Local Opinion - Yarra Valley Wine

By Sean O’Brien

Sean O’Brien is the owner of Barrique Wine Store in the heart of the Yarra Valley. On a Melbourne Wine Tour you can meet Sean and enjoy sampling wines while he downloads terrific local knowledge. Sean publishes a weekly newsletter full of wonderful wine info and great special offers.


Wines, landscape, climate

Traditionally an area known for chardonnay, cabernet and pinot noir, the wine revolution that is being seen all over Australia is making its mark on the Yarra Valley as well. Who would have thought 10 years ago that the Yarra would be home to a raft of varietal plantings including Albarino, Gewürztraminer, Tempranillo, Pinot Gris, Viognier and Sangiovese to complement existing plantings of Sauvignon, Riesling, Chardonnay, Marsanne, Roussanne, Shiraz, Cabernet, Merlot and Pinot Noir. Indeed, when you consider that some of the better sparkling wines of Australia also come from the Valley, it is probably the most diverse wine-growing region in Australia.

Winegrowers these days are much more adventurous and willing to take a gamble on the next ‘it’ variety providing that the site is suitable. And what has always been known as a cool climate wine region has experienced some of its earliest harvest periods due to warm conditions over the last 4 years and so, site location and the varieties chosen to plant in these locations is becoming even more important.

The ‘Upper Yarra’ sub-region takes in the townships of Woori Yallock, Hoddles Creek, Launching Place, Gembrook, Seville, Gladysdale (pretty much the Warburton Hwy side of the Valley) and is cooler than the remainder of the Valley. In these areas natural grape acidities are more easily maintained and Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir from these parts are highly sought after.

The ‘Valley Floor’ takes in most of the Maroondah and Melba Hwy vineyards and everything in between these 2 main roads. Again, generally speaking, this sub-region is a lot warmer than the Upper Yarra where you find more plantings of Cabernet and Shiraz, these varieties that could struggle to reach full maturity/ripeness in cool locations, are yielding quality fruit.

The Diamond Creek, Cottles Bridge, St Andrews, Panton Hill sub-region is very undulating and aspects vary dramatically. A similar train of thought has been applied though – cooler spots are better suited to the more fragile varieties, while exposed sites are shiraz ‘hot spots’. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that the Yarra is such a big area with so many different variables (younger, more fertile, red soils in the upper Yarra vs older, clay/loam/gravel soils in the ‘Floor’ is another consideration) that generalizations are hard. Someone like De Bortoli have so much land under vine that they can pick and choose suitable sites for varieties with great success.

As far as wines styles go, most Yarra winemakers tend to go after elegance and restraint over big alcohol, broad, full bodied wines. That is one generalization that we can make, and the climate allows it!!

Winemakers, traditions, approaches

It’s a pretty dynamic group of winemakers in the Yarra Valley right now. A lot of the winemaking responsibility at established stars like Yeringberg, Mount Mary and Wantirna Estate has passed on to the next family generation. And that is reflected across most of the Valley – young, experimental, quality focused, determined winemakers with plenty of European experience are really making their mark on the wines coming out of the Valley.

It’s that European, food friendly wine style that seems to drive most. The implementation of quality vineyard practices and the emergence of more and more organically and bio-dynamically run vineyards, highlights how important winemakers and vineyard managers see the quality of fruit itself to be (seems obvious, but it ain’t!). The task of making good wine is made a fair bit easier if the raw material is optimal to begin with.

As far as winemaking practices go, Yarra winemakers are generally seeking food friendly styles of wine will use varied methods. Variables such as yeast (natural versus cultured), macerations (pre and/or post ferment) temperatures of ferments, oak treatment (new versus old, how toasty, how long) fermentation vessels (tank versus open pot versus barrel) frequency of plungings, lees aging are all questions that the individual winemaker must answer. In 2007, technological advances with machinery are such that a lot of manual labour can be replaced with automated hydraulic systems – whether or not this is a good thing is a matter of debate!!

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