Yarra Valley, Victoria: Wineries

By Michael Harden
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Enjoy a glass of wine and the beautiful views of the Yarra Valley at Domaine Chandon

Enjoy a glass of wine and the beautiful views of the Yarra Valley at Domaine Chandon

 

Most tourist brochures about the Yarra Valley would have you believing that the region has a long and glorious winemaking history. And while there is little doubt that the area proved itself capable of producing excellent wine after the first grapes went into the ground in 1838, the complete collapse of the industry almost a century later showed that winemaking success in the Yarra Valley is no certainty.

Put into context with the failure of the past, the present success and quality of Yarra Valley wines is even more remarkable than if it had had been smooth sailing from the moment the first grapes ripened. The Yarra Valley’s second coming has seen lot of very good things happen in a relatively short space of time.

The first vines in the Yarra Valley were planted by William, Donald and James Ryrie, cattle-owning brothers who came south from drought-stricken New South Wales in search of fertile grazing land. Attracted by the lush river flats around the Yarra River they put down roots, named their property Yering Station and planted a kitchen garden, fruit trees and grapevines. The first wine in the area was made in 1845 but it was the arrival of Swiss settlers with aristocratic names and winemaking pretensions that really gave the Yarra Valley its first dose of success and fame.

Prestigious vineyards like St Hubert’s, Chateau Yering and Yeringberg, became fashionable destinations for an increasing numbers of tourists from Melbourne and the wines of the area won a number of international awards including a Grand Prix at the 1889 Paris Exhibition. And then a series of man made and natural disasters over a series of years began to kill off what had been a thriving and successful industry.

Severe frosts brought on by extensive timber felling, plagues of starlings and downy mildew attacked the vineyards. Disinterest in Australia in anything but sweet fortified wine did nothing to help a cool climate region that produced mainly dry European styles and economic depression dealt the final blow. In 1900 there were 994 acres of vines in the Yarra Valley. By 1937 there were none and it was nothing but cows, chickens, vegetables and fruit trees for nearly three decades.

Despite the fairytale-like slumbering of the Yarra Valley’s wine industry over the next thirty years, its reputation as a potentially great wine making region never went away. The combination of a wide range of soil types – from sandy loam to rich red volcanic dirt – and a climate cooler than any other of Australia’s wine regions ensured that the Yarra Valley stayed on the winemaking radar despite the lack of activity. The 1960’s saw the establishment of Wantirna Estate winery and the subsequent arrival of current luminaries like Mount Mary, Yarra Yering and Warramate. The area had begun to reawaken.

Over the next couple of decades, more and more vines were planted and now-familiar names – Diamond Valley, TarraWarra, Coldstream Hills – kept arriving. The whispering about the quality of chardonnay and pinot noir increased and, once again, the Yarra Valley wineries started winning awards.

The late 1980’s brought the biggest changes and the greatest period of expansion. French champagne house Moet and Chandon established a vineyard at Green Point, the De Bortoli family bought Chateau Yarrinya and many of Australia’s largest wine companies – Mc Williams, BRL Hardy, Mildara Blass – followed. Architect designed, statement-making winery buildings appeared and the drip of wine tourists turned into a stream. When Yering Station was replanted with vines in 1989 and a large and dramatic Robert Conti-designed building went up across from the original de Castella house several years later, you could almost hear the Valley saying: I’m back, baby.

The rapid expansion of the 1990’s has slowed but the Yarra Valley continues to experience great change. The current change has less to do with constant vineyard expansion and more to do with winemaking philosophy. The dominant wines remain chardonnay, pinot noir and sparkling (though shiraz and cabernet are also well represented) but Yarra Valley winemakers are increasingly talking in terms of restraint, complexity and balance rather than mere fruitiness.

At Punt Road Wines in Coldstream, straight-talking winemaker Kate Goodman warms her back by the cellar door fire and brings a bit of lifestyle reality into the romantic notion of the winemaker’s lot. The Yarra Valley is a destination coveted by many winemakers she says because “it is only an hour from the centre of Melbourne, you can now get a decent meal and a good coffee and you can make really good booze here”. Kate, who has been at the winery since its first vintage in 2000, is responsible for making all the wine from Punt Road’s 400 acres of vineyards in five different locations around the Valley. She makes wines that reflect both their vineyard source and their grape variety and are textural “with good mouth feel”. They are, says Kate with typical candour, the kind of wines she likes to drink because making any other types of wine “ defeats the purpose of making it really”.

“The Yarra Valley is a good place to make wines but it’s challenging because it is quite a cool region,” she says. “But that means we can make good chardonnay and pinot and some fantastic shiraz. Yarra Valley wines are quite fine compared with wines coming out of South Australia, for example, which are big and alcoholic and obvious. There is subtlety, elegance and finesse in the wines here.”

Not far from Punt Road is another Yarra Valley newcomer that is playing the elegance card – both in wine and architecture - and drawing a lot of attention. Dominique Portet, the owner of the winery Dominique Portet, comes from a French winemaking family from Bordeaux and was managing director of Taltarni for twenty-two years before buying his Yarra Valley patch in 2001. The Yarra Valley attracted Portet because of its “quality and style”.

“I found fragrance and structure here – most of all structure – that reminds me of Bordeaux,” he says. Drinking his acclaimed, savoury Fontaine Rose or the retrained and elegant Dominique Portet Sauvignon Blanc in the French-inspired winery building surrounded by vines and you may well be reminded of Bordeaux too.

Across the Valley, TarraWarra Estate is attracting attention for more than its award winning chardonnay and pinot noir. Owners Marc and Eva Besen established TarraWarra on breathtakingly lovely parcel of land near Healesville in 1982. The sunny site meant earlier ripening grapes which have given TarraWarra wines – the golden coloured chardonnay in particular - a reputation for generosity of both flavour and alcohol. TarraWarra’s latest addition is similarly generous though with a less obvious connection with wine. The striking new Alan Powell-designed building with its rammed earth walls and glass turret set amongst the property’s vines houses the TarraWarra Museum of Art, home of one of the country’s most important collections of Australian contemporary art. Art and wine have always been friendly and a building and a collection like this adds weight both to the friendship and the surrounding region. The beautifully serene interior of the gallery echoes the gentle curves of the surrounding landscape and the large windows cut dramatically into the walls of the exhibition spaces frame some of the best views of vineyards and hills and sky that the Valley has to offer. It is as if the art of the vigneron has been given a place in the permanent collection and TarraWarra is adding more generosity and complexity into the Yarra Valley mix.

Five Great Cellar Doors

  • Domaine Chandon and Green Point, Coldstream

  • Warramate, Gruyere

  • Yering Station, Yarra Glen

  • Roundstone, Yarra Glen

  • Coldstream Hills, Coldstream

© Michael Harden 2006

First printed in Food and Wine Lovers’ Guide to Melbourne and Surrounds (2006)

Regions

  • Yarra Valley (Wine) (VIC)

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