Say Yes To The Yarra
As global destinations become more precarious and communities around Australia recover from devastating bushfires, it is even more important (and rewarding) to look for experiences close to home as Deb Caruso discovers.
A rare week in Melbourne offered us the chance to explore more than the city’s laneways, bars and cafes. Keen to explore the Yarra Valley, we got in touch with Orson from Yarra Valley Transfers & Tours who placed us in the capable hands of Mike who planned a full day’s experience for us based on a very limited brief.
With more than 80 cellar doors and even more wineries, we were transported (literally) to scenes only found in the world’s best wine regions. The food is not to be sneezed at either with the area producing some of the country’s best produce; and the craft beer and cider scene hark as far back as the 1800s.
Less than an hour from Melbourne, and home to breathtaking scenery, stunning wines and superb food, we intended to do it in style and let someone else take care of the details and driving.
First stop Domaine Chandon, the Australian arm of the famous French Champagne house Moet and Chandon. The Green Point Vineyard was settled in 1986 and has since been joined by sites in the Strathbogie Ranges and King Valley since. Chandon also has wineries in Argentina, Brazil, India and China, as well as California in the USA.
The old dairy farm grounds are stunning with the restored homestead, a stunning revamped cellar door, and of course, rows upon rows of grapes.
We sample a Splash Tasting with six signature sparkling wines starting fairly light before getting into more full-bodied and meaty drops and ending on a sweet note. Each wine distinctive in its own right and a perfect showcase of French heritage and local expertise.
The Brut Nature 2015 incorporates grapes from all of Chandon’s Australian terroirs to produce an elegant sparkling; the Yarra Valley Cuvee 2016 is a more specific wine from the region, generous on the fruit with a beautiful creamy texture, typical of Chandon wines. The Vintage Brut, 2015 is a flagship sparkling wine perfectly capturing the heart of the Chandon Moet style, ageing on lees produces a complex and zesty wine with great length and finesse.
My favourite was the Vintage Brut Rose 2015, a stunning expression of pinot noir and chardonnay; a delicate pale pink with classic stone fruit peach and red berry characters. The Cuvee Riche was opulent, creamy palate full of ripe tropical fruits with generous rich character achieved by a generous dosage leads to a refreshingly crisp finish. Pete encouraged to look for the freshly-baked bread flavours which can be present; as a Coeliac, I hadn’t tasted fresh bread for about seven years so was pleasantly surprise to find it in a sparkling wine!
The experience ended with a unique interpretation of the Australia classic, Sparkling Pinot Noir Shiraz. This was dessert with cherries and blackberries dominating the palate and a subtle sweetness that makes it irresistible! The wines had me hankering for smoked salmon, caviar, pork belly and a crème brulee to finish.
Feeling light from the mid-morning bubbles, we take a stroll around the grounds and were grateful for the air–conditioned comfort and cold water back in the van as we headed off to our next destination.
Proving the Valley has everything, we leave our bubbles behind and head back in time to a small boutique winery famous for its old-world techniques.
Pimpernel Wines is one of a few dry vineyards, meaning the vines are never irrigated – a brave approach given our country’s dry conditions but as winemaker Damien Archibald says extraordinary wine comes from exceptional fruit.
“By not irrigating or using heavy fertilizing, we yield much smaller crops with smaller berries but most importantly, the wine is more intense.”
Damien has been involved in winemaking since he was 17 and prefers to leave as much to nature as possible, carrying out all angles of viticulture by hand, even labelling. Barrels are hand-selected from France to suit the wines and they are stored for a year or more, to ensure they are fully integrated by the time they are served.
This approach pays off with a range of wines that are all outstanding in their class including chardonnay, shiraz and pinot noir, as well as some less common varieties such as chenin blanc, viognier, fortified muscat, and one of Australia’s top-rated GSM blends.
We start with the Chenin Blanc 2018, a dry but easy drink with notes of natural cheese rind, apple and spice; next up is the Chardonnay 2018, a full rich style with the French oak coming through. As a Chardonnay lover, this is a great drop.
The Rose 2019 is a straight grenache rose using tradition French Provincial techniques to deliver a bone dry but delightful finish. Pimpernel is lauded for its reds with the Hill Road Pinot Noir 2017 delivering a fantastic contrast between juicy fruit expression and savoury spice with lingering notes of smoky bacon – dangerously delicious!
As is the Pinot Noir One 2016 which is all about fruit purity and opulence to deliver a wonderfully rich, rounded textural feel, underpinned and perfectly complemented by delicate char from the tight grain oak. Lovers of this style will certainly not be disappointed!
GSM2 2015 features Grenache, Syrah and Mouverdre with an eclectic nose of candid fruit, Turkish Delight and savoury spice tannins. This calls for venison or lamb backstrap! The Shiraz 2016 is a big softie that, thanks to already being opened for 24 hours, provides a big mouthful with a lovely, velvet feel that will certainly reward ageing or benefit from generous decanting.
