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: Yarra Valley region

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Yarra Valley Winegrowers Association: www.wineyarravalley.com

Yarra Valley region

The Yarra Valley is Melbourne's wine tourism equivalent to Adelaide's Barossa Valley and Sydney's Hunter Valley. It is a beautiful and moody area that looks different every time I visit (which is often since I have lived in Melbourne).

Most of it is hilly with most of the wineries located between the Diamond Valley at the western end and the higher and colder eastern end around Healesville and Yarra Junction on the slopes of the Yarra Ranges. It is cold enough to snow here in winter, while the mean January temperature is 17-19 degrees C.

Medhurst Wines
Medhurst lies in the Coldstream Hills

The region has been the major beneficiary of Melbourne's rediscovered love of fine table wine. Cabernet Sauvigon and Chardonnay perform particularly well here, and more recently the Shiraz has started to shine with the addition of small amounts of Viognier. Pinot Gris is starting to get better here as well.

However, Pinot Noir has been the real star here for the last couple of decades and partly explains why Melbourne has become Australia's Pinot capital. The Yarra Valley's central place in Victoria's modern wine culture is remarkable given that in the early 1960s there were no wineries in the region.

Despite this it has a long history dating back to the foundation of the Port Phillip colony (Melbourne). Hubert de Castella, founder of the 19th century incarnation of St. Huberts winery claimed that William Ryrie established Victoria's first vineyard at Yering in 1840 from cuttings from the Sydney's Camden vineyard. The claim is disputed by historians who give the honour to Portland's Edward Henty.

What is indisputable was the Yarra Valley was Victoria's first region to produce elegant sleek wines that were able to hold their own with the best of Europe. This was made possible by the colony's first Governor, Charles Joseph La Trobe and his love for all things Swiss after spending his twenties in the wine loving alpine region. La Trobe encouraged a number of leading Swiss vigneron families to move to Port Philip - including Baron de Pury and his cousins - the de Castella brothers.

Paul de Castella took over Ryrie's Yering Station in 1848, younger brother, Hubert, established St. Huberts in 1854 while de Pury established Yeringberg around that time. The early wineries were mainly devoted to Cabernet Sauvignon with a Marsanne Rousanne blend becoming a popular white. The wines seem to have been very good with St. Huberts winning the best wine at the Melbourne's 1881 International Exhibition and a substantial prize from the Emperor Wilhelm of Germany. The wines won the top prize at the Paris Exposition so it was possible to transport them in the era before refrigeration.

A tiny handful of these 19th century Yeringberg wines were discovered and according to one of the even fewer people living in the 21st century who has got to try them, wine critic James Halliday, the wines were still holding up well after a century.

Hirsch Hill stall
Rosie Hirsch (middle) at Hirsch Hill stall at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. Hirsch Hill is a new producer with a consistently good portfolio in the $17-$20 range.

However, within forty years the Yarra Valley's last vineyards were winding down. Contrary to popular folklore the early Yarra Valley was not wiped out by the phylloxera louse that afflicted much of the rest of the state. The louse bypassed the Yarra in its relentless north-eastwards invasion from Geelong.

Several other factors were at work. Firstly there was a very limited market for such costly premium wines made from low yielding varieties in a fickle frost-risk region. The fading of the gold rush boom narrowed the market even more.

Wine preferences also shifted to the cheaper fortified sherries, ports and muscats grown in the reliable warm plains in the north-east of the state. Land values also were pushed up by Melbourne's eastward suburban sprawl which led to the more lucrative dairy, fruit and vegetable farming displacing viticulture.

It was not until the second half of the 1960s that wine-making was revived. Wantirna Estate in the adjacent Dandenong Creek was the first new commercial vineyard established in the Melbourne's enrivons for over a century. The contemporary pioneers in the Yarra Valley proper included: Bianchet, Chateau Yarrinya, Mount Mary, St. Huberts, Warramate, Yarra Yarra, Yarra Yering and Yeringberg. They were mainly tiny producers who had to support their obsessive passion with other jobs.

The history of the region meant it was no surprise that particularly elegant Cabernets could be produced from the region. The big surprise was that the Yarra started producing Australia's first really great examples of the fickle Burgundy variety, Pinot Noir.

Jazz at Panton Hill Winery
Jazz at Panton Hill Winery in the northern Diamond Creek end of the region

James Halliday was seduced by the region's beauty and the possibility of making classic Burgundian-style Pinot Noir (something he couldn't dream of doing at his Hunter Valley winery). He was one of the leaders of the next big influx of wine makers in the region and established Coldstream Hills in 1985. David Lance at Diamond Valley also established his vineyard in 1987 with a similar Pinot aim.

Around that time the big wine corporations also wanted to get in on the action. Over the ensuing decade De Bortoli bought Chateau Yarrinya, Mildara Blass ended up with Yarra Ridge and St. Huberts, Hardys got Hoddles Creek and Yarra Burn, McWilliams got Lilydale, while Halliday's Coldstream Hills was taken over by Southcorp in 1996 (now part of Fosters). The region was transformed in a decade from weekend hobby operations to medium sized corporate wineries with state of the art restaurants, galleries and conference venues.

Until recently the pace of expansion has shown little signs of abating with over a hundred wineries although the terrible frosts associated with the 2007 vintage may put some of the newer and smaller non-corporate producers on the brink.

In February 2009 the Yarra Valley was hit by bushfires fanned by extreme winds leading to the loss of many lives. The Roundstone and Yarra Yarra wineries were also destroyed and many producers suffered damage to their vines. The local industry abounds with stories of close shaves with catastrophe on that horror day. Fortunately 2010 has been a text book vintage with hopes for the best vintage since 2004.

There are signs that the region is reaching the market limits for further growth unless there is a major expansion in export markets. There are also concerns about the impact of climate change warming on the temperature sensitive Pinot Noir. Regardless the Yarra remains one of Australia's most beautiful regions to visit with many small and medium producers with outstanding portfolios.

It is not the most vino-diverse region in Victoria but fans of alternative varieties will find strong examples of Verduzzo at Bianchet, Gewurztraminer at Lilydale, the Triolet (Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Muscadelle) blend at Mount Mary, Roussanne at St. Huberts and Yeringberg's Marsanne Rousanne tribute to its 19th century past. top

Boat O'Craigo

Boat O'Craigo has vineyards at the cold high altitude Healesville end of the valley and also Kangaroo Ground in the warmer northern end

Boat O'Craigo

Wedgetail Estate lies in the adjacent Diamond Valley

Mount Mary

Mount Mary is a regional pioneering winery. Founder, John Middleton died in 2007

Rochford

Rochford has moved from the Macedon Ranges to the Yarra and holds large concerts at its Coldstream site

Seville Hill

Seville Hill is most well known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but the recent Reserve Shirazes have been very classy