Steve Webber, chief winemaker at De Bortoli wines in the Yarra Valley, has a memorable turn of phrase. “That’s a rock star,” he says, pointing at a vine. “And that’s a rock star,” pointing at another.
What about that one over there, sitting in the middle of a row? Is that a rock star?
“No,” he says. “But it will be.”
Webber, a renowned and energetic winemaker who married into Australia’s De Bortoli wine dynasty, founded their Yarra Valley Estate in 1989, drawn to the valley by its potential for Pinot Noir. So smitten with the grape is he, that every time Webber drinks a great one, he puts the empty bottle on top of one of his kitchen cupboards, to remind him each day of the greatness he aspires to.
Webber is not the only one who saw the Yarra Valley’s suitability for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Domaine Chandon was established here in 1986 by Moët & Chandon, after they recognised the region’s potential for high quality sparkling wine. And Yering Station, the most historic property in the region, makes a highly regarded Pinot Noir – and a notable Shiraz Viognier. These two faces of Yering Station highlight the diversity of the Yarra Valley region, which produces not only Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Shiraz, but also Bordeaux blends and – more recently – Italian varietals like Arneis and Nebbiolo. The great diversity partly arises from the Yarra’s terroir, and partly from its history.
And while the wines are generally too exuberant to merit being called “Old World in style”, as many winemakers here like to claim, the general elegance of Yarra Valley wines defy the cliché that Australian wines are big, robust and fruity.
Yering Station looks the very model of an ultra-modern property, with stone pillars grouped around a pool of water. Inside the restaurant is a wall of glass with an unobstructed view over the Yarra Ranges, while the ceiling is curved and beamed like an oak barrel. Everything is manicured and sleek, down to the contemporary sculptures throughout the building. But this property, now owned by the Rathbone family, was first developed by the Ryrie brothers in 1838. In 1850 they sold the property to a Swiss settler, Paul de Castella, who planted it with vines that came from Chateau Lafite. Within 20 years, the region was covered in vineyards – largely thanks to Swiss immigrants – and local wines were winning honours at the 1889 Paris Exhibition. Wine historian John Beeston wrote that the influence of the de Castella family and that of Baron Guillaume de Pury, a Swiss aristocrat who founded Yeringberg, was so great that “their fond memory would linger as a kind of vinous Camelot”.
Yet less than 60 years later, the Yarra Valley’s vineyards and wineries had all but vanished. In 1921, vineyard and winery workers at Yeringberg downed tools, the last in the region to do so.
Normally wine regions in close proximity to cities flourish, because they have a natural market on their doorstep, especially an area as pretty as the Yarra Valley. But in the 1850s Victoria had a gold rush, sending Melbourne’s population from almost nothing to around one million people, creating an urgent demand for market garden produce, dairy and sheep. And the elegant wines no longer suited contemporary tastes, which were turning to fortified wines and beers. Dairy farming gradually took over the region; today, artisanal cheesemaking remains an important feature of the region.
Wine didn’t return until the 1960s, when a small group of enthusiasts like Bailey Carrodus and John Middleton – both doctors – arrived. Middleton, in love with Bordeaux, planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot; his Mount Mary Quintet remains one of Australia’s top wines. The wineries founded in the 1960s are storied names today: Yeringberg, Fergusson, Seville Estate, Warramate, St Huberts and Chateau Yarrinya (now De Bortoli).
But it was in the 1980s when the big investment money began to arrive. First came TarraWarra in 1982, founded by the Besen family. When eminent wine writer James Halliday founded Coldstream Hills winery with wife Suzanne in 1985, it created a wave of interest in both Pinot Noir and the region in general. Moët & Chandon arrived in 1986; then came the De Bortoli and McWilliams dynasties, and Yering Station was replanted.
Between 1990 and 2000, more than 40 new wineries were established, some by ‘Fitzroy farmers’ – cashed-up doctors and lawyers from Melbourne. The big companies came too, first Southcorp and then its new owner, Foster’s, which bought prestige properties like Coldstream Hill and St Hubert’s. The acquisitions continued during the first years of this century, with the bakery/restaurant/café winery Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander opening in the town of Healesville in 2004. Today there are nearly 100 wineries.
A new generation of young winemakers – Mac Forbes, Bill Downie, Gary Mills – have also flocked to the region to make their mark, producing a new wave of exciting styles and varietals, from Arneis to new expressions of Pinot Noir.
The Yarra Valley can produce both notable Pinot Noir and notable Shiraz because it’s a large area – approximately 50 km by 40 km – with a diversity of soils and microclimates. There are sedimentary soils, volcanic soils, deep basalt soils and two hills of granite. The climate is variable, with some parts receiving plenty of spring rainfall while others thirst, plus warm days and cool nights.
