Growing up in the outer-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, the Yarra Valley was the nearest and easiest region to explore when I became interested in wine in my twenties. Over the ensuing decades, I saw many wineries come and go, winemakers embrace the non-traditional, and tourists discover what many of us already knew to be a special place. I spent 48 hours in the Yarra Valley, journeying to nine wineries, reconnecting with some of my old favourites and uncovering some new ones, and all the while helping to cement why I fell in love with this region so many years ago.
One of the first wineries you’ll come to as you pass through Lilydale on Maroondah Highway is the family-owned Helen’s Hill Estate, tucked away in Coldstream. The business was established in 1997 by the Nalder and McIntosh families, who saw an unmissable opportunity to combine their love of farming and wine.
The property consists of 53ha of vines, planted predominantly to pinot noir, with some varieties, such as the rare brachetto, sourced from elsewhere in the valley. The cellar door looks down onto the winery, giving visitors a great view into its inner workings, and a large covered deck offers a perfect spot for summer drinking and dining.
The wines, from winemaker Scott McCarthy, offer a broad spectrum, from a light and fruity pinot grigio to a ripe and powerful pinot noir and a dark and robust cabernet blend, with many choices in between for lovers of sparkling, white, rosé, red, and even dessert wines.
A short distance up the highway is the splendid Hubert Estate, home to St Huberts winery. If you haven’t visited for several years, you’re in for a bit of a shock, as the small cellar door, (un)affectionately known as “the toilet block” has been replaced by a stunning, award-winning tasting space, art gallery, restaurant and function room, designed by Melbourne architecture studio Cera Stribley.
The subterranean cellar door and seated tasting flights offer a contemplative experience for those who don’t like to rush, and even on a Monday afternoon, Quarters restaurant was buzzing. Fruit is sourced from estate vineyards, as well as elsewhere in the valley and other regions across Victoria and South Australia. The range of St Huberts wines, made by Greg Jarratt, paired excellently with a selection of cheeses, which helped to emphasise their fruit sweetness. I then partook of superb trout, almond hummus and dukkah, pork ribs, and grilled asparagus – all exceptional.
Afterwards I headed further north to Yering Station, one of the original wineries in the region before phylloxera hit. Extensive renovations have been undertaken for the restaurant, although the cellar door is still housed in the old but much-loved former winery, which doubles as an art gallery. Chateau Yering (now a separate business) offers premium accommodation next door.
Fruit comes from 112ha of vineyards throughout Yarra Glen and Coldstream, making an array of wines across several quality levels from all the stars of the Yarra Valley – chardonnay, pinot noir, shiraz, and cabernet – plus some surprises, such as sangiovese and viognier. The winemaking team consists of CEO Darren Rathbone, Brendan Hawker, and Amanda Flynn.
It’s difficult to go past the Reserve range of wines (even at $130 each), although I found no slouches among the less expensive labels, each offering immense drinkability. If you’re lucky, you may even get to try some of their older vintages, illustrating greatly their cellar worthiness.
My teeth stained with tannin, I headed to my final destination for the day, Balgownie Estate, where I would sleep as their guest for the next two nights. Balgownie is a hedonist’s delight, pairing excellent wine with a top-class restaurant, day spa, and relaxing resort.
The Yarra Valley complex is the younger and shinier sibling to the original in Bendigo, which offers a more low-key dining and accommodation experience. Doing a tasting at either venue gives you the benefit of trying wines from two very distinct regions, made by the irrepressible Tony Winspear.
Much of the Bendigo vineyards were established over 50 years ago, which leads to some pretty rich and concentrated wines; the Estate and Old Vine cabernets, in particular, have developed fine reputations. The introduction of grapes such as pinot gris, sauvignon blanc, viognier, and sangiovese has greatly broadened the flavour possibilities at what’s one of my favourite wineries to visit in Victoria.
