Australia's Yarra Valley was Victoria's first wine growing district and has a history stretching back over 170 years. Like many regions in Victoria, its viticultural progression was halted in the early 1900s as a result of factors like general economic depression in Victoria and consumer preference for fortified wines at the time. The resurgence of interest in winemaking began in the 1970s with pioneers like Dr Bailey Carrodus from Yarra Yering, Reg Egan from Wantirna Estate, Dr John Middleton from Mount Mary and Guill de Pury from Yeringberg. Thanks to the efforts of these, and many other, notable vignerons, the Yarra Valley is now recognised as one of Australia's foremost cool climate regions, capable of making classic styles from a wide range of varieties. In addition to these second-wave pioneers, Yarra is also home to a bold and exciting new breed of revolutionary winemakers who are pushing the boundaries of grape growing and winemaking, while respecting the traditions of this beautiful region.
The first golden age of the Yarra Valley
Due to its close proximity to Melbourne, the Yarra Valley was Victoria's first major wine growing district. Its history can be traced back to Charles Joseph Latrobe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria. Latrobe gained an appreciation for wine in his early twenties while living in Neuchâtel in Switzerland before he moved to Australia. He even went as far as planting vines in the garden of the first Government House in Melbourne. However, his real and lasting contribution to Australian viticulture and the Yarra Valley was inviting Clement Deschamps, son of the head vigneron in Neuchâtel, to come to Victoria in the early days of the colony. Deschamps was eventually joined in Victoria by friends and acquaintances from his home town. Paul de Castella was the first to arrive in Victoria in 1849 and purchased William Ryrie’s property, an estate that would become Yering Station. While initially Paul was more interested in drinking wine than making it, he soon ran out of supplies of his favourite Pommard and realised steps needed to be taken…
‘One evening, after a long day in the saddle, a servant announced that there was no Pommard left. Cries of consternation arose from the thirsty hunters, but the servant, who had worked on the first Ryrie vine plantings, appeared with a large China jug containing some of Ryrie’s wine. It was poured, and the party drank up. ‘Better than Pommard!’ the guests declared. If this was the sort of wine that could be made right under their feet, then who cared about what came from Burgundy at the other end of the earth? Ryrie’s vineyards must be expanded without delay. And so it was.’
Journey to Wine in Victoria: W S Benwell
Word spread fast and it wasn’t long before Hubert, Paul’s elder brother, and Baron Guillaume de Pury left Switzerland and joined him in the Yarra Valley. While each of them endured the trials and tribulations of viticulture and winemaking, they were eventually successful in establishing the three great vineyards and wineries (Yering, Yeringberg and St. Hubert’s) of the Yarra’s first golden era. By 1875 Hubert De Castella’s Saint Hubert Vineyard covered 200 acres, eventually producing over half a million bottles a year to satisfy the booming Melbourne market for wine. At the time, Melbourne was one of the wealthiest cities in the world and wines from the Yarra Valley were winning awards at Great Exhibitions in Australia and around the world. Unfortunately, despite all of the hope and potential, the first golden age for the Yarra Valley was short-lived. A series of events led to the decline of the region. Phylloxera arrived in Victoria in 1877 and devastated the emerging wine regions and vastly reduced the viability of the Victorian’ wine industry. The stock market crash in 1891 and subsequent depression was another nail in the coffin for the region, and the Federation of Australia in 1901 compounded this by introducing greater competition from grape growing regions in South Australia, New South Wales and Western Australia. Costs were rising, incomes were falling. By 1937 there were no longer any vines in the Yarra Valley.
Evolution – vines return to the Yarra Valley
Without the likes of Dr. Bailey Carrodus from Yarra Yering, Reg Egan from Wantirna Estate, Dr. John Middleton from Mount Mary and Guill de Pury from Yeringberg, the Yarra Valley would likely still be best known for dairy farming and beautiful scenery. Reg Egan was the first to replant vines in the region in 1963 but it was Dr Carrodus, who had a doctorate in plant physiology from Oxford and who was a scientist with Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO). It was he who made the first commercial vintage produced in the region for over 50 years in 1973. Dr. Carrodus became renowned for his bold, unique and charismatic wines. He was also an innovator in the vineyard, planting un-irrigated, low yielding vines in a time of high yields and irrigation. This pursuit of the highest quality cool climate wine styles has become a hallmark of the region, and the Yarra Valley has played a vital role in the evolution of Australia wine over the last twenty years.
