A verdant wonderland of green, rolling hills, the Yarra Valley seems too bucolic to be full of surprises. Here contented cows feast on a carpet of lush green grass. Stands of trees loll nonchalantly in the valleys, knowing that they’re posing in a painted, manicured landscape that might have come out of a picture book. The first surprise is that there are vineyards everywhere. They do indeed make wine here, though it seems too green---a kind of place you’d expect to find great cheese, like the manicured lake country of England. The second surprise is that they make Australian wine here. Yarra Valley looks more appropriate for, say, hobbits---hardly the kind of landscape that you’d expect from the continent that produces all of those dense, larger-than-life Shirazes and Cabernets. And that is the third surprise: they don’t make that kind of Australian wine here.
Despite what you see packing grocery store shelves and racking up high scores in wine magazines, Australia doesn’t only make bottled sledgehammers. And the wines from the Yarra are here to prove it. Soft and graceful and favoring complexity over force and size, wines from the Yarra see their model in Europe, not Barossa. The Yarra Valley will turn upside down any simple notion people may have of wines from Down Under. And that alone is reason enough to get to know them.
Fame, Collapse, Revival
We like to think of Australia as the New World, but the Yarra Valley’s history goes back over 160 years. In fact, the Yarra, which lies in the state of Victoria only about 30 miles northeast of Melbourne, was one of the country’s most important winegrowing regions in the nineteenth century. Among the first settlers in the Yarra were three Scottish brothers by the name of Ryrie. In 1837, they drove a herd of cattle from New South Wales over the Great Dividing Range, the mountains that make up the gauzy grey backdrop to many Yarra views. Among a bevy of seeds for crops, the brothers also brought vine cuttings. Thanks to the Ryries, only four years after the founding of the city of Melbourne, the Yarra Valley had its first vineyards. The luxuriant valley drew European immigrants, some with sophisticated wine experience.
In the 1850s, a group of Swiss arrived bringing vineyard and winery know-how, along with hundreds of cuttings, mostly Bordeaux varieties. By the end of the century, Bordeaux-style wines from the best vineyards of Yering Station and Yeringberg had achieved international fame, including a grand prize garnered by a Yeringberg wine at the 1889 Paris Exhibition, the only wine from the Southern Hemisphere to do so. Yarra’s wine fortunes were reversed in the first half of the twentieth century, first as phylloxera invaded the vineyards, then as Australians’ taste in wines changed. The rich fortified wines being made in South Australia’s phylloxera-free and ever-expanding vineyards gained favor over Yarra’s restrained, French-styled wines. After a cycle of frost-bitten winters, farmers decided to give up on grapes altogether, and by 1937, there were no vines left in the region.
The Yarra wine industry reawakened in the late 1960s and early 1970s, fueled by a renewed interest in Australia’s cool climates. Among the new ventures were three seminal wineries---Mount Mary, Yarra Yering, and Yeringberg---which began to produce exceptional, almost cult-status wines. All are still run by their founders (or, in the case of Yeringberg, the descendants of its founders), and all remain small operations dedicated to quality over profit---hardly the Aussie corporate and industrial model. The high quality and collectability of these early second-generation wines spawned an interest in the Yarra as a wine region in the ensuing decades.
The country’s most famous wine writer, James Halliday, put his stamp of approval on the Yarra Valley when he founded Coldstream Hills in 1985, a winery dedicated to small, high-quality production of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In 1987, France’s prestigious Champagne producer, Moët & Chandon, took advantage of the Yarra’s cool climate to plant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for sparkling wine. That same year, one of Australia’s largest family-owned wine companies, De Bortoli, arrived. The circle was completed with the replanting of the state of Victoria’s first vineyard, Yering Station, in 1989. Today, the region is home to over 75 wineries and has become known as one of Australia’s top locales for premium and superpremium wines---high quality and not necessarily cheap. An easy day trip from fashionable Melbourne, the Yarra is crowded with tasting rooms, country inns, and restaurants. As one winemaker told me, “The Yarra is only one hour from the world’s most livable city. [Abandoned] steam train lines and tunnels spot the valley, [and] beautiful old homesteads are still preserved in the same families. Art galleries, restaurants, concerts, gourmet produce. . . . This place is dreamy, yes.”
