From the tasting team

Philip Rich on the Yarra Valley producers to watch

By Philip Rich

19 Sep, 2023

Tasting Team member Philip Rich has his finger on the pulse when it comes to the Yarra Valley. And still, each year, new names (and wines) land on his desk. These are the Yarra Valley producers to watch.

For the 2024 Halliday Wine Companion, I tasted and reviewed just over 400 wines from 61 producers in the Yarra Valley. And while I like to think I’ve got a great handle on what’s happening in the Yarra, I’m still surprised by the number of newish brands that pop up on my radar each year. What they generally have in common, is that there aren’t any preconceptions with brands you haven’t seen or heard of before. So, when you taste something good, it makes you sit up and take notice!

Heading the list for 2024 producers, whose wines I was tasting for the first time and scored well, were the wines from Emilian and Terrason, both based in the Yarra and both with strong connections to France. In the case of Marc Lunt, who made his first Terrason wine in 2016 with fruit sourced from both the Yarra and King Valleys, he was the first ever non-French stagiaire at the legendary Domaine Armand Rousseau in Gevrey-Chambertin, where he spent both 2015 and 2016. As he puts it, there is "probably no better Domaine to get an understanding of terroir and traditional winemaking."

Philip RichPhilip Rich.

Marc and his partner Leanne Westell have a small winery at Gembrook, completed in time to make the 2022 wines. On top of the Yarra fruit sourced from the Swallowfield vineyard in Gembrook and Cordillera Vineyards in Macclesfield, they also purchase fruit from John Darling’s Koombahla Vineyard in the upper King Valley. As to the Macclesfield Chardonnay 2022 (95 points), Swallowfield Chardonnay 2022 (93 points) and Pinot Noir 2022 (95 points), I was taken with just how pure fruited, energetic, and complex these wines are. With plans to find a property to grow their own fruit in Macedon and a burgeoning French wine import business, their future looks bright indeed.

The French connection is even stronger at Emilian where Frenchman Robin Querre grew up in a winemaking family in Bordeaux. He began studying medicine at Bordeaux University before switching to oenology in 1999. Robin migrated to Australia in 2015, settling in the Dandenong Ranges with his wife, Prue Hawkey, and young family. With his day job at Laffort, a French company specialising in producing oenological products to winemakers, Robin has quietly been making small parcels of his own wines since 2016 and was a runner up in the Dark Horse Winery award this year.

Querre makes his wines at both Yering Farm and Helen & Joey, mainly with fruit from a six-acre vineyard in Dixons Creek which was planted in the 1980s with pinot noir, chardonnay, semillon and cabernet sauvignon. With five wines ranging from 92–96 points, including a standout single vineyard nebbiolo rosé and pinot shiraz blend named L'assemblage Rouge, it’s no surprise that Campbell Mattinson points out in this year’s guide, "If you see the wines of this Yarra Valley producer, you should pounce." Both Terrason and Emilian have nailed the design of their labels – another sign that their attention to detail is spot on.

Tillie J labelThe first Tillie J wine was released in 2020.

The same can be said for the wines of Natillie Johnston from Tillie J who, having submitted one 92-point pinot noir last year, has followed up with four wines that rated between 92 and 95. Given that the first Tillie J wine was released in 2020, this is a brand very much in its infancy. Johnston was bitten by the wine bug while working in the lab at Coldstream Hills for the 2012 vintage. She spent the next three years completing a graduate certificate in winemaking and viticulture, working vintages here and abroad at some handy addresses including Yarra Yering and Leeuwin Estate in Australia, Keller in Germany and Cedar Creek in Canada. 

Since 2019, Johnston has worked as part of the viticulture team at Giant Steps. Her first pinot was made in 2019 from fruit purchased from Helen’s Hill and for following vintages from the YarraLoch Vineyard in Gruyere. In 2021, Johnston took on an acre at YarraLoch that she now fully farms herself, instead of simply purchasing the fruit, adding another layer of nuance to her wines and brand. 

There’s also a Langhorne Creek wine worth looking out for and that was made as part of Langhorne Creek Grape and Wine’s innovative Project 5255 whereby premium fruit was gifted to three young winemakers from outside the region. As described in my review of the Tillie J Project 5255 Grenache 2022, Johnson hasn't wasted any time crafting a delicious wine bursting with ripe, spicy, raspberry-accented fruit. The wines and the passion behind making them exhibit a touch of youthful exuberance, making it a brand worth keeping an eye on.