Following a restorative spa and sleep, I ventured to the “fermentation collective” of Fin Wines and Cré Wines in Dixons Creek, run by the exuberant trio of JonJo McEvoy, Oliver Johns and Angus Hean. It’s hard not to like these guys as they bring a large dose of fun to winemaking, paired with equal measures of curiosity and talent.
The two labels operate with slightly different objectives: Fin focuses on light, zingy wines without pretension (many of the names give a nod to the British comedy series Black Books), while Cré is slightly more serious, but still with an eye to playfulness and approaching winemaking from diverse directions.
Fruit comes from their estate vineyard and from supportive wineries such as Box Grove Vineyard in Nagambie. Standing in the tasting room and looking out over the vines and across the valley is the perfect setting to explore the wide range of wines and to chat to the fellas.
In 1979, philanthropists Marc and Eva Besen bought a property west of Healesville, with the original aim of creating a family retreat. After some persuasion by Dr John Middleton of Mount Mary winery, they established a vineyard in 1983 and TarraWarra Estate was born. The total area under vine has now increased to 28 hectares, encompassing mainly pinot noir and chardonnay, as well as shiraz, merlot, barbera, and nebbiolo. The site is also home to the TarraWarra Museum of Art, a space dedicated to showcasing contemporary Australian art, with many of the pieces donated from the Besens’ private collection.
This was, I’m sorry to admit, my first visit to TarraWarra (winery and museum), and I was mightily impressed by both winemaker Adam McCallum’s wines and the eclectic artworks on display. With a high-class restaurant also within the premises, TarraWarra was a great place to while away a few hours and reward all my senses.
My next stop was Soumah, which sits almost in the shadow of, and has breathtaking views to, the picturesque Warramate hills of Gruyere. The winery was established in 1997 by Brett Butcher, a man whose CV in hospitality would be pages long and who saw great potential in their chosen site for producing top-quality wines.
Soumah has labels at different price points made from grapes sourced from their estate vineyard and further afield, crafted by winemaker Scott McCarthy. There are around 30 wines on offer across all different styles, so even fussy drinkers should be able to find something they like.
Every time I visit Soumah (particularly on a sunny day), I feel like I’m back in Italy, not only because of the many Italian grapes on offer, but due to the relaxed feeling of being at the cellar door, partaking of an ‘nduja pizza, or sitting on the deck and looking out over the vines.
Not far down the road and around a few corners, you come to a large dam with a striking red pumphouse on its banks. It’s only when you climb the hill that you’re able to spot the exquisite edifice of Medhurst Wines sitting proudly on the summit.
Like many people, former Southcorp CEO Ross Wilson and wife Robyn desired to own a property in the Yarra Valley and produce wine. A site was chosen in Gruyere with excellent aspect and drainage, and planting began in 2000 to chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, and shiraz (sauvignon blanc was added later).
Winemaker Simon Steele produces over a dozen wines, each reflecting the unique microclimate of their patch of dirt on the slopes of the Warramate hills. The cellar door is welcoming no matter what time of year, and you can even stroll through the grounds and check out the modern art, glass in hand.
I realised I couldn’t conclude my Yarra Valley tour without visiting Yarra Yering, one of the crown jewels of the region. Much had changed since my last tasting there, shortly before its revered founder, Dr Bailey Carrodus, passed away in 2008.
Due to his studies at Oxford University and tours of Italy, France, Spain and Portugal, Carrodus was inspired to produce his own wine, which brought him to the valley – the rest, as they say, is history. Yarra Yering’s current winemaker, Sarah Crowe, has continued Carrodus’ legacy, producing some of the valley’s best wines and receiving many plaudits for her efforts.
Undertaking a tasting at Yarra Yering is an event, as each wine is unique but carries a similar “Yarra Yering-ness” in its DNA. These are wines which drink well when young but become simply glorious with some bottle age. I could not think of a more perfect way to end my Yarra Valley exploration.