I visited Australia’s Yarra Valley in July 2015, and wanted to share a retrospective of my trip to one of Australia’s premier wine regions—a region that was on the rise during my visit, and the wines coming out of this region continue to impress.
My first hour of a damp, frigid middle of July (and that means heart of winter) morning in the Yarra Valley featured dingoes, wallabies, emus, Tasmanian devils, and adorable little balls in eucalyptus branches that sleep 22-23 hours a day (those would be koalas). No, these were real, live animals in the Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary; not animals on wine labels. I personally know some consumers who choose their wines based on the cuteness of animals on labels but we were interested in seeing kangaroos pouncing around in the outdoors, instead of on a bottle of Shiraz.
But after animal-time came the real purpose of the visit: Yarra Valley wine-time in the region’s vineyards, wine-making facilities, restaurants, and tasting rooms, where at the latter sometimes humans do channel their inner wild animal instincts toward the end of the afternoon.
Australian wine regions to outsiders seem to scratch the surface in two very basic relationships: proximity to major cities and specialty grapes. Hunter Valley? Near Sydney, growing Semillon! Barossa Valley? Kind of close to Adelaide, growing Shiraz! Clare Valley? Vaguely close to Adelaide, growing Riesling! Coonawarra? Uhh, fun name, not sure where it is, growing Cabs!
Yarra Valley? Really close to Melbourne and growing Australia’s Burgundy: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Both of those statements are somewhat true but not completely true. It’s roughly a 45 minute journey to the very western edge of the Yarra Valley from Melbourne’s CBD (Central Business District is the term for “Downtown”), half of which is on a very efficient or inefficient (major rush hour congestion) highway, and half on a very inefficient and sluggish at all times set of strip mall dotted roads. It’s probably an additional half hour to reach the major winery areas north of Yarra Glen, southeast of Coldstream, or straight easton the valley floor through Yering to Healesville (home of the aforementioned wildlife sanctuary). So the Yarra Valley is close to Melbourne but it’s not exactly a nearby commuting suburb. Think Portland to the Willamette Valley or San Francisco to the Napa Valley. By comparison, however, it takes two hours to drive from Sydney to the Hunter Valley for your Semillon. So in that perspective, yes, the Australian Burgundy isn’t so far from Melbourne.
And about those Burgundy grapes? Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are certainly strong in quality and number. Except snow is pretty rare, so we’re looking at more of an Oregon type of environment than Burgundy. However, Burgundy be damned, as a visit with Gary Mills, the brilliant winemaker of Jamsheed Wines included a tour de force barrel sampling of Rieslings, Syrahs, Cabernet Franc, and Roussanne. Mills is one of the leaders of Australia’s natural wine movement, plunging head first into non-filtered, low yield wines with native yeasts and none of the fining or sulfites business. These natural wine producers often worked abroad when they were young and in turn delve into some atypical grape varieties, far from Burgundy. Mills did the first and does the second. He’s worked in various locales, including two years spent with California legend Paul Draper at Ridge. Jamsheed doesn’t produce Ridge’s preferred grape, Zinfandel, but his Syrah (note: not Shiraz) from Beechworth, Victoria’s esteemed Warner Vineyard already is a sleek, powerful wine with lots of truffle umami to the palate and Gary nails it with his assessment of a particularly quirky character: lamb fat. Truffles and lamb fat? Not your average Australian wine, indeed. I found his Le Blanc Plonk white blend (which tastes nothing of plonk) and Roussanne at more restaurants in Melbourne and Sydney than lists sporting well-known labels like Penfolds or Jacob’s Creek—maybe it’s actually Jamsheed that is the corporate giant? Uh, not so much, when I visited, I saw Mills and his dog working at their makeshift leased out office, in the back of the much larger Yarra Yering winery.
The white wines by Jamsheed are stellar. The Roussanne is flexible and full of white fruit and steel, while Le Blanc Plonk balances residual sugar and damp stone effortlessly. Mills played baseball professionally in Australia and from his Bay Area days still roots for the San Francisco Giants (this Bay Area based writer doesn’t mind that). Yes, the Riesling in barrel from Great Western (in Victoria, not to be mistaken with Western Australia, another major wine region), really was a bright, aromatic home run. Touch ‘em all!