The Grouch 2016 is a Shiraz–Marsanne blend with good legs. It’s a very popular wine that gets better with age and would easily push 10-plus years. It’s worth asking for the story behind the name!
“The really interesting thing about Yarra Valley and this is what makes it so unique is that you can do a Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; right through to bigger bolder styles of shiraz, cabernet and things like Mouverdre and grenache,” Damien said.
“We have this flexibility that not many regions have because they are either too cool or too hot. We can successfully grow most wines here and that makes it interesting.
“I know every vine intimately. When you’ve seen the vineyard so closely you understand exactly what is going on. We like to do the hard work in the vineyard and then the wine will take care of itself; it’s like cooking, you don’t want to have to fix the dish after it’s been cooked.”
Speaking of food, we were famished so we headed to one of the Yarra’s most-awarded destinations, Oakridge.
Through the impressive entrance, past the vast tasting bar and straight into the restaurant with a prime seat overlooking the vineyards and valley. Just when we thought we couldn’t have any more wine, a glass of superb sparkling is in our hands and dancing on our tastebuds.
Co-Executive Chefs Jo Barrett and Matt Stone are known for creating an innovative, seasonal menu sourced from the Oakridge Kitchen Garden as well as wild produce they discover while foraging around the region – and we weren’t disappointed.
To start, we share the Jersey milk burrata, fresh bread, including the best gluten-free bread I have ever tasted – all made on-site and deliciously paired with the Heirloom tomatoes, shiso, nigella and split pea miso.
Entrée of Smoked trout, caviar, cultured cream and caraway croissant was almost too pretty to eat; and the Pork & Peach terrine, peach mostarda, garden herbs were superb, particularly when paired with a glass of the award-winning Oakridge 864 single block release Chardonnay.
Thankfully there was time to take in the view and savour the flavours before the main meals arrived. The Kangaroo loin with cherry vierge, smoked beet sauce was tender and full of flavour; so too the BBQ Quail with macadamia & sandalwood, witlof and golden raisin; and local Yeringberg lamb with eggplant, kohlrabi, garlic and black vinegar continued the exceptional dishes.
Sides of Glazed baby root vegetables not only looked amazing but were exactly how vegetables should taste, as if they’d just been picked that morning. So too, the Garden leaves with feta and chardonnay. Paired perfectly with the Oakridge 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon from the original vineyard; Five Oaks.
Dessert was another work of art with the Apricot, chamomile and hazelnut dish attracting all the appropriate ‘ooh’s and aaah’s’; likewise, the Strawberry with strawberry gum and finger lime. I couldn’t go past the selection of Victorian cheeses, condiments and more of that amazing GF bread! Relishing the chance to have another glass of chardonnay, this time the 2018 Vineyard Series Barkala Chardonnay.
We were lucky enough to find Jo in the kitchen and she was happy to see friendly faces from Noosa and give us a tour of the kitchen garden that was established in 2015. Filled with an abundance of vegetables, herbs and flowers grown from heirloom organic seeds we recognised a few things we had devoured just hours earlier – talk about fresh!
A few selfies and it was back to air-conditioned luxury for the last leg of the tour. We were ready for an afternoon nap BUT we can’t leave the Valley without visiting Four Pillars Gin.
Established by Cameron Mackenzie, Matt Jones and Stuart Gregor in late 2013 with the first batch of Rare Dry Gin sold through a crowdfunding campaign on Pozible to a very enthusiastic group of gin-lover, the business now calls a former timber yard home.
The distillery hosts a range of sell-out events and masterclasses for every level of gin explorer – from novice to nerd. We were lucky to partake in a gin flight to understand the botanical and distilling nuances that results in different flavour profiles.
Starting with the truly modern Rare Dry Gin; the ‘gunpowder proof’ Navy Strength Gin with explosive citrus and Asian spice was next; followed by the sought-after Spiced Negroni Gin; Dry Island Gin that was produced with Sweden’s Herno Gin as a tribute to our hot dry island continent and their country of thousands of islands; and finally, the limited-release, highly-anticipated Bloody Shiraz Gin.
The gins have multiple, multiple, multiple awards and it’s easy to see why – the flavour profiles are all very distinct and complex (yet simple). Don’t miss the chance to grab some marmalade, relish, breakfast negroni (super-rich marmalade) or the gin glaze, all repurposed from the spent oranges used in the gin making.
We couldn’t possibly fit another thing in so vow to return again to visit other must-do’s such as Yarra Valley Caviar, Coldstream Hills, De Bortoli Wines, Dominique Portet, Giant Steps, Punt Road, Rochford – and the small-batch wineries yet to even be discovered! Not to mention the abundance of cheese, berries and cherries!
The quaintness of the Yarra Valley and rich abundance with regards to food and wine make it a must-do destination worthy of exploring. Our itinerary was perfectly planned with a range of experiences all perfectly timed. Whether you are staying in the Valley or soaking up the city vibe, Yarra Valley Transfers makes it easy to enjoy the abundance of the region with ease.