One of Australia’s most renowned wine districts and one of its coldest viticultural regions is the Yarra Valley, which is located about 50 km northeast of Melbourne. Chardonnay and pinot noir are the area leaders, with cabernet and shiraz providing strong support. In addition to its winemaking heritage, the Yarra is one of the best-served wine regions for tourists, with a wide variety of cellar doors, restaurants, and lodging options at all price points.
The Yarra Valley is Victoria’s oldest winegrowing region, with vines originally planted there in 1838 by the Ryrie brothers at Yering Station, but there has been a major gap in that history. There are no existing vines from the original plantings in the Yarra Valley, unlike places like McLaren Vale and the Barossa in South Australia. In reality, the Yarra’s oldest vines are from the 1960s. Although phylloxera, a small bug that kills grapevines, claimed many of Victoria’s grapes, it was not to blame for the decline and eventual cessation of viticulture in the Yarra.
While phylloxera is now, regrettably, a problem in the valley, viticulture was actually traded for other lucrative farming endeavors, particularly grazing for dairy production, due to economic factors and changing tastes. Around 400 hectares had been planted to grapevines by the turn of the century (mostly in Yeringberg, Yering Station, and St. Huberts), but the industry was also in decline. In the early 20th century, fortified wines were growing more and more popular in Australia, with table wines scarcely making an appearance. A warmer region like Rutherglen, as well as the premier districts of South Australia and New South Wales, were significantly more ideal for fortified production than the Yarra Valley’s chilly temperature.
Commercial farming largely stopped in that trend in 1921, the year Yeringberg reported its final crop, and by 1937 there were no known vineyards in the valley. The widespread emphasis on fortified styles was undoubtedly a reflection of the era’s tastes, but it was also a more reliable way of production because oxidation and other spoiling problems were common due to inadequate winemaking facilities and frequently absent cool cellars. In the 1960s and 1970s, table wines began to reclaim market share thanks to improved techniques and a change in the cultural climate, finally reversing the trend.
The Yarra Valley saw a renaissance in 1963, when Reg and Bertina Egan planted the first vines at Wantirna Estate. The slew of now-iconic wineries that were built (Seville Estate, Mount Mary, Yarra Yering), as well as revived (St Huberts and Yeringberg), during the course of the following decade or two undoubtedly had the success of the Egans and the rise of table wine as contributing factors. De Bortoli (now known as Chateau Yarrinya), Domaine Chandon, Yering Station, and Coldstream Hills made waves as the industry continued to expand, and the 1990s saw a true boom with the establishment of 40 or more new wineries.
Today, there are far more than 100 established wineries in the Yarra, and many more labels source fruit and use the same winemaking facilities. Some of the most creative producers in the nation are in fact based in the Yarra, changing what the valley is capable of. However, innovation is not only the purview of mavericks; some of the more established players make just as significant contributions to coloring outside the lines. A good example is the change in chardonnay and pinot noir that De Bortoli launched in the early part of this century, where richer, fuller, and more oak-laden styles were traded in favor of elegance and transparency of production. The Yarra is now permeated with that tendency, and former students from De Bortoli (Bill Downie, Timo Mayer, Dave Bicknell, Paul Bridgeman, etc.) have spread out to have a remarkable influence on the valley.
Soils, Geography, and Climate
Despite the geological and physical diversity of the Yarra Valley, there are several useful generalizations that make it easy to navigate for visitors. Based on how the Yarra River flows from its source in the Yarra Ranges down to the flatlands, where it subsequently continues into Melbourne and the bay, the Yarra region is broadly divided into the Lower and Upper Yarra. Due to its lower height, the Lower Yarra produces wines that are often brighter and more fruit-rich, whereas the Upper Yarra can be extremely lofty and many of the higher-elevation locations were originally designated for sparkling wine production.
The Upper Yarra is more characterized by deep-red volcanic soils, which are very fertile, while the northern side of the valley (the Lower Yarra) tends to duplex soils consisting of grey loamy sand to clay loam with red-brown clay subsoils. The soils are deeply nuanced but also fall into one of two broad categories. With granite being the major impact, there are various degrees of variation within these broad kinds as well as a few famous locations that depart completely.
The Yarra Valley has a generally cool climate, while the valley floor is inherently warmer than higher elevations. Despite having a continental climate, there is not the typical diurnal temperature difference because of the Southern Ocean, which still provides some cooling. With a somewhat dry growing season that frequently requires irrigation, rainfall is mainly focused on the spring and winter months. Rainfall in the Upper Yarra is greater than in the Lower Yarra.
Types Of Grapes and Wines
Chardonnay and pinot noir are the Yarra Valley’s iconic grapes today, but the prestige of the valley was largely based on delicate renditions of Bordeaux grapes, as well as some outstanding shiraz wines. The Yarra can produce a wide variety of styles, from sparkling wine to suitably ripe expressions of late-maturing cabernet sauvignon, due to the variety of elevations and mesoclimates.
When Möet & Chandon invested in a Domaine Chandon branch at the former Green Point dairy in 1986, that sparkling production was previously considered to have the greatest potential for the Yarra. Later, at Yering Station, Champagne Devaux worked with the Rathbone family to create Yarrabank. While Hardys initially experimented with Yarra Burn, they eventually shifted a large portion of their attention to Tasmania for their premium sparkling wines with Arras (now under the Accolade Wines banner). While still a strong suit of the Yarra, sparkling wine has seen a lot of the cool, elevation vineyards that were initially planted for sparkling production turn into some of the best sources for still wine due to shifting tastes and older vines.
As well as significant plantings of pinot meunier, cabernet franc, malbec, riesling, and semillon, there are also significant plantings of merlot, sangiovese, sauvignon blanc, and viognier. Nebbiolo, gamay, and arneis are now being added to the varietal mix, along with Rhône varietals such as grenache, mourvèdre, roussanne, and marsanne. The wines all fall firmly into the category of cool climate wines, with shiraz and cabernet generally expressing themselves in the mid-weight and aromatic spectrum, despite the fact that the Yara may have a wide range of expressions due to the climatic changes at elevation.
Winery Tour Yarra Valley
Unit 201/98 River Esplanade
Docklands, VIC 3008
(03) 7042 3201