There’s a joke Australians like to make about their wines: we drink the best and export the rest. While this bravado is often for the benefit of tourists (indeed, Australia exports 60% of their wine), those who visit the country can find remarkable wines in lesser-known regions with picturesque estates and charming cellar doors.
An hour northeast of Melbourne in the state of Victoria is the Yarra Valley, a lush region with breathtaking views of rolling hills and abundant vines. Wineries have populated this area since 1838, but the industry truly began to bloom from the 1960s. Currently, around 3800 hectares are under vine for 80 wineries, 50 of which have cellar doors (tasting room). This cool climate region is one of the last areas to harvest each year. Vintage usually begins in February for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and continues through May for Cabernet Sauvignon.
The area is divided into two distinct regions. The Valley Floor, around the towns of Lilydale, Yarra Glen and Healsville, is the warmer of the two and sits 150 to 240 feet above sea level. The Upper Yarra is concentrated around Seville, Warburton and Hoddles Creek and sits up to 1,200 feet above sea level. The cooler climate and fertile red soil makes it ideal for the Yarra Valley’s famed Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes.
Plenty of activities are available in the region. The TarraWarra Museum of Art (http://twma.com.au/), Australia’s largest private art gallery, is located on the TarraWarra estate and showcases an eclectic rotating collection of Australian art. The Yarra Valley Dairy and Yarra Valley Chocolaterie & Ice Creamery are delicious places for a pit stop. The Healesville Sanctuary (website) is located in the bush and serves as a refuge for Aussie animals, including koalas, kangaroos, dingoes and wombats. The enjoyable Cider & Ale Trail takes in seven craft breweries and cider producers.
Public transport options in the Yarra Valley are few. It’s best to join one of the many tours that leave from Melbourne each day or choose a designated driver and plan your own route.
Cyclists can ride the 25 mile Lilydale-Warburton Rail Trail, which passes cafés, picnic areas and detours to cellar doors. The trail includes wild bush and rural landscapes and follows a disused rail line so is safe and well-maintained. Road cyclists should be aware that some winery roads are unpaved and cycle lanes are rare.
The Yarra Valley is best known for its Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Seek out especially strong vintages, from 2001, 2002, 2005, 2006 and 2010. In 2009 the region was the victim of Black Saturday, a series of fires that burned large areas of Victoria. Over 25% of the vineyards were impacted by the fires, and 5% were seriously damaged or destroyed. Finding a 2009 vintage is difficult, but those that exist are unique in flavor.
Most wineries charge a $5 tasting fee per person, which can be applied towards the purchase of a bottle. Some offer flights of their Reserve wines, ranging from $10-15 per person. Many cellar doors are open year-round and weekends are especially busy. Go on a weekday if you can, and it’s good to call smaller wineries first to ensure they are open and confirm the closing time.
Coldstream Hills (31 Madden’s Lane, Coldstream, website)
Founded by internationally-renowned wine expert and author James Halliday, Coldstream Hills commands a delightful setting overlooking the valley and hills to the north. The view alone is worth a stop, but stay for the wine. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the main focus, and Coldstream Hills usually produces varietal and Reserve forms of both these and Cabernet Sauvignon. They also produce Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. The team is knowledgeable and chatty, keen to share anecdotes about the winemakers and particular vintages.
De Bortoli (Pinnacle Lane, Dixon’s Creek, website)
Often yielding the largest volume in the Yarra Valley, this massive estate includes good-value Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Their cheerful cellar door is located in a picturesque setting and offers a range of cheeses that complement the wines on tasting. They specialize in Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Viognier, Pinot Noir, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon to suit all price ranges. Especially interesting are their La Boheme, Melba, Single Vineyard, and Reserve Releases.
Dominique Portet (870 Maroondah Highway, Coldstream, website)
The Portet family has been involved in winemaking for ten generations, beginning in Bordeaux in the 18th century. Run by Dominique and his son Ben, this boutique winery specializes in Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz. Their Brut Rosé NV received 94 points from James Halliday’s Australian Wine Companion and makes a delicious accompaniment to a picnic and pétanque on the immaculate Portet grounds.
Innocent Bystander/Giant Steps/Mea Culpa (336 Maroondah Highway, Healesville, website)
Owned by winemaker and craft brewer Phil Sexton, this creative, quirky winery includes Innocent Bystander table wines, Giant Steps single vineyard wines, and Mea Culpa limited release wines. All wines are made on-site in a glass-walled warehouse showcasing the process. The Innocent Bystander cellar door includes free tastings of numerous wines. Giant Steps flights are $10 per person, refundable at purchase, and include delicious, limited-edition vintages – buy it if you like it! Make sure you try their splendid Moscato; they say it ‘tastes like kisses’ and rightly so.
Maddens Rise (Cnr Maroondah Highway & Maddens Lane, Coldstream, website)
Specializing in organic farming techniques that focus on low yields and hand-picking, Maddens Rise grows Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, and Viognier. Their 2008 Shiraz and 2010 Bianco are award-winners, and their wines are known for smooth taste and bold flavors. The beautifully-designed modern cellar door is a relaxed place to sample these unique wines and your host Emma’s warm welcome makes the experience even more special.
