WINES FOR THE BOOT
2011 Oakridge Lusatia Park Vineyard Chardonnay, A$38
From the Upper Yarra’s cool volcanic soil outcrop, this is a scintillating highlight in the Oakridge range. Impressive tight-wound complexity, pithy citrus and a slender, elegant yet powerful shape.
2011 Soumah Savarro, A$26
A proprietary wine that’s 100 per cent savagnin, this is a refreshing and zesty style that makes much of the variety’s acidity and steely composure. Bright lemon citrus and crunchy texture throughout.
2010 Giant Steps Gladysdale Vineyard Pinot Noir, A$45
Complex, fragrant and exotic with brooding intensity, there’s a burst of bright red fruits here with earthy accents. The palate’s mapped out with sturdy tannins, all beautifully composed.
2011 Hoddles Creek 1er Pinot Blanc, A$40
There’s a happy marriage of variety and terroir at work here. This shows plenty of character with a floral edge, plenty of pear fruit and hints of creamed spice. Flowing, drinkable texture.
2010 Punt Road Merlot, A$29
A ringing endorsement for the Yarra’s ability to make elegant, medium-weight red wines, this shows lovely spiced purple and blue fruits framed amid fine, juicy tannins and well-judged oak.
2009 Wantirna Estate Amelia, A$65
Old vines and experienced hands make this one of the most delightful Yarra Valley reds, a classic cabernet-dominant Bordeaux-style blend. Supple cassis and dark berry fruit layered through fine tannins.
2010 Yarraloch Estate Pinot Noir, A$30
This is one of the best releases to date, showing ripeness and density with poise and the right kind and level of complexity. Dark cherry, spice and plenty of supple, juicy tannins here.
2010 De Bortoli Melba Mimi, A$30
A cabernet-based blend with nebbiolo and syrah also on board showing plenty of charming black fruit flavour in a gently savoury guise.
2010 Mac Forbes Woori Yallock Pinot Noir, A$56
Pristine red fruits in a restrained and fragrant style. Give it plenty of air or, better yet, straight to the cellar. Cool and linear, this is both elegant and precise with sappy layered complexity.
2010 Punt Road Chemin Syrah, A$42
Fragrant complexity, pepper and spice, undergrowth and summer fruits. Ripe blackberry flavour, really vibrant tannins.
2007 Gembrook Hill Blanc de Blancs, A$55
This bottle-fermented sparkling has seen four years on lees, adding lovely biscuity autolysis character to bright, savoury citrus fruits.
2010 The Wanderer Upper Yarra Pinot Noir, A$55
Bright strawberry fruit aromas, wild herbs, a floral layer and neatly placed oak spice. A concentrated and precise palate, with svelte tannins and juicy acid spark.
Great wine drives: Yarra Valley
Only a short skip from Melbourne, life is good in the Yarra Valley. This two-day drive winds through Coldstream and on to Healesville, stopping in at wineries focusing on putting chardonnay back on the map, and producing lovely pinot.
Some people just get it. In the world of food and wine they’re the ones who know which are the great bottles, when to drink them, where to find the best restaurants, where to shop for produce, how to cook it and how to entertain. They’ve got things worked out.
And it’s fair to say that the Yarra Valley is home to a whole lot of wine folk who really do “get it”. Even a flying visit to the Yarra will confirm just how much there is on offer for the food and wine conn-oisseur or simply those keenly interested; it’s one of those places that can deliver deeply on its promise.
And for all this you have the locals to thank as much as the brisk wine- and food-focused tourism trade. There’s no denying that the proximity to Melbourne is an asset for the region, although it’s not something the place falls back on – it really stands up on its own merits, it’s got substance.
From a pure wine perspective, the Yarra Valley finds itself in the right place at the right time. The age of pinot noir is upon us and a global obsession is in full swing. Pinot noir seems to have made the big time in all its many guises and is now not just the wine quietly enjoyed by collectors. Everyone wants in on the action and the Yarra Valley has proven that it can deliver in various shapes and sizes.
