A taste of Europe down under
One of the most delectable things I’ve always loved about wine is that no matter where you are or what you’re drinking, you’re transported somewhere. Whether it be the warmth of the southern French sun or the limestone of Burgundy, it’s all there, in the glass, waiting for you to discover it.
Having just ventured down under to Australia for a little while, I didn’t expect to be taking a trip back to Europe so quick.
Driving ‘une petite heure’ out of the big smoke of Melbourne to the Yarra Valley, in my ignorance I was looking forward to some stereotypical Aussie style wines, meaning busty and bolshy and bursting with sun.
Instead, I found myself drifting back to the old Continent. There was an unashamed reverence for all things French and Italian and the strong influence that they had in the making of Yarra Valley wines.
I saw maps of Cote d’Or and Cote de Beaune draping entrance walls; I heard about masterclasses on lesser-known grape varieties like the Jura’s savagnin; and got to taste a wine named ‘GSM’ in honour of a favourite blend in France, grenache, syrah and mourvèdre. Even the use of the word ‘syrah’ (shiraz in Australian) seemed to hint at a sort of showing off because they knew winemaking like the French.
Not that they needed to, of course, because they knew winemaking very well in their own right. All the wines I tried were not short of quality or style, which was also reflected in the price. Everything was extremely well organised, many with fancy restaurants and sculptures in the gardens, making for a very pleasant, if pricey, day out.
The Yarra Valley has been making wines for a surprisingly long time, given the age of Australia, starting in 1838. Yet they got off to a rocky start as, due to a series of unfortunate events, the vines were all dead some 100 years later and in 1937 there was not one grape in sight.
Fast forward to the 1960s when some viticulturalists decided to give it another go and now there are more than 80 wineries, 60 of which offer tastings at their cellar doors, contributing to the Yarra Valley becoming a holiday destination in its own right.
The dominant grape varieties are our Burgundy friends pinot noir and chardonnay, though having a warmer, wetter climate, the flavours, I found, were much fuller, sweeter, sunnier. They also have a fair bit of other international and Rhone Valley types like shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sauvignon blanc, viognier and pinot gris.
Being Australian, and therefore not locked into restrictive appellations like many of our European cousins, the Yarra Valley has a lot more leeway in terms of what they create and I found there was a wide variety of styles made from an interesting array of different grapes.
Ones to note were Pimpernel, with a strong Burgundy influence. I tried viognier, aged in used oak for 15 months to give it a bit more depth but no oak; their GSM which frankly tasted a lot like a Southern Rhone classic and their smooth pinot noir, which was so smooth it almost had a touch of sweet.
Soumah had more of an Italian influence, their mission being to ‘build a bit of Italy in the Yarra Valley’, with northern Italian grape varieties such as Brachetto, Nebbiolo and Pinot Grigio and an Italian-inspired restaurant. I didn’t get to taste beyond the Chardonnay, it was too sumptuous to put down. It was full bodied but not tiring, with a touch of creaminess and zest and oak that is typical of new world wines.
While wine is a serious business in the Yarra, it offers so much more than just the wine. Sculpture parks seem to be a big hit and we were particularly impressed with the one at Montalto. There’s something very special about wandering beyond the vines to peer up at a giant-sized wine glass made out of recycled wood.
The Yarra Valley is found about an hour’s drive out of Melbourne and tastings cost around AUD$10-15, which may or may not get refunded if you buy. Plan a day, eat, drink, walk, admire: there’s plenty to indulge all the senses.