Wish They Were Here, by John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

From the Yarra Valley, The Cool of Oz

The WineAlign crew spends a lot of time on the road. We visit wine regions around the globe, learning, tasting, and experiencing first hand everything from the established classics to the latest releases. Inevitably, we come across wines we wish we could find back in our home markets, wines that engage and enthrall and tell a compelling story. Although the various Canadian provincial monopolies do their best to represent the world, full coverage is impossible and corporate selection mentality rules, that is to say, quality alone does not always earn you a spot on Canadian shelves.

We’ve created this series, Wish They Were Here, as a forum to share our adventures on the wine route, to highlight underrepresented regions, unknown producers, cuvées not yet seen in Canada, or vintages yet to be exported in the hopes that liquor board buyers, agents and private importers might tune in and get some inspiration. It’s also a mini travel guide for readers who go on their own wine safaris, offering a list of bottles to track down.

We’d love for you to share your discoveries with us, too. If you find a vinous gem along your travels, send a note to [email protected] and we’ll compile the best of readers’ discoveries. It might just inspire us to embark on yet another adventure, too.

The Yarra Valley is a small, relatively cool region in the Australian state of Victoria an hour north of Melbourne. The region, an official Geographical Indication (GI), is named for the Yarra River, which flows down from the residual crinkles of the Australian Alps separating the valley from the Mornington Peninsula and Port Philip Bay. Wisteria and lilies, tracks of old growth forests and luxuriantly green pastures dotted with sheep cover the region in springtime, perfuming the air with a mixture of sweet green herbs, savoury mint and floral essence.

The pastoral Yarra Valley from Yeringberg

The pastoral Yarra Valley from Yeringberg

European settlers, and in particular a large group of Swiss émigrés, arrived in the area following the establishment of British penal colonies to farm large tracks of land and raise sheep and cattle. With them came a taste for the old world way of life and, of course, wine. The Ryrie Brothers planted The Yarra Valley’s, and indeed Victoria’s, first vineyard at Yering Station in 1838. Vineyards flourished.

But tough economic times beginning in the early 1920s saw vineyards converted to pastures. The modern era of the Yarra Valley’s wine story begins in 1963, when Wantirna Estate, the first of the new generation of wineries, was established. Soon after historic 19th century properties like Yeringberg were re-planted, and modern classics like Mount Mary, Yarra Yering and Château Yerinya (now De Bortoli) were created. The Yarra Valley gained further credibility in the mid-eighties when well-known Australian wine writer James Halliday chose Yarra to set up his now-iconic Coldstream Hills estate, and Champagne giant Moet and Chandon moved into the valley to make sparkling wine.

Chardonnay & Pinot and/or Cabernet & Shiraz?

Yarra Valley Vineyards, Yering Station

Yarra Valley Vineyards, Yering Station

Today, there are about 150 wineries farming some 2,500 hectares of grapes. With a climate midway between that of Bordeaux and Burgundy, the region offers potential for several varieties. Chardonnay and pinot noir are the region’s calling cards as well as the most planted varieties, accounting for about 40% of vineyard acreage.

It’s challenging to generalize about styles considering the variations between the valley floor and the cooler Upper Yarra, to say nothing of the richer alluvial soils of lower lying areas versus the red and grey volcanic soils of the higher elevations. But the range of chardonnays reflect a distinctive cool climate character, focused on citrus and green tree fruit, with subdued oak and high natural acids. Part of this modern expression is due no doubt to the conscious desire in Australia to move beyond the ripe, oaky, tropical fruit-flavoured chardonnays of yore that initially put the country on the map. In some cases, the pendulum has swung too far, and several chardonnays were in fact under ripe and under-oaked, with an excessively reductive character (that flinty, matchstick aroma imposed by winemakers through plenty of lees contact and oxygen deprivation). Pinot noirs vary from light and fruity to substantial and mineral, finely etched and firm, especially from the cooler sites in the upper part of the valley on volcanic soils. The top kit is among Australia’s finest.

Sandra de Pury, winemaker, Yeringberg

Sandra de Pury, winemaker, Yeringberg

Yet what most struck me during tastings were shiraz (syrah) and cabernet blends. The Yarra is capable of producing cool climate syrah to rival the finest of the northern Rhône. Whole bunch fermentation with stem contact is used to great effect to produce perfumed, structured examples with crunchy red fruit and savoury spice, yet with substantial, fleshy fruit in a style that’s utterly unique. New oak is ever more rare, with larger, old casks taking the place of barriques. Winemakers are quick to admit to inspiration from celebrated Rhône vintners like Jean-Louis Chave and August Clape.

Cabernet sauvignon and blends, once believed too difficult to ripen, can, in the right sites, produce exceptional wines. Indeed, one of the very finest cabernet blends I’ve had from the new world hails from the Yarra: Yeringberg’s 2010 flagship red. Fans of fresh, structured, delicately herbaceous and spicy versions will find happiness here.

My Wish They Were Here Yarra List

(pricing is approximate in $AUS)

Mac Forbes: artisanal and exceptional pinot noir and chardonnay from selected single vineyard sites throughout the valley, especially the cooler Upper Yarra. Mac Forbes 2010 Hoddles Creek Chardonnay ($40.00)

Coldstream Hills: very fine chardonnay and pinot noir, especially reserve and single vineyard wines.  Coldstream Hills 2011 Deer Farm Vineyard Chardonnay ($70.00)

Oakridge Wines: chardonnays that push the edge of reductiveness but stay on the right side; highly mineral, tight, crisp; brilliant and pure single vineyard and ‘Block’ series shiraz and pinot. Oakridge 2012 Local Vineyard Series Shiraz Whitsend and Oakridge Vineyards ($50.00)

Giant Steps: excellent single site chardonnays, fashioned in a purposely oxidative, rich style. Giant Steps 2012 Arthur’s Creek Vineyard Chardonnay ($45.00)

Yering Station: polished, modern pinot and chardonnay with wide appeal. Very good ‘village’ and reserve tiers.  Yering Station 2010 Reserve Chardonnay ($85.00)

Yeringberg: One of Yarra’s oldest wineries, handcrafting small batches of outstanding wines. Yeringberg 2010 Red Yarra Valley ($85.00)

DeBortoli: one of Australia’s largest family-owned operations. But despite size, the flagship wines from the Yarra are edgy and authentic, cool climate, low alcohol examples, pushing the envelope and breaking new ground for Australia. De Bortoli 2012 Reserve Section A8 Syrah ($45.00)

Yarra Yering: traditional estate making exceptional chardonnay and non-traditional red blends. Yarra Yering 2011 Red Blend Nº 3 ($85.00)


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

Visit John Szabo’s Critic page for all of his reviews.

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