THE Yarra Valley, in the Australian state of Victoria, has everything going for it. Verdant, rolling hills dotted with architecturally distinct wineries, along with fine wines, fine dining and proximity to the city of Melbourne, writes Meininger’s Felicity Carter.
Steve Webber, chief winemaker at De Bortoli wines in the Yarra Valley, has a memorable turn of phrase. “That’s a rock star,” he says, pointing at a vine. “And that’s a rock star,” pointing at another.
What about that one over there, sitting in the middle of a row? Is that a rock star?
“No,” he says. “But it will be.”
Webber, a renowned and energetic winemaker who married into Australia’s De Bortoli wine dynasty, founded their Yarra Valley Estate in 1989, drawn to the valley by its potential for Pinot Noir.
So smitten with the grape is he, that every time Webber drinks a great one, he puts the empty bottle on top of one of his kitchen cupboards, to remind him each day of the greatness he aspires to.
Webber is not the only one who saw the Yarra Valley’s suitability for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Domaine Chandon was established here in 1986 by Moet & Chandon, after it recognised the region’s potential for high quality sparkling wine.
And Yering Station, the most historic property in the region, makes a highly-regarded Pinot Noir – and a notable Shiraz Viognier.
These two faces of Yering Station highlight the diversity of the Yarra Valley region, which produces not only Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Shiraz, but also Bordeaux blends and – more recently – Italian varietals such as Arneis and Nebbiolo.
The great diversity partly arises from the Yarra’s terroir, and partly from its history.
And while the wines are generally too exuberant to merit being called “Old World in style” as many winemakers here like to claim, the general elegance of Yarra Valley wines defy the cliché that Australian wines are big, robust and fruity.
The Yarra Valley can produce both notable Pinot Noir and notable Shiraz because it’s a large area – approximately 50km by 40km – with a diversity of soils and microclimates.
There are sedimentary soils, volcanic soils, deep basalt soils and two hills of granite.
The climate is variable, with some parts receiving plenty of spring rainfall while others thirst, plus warm days and cool nights.
“This region is an odd one, because it seems to be able to successfully ripen varieties that shouldn’t ripen in the same region,” says Dave Bicknell, chief winemaker and CEO of Oakridge Wines and a producer of notable, Burgundian-style Chardonnay.
“We have relative proximity to the ocean 45 km away, and we’re on the doorstep of the Dandenong Ranges, so we get cooler aromatic winds coming out of the mountains at night time.”
So the Valley gets great diurnal variation, from 25C during the day, falling to 2C at nigh.
“When we go higher, the temperature gets cooler quickly. At every 100m elevation, it’s a degree cooler.”
Bicknell says many winemakers have come to believe the Yarra Valley is a collection of sites, rather than a homogeneous wine area. He does add, however, that if one thing is constant across the region, it’s the acidity.
Those dry facts don’t convey the beauty of the region, with its rolling green hills, its pretty historic towns, charming dairies, bucolic B&Bs and an animal sanctuary – kangaroos can be seen around dams and water holes at dawn and dusk.
And if you’re not lucky enough to see a kangaroo, you might spot an international celebrity.
And all of this is just a short drive from Melbourne, a fact that the wineries take full advantage of – there are cellar door restaurants, winery tours, music festivals, education centres, and picnic baskets available to be enjoyed on rolling winery lawns.
Another draw is Tarra Warra winery’s Museum of Art, one of the most significant collections of contemporary art in Australia.
So, at first glance, the Yarra Valley should be one of the easiest places in the world to build a thriving wine business.
But, as always in wine, things aren’t that simple.