It’s quite appropriate that one of the main highways linking Canberra with the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area is named the Burley Griffin Way after the renowned American-born architect who is probably best known for having designed the Australian capital.
It’s less well known that before picking up that commission, Water Burley Griffin designed the NSW Riverina towns of first Leeton, then Griffith, and it’s certainly been suggested that they constituted practise runs for what came later.
Certainly there are similarities in radial road patterns and the concentrations of public art and buildings in the town/city centres.
But it’s probably their Italian heritage more than design and planning that set Griffith and Leeton apart.
It’s thought, for instance, that some 60 per cent of the population of Griffith can claim an Italian heritage.
Many of the Italians came to the district because of the possibilities opened up by irrigated farming. They planted vegetables, oranges and grapevines, and value-added by producing wine and retailing what they grew.
A classic example was provided by the late Pasquale Fiumara, who among other things founded Lillypilly Wines at Leeton. He started selling his fruit and veg from a barrow beside the main road. That barrow has grown into the Golden Apple, one of the district’s largest supermarkets.
Not that the Italian influence has always been benevolent. One of the statues in the centre of Griffith remembers Donald Mackay, a prominent anti-drugs campaigner murdered, supposedly by Mafia connections, in Griffith in 1977.
The talk on the streets certainly indicates that the influence of criminals has dwindled substantially.
The Italian influence on Australia drinking habits has been profound, and much of that influence has come from Griffith and Leeton.
Historically, the quality of Riverina wines has been tarnished, with most of them relegated to the bulk ‘plonk’ market. A couple of things have changed that perception — technology, which has enabled the district’s producers market much better wines, and the chance discovery by Darren De Bortoli that the area could make some of the world’s best botrytised sweet whites.
Quite a few others have made their presence felt in this market for ‘stickies’. The afore-mentioned Lillypilly stands out, but there are plenty of others as well — Calabria, Toorak, Westend and Casella among them.
Most of the district’s wineries offer great experiences for the visitor, and Griffith and Leeton should always be considered prime targets for both the casual and serious wine enthusiast.
But you shouldn’t stick just with Italian influences on the Riverina wine scene. McWilliams, for instance, have been producing wine there for 130 years, and their iconic Hanwood Barrel is a district institution. They’re producing some great wines.
Restaurant-wise, there is an absolute plethora of Italian food to choose from in Griffith, from family-friendly momma’s fare, to the very classy experience in Limone, where Luke Piccolo and his team from Piccolo Farm are reported to be producing absolutely sensational food.
Perhaps the best time to visit is in October when the area hosts its annual Taste Riverina festival, with particular focus on the long weekend.
That’s the time that the district really polishes up its glasses and plates, and shows off the absolute best of what it can produce — and, believe me, that can be very special indeed.
And you can, of course, easily drive yourself there, but vintage train from Sydney is also an excellent option for the October long weekend. That’s run by Cruise Express (visit www.cruiseexpress.com.au).