Many of the best Yarra-based pinot makers have configured their offerings to target the best sites, several truly marginal, producing exquisite and engaging single vineyard wines. They then draw on the tapestry of different climates and terroirs throughout the valley to assemble more regionally phrased pinots, reliably blended from season to season. It’s a case of the best of both worlds when they get it right, which they do so, more often than not.
Australian chardonnay is back with a vengeance and the Yarra Valley has risen to become the Eastern Australian epicentre of all that is thrilling and dynamic, it’s right at the forefront.
A confluence of factors have delivered this happy outcome. The Yarra has some terrific soils and locations for growing high-quality chardonnay and the most determined makers have set their sights on these places to source their grapes.
It’s a strategy that then allows the winemaking soldiers to work their magic and layer the wines with complexity that’s tightly wound together. The result is a style of chardonnay that’s a world away from the buttered popcorn and cheesecake expressions of days gone by.
In recent times, Australian chardonnay has attracted hearty praise, singled out for the exciting edge it has found and, while it’s far from an exclusive domain of the Yarra, there’s an above-average concentration of cutting-edge chardonnay being made there. It’s almost become a kind of proving ground for winemakers who are out to make their mark with this style of wine.
Now most will know that, where good chardonnay and pinot noir are to be found, high-quality sparkling wine is rarely far away. The Yarra is a source of several impressive sparklings and home to the iconic Domaine Chandon winery and cellar door, an outpost of global Champagne and sparkling maker LVMH. This alone is a major endorsement for the region in many ways and proof of contemporary vision when they arrived in the Yarra in the mid-1980s.
Of all the styles of sparkling possible, it’s the chardonnay-driven wines that achieve the best quality and the most reliable consistency in the Yarra Valley. The region’s chardonnay-only sparkling wines, the blanc de blancs styles, are among the finest anywhere in the country and have also proven their worth as aged releases.
Another variety of note in the Yarra, and arguably the most cont-emporary, is shiraz, sometimes called syrah in deference to the French name for this grape and as a means of separating the wines from the warmer climate, mostly South Australian styles, that have dominated the space for the last two decades.
The Yarra’s style is one that, again, finds itself in the right place at the right time. Just as the bigger, riper shiraz wines have largely come to the end of their cycle of popularity, cooler, more elegant and spicy shiraz is finding favour in many markets.
Many winemakers in the Yarra have managed to strike a combination of concentration, complexity and freshness in their shiraz wines, often with the use of some whole bunches to provide extra pizzazz.
Although it’s by no means a local invention, the practice of adding or co-fermenting viognier with shiraz was given its Australian baptism in the Yarra Valley by the late Bailey Carrodus (of Yarra Yering fame), a technique that continues to shape many very successful wines today.
Tom Carson lit a flame in the early Yering Station vintages, and now the likes of Jamsheed, Luke Lambert and De Bortoli are making much of the region’s potential for groovy, sappy syrah.
Looking back through the lens of history you’ll find the Yarra has long been home to another style of red, that wondrously elegant, proudly old-fashioned medium-weight blend, claret. These cabernet-based beauties are deceptively age-worthy and are underpinned by the enduring authority of the region’s modern pioneers, Mount Mary, Yeringberg and Yarra Yering, among others.
Add to the pile other wines like arneis, pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc, all made with conviction in the Yarra, and it’s one heck of a melting pot. These tremendously diverse stylistic possibilities, not merely from one grape variety or blend to another, but driven as much by the region’s complex matrix of terroir, are a drawcard for an army of aspiring and talented makers.
There’s a deep talent pool in the Yarra Valley that’s inspiring the innovative prowess and, while history does run way back to the mid-19th century, it’s been the work done in the last 40-odd years that has cemented the region’s contemporary footings.
There’s an endearing sense of worldliness and a no-nonsense approach within the Yarra’s winemaking community. There’s also a strong sense of respect, a competitive streak, and an expectation that if you’re in the Yarra you’re obliged to not only make darn good wine, but you sure as hell better know how to enjoy it.
