Introduction to the Yarra Valley

Yarra Valley Feature Week

Is the Yarra Valley the most exciting wine region in Australia today? It’s certainly a contender.

For its combination of great wine, food, hospitality and scenery, it’s hard to beat. Located a convenient one-hour drive from Melbourne, and next door to forests and mountains, it is a very beautiful region to visit, with many winery cellar doors boasting stunning views across the valley with mountains in the distance. Proximity to Melbourne ensures the standard of food is extremely high and the visitor experience is world-class.

Perhaps the valley’s biggest drawcard is the range of wines it can produce to an exceptionally high standard.

But perhaps the valley’s biggest drawcard is the range of wines it can produce to an exceptionally high standard. Just about every grape variety in demand today does well in the Yarra. Its range of altitudes affords a wide range of climatic sites: Wine Australia’s website quotes the altitude as 17 to 1338 metres. The lower areas ripen shiraz and cabernet regularly, while the higher reaches yield grapes with the acidity and finesse to make fine chardonnay, pinot noir and sparkling wine.

The famous names of the Yarra Valley need little introduction. Even the most cursory review of the region will mention Mount Mary, Yarra Yering, Yeringberg, Giant Steps, Oakridge, Seville Estate, Tarrawarra Estate, Coldstream Hills and others.

But a quick scan of The Real Review’s recent tastings reveals many newer names doing very good work. Pacha Mama, Precipice, Fetherston and Zonzo Estate are a sample.

The region today boasts a lot of wines with fancy prices, but many, including some of the newbies, are selling wines very affordably. Precipice’s 95-point 2018 Willowlake Vineyard Chardonnay for example is just AUD $38.

In the middle ground, between the longest-established vineyards and the newest, we have the likes of Soumah, Punt Road, Hoddles Creek Estate and Payne’s Rise making very smart wines.

Keeping up with the trends, a number of producers are chancing their arms with fashionable styles including skin-contacted whites and ‘pet-nat’ (pétillant naturel) sparklings. Blood Moon is one of the newer outfits making cutting-edge wines, some of them challenging.

Tokar Estate has made a pet-nat and an amphora-fermented tempranillo, and even traditional fizz maker Domaine Chandon has a méthode ancestrale sparkling wine.

The Yarra’s strengths have long been the Burgundy varieties, pinot noir and chardonnay, both as still and sparkling wines. These benefit from grapes grown in the higher altitudes, the so-called Upper Yarra, which is mountainous country to the south of the Warburton Highway.

Chardonnay has many competitor regions around the country but fine pinot noir is much more restricted to the cooler and more southern regions, so the Yarra’s fame is arguably more attached to pinot noir than any other variety.

It wasn’t always so. When the Yarra Valley had its second coming in the 1960s, thanks to the wine-crazy medicos Dr John Middleton (Mount Mary), Dr Bailey Carrodus (Yarra Yering) and Dr Peter McMahon (Seville Estate), cabernet sauvignon and the other Bordeaux varieties were in fashion and they’re what was planted. It was a cabernet-based red that St Huberts achieved fame with at European wine fairs in the late 1800s.

The Bordeaux varieties and shiraz are well suited to the lower-lying parts of the valley near Lilydale (St Huberts vineyard is less than 80 metres above sea level), and the valley floor is still the source of the best cabernets and cabernet blends today, while the higher country around Gladysdale and Hoddles Creek has been explored for cooler sites better suited to fine pinot and chardonnay, as well as sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, riesling and bubbly.

However, the Yarra has spread its tentacles to cover most of the newly fashionable grape varieties including nebbiolo (especially Luke Lambert and Denton Hill), savagnin (see Soumah), pinot blanc (Hoddles Creek Estate), the Portuguese reds touriga nacional, tinta cão, tinta amarela, tinta roriz and sousão (Yarra Yering).

Outstanding sauvignon blanc comes from Gembrook Hill, Dominique Portet, Oakridge and Mayer, and there are numerous excellent pinot gris, especially Hoddles Creek Estate, Punt Road, Soumah and Oakridge.

The Yarra’s strengths have long been the Burgundy varieties, pinot noir and chardonnay, both as still and sparkling wines.

Returning to the Bordeaux red varieties, the leading makers of cabernet and cabernet blends are Mount Mary, Yarra Yering, Yeringberg, Wantirna Estate, Giant Steps, Yering Station and Oakridge.

With chardonnay the list would be much longer, and be led by Oakridge, Giant Steps, De Bortoli, Seville Estate, Tarrawarra, Yering Station, Coldstream Hills, A. Rodda, Wantirna Estate, Mount Mary, Yeringberg, Yarra Yering, Toolangi, Soumah, Medhurst, Levantine Hill and Mac Forbes.

The pinot noir list would be almost identical.

There are many wineries pushing into the A-Team, including Hoddles Creek Estate, Gembrook Hill, Burton McMahon, Rob Dolan, Coombe Farm, Helen’s Hill and Santolin.

With global warming having its effects, even the southern Rhône varieties are producing some superb wines, although perhaps not every year. Mount Mary has a red and a white Rhône blend; Yeringberg has its longstanding and excellent marsanne roussanne blend, and there are others.

Finally, shiraz, long undersung in the region, but today better than ever as the warmer seasons combine with experience and vine-age and the increased demand for lighter, spicier ‘syrah’ styles of shiraz. Arch proponents are Yarra Yering, Yeringberg, Yering Station, Levantine Hill, Giant Steps, De Bortoli, Seville Estate, Soumah, Mayer and Warramunda.

At a glance

  • The Yarra Valley has more than 80 wineries
  • 2% of the national vineyard area
  • 11% of Victoria’s vineyard area
  • 66% red varieties (the national average is 64%)
  • Area GI (km2): 3130
  • Vineyard area 2020 (Hectares): 2837
  • Ave crush (2016-2020): 9105 tonnes
  • Altitude low to high: 17 to 1338 metres
Top 5 grape varieties
Pinot noir41%
Chardonnay27%
Shiraz9 %
Cabernet sauvignon6%
Pinot gris/grigio6%

 

Climate statistics for 1991-2019 period
Average rainfall (July-June)1094 mm
Growing season rainfall (Oct-Apr)549 mm
Growing degree days (Oct-Apr)1277
Mean January temperature18.9°C

 


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