Medhurst Wines (24 Medhurst Rd, Gruyere, website)
Medhurst was awarded five red stars (outstanding) in the 2014 edition of James Halliday’s Australian Wine Companion, and five of their wines received over 94 points. The winery produces Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. Their attractive cellar door and café won a National Commendation for Commercial Architecture award in 2010 at the Australian National Architecture Awards and was shortlisted at the World Architect Awards. Keep an eye out for kangaroos leaping through the vineyards!
Seville Estate (65 Linwood Road, Seville, website)
Boasting a slew of awards, Seville Estate is known for their Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Shiraz. Their contemporary cellar door boasts an outstanding view and is free for small groups. Owners Graham and Margaret are often working in the cellar door and enjoy answering questions about the vineyard and their produce.
TarraWarra Estate (311 Healsville-Yarra Glen Road, Yarra Glen, website)
Located among 400 hectares of farmland and bush, the TarraWarra estate grazes cattle and grows produce for their restaurant along with producing excellent wines. While they focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, they also offer high-quality Shiraz, Viognier, Rosé and other varietals. The estate is committed to maintaining a balanced ecosystem and includes a number of eco-initiatives to reduce their carbon footprint. Across from the cellar door is the TarraWarra Museum of Art, and the sprawling lawn makes an ideal place to rest and take in the view.
Yarra Yering (Briarty Road, Gruyere, website)
Created by plant psychologist and botanist Dr. Bailey Carrodus in 1969, Yarra Yering is a special boutique winery. Put up for sale upon Carrodus’s death in 2008, his only wish was that the winery was managed to his standards and expectations, and it continues to yield complex, interesting wines that impress critics around the world. Their Dry Red No. 1 is a cabernet blend, Dry Red No. 2 a Shiraz blend, and Dry Red No. 3 is predominantly the Portuguese varietal Touriga Naçional along with Tinta Cão, Tinta Amarela, Alvarelhao, Roriz and Sousão. Try their impressive Pinot Noir and Underhill Shiraz. Their Potsorts is a Douro-style fortified wine made with the same varietals as the Dry Red No. 3. All wines are available for tasting at their cellar door, located in Carrodus’s former home with striking views of the vineyards. The lovely Janine is on hand to share stories and guide visitors through these distinctive wines.
Yering Station (38 Melba Highway, Yarra Glen, website)
Vines have been growing here since 1838. The complex includes mature gardens and their stunning Wine Bar and Restaurant with expansive views of the vineyards and hills beyond. Beside the stylish restaurant is the cellar door, located in a converted winery building constructed in 1859. Try the Yarrabank Sparkling, a joint venture with Champagne Veuve A. Devaux. Whites include Sauvignon Blanc, Marsanne, Viognier, Roussanne, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, all of which are aged in French oak. Reds include Pinot Noir, Shiraz Viognier, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and interesting wines with Sangiovese and Nebbiolo. Yering Station was named “Winemaker of the Year” at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in 2004. The complex is also home to rotating art displays, which benefit the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne.
Eating & Drinking
Many wineries have cafés and restaurants on site. The cafés at Medhurst, Seville Estate and Dominique Portet include food pairings that suit their wines. TarraWarra’s restaurant includes locally-sourced artisan food and is open until 5pm. Yering Station’s Wine Bar Restaurant is open until 5pm and serves an eclectic Australian menu. De Bortoli offers Italian food with Thursday-Monday lunch from 12pm and Saturday dinner from 6:30 pm.
The Innocent Bystander Restaurant & Wine Bar has an eclectic menu that begins with breakfast at 9am and a lunch and dinner menu from 11:30am. Options range from tapas to wood-fired pizza to slow-cooked local meats. The restaurant caters to gluten-free and vegetarian guests and offers an impressive list of international wines. Reservations are recommended.
Eleonore’s (42 Melba Highway, Yering, website)
Renowned for its elegance and fine food, Eleonore’s is located in the historic Chateau Yering and has been awarded one ‘Chef’s Hat’, the Australian Michelin-style ratings, for six years running. Open from 6:30pm, reservations recommended.
Tipping in Australia isn’t expected or required, but you can reward good service in fine dining restaurants by adding up to 10%. In other cases round up if warranted.
Where to Stay
The Yarra Valley offers a range of options for accommodation, from boutique wineries to farmstays to self-catering cottages.
Balgownie Estate Vineyard Resort & Spa (1309 Melba Highway & Gulf Road, Yarra Glen, website)
An estate with impressive views and a relaxed feel, Balgownie offers 69 modern suites, many with terraces and spas. The complex includes a restaurant, café and cellar door, and offers packages such as wine appreciation courses and a hot air ballooning adventure. Queen rooms start at $195 AUS.
Yering Gorge Cottages (215 Victoria Road, Yering, website)
Twelve modern cottages are located on the Yering Gorge estate, with panoramic views and outdoor spaces for barbecues. These one- or two-bedroom self-catering cottages have a minibar, wine list and full kitchen. The estate includes eight miles of bush walks and resident kangaroos hang out in the evenings and early mornings. Cottages from $279 AUS.
Tuck Inn (2 Church Street, Healesville, website)
Formerly the local Freemasons meeting hall, Tuck Inn offers five en suite bedrooms with breakfast in the communal lounge. A landscaped garden with barbecue is available for guest use. Its location in Healesville makes for easy access to nearby bars and restaurants. From $160 AUS ($180 weekends).