A Dog’s Breakfast
The Yarra would be an enigma to those in the wine community who believe that one region should produce only one or two kinds of grapes. Here, highly regarded wines have been made from a panorama of grapes. Beautiful methode champenoise sparklers are produced by Chandon, while gorgeous Burgundy-style Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays come from Coldstream Hills, De Bortoli, Yering Station, Tarrawarra, and Giant Steps. And to add to the confusion, phenomenal Bordeaux-style wines have been made here for years by the likes of Mount Mary, Yarra Yering, and Yeringberg. Commenting on Yarra’s mix of varieties, Nick Withers, a brand ambassador for one of the region’s classic wineries, Yarra Burn, admits with classic Australian flair, “[It’s] a bit of a dog’s breakfast at times. [Yarra] can do a little of every grape. That’s not to say that it all works or that it’s all fantastic. There are pockets and little areas that are warm enough for some varieties or cool enough for others.”
In general, the Yarra Valley climate is decidedly cool in Australian terms but situated in between Bordeaux and Burgundy in familiar French terms, perhaps cooler than the former and warmer than the latter. Winemaker Phil Sexton of Giant Steps, a producer of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Merlot, lists the distinct advantages: “Slow ripening through the summer so that sugar levels tend to stay in check with fruit physiological ripeness, meaning that we tend to produce more classically balanced wines than the overt blockbusting high-alcohol styles. In addition, acid levels stay naturally high with good pH, meaning we rarely have to acid balance.” These are ideal conditions for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, demonstrated so beautifully not just in Sexton’s wines but in those of TarraWarra, Coldstream Hills, De Bortoli, Yering Station, and Seville Estate. Rainfall, according to Sexton, is not really a problem. While it can affect flowering in spring, it typically disappears through the summer and doesn’t return until after harvest. Of course, all of this depends on vineyard location. Sexton notes that the best sites are on the hills “well up from the valley floor and on steep, north-facing slopes to maximize aspect (remember this is the Southern Hemisphere).”
The best Yarra soils, found in the central and northern parts of the valley, are sandy clays and clay loams. They tend to reduce vigor and require irrigation in the summer but otherwise are well draining without being particularly rich. The better-draining soils make for wonderful Bordeaux varieties and have attracted winemakers from all over the world, as evidenced by the presence of Dominique Portet, French by birth and son of the former vineyard and winery manager of Ch. Lafite-Rothschild. For Portet, the soils yield wines whose “fragrance, aromatics and structure remind me of Bordeaux." This is particularly evident in his minerally but generous Sauvignon Blancs and Cabernets. Veteran Winemaker Rob Dolan of Sticks believes that the key to the quality of Yarra’s Bordeaux-style wines is the long ripening period. While based on European methods and European classical winemaking techniques, none of these wines recall their French prototypes. Yarra’s wines tend to have softer tannin profiles and typically richer fruit and are ready to drink earlier.
High Quality and Scarcity
The major attraction of Yarra Valley wines, however, can also be their greatest drawback: exclusivity and quality level. Withers explains, “Land prices here are obviously higher than you’ll find in the middle of South Australia. Because [Yarra’s] a marginal climate and so close to Melbourne, prices are pushed up. Production is low---it’s smaller producers trying to eke out a few thousand cases here or there. It’s the original boutique wine region of Australia.”
For these reasons, many of the most famous Yarra wines are expensive and inaccessible to all but the most serious collectors and restaurant wine programs. They give the region cachet, but the wines’ scarcity also makes it difficult to experience the best of what the region has to offer. Yarra producers feel that they have a special task beyond simply making wine. Those who make the expensive investment to set up shop here have an agenda, in the words of Giant Steps’s Sexton, “To spearhead this country’s slow but steady move toward recognizing and . . . producing more classically styled wines based around the balance of fruit, restraint, site, and character.” Sexton’s view is shared by many of his Yarra colleagues, who seem determined to show the rest of the world what Australia has known for 150 years: that this vast, wild continent has a soft side and can produce wines of great beauty and finesse that you don’t need a knife and fork to eat.
What Is Yarra Wine?
The region’s wines are the antithesis of what most people believe Aussie wine to be. A relatively cool climate and a landscape well endowed with hills and exposures has created an environment that allows for the making of wines with finesse, rather than power and fruit. Increasingly, harmonious, balanced, high-quality Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are made here. Bordeaux reds, which still predominate, are aromatic and supple but with good structure. Shirazes are elegant and complex, rather than jammy and fruit driven.