It’s an easy cruise on the Eastern Freeway from Melbourne, along the Maroondah Highway straight out to the Yarra. You’ll generally arrive through Lilydale and from there make a beeline to Healesville, as it’s a place to gather your thoughts, get your bearings and enjoy a great cup of coffee. For a quick fix and one of the best coffees in the whole region visit the new-ish bolt hole called Essenza (189-191 Maroondah Hwy, Healesville, 03 5962 4613). Right in the main street of Healesville you’ll find it set back from the street, it’s a thin long space, a crack between two shops. If you love Melbourne’s laneway chic this will feel like home away from home.
My advice on the first day is to give what I call the golden mile a thorough working over. It’s a stretch that’s wall to wall with well-known wineries and it’s an easy place to get your bearings. You’ll have already driven through it if you came from the city. It’s the stretch of the Maroondah Highway that runs between Coldstream and Healesville.
Domaine Chandon (727 Maroondah Hwy, Coldstream, 03 9738 9200) is the Yarra’s sparkling wine headquarters and that’s a good place to start the day’s tastings. The grounds are beautiful and tucked down behind the old homestead is a lovely cellar door, complete with brasserie and outdoor seating. The view across the landscape is a classic Yarra vineyard vista.
Just across the road is Dominique Portet (870 Maroondah Hwy, Coldstream, 03 5962 5760) and home to one of the best dry, pale rosé wines made anywhere in Australia. The pedigree here is significant but the lineage is discreet, Dominique’s father was régisseur of Bordeaux First Growth Château Lafite-Rothschild so you’ll understand why the cabernet sauvignon is so good.
Truth be told, you’ll find all wines here are on point, from sparkling through white, rosé and red. Next generation Ben (the 10th generation of Portet family winemakers and the first Australian-born) is now taking over the reins and all is poised to deliver another successful epoch.
If it’s a clear day it’s worth heading up Maddens Lane to Coldstream Hills (31 Maddens Ln, Coldstream, 03 5960 7000) where you can get a vista looking to the north and across to Dixon’s Creek and you’ll see why Coldstream Hills founder and wine critic, James Halliday, chose the location to live and work.
The wines here are in terrific shape and current winemaker Andrew Fleming has well and truly solved the complex puzzle of the Yarra Valley terroir with outstanding sparkling, chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon.
Maddens Lane is also home to a pair of modern pioneers, being Warramate and Yarra Yering. Jack and June Church established Warramate (27 Maddens Ln, Gruyere, 03 5964 9219) in the late 1960s and the White Label Cabernet Merlot remains one of the classically elegant Yarra clarets. The family sold the business last year and new owners Richard Magides and Ed Peter will hopefully preserve the legacy.
Established almost concurrently, the neighbouring Yarra Yering winery (4 Briarty Rd, Gruyere, 03 5964 9267) has long been one of the most respected names in the Yarra Valley. Following the passing of founder, Dr Bailey Carrodus, former-De Bortoli winemaker Paul Bridgeman is at the helm and maintaining a level of excellence that befits the legend surrounding this place. Reds rule the roost and are made with haunting elegance yet profoundly age-worthy structure.
With much of Australia’s leading-edge chardonnay concentrated in the Yarra Valley, you’ll find its headquarters at Oakridge (864 Maroondah Hwy, Coldstream, 03 9738 9900). Chief winemaker and CEO David Bicknell has cemented his reputation for winding his chardonnay wines tight and producing striking laser-like precision and purity amid immense complexity.
Oakridge doesn’t put a foot wrong in any direction, whether you’re looking across its different varieties and styles, from white through red and into sweet territory, or vertically from its entry-level Over The Shoulder, up through the estate wines and into the esteemed 864 grade of specially selected parcels.
This is an ideal location and the restaurant opens out across a rolling vineyard in a way that encourages tranquil yet indulgent relaxation. The wines are so good here you’ll be tempted to stay all day and the staff are among the region’s most welcoming and friendly.
