Visiting the Vines
The Yarra Valley, an hour to the north east of the Melbourne CBD, is home to some of the biggest brands in the Australian wine industry and is believed to be Victoria’s oldest wine growing district. The first vines were reportedly planted in the Yarra in 1838 on a property that is today known as “Chateau Yering”. The region benefited from the Victorian Goldrush through the 1850’s and by the 1860’s viticulture was spreading through the district. There was a brief hiatus when demand for fortified wines surged through the early 20th century, but by the late 1960’s plantings began to increase once more and today, the Valley is home to wineries like De Bortoli, St Huberts, Yarra Yering and Coldstream Hills. So in yet another selfless act of altruism, and entirely for the benefit of dedicated readers of this column (both of them!), I recently decided to take a day trip with friends and find out for myself what all of the hype was about!
Locals claim that the Yarra Valley is Australia’s premier cold climate wine region, but on the day of our early November visit, the Melbourne CBD had only been able to push the mercury to about 7 degrees overnight, so I suspect that the Yarra residents may well have spent the early hours searching for their thermals and Ugg boots. By the time we arrived at Tarrawarra for our first tasting at 11am, the sun had managed to find its way past the pestilent Cumulonimbus that clung to the Valley Walls like a ten year old with an iPad (yes Ashton, I’m talking about you!) though the Antarctic southerly breeze kept fleece lined jackets fully zipped. By midday and our arrival at Dominique Portet, the skies were clear and the walk to the cellar door was in a comparatively “balmy” 13 degrees.
If you enjoy lean and linear styles of wine, then the Dominique Portet wares may be ideal for your palate. Their recently released 2016 Origine Chardonnay ($45) fared very well at the James Halliday Chardonnay Challenge and was awarded 96/100 points. It presents a delicious display of peach, nectarine and citrus across the palate but also finishes in a strawberry and cream bliss that persists despite the natural acidity of the juvenile fruit. The rest of the range wasn’t really made in a commercial style as I couldn’t help but feel that the whites were focussed on length and structure, rather than the fruit. Of their locally grown wines, the reds (including cabernet and merlot) were made in a Bordeaux style but were clinical and linear and the fruit seemed to me to have been bullied by the winemaking process to make it tighter and fitter than it wanted to be. Maybe a bit more petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc in the blend might have made the merlot and cabernet a bit more tempting to my taste buds?
We didn’t have to travel far for our next stop as the Rochford estate was less than a kilometre away. Rochford is one of the larger operations in the Yarra Valley, and has risen in prominence as a regular host of the “Day on the Green” events – this month it’s Stevie Nicks and in December, you can see Human Nature, Kate Ceberano and even KC and the Sunshine Band! Their estate restaurant is first class, but it’s the cellar door that we found particularly impressive. It wasn’t just that the wines were a notch above what we had previously tasted, but that their moderate price points put them in a sensible bracket that gave them broad appeal.
Our host at the cellar door was Kish; an enigmatic and charming (if not somewhat loquacious) fellow whose flamboyance was almost matched by his urban-edged eloquence. Our group loved the Reserve Chardonnay ($54 before discounts) from Rochford’s Swallowfield vineyard, but it was the Reserve Single vineyard Pinot Noir ($64 prior to discounts) that had us searching for superlatives and Kish rattling off idioms. The 2016 “Terre” Pinot is made from local fruit and drinking beautifully despite its youth. The nose hints of violets and spice, but once on the palate plums, cherries and raspberry characters unfold in a balanced and proportional way and gracefully soften in a silky conclusion. As Kish says, “there’s an iron fist behind the velvet glove” with this one!
If a dry style of red is your thing, the Rochford 2016 ‘Val del Re” Nebbiolo ($36) could tickle the taste buds. The delightful floral perfume on the nose of this one, belies the deeply tannic backbone of the wine that dominates the middle and emboldens through the finish. Sure, there are hints of red fruit in the middle, but the tannin could be overbearing to some. Kish saved some of his best to describe the dryness of the Nebbiolo as “it’s like being in the Sahara Desert with a camel walking on your tongue”! And he’s right. It’s not a voluptuous “drink now” style, and neither does it pretend to be.
These days, many Yarra Valley winemakers are experimenting with new and exotic styles of wines. Some work, but others might struggle to become commercially viable. But after a long and self-sacrificing day of research, I can confidently recommend just about any of the chardonnay and pinot noir that are products of local fruit. The cabernet was variable, but worth trying as although we did encounter a few “second 11” players, we also found a few, like the ones at Seville Hill, that might wear the baggy green one day.