Tractor. This sleek winery overlooks a gentle gorge in Main Ridge, the highest point on the peninsula, and is named because of the length of time it takes to reach each of its three vineyards... by, er, farm vehicle.
Diners in the restaurant were sitting at tables next to huge picture windows overlooking the vines. I had wine of my own to sample, so took my place at the cellar door counter to swill a 2008 chardonnay and a delicious 2009 pinot noir, at first sweetly spiced and then savoury. There were premium-range single varietal chardonnays and pinot noirs too... and by this point the terminology was almost making sense to me.
It was a wrench to leave, but the Port Phillip Estate made a majestic finale to my journey. The home of Kooyong and Port Phillip Estate wineries is leading the way for destination vineyards with a dramatic limestone and rammed-earth building that opened just over a year ago. Inside lie a panoramic restaurant, tasting room, winery and six ultra-luxurious suites. The monochrome interiors, timber ceilings and concrete floors unfurl along a hilltop overlooking magnificent views that stretch over the vines to the sea.
The suites are the newest addition, offering visitors the chance to linger after dinner or a tasting and wake up to the stunning view. I could easily be persuaded. This first glimpse of Victoria's vineyards would hopefully not be my last.
Travel essentials: Victoria
* The writer flew from Heathrow to Melbourne via Doha with Qatar Airways (0870 389 8090; qatarairways.com/uk). Returns fares from £885. Other airlines serving Melbourne from the UK include Qantas, Emirates, Etihad, Cathay Pacific, Singapore, Thai and Malaysian, all via their hub cities.
* Yering Gorge Cottages, Yering, Yarra Valley, Victoria, Australia (00 61 3 9739 0110; yeringcottages.com. au). Cottages sleeping two start at A$259 (£162), including breakfast.
* Global Ballooning (00 61 3 9428 5703; globalballooning.com.au). Hot air balloon rides over Melbourne cost A$350 (£218) per person. Yarra Valley trips from A$290 (£181).
* Melbourne Private Tours (00 61 419 571 800; melbprivatetours.com.au) offers tours of the Yarra Valley starting at A$245 (£153) per person.
* Horseback Winery Tours, Red Hill, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria (00 61 3 5989 6119; horsebackwinerytours.com.au). Tours start at A$110 (£69) per person.
* TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville, Yarra Valley (00 61 3 5957 3100; twma.com.au). Daily 11am-5pm, to 7pm Fri-Sun; A$5 (£3).
* Dominique Portet, Coldstream, Yarra Valley (00 61 3 5962 5760; dominiqueportet.com).
* T'Gallant, Main Ridge, Mornington Peninsula (00 61 3 5931 1300; tgallant.com.au).
* Ten Minutes by Tractor, Main Ridge, Mornington Peninsula (00 61 5989 6080; tenminutesbytractor.com.au).
* Port Phillip Estate, Red Hill South, Mornington Peninsula (00 61 3 5989 4444; portphillipestate.com.au).