It was Mills who told me the completely correct assessment that it will take at least a decade for Australia’s wine industry to un-do the harm done to their image and business by Yellowtail’s snow cone syrup evoking Shiraz bottlings. Jamsheed’s dual lines of regular wines and the value-oriented Harem line are fun on the outside of the bottle and in the bottle. For Harem, you’ll find a Mourvèdre José the Rosé, Pepé le Pinot, and the Ma Petite Francine Cabernet Franc. Just, no kangaroos or sulfites anywhere.
But fear not Pinot Noir fans, you’ll be pleased with some of the great Yarra expressions that tend to be more in the Oregonian fruity and forest direction, than Burgundy’s lean, meaty profile. One of Levantine Hill’s assistant winemakers told me of owner Eli Jreissati’s relentless goal to be La Tâche and Montrachet, Aussie-style. Jreissati boasts not one but two personal helicopters with helipads for each at his hilltop estate. The website speaks of how the elevation of their estate’s vineyard is almost identical to the Grand Cru ones of Chablis. No doubt, the man means business here when it comes to ambition.
Tasting the various Pinot Noirs in barrel inside the frigid barrel room, I received a quick and thorough masters level lesson on how clones and different vineyard blocks can so greatly change what Pinot Noir becomes when swirled in the glass. The N block 12/21 was meaty and lean. The Mother Blend proved to be earthy with bursts of smoke and a distinct bing cherry profile. My personal preference was the Miranda’s Abel that was big, regal and chewy enough it could have been fruit plucked from a tree. It was shockingly mature for being in barrel. Meanwhile, a Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend in barrel jumped from Burgundy to Bordeaux with no problem, maybe even more accomplished just how the blend achieved gorgeous lush texture and mineral expression. And how did I find the wild card, a barrel of discarded Semillon with solids and the unfiltered color of apple cider, appropriately called, “Filth & Fury?” Ok, fun for a white wine but not a wine for any consumer market except the craziest of natural wine bars (think Jura oxidized to the extreme-style). Filth or not, Levantine Hill is a bonafide elegant wine destination, not just for Pinot Noir. But ultimately they want to rule the Australian Pinot Noir game. Is their Pinot Noir like La Tâche, yet? I’m guessing not quite, but I’ll stay away from that discussion having never tried the real thing.
Eat and Drink
I visited Levantine Hill literally a week before the opening of its ambitious restaurant-tasting room complex, Ezard. It’s a three-in-one operation of an upscale, creative restaurant with tasting menus, a more casual all day dining space, and the tasting room portion. They were aiming to be one of the best restaurants in all of Victoria, Melbourne included, and in only the two years since opening have racked up impressive reviews and awards. Other wineries including Tokar Estate, Shantell, Balgownie Estate, Seville Estate, Fergusson Helen’s Hill Oakridge also feature restaurants that think of the food as much as what you drink with it. Stones of Yarra Valley in Coldstream is a vintage wine country stunner, perhaps the closest gastronomic challenger to Ezard. That is all fine when fine dining is in order. But casual often is what seems right mid-tasting afternoon. Try the Harvest Café in Healesville for that niche with a menu reminding me of eating in San Francisco or Los Angeles’s plentiful “artisan, seasonal, approachable” and all those other beautiful buzzwords served at relaxed cafes. Or, opt for the neighboring Healesville Hotel for excellent fish and chips, salmon pie and local brews to break up the wine tasting and an experience that would fit in Oxford or the Cotswolds. This is Australia after all, one must try a pie at some point. You get the idea, overall. Like with most wine regions, finding good wine and good food at meal times isn’t particularly hard.
Not Getting Lost
However, finding a guide to take you from Melbourne to the Yarra Valley is less trivial than you’d think. There are a handful of tour companies that almost always pre-determine your winery stops (which means the bigger cellar doors). Thankfully, I was connected by a few Yarra Valley wine-makers to Brian Ingleson and his personal company “A Day in the Valley.” Brian is an indispensable guide who literally knows all that can be known about the Yarra Valley and its wine producers. Literally, he could write a book series. All in all, by my count, the valley boasts 73 wineries/producers with or without cellar doors presently. Maybe with a week, you could visit almost all of the producers you’d like to try. But most visitors will have a day like me or maybe two days if they’re lucky. That’s where your personal research for preferences and Brian’s expertise become vital.