Pinot Noir & Chardonnay excellence
The Yarra Valley is considered to be one of the pioneer areas for the development of modern Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Australia. The variation in altitude in this hilly region creates differences in climates and exposure which allows several varieties to excel. Yarra’s regional prominence for Chardonnay continues to evolve to this day. Chardonnay is grown on some diverse sites and styles are generally fine, textural and restrained. Gone are the oaky, rich and voluptuous styles of the 1980s and 90s, a focus on site expression and fruit purity has replaced the ‘sunshine in a bottle’ ethos. It’s a similar story for Yarra Valley Pinot Noir. While varying styles exist, Yarra Pinot Noir is typically perfumed and minerally ranging from quite light-bodied to more medium weight and textural. While Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are still considered to be royalty in the Yarra Valley (as elsewhere in the world), Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz also do very well in the lower, warmer sites of the region. These classic Australian varieties have been joined in recent years by a selection of emerging varieties like Nebbiolo, Arneis, Gamay and Gruner Veltliner; all of which are showing great promise. And running parallel to the emergence of these new varieties has been the emergence of a new breed of bold and exciting winemakers, challenging the status quo and pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the Yarra Valley.
Evolution becomes revolution
As Australian wine boomed in the late 1990s and early 2000s so the grape growers and winemakers of the Yarra Valley were in an awkward position. The cool climate of the region meant that they simply couldn’t make the big, intense styles of wine that were wowing critics and wine drinkers around the world. Instead of seeing this as a problem though, many winemakers embraced this difference. Winemakers like Steve Webber at DeBortoli, Steve Flamsteed at Giant Steps and David Bicknell at Oakridge Wines recognised that the Yarra Valley had some amazing vineyard sites and spent time learning about what made these places so special. They also began to experiment with winemaking techniques and styles like carbonic maceration and whole bunch fermentation. This willingness to experiment inspired a new generation of winemakers in the Yarra Valley, ones who have taken the art of the winemaking possible to the next level with stunning results.
‘Work with amazing fruit from amazing sites. Get the viticulture right, right down to choosing the right site and growing the right varieties there. Bringing the fruit into the winery in a careful manner so that we don’t have to do a great deal, as the work is done in the vineyard.’
Steve Flamsteed, Winemaker, Giant Steps
Names like Luke Lambert, Mac Forbes and Timo Mayer are never far from any conversation on the most exciting winemakers in Australia. The Yarra Valley has become a hotbed of creativity, winemakers are experimenting with extended skin contact, low or no sulphur additions, whole bunch fermentation and more. Reducing the amount of intervention in winery while spending more time in the vineyard to ensure the highest quality of fruit possible. Going back to age-old techniques and methods to explore the future of the Yarra Valley. These exciting new expressions of Yarra Valley fruit are gaining attention and praise around the world from sommeliers and wine writers to wine geeks.
‘It’s nothing new, it’s nothing crazy or inventive, it’s just keeping it simple… it’s just about reflecting the sites in the bottle from year to year, season to season. In the winery it’s also keeping it as simple as possible. That means no oak input. The barrels are for storage only, not for flavour. Getting picking dates right, getting the pressing right and nursing the wine to the bottle.’
Luke Lambert, Winemaker
A bright future for the Yarra Valley
While it is Victoria’s oldest wine region with a history stretching back over 170 years, the Yarra Valley is still a relatively young wine region due to its rebirth in the 1960s and ‘70s. This puts the region in a unique situation: it has a rich viticultural history but it has also had the chance to start afresh. The region was revived by a bold and innovative group of vignerons, who set the standard for fine wine quality and imbued the region with a desire for perfection. Thanks to these pioneers and the proceeding generations of innovative vignerons the Yarra Valley is today one of Australia’s, and the world’s, most exciting, dynamic and vibrant wine regions.
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