“This region is an odd one, because it seems to be able to successfully ripen varieties that shouldn’t ripen in the same region,” says David Bicknell, chief winemaker and CEO of Oakridge Wines and a producer of notable, Burgundian-style Chardonnay. “We have relative proximity to the ocean 45 km away, and we’re on the doorstep of the Dandenong Ranges, so we get cooler aromatic winds coming out of the mountains at night time.” So the Valley gets great diurnal variation, from 25˚C during the day, falling to 2˚C at night. “When we go higher, the temperature gets cooler quickly. At every 100 metre elevation, it’s a degree cooler.” Bicknell says many winemakers have come to believe the Yarra Valley is a collection of sites, rather than a homogeneous wine area. He does add, however, that if one thing is constant across the region, it’s the acidity.
Those dry facts don’t convey the beauty of the region, with its rolling green hills, its pretty historic towns, charming dairies, bucolic B&Bs and an animal sanctuary – kangaroos can be seen around dams and water holes at dawn and dusk. And if you’re not lucky enough to see a kangaroo, you might spot an international celebrity. And all of this is just a short drive from Melbourne, a fact that the wineries take full advantage of – there are cellar door restaurants, winery tours, music festivals, education centres, and picnic baskets available to be enjoyed on rolling winery lawns. Another draw is TarraWarra winery’s Museum of Art, one of the most significant collections of contemporary art in Australia. So, at first glance, the Yarra Valley should be one of the easiest places in the world to build a thriving wine business.
But, as always in wine, things aren’t that simple.
An expensive location
The very diversity of microclimates and wine styles can make communicating the region difficult. “It’s a real challenge,” says Bicknell, saying trying to articulate a core regional identity for consumers can be “a nightmare”.
And while the ‘dress circle’ Victorian wine regions – those tourist areas in close proximity to Melbourne – attempt to distinguish themselves from the general Australian category by presenting themselves as cool-climate fine wine, they’re subject to the same pressures as the rest of the Australian category in the traditional export markets of the UK and the US.
“It’s frighteningly expensive to grow grapes here,” says Webber. “It involves hand picking, hand sorting and all those production costs. Everybody’s trying to reduce the production costs because the pressure to produce wine for nothing is increasing, particularly in the UK, where we’ve made an art form of giving wine away.”
But the local market isn’t picking up the slack, despite the fact that the Yarra Valley not only produces some of Australia’s most venerated wines, but its wines are also championed by some notable wine authorities, such as Nick Stock and James Halliday. Or that the Yarra is known as the incubator for some of the country’s most exciting winemakers, from Tom Carson to Mac Forbes.
Unfortunately, Australia’s mineral export boom has seen the value of the dollar soar, making Australian wines more expensive abroad – and international wines cheaper at home. Melbourne sommeliers have been some of the quickest to take advantage of this new wave of imports and there are now significant Melbourne and Sydney restaurant lists that offer no local wines at all.
And while the Yarra Valley on a good day looks as lush and pretty as any European region, it is still subject to the harsh realities of the Australian landscape. Water, for example, is at a premium, and when the rains fail to arrive, drought becomes a significant problem. So bad was it during the drought years of 2003 to 2009, that Melburnians who saw neighbours watering their lawns or washing cars were known to report them to authorities for wasting water. “Reports suggest Australia is headed for another big dry period, which could pose a problem for the Yarra Valley,” says Jeni Port, wine writer for Melbourne’s The Age newspaper, adding that buying water costs around A$2,000 a mega L, and some producers may need 10 to 20 mega L. She adds that climate change is also a significant issue.
Smoke taint can be another. The Yarra Valley is not immune from bushfire: the plumes from the 2007 fires could be seen from space, while the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 encroached on three fronts. When the smoke cleared, 173 people had died in Victoria, and a number of wineries – including Domaine Chandon, Yering Station and St Huberts – had lost fruit to spot fires. Smoke gets into the grapes’ skin, where it can hide and emerge later as bitter, campfire flavours. “As they discovered in 2007, you may think you don’t have smoke taint, but after bottle it can appear and become a real problem,” says Port. And, of course, tourist numbers fall dramatically after natural disasters, which can hurt local businesses badly.
But there are small signs that Yarra Valley wines may begin to gain traction again in the export markets. Firstly and most importantly, the overvalued Australian dollar has been dropping dramatically, easing price pressure. Tastings in the US are attracting far more attention, and sommeliers and wine importers are opening their doors to Australia once again. And the wines they’re most interested in are the modern style of crisp, elegant wines of the kind the Yarra Valley produces. “I’ve always believed that Australia simply made too many good wines to be out of fashion for long,” he wrote. “Now it seems like the upswing is on its way.”
Steve Webber never doubted for a moment that the more elegant Yarra style of wine was Australia’s future. He’s still pointing at his vines, declaring this one a rock star, that one a potential rock star.
And that old, gnarly vine in the middle of the row? Is that a rock star?
Webber smiles. “No,” he says. “That one’s a porn star.”