For another satisfying lunch just up the road, and also one of the prize dinner tables on Friday and Saturday nights in the Yarra Valley, visit Bella Vedere (874 Maroondah Hwy, Coldstream, 03 5962 6161). Executive chef Gary Cooper has a thorough knowledge of the region and all that it produces, assembling a menu that is sure to take full advantage of whatever is growing best and eating well at any given time.
Head back out west from Oakridge and around the bend that traces the boundary of the historic Yeringberg property and turn into St Huberts Lane where a couple of great producers are tucked away. There are two great reasons to stop in at Punt Road Winery (10 St Huberts Rd, Coldstream, 03 9739 0666), the first being Kate Goodman’s beautifully crafted range of classic Yarra wines. The second is to stock up on some Napoleone Cider. Descendants of a long tradition of cider production in the Yarra Valley and a cut above most Australian offerings, there’s apple and pear, a combination of the two and a méthode traditionnelle bottle-fermented pear cider at the top of the range.
Further up the St Huberts Road and you’ll find a great producer, Coombe Farm (11 St Huberts Rd, Coldstream, 03 9739 1131). This pristine vineyard is a perfect backdrop to wines that strike clearly along varietal lines, not overworked nor overdone. These are wines that fall back on the inherent strengths of the Yarra region, and handsomely.
At the end of this stretch and there’s a treat in store in the form of the Yarra Valley Dairy (70-80 Mcmeikans Rd, Yering, 03 9739 0023). Having been a driving force in local cheese prod-uction for many years (and home to what I reckon is Australia’s best marinated feta), the dairy is a polished yet rustic place to stop.
It also offers another compelling reason to visit and that’s in the form of a dedicated wine store. The dairy has thrown its support behind the Yarra’s army of smaller winemakers who are without their own cellar doors, and provides a collection that amounts to seriously interesting, inspired and high-quality drinking.
Cleansing ale I hear you say? No shortage of good options here and back in Healesville head to the White Rabbit Brewery (316 Maroondah Hwy, Healesville, 03 5962 6516) where you can sample one of Australia’s best dark ales while production and packaging rattles away along around you.
Dinner at the Healesville Hotel (256 Maroondah Hwy, Healesville, 03 5962 4002) is highly recommended and there’s a well-worn path to one of the warmest, comfiest sources of respite, especially in the winter months. The menu’s deeply wedded to the region’s local produce and the wine list provides a library-like offering of Yarra wines as well as a smart collection that extends right around the globe. Upstairs you’ll find traditional pub lodgings with the added bonus of a very short walk after dinner.
The now refurbished RACV Healesville Country Club (Yarra Glen Rd, Healesville, 03 5962 4899) is just on the fringe of the town and further afield you’ll find an absolute treat awaits at the luxurious Chateau Yering (42 Melba Hwy, Yering, 1800 237 333). Beyond these options, there’s the usual array of bed and breakfast venues and you can also rent a house if you’re looking for more room to relax and fancy dabbling with some local produce for a bit a self-catering.
It’s time to spread the wings and venture to the more remote outposts. But before racing into the vineyards, the Harvest Café (256 Maroondah Hwy, Healesville, 03 5962 4002) right next to the Healesville Hotel, is a thoroughly recommended breakfast spot and home to some of the best coffee in town.
Once you’re fuelled up you have a couple options to consider and I recommend that you head first to the south of the region and out to the Warburton Highway. This is an area that you may hear wine-makers refer to as the Upper Yarra, indicating that it’s more elevated, cooler and accordingly home to some of the most exciting vineyard sites. The volcanic soils are also fawned over by those in the know.
Heading into Woori Yallock take a right and you’ll find signage along the road to a tight-knit group of smaller producers. My pick is Seville Estate (65 Linwood Rd, Seville, 03 5964 2622), a historic property that celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Stunning chardonnays are to be found here, as well as some profound old-vine shiraz wines that age magnificently.