The Yarra Valley is commonly considered a cool climate, at least in comparison to the well-known regions of South Australia, where the blazing hot summer sun invites Shiraz to thrive. However, summers can have high humidity and some temperature spikes. The heart of the Yarra Valley features a floor of ancient sandy clay mixed with sandstone. Upper and lower areas of the valley sometimes boast a much younger red volcanic soil that provides a real rustic twist to Pinot Noir flavor profiles. Nearly 7,400 acres (yes, I did the math from hectares for you!) are under vine with wineries. The first vines were planted way back in 1838 but the new breed like Wantirna, De Bortoli (then Chateau Yerinya) and Warramate came about between the mid 1960’s and mid 1970’s.
De Bortoli might the best known if you were to simply count the sheer number of people who have heard of the name. Yarra Yering would probably be second, over in Gruyere, a prime region of the valley with wineries like Warramate and Soumah. Note, we would have a tasting report from Yarra Yering, the closest thing this wine region has to a formal Burgundy estate, but a courteous sign out front informed us the cellar door was randomly closed the day of our visit. No! It was off to neighboring Soumah for the hour instead.
Definitely Not Completely Like Burgundy
Soumah, in theory, specializes in Italian varietals and does have a particularly poised, floral Pinot Grigio and a winning, deft Savarro (Savagnin, formerly Albariño) that effortlessly balances a sweet open and a mineral backbone to the full body. But then it’s just a regular roster of the usual grapes crowd that never soars too high and never hits the bottom, rarely sneaking far from the average middle-ground. Italy plays just a small part in the equation (the restaurant menu and decor is different, being completely like an osteria in middle of nowhere Tuscany). I thoroughly enjoyed the Pinot Noir/Shiraz/Savarro Rosé example and a racy 2014 Pinot Noir with allspice, raspberry and anise hints. But the 2014 “Skye Block” Cabernet Sauvignon proved to be wonky, even acidic. I found the 2014 Ai Fiori Sauvignon Blanc overly grassy and too much of the ubiquitous bell pepper profile, bordering on being a fajitas garnish. The 2012 Shiraz started strong then faded into a funky, off-line closing. And the sweet, not dense 2015 Brachetto d’ Soumah dessert wine was a classic, indifferent dessert wine with a little sugar and not much else to its personality. Harmless. All in all, the wines seemed a bit flat to me, almost like they’re trying so hard with so many grapes that the majority of sips seem forced and impersonal. If I seem excessively negative, perhaps it’s from the Sherry glasses used for tastings. That is a huge negative. At least I could appreciate the panoramic view and a surprisingly good Pinot Grigio. Those aren’t the easiest to find.
West of Gruyere is Coldstream Hills, home of aforementioned Levantine Hills and many major winery names like Coldstream Hills (whose address on the website curiously says it actually resides in Gruyere and in other sources says Coldstream Hills), Coombe Farms, Helen’s Hills, Maddens Rise, Punt Road, Rochford, Moët et Chandon’s Domaine in Australia (we never can get enough bubbles, can we?). Coldstream really is the heart of the valley, splitting the primary towns (by no means city sized) Yarra Glen (Sticks, Yering Station/ Jamsheed, Tarrawarra, Acacia Ridge) to the west and Healesville (Boat O’Craigo, Nolan), to the east. Be careful in planning because distances aren’t short when you start branching out from one corner of the valley to another. Many important wineries in Gembrook, Seville, and Wandin to the south like Gembrook Hill, Whispering Hills, and Seville Estate are worth a visit but you also don’t want to be creating a star if someone traced your driving journey. Hence, we didn’t venture south.
