Yarra Valley was the most breathtakingly beautiful wine region we visited on our Australian wine adventure. We happily discovered wines just as captivating as the views. Located a short 45km from Melbourne’s CBD, the stunning Yarra Valley wine region is home to some of the best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir produced in the country, plus a plethora of other outstanding varieties. For winemakers and wine lovers, Yarra Valley is a dream due to the diversity in climate, elevation, and soil, resulting in exciting diversity in wine production as well. The region is a legally defined Geographic Indication (GI), meaning the use of the regional name is protected under international law. Wines bearing the “Yarra Valley” label must be produced with a minimum of 85% fruit from the Yarra Valley region. With around 160 wineries, 300 vineyards, and just over 2,000 hectares planted to vines, Yarra Valley should definitely be on your wine travel bucket list because there is so much waiting to be discovered here.
Yarra Valley stakes claim to Victoria’s first established wine region and boasts a 170 year old history. Fan’s of the region owe a huge thanks to the first Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria, Charles Joseph Latrobe. In his early twenties while living in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, Latrobe fell in love with wine before making his way to Australia. In the days of the early colonies in Victoria, Latrobe invited Clement Deschamps, the son of the head vigneron back home in Neuchâtel, to come settle in Victoria. Deschamps brought a few of his buddies with him