Head back through Woori Yallock and there are a couple of producers who are appointment only but still well worth the effort. Gembrook Hill (2850 Launching Place Rd, Gembrook, 03 5968 1622) makes a stunning lees-matured vintage sparkling blanc de blancs as well as handy barrel-fermented sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir.
The other is Hoddles Creek Estate (505 Gembrook Rd, Hoddles Creek, 03 5967 4692) and quite possibly the Yarra’s best value source of consistenly good quality chardonnay and pinot noir, as well as Australia’s number one pinot blanc. The D’Anna family really does get it.
Once you’ve picked over the Upper Yarra, head back to Healesville via the same route and then out the other side of the valley to Dixons Creek, Steels Creek and Yarra Glen. There are several spots for lunch on the way, depending on your schedule and what kind of meal you’re up for. Healesville has many terrific choices but one place at the top of your do-not-miss list should be Giant Steps (336 Maroondah Hwy, Healesville, 1800 661 624).
Home to Phil Sexton’s wizardry you’ll be hard pressed to find a better one-stop shop for a diverse range of wine, food, beer, cheese, bread, pizza, coffee – you name it. The Innocent Bystander wines are superb regional examples that cover the mainstay varietals and the range of signature Giant Steps wines has risen to take their place among the Yarra’s finest examples of distinctive single-vineyard wines.
TarraWarra Estate (311 Healesville-Yarra Glen Rd, Yarra Glen, 03 5957 3510) is out in the direction you’re heading and provides another enticing chance to relax for a few hours. Their restaurant serves contemporary cuisine in a beautiful setting.
The other attraction here is the Tarrawarra Museum of Art, an architectural masterpiece that is home to one of the most significant collections of Australian art from the mid-20th century through to the current day. In addition to the collection, it hosts several touring exhibitions including the Archibald Prize for portraiture.
Out at Dixons Creek lurks another compelling lunch spot, Locale restaurant at De Bortoli (Pinnacle Ln, Dixons Creek, 03 5965 2271). The philosophy here is, as the name suggests, aimed at the region’s edible assets and the wines made next door are widely respected as being among the most progressive, consistent and generally there’s value to be found too.
The De Bortoli cellar door is as good as you’d expect from this established, successful family business, complete with cheese shop it’s a must visit. Leanne De Bortoli and winemaker husband Steve Webber ensure that the experience here befits the quality of wines and produce on offer.
Out on this stretch of the Melba Highway around De Bortoli’s sweeping estate is another handful of smaller producers. I’d advise you check out Mandala (1568 Melba Hwy, Dixons Creek, 03 5965 2016), as their reds are reliable examples of the elegant Yarra Valley style and there’s a casual restaurant with a kitchen garden approach delivering yet another good eating option.
Back through Yarra Glen and there are a couple more stops to make. Sticks (179 Glenview Rd, Yarra Glen, 03 9730 1022) is tucked up the back of Yarra Glen and is among the better pinot noir producers in the region, and heading out the other side of town towards Lilydale, Yering Station (38 Melba Hwy, Yarra Glen, 03 9730 0100) is a great stop. Their modern building is perched on a terrace with a terrific view out across the Yarra Valley and the grand dining room provides a top-quality experience. The wines are solid, in particular their sparkling wine Yarrabank.
Cleansing ales are once again in order and the Hargreaves Hill Brewing Company’s (25 Bell St, Yarra Glen, 03 9730 1905) outpost in Yarra Glen offers a very good salve to another big day of touring and tasting.
Much of the Yarra Valley wine region is an easy day trip from Melbourne, and you’ll have some serious choices to make if you’re only staying for a day or two because there is a wealth of high-quality wine and food experiences to be had. In truth, there’s enough to keep you on tour for a full week let alone just a weekend. It’s a haven for anyone seeking both simplicity and quality – and for those who truly get what good living is all about.
This article is from the June/July 2012 issue of Gourmet Traveller WINE.