And like many of the Australian regions, many wineries don’t have cellar doors and need to be arranged. Bird on a Wire from Caroline Mooney, one of the most fascinating wine-maker stories in Australia, and other tiny labels like Bobar, Salo, Timo Mayer, Wantirna, Journey, Thick of Thieves, William Downie, and Punch are vital names to know but require much more work for visits. Again, this is how pre-trip research and a guide like Brian are essential.
Luke Lambert is another winemaker with enormous talent, who was working on a very small scale when I visited—he was making wine in the back of the Shantell Vineyard property in Dixons Creek, very close to De Bortoli. Also like Gary Mills, he worked abroad for three vintages, learning in Italy after making wine for several Yarra Valley wineries. After Italy he returned to launch his own single vineyard specific Yarra Valley label in 2004. Lambert’s bottles are slowly making progress in the U.S. market (I just spotted a 2011 Shiraz at the restaurant, Mourad, in San Francisco, alongside a 2006 Yarra Yering Shiraz at $174 USD). His wines can be powerful, even grand and full of elegance, while also having a twinkle of rugged aggression. His 2014 Syrah smacks of chewy bacon and unbridled smoke, all within a sturdy body with plenty of fruit; best of two worlds. The 2015 version poured from an enormous barrel leaned more towards spice and soon will build itself out into a forceful wine. The 2012 Nebbiolo poured from a magnum was a bit too waxy and strange caramel notes had developed, but I thoroughly support the 2013 from a normal bottle that is far cleaner and brighter with impressive depth for its youth. My favorite from the tasting? Why, it was actually the lone white, a standout 2014 Chardonnay with honeydew and orange zest notes, with everything fruit leaning and the texture blissfully dense. If only California could study this…the barrel sample did have a similar character but struck me as sweeter, not quite achieving the same balance of acidity that really made the bottled Chardonnay sing.
And in this supposed Burgundy land, my most memorable sip did involve Pinot Noir — with Pinot Grigio. It was the EB (experimental batch) 11, a 2014 mix of Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir co-fermented. At first, celery seed and savory herbs hit the nose, followed by a wintery spice palate, and close of dried fruit. It’s another “E” besides experimental: it’s an experience. I would be excited to see a P3 with Pinot Meunier introduced to the Pinot squad. And by the way, how great is a winery working on experimental batches? You hear that all the time from craft breweries but rarely from wineries.
That risk taker is Mac Forbes, former winemaker at Mount Mary in the Yarra Valley who also spent lots of time in Europe, especially Austria and Portugal. We’re seeing a trend here.
Other experimental batches were not as successful. A weak, too lean 2011 Chardonnay missed the mark with no fruit to compensate for the too pronounced acidity. The grapes I’m told were picked extremely early and that might be the culprit in a fiercely barren Chardonnay compared to other Yarra Valley Chardonnays tasted. I also couldn’t grasp the 2014 EB13 “Wessie Whites” with strange mineral off notes given off by its Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Muscadelle combination. But wow, outside of those two, the hits kept coming from all sorts of fun and unique directions.
Rieslings from Forbes were a hit, whether it’s the non-filtered, tart 2014 EB10 Ginger Rizz or lovely balanced with a dash of residual sugar 2014 RS7 Dry Riesling from the Strathbogie Ranges between Melbourne and the Yarra Valley. Pinot Noir succeeds without the help of Pinot Grigio in the 2013 Yarra Junction Pinot Noir, Forbes’ entry level Pinot Noir. I particularly enjoyed two hearty reds: the 2011 Gruyere Syrah (referring to the town, not the cheese that should be paired with the Syrah) that has heat and a distinct jerky character, and the 2012 “Hugh” Cabernet Sauvignon-based Bordeaux blend that was easily the best I encountered in the Yarra Valley (of limited competition): young, tense, full of dark berries and ash.
These are exciting times in this part of the state of Victoria. Melbourne is projected to pass Sydney in total population by 2056. O.K., that’s not exactly going to be soon but Melbourne, and Victoria in general, are rapidly gaining more attention for everything from tourism to culture to finance. Victoria’s Yarra Valley is without question growing rapidly in population as well as on the Australian wine stage, now emerging as wide awake and full of energy—unlike that sleeping koala greeting me in Healesville.