On my recent press trip to Australia, not 24 hours after getting off the plane I found myself winding down country roads amidst the pastoral rolling hills of the Yarra Valley. I arrived mid-harvest, to friendly, purple stained hands, and sighs of relief at a vintage that everyone felt was one of the best in several years.
Not long after arriving in the valley, I spent an hour or two above it, getting the lay of the land from the air, and getting a chance to survey the damage from the deadly wildfires of 2009.
The destruction wrought by the blaze was astounding, with countless acres of blackened trees stretching far into the distance, flanked by fresh green undergrowth. Most of the wineries that escaped destruction still lost most of the vintage to smoke taint, though there were some small miracles for a few. One vintner showed me the only patch of vines that were burned at his property, yet they had managed to spring back to life and yielded fruit for the 2010 harvest.
For those unfamiliar with the region, Australia’s Yarra Valley is a small winegrowing area about 80 miles to the East of Melbourne in the state of Victoria. The Yarra Valley is the oldest winegrowing region in Victoria, boasting vineyards established in 1838, shortly after the founding of Melbourne and the state of Victoria itself, and a vibrant wine industry that became quite famous by the turn of the 20th Century. Shifting preferences towards fortified wines as well as regional economic trends led to the disappearance of wine production in the valley between 1921 and the early 1960s.
The Yarra Valley is billed as one of Australia’s cool-climate growing regions — with maximum summer temperatures notably cooler than both Bordeaux and Burgundy — but the region’s climate can sometimes include a long slow “indian summer” which is the prime determinant of whether the Bordeaux grape varieties planted there manage to fully ripen.
I was in the valley during this period of warm, breezy fall, and could appreciate the magic of Pinot Noir having been harvested weeks before, while the Cabernet and Cabernet Franc were just about ready to bring in.
My trip above the valley led me to be able to say that there really is no one specific valley when it comes to the Yarra, and no real uniformity even within the Upper Yarra and the Lower Yarra regions. The land is folded and bumpy and pocked and sloping, interrupted by ridges and ravines, and crisscrossed by creeks. The soil types are varied and complex, and there is some debate about what really characterizes the best vineyard sites, but most agree that the vineyards with the more northerly aspects tend to be better, and those with some more elevation and slope tend to be the best.
The region, which represents roughly 2% of Australia’s vineyards and 0.5% of the wine production by volume has about 85 wineries. Interestingly, most are on the smaller side, and many do not export. In fact, quite a number of wineries sell only through their “Cellar Doors” which is the Australian name for their tasting rooms.
I had a chance to visit with several wineries in the valley, as well as sit down to a tasting of a number of smaller production wines made in the area. The notes below are some of my favorites.
2008 Giant Steps “Sexton Vineyard” Chardonnay, Yarra Valley
Palest gold in the glass with a very nice shine, this wine has a nose of cold cream and nice golden apple aromas. In the mouth the wine is smooth and rich, with a gorgeous acid balance and nice apple, pear, and lemon flavors. Really nice yellow grapefruit lingers in the finish. Score: around 9. Cost: $20. Click to buy.
2008 Giant Steps “Arthurs Creek Vineyard” Chardonnay, Yarra Valley
Pale yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of green apple and lime zest. In the mouth it has a bright mineral and lime zest quality. Wet stones and citrus pith linger in the finish. 300 cases made. 35-year-old vines. Score: somewhere between 8.5 and 9.
2008 Oakridge “864” Chardonnay, Yarra Valley
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of floral, lemon zest aromas. In the mouth it is rich and bright with really juicy acidity and lemon and grapefruit pith flavors with a very nice lime note on the finish. Score: somewhere between 8.5 and 9.
2008 Punt Road Chardonnay, Yarra Valley
Pale green-gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of lemon zest and wet stones. In the mouth it offers unripe pear, crisp mineral notes, and a hint of woody bitterness on the finish. Score: around 8.5. $20. Click to buy.
2006 Yering Station Reserve Chardonnay, Yarra Valley
Pale green gold in the glass, this wine smells of buttered popcorn, jasmine, and cold cream. In the mouth it is super bright and juicy with gorgeous lemon and buttered sourdough vanilla, and cold cream. Wonderfully juicy and eminently quaffable this is a wine you want to drink all night long. Delicious. Score: somewhere between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $42. Click to buy.
2008 Gembrook Hill Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley
Lightly ruby in the glass with hits of orange at the edge and some cloudy haze, this wine has a nose of bright cranberry and red apple skin. In the mouth it has a wonderful red apple skin, raspberry, and cinnamon quality. Orange peel, cloves, and a tiny bit of heat emerge on the finish that suggests a tiny bit of volatile acidity. Very interesting and distinctive. Score: somewhere between 9 and 9.5.
2008 Giant Steps “Gladysdale Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley
Light ruby in the glass with hints of orange at the edge, this wine smells of cranberry and raspberry. In the mouth it is silky and wonderfully textured with cranberry and raspberry flavors. Super faint tannins creep around the bright orange peel and juicy. lightly woody flavors. Nice finish. Score: around 9.
2008 Mac Forbes “Woori Yallock” Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley
Cloudy light ruby in color, this wine has a nose of bright raspberry and floral notes. In the mouth it is beautiful and crystalline in its aspect, with bright raspberry fruit and faint tannins. Wonderful, airy finish with very delicate qualities. Outstanding. Score: somewhere between 9 and 9.5.
2008 Tarrawarra Estate Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley
Light to medium ruby in the glass, this wine has a wonderful perfumed nose of sweet cherry and cedar. In the mouth the wine is smooth and cedary, with sweet cherry and raspberry quality (though the wine is dry) with a nice long cedar finish. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $22. Click to buy.
2008 Jamsheed “Silvan” Syrah, Yarra Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has an intense growling nose of Jaegermeister or some other weird herbal woody tincture — chinese medicine? — that makes it incredibly distinctive. In the mouth it offers blackberry, woody-stemmy, cocoa powder and lightly grippy leathery tannins. Great acidity, and wonderful oiled leather with cloves on the finish. Score: somewhere between 9 and 9.5.
2008 Giant Steps “Harry’s Monster” Cabernet Sauvignon, Yarra Valley
Medium to dark ruby in the glass, this wine has a nose of rich black cherry aromas. In the mouth it is rich and broad shouldered with dark cherry and wet earth flavors stretched across a musculature of tannin. Wet dirt and tobacco notes drive the long, aromatically sweet finish. Concentrated but very balanced. Score: around 9. Cost: $40. Click to buy.
2005 Yeringberg “Yeringberg” Cabernet Sauvignon, Yarra Valley
Dark garnet in the glass this wine has a gorgeously perfumed nose of cherry, tobacco, and dark chocolate. In the mouth it is beautifully balanced with cherry and cassis flavors with gorgeous soft tannins and a cedar note on the finish. Score: around 9. Cost: $39. Click to buy.
2006 Yering Station Reserve Shiraz Viognier, Yarra Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers over blackberry pie. In the mouth it is beautifully silky with velvet tannins that wrap around flavors of blackberry, cassis, and a light briary greenness that all seem to float above the palate with an effortlessness that makes this wine incredibly easy to drink. A light woody coffee note emerges on the finish that is quite appealing. Balanced and delicious. Score: around 9. Cost: $33. Click to buy.