The Yarra Valley, about 50 km north-east of Melbourne, is one of Australia’s premier wine regions, and one of the country’s coldest viticultural zones. The regional champions are chardonnay and pinot noir, with cabernet and shiraz in more than able support. Aside from the vinous pedigree, the Yarra is also one of the best serviced wine regions for visitors, with a wealth of cellar doors and restaurants, and ample accommodation across the price spectrum.
With vines first planted in 1838 by the Ryrie brothers at Yering Station, the Yarra Valley is Victoria’s oldest winegrowing region, but there is a significant interruption to that history. Unlike regions like McLaren Vale and the Barossa, in South Australia, the Yarra Valley has no extant vines from the early plantings. In fact, the oldest vines in the Yarra date back to the 1960s. While many of Victoria’s vines succumbed to phylloxera (a tiny insect that destroys grapevines), it was not responsible for the demise and ultimate abandonment of viticulture in the Yarra.
While phylloxera is now unfortunately a problem in the valley, it was in fact economic factors and changing tastes that saw viticulture traded in for more lucrative farming pursuits, primarily grazing for dairy production. By the turn of the century there were around 400 hectares (largely grown by Yeringberg, Yering Station and St Huberts) planted to grapevines, but the industry was also in decline. The Australian palate was becoming more and more enamoured with fortified wines in the early 20th century, with table wines barely factoring. And the cool climate of the Yarra Valley certainly wasn’t cut out for fortified production, with warmer areas like Rutherglen, as well as the marquee regions of South Australian and New South Wales, being far more suitable.
That trend saw commercial farming essentially cease in 1921, when Yeringberg recorded its last harvest, and there were no documented vines in the valley by 1937. That nation-wide reliance on fortified styles was no doubt reflective of the tastes of the day, but it was also a more reliable method of production, as rudimentary winemaking facilities and often a lack of cool cellar facilities meant that oxidation and other spoilage issues abounded. With both improved methods and a shift in the zeitgeist, table wines started to wrestle back market share in 60s and 70s, ultimately reversing the trend.
It was in 1963 that Reg and Bertina Egan planted the first vines at Wantirna Estate, and the renaissance of the Yarra Valley had begun. The success of the Egans and the rise of table wine no doubt contributed to the clutch of now-iconic wineries that were founded (Seville Estate, Mount Mary, Yarra Yering), as well as revived (St Huberts and Yeringberg) over the next decade or so. That growth continued, with the likes of De Bortoli (the renamed Chateau Yarrinya), Domaine Chandon, Yering Station and Coldstream Hills making a splash, while the 90s saw a veritable boom, with 40-odd wineries founded.
Today, the number of established wineries in the Yarra well exceeds 100, with many more labels that source fruit and share winemaking facilities. Indeed, the Yarra is home to some of the most innovative producers in the country, reshaping what the valley is capable of. But innovation is not the sole domain of the mavericks, with some of the established players contributing just as meaningfully to colouring outside the lines. Case in point is the chardonnay and pinot noir revolution that started at De Bortoli in the early part of this century, with richer, fuller and more oak-laden styles traded in for elegance and transparency of making. That direction now suffuses the Yarra, and the De Bortoli alumni (Bill Downie, Timo Mayer, Dave Bicknell, Paul Bridgeman…) of the time have fanned out to influence the valley in quite extraordinary ways.
Geography, soils & climate
The Yarra Valley has a great geological and geographic diversity, though there are some helpful generalisations that make it navigable for the newcomer. Broadly divided into the Lower and Upper Yarra, based on the flow of the Yarra River (east to west) from its source in the Yarra Ranges down to the flatlands, which then extends into Melbourne and the bay. The Lower Yarra is accordingly lower in elevation, producing wines with a typically sunnier, more fruit-rich profile, while the Upper Yarra can tend to the quite lofty, with many of the more elevated sites originally marked for sparkling wine production.
The soils, though deeply nuanced, also fit into two broad categories, with the northern side of the valley (the Lower Yarra) tending to duplex soils consisting of grey loamy sand to clay loam with red-brown clay subsoils, which are low in fertility, while the southern part (the Upper Yarra) is more characterised by deep-red volcanic soils, which are very fertile. Within these broad types, there are varying degrees of difference, as well as a couple of notable sites that deviate entirely, with granite being the predominant influence.
The climate of the Yarra is overwhelmingly cool, though naturally the valley floor is warmer than the more elevated sites. While the climate is classified as continental, there is not the typical diurnal temperature difference, with the Southern Ocean still providing some moderation. Rainfall is largely concentrated over the spring and winter months, with a relatively dry growing season, typically necessitating irrigation. The Upper Yarra has higher rainfall than the Lower Yarra.
Grape varieties & wine styles
Today, chardonnay and pinot noir are the emblematic varieties of the Yarra; however, much of the valley’s prestige was built around elegant expressions of the Bordeaux varieties, as well as some exemplary expressions of shiraz. The range of elevations and mesoclimates mean that the Yarra is capable of producing a wide range of styles, from sparkling wine to properly ripe expressions of the late-maturing cabernet sauvignon.
That sparkling production was once seen as the greatest potential for the Yarra, with Möet & Chandon investing in a Domaine Chandon outpost at the old Green Point dairy in 1986. A little later, Champagne Devaux collaborated with the Rathbone family at Yering Station to launch Yarrabank. While Hardys first went long with Yarra Burn, before shifting much of the focus to Tasmania for their premium sparkling wines with Arras (now under the Accolade Wines banner). While sparkling wine remains a strong suit of the Yarra, changing tastes and increased vine age have seen many of the cool and elevated vineyards that were originally planted for sparkling production emerge as some of the finest sources for still wine.
There are also meaningful plantings of merlot, sangiovese, sauvignon blanc and viognier, plus to a lesser degree, pinot meunier, cabernet franc, malbec, riesling and semillon. Today, the varietal mix is being expanded to include nebbiolo, gamay and arneis with Rhône varieties, grenache, mourvèdre, roussanne and marsanne finding a voice too. And while the Yara may have a great range of expressions due to the climatic differences at elevation, the wines all very much sit in the cool climate camp, with shiraz and cabernet typically expressing themselves in a mid-weight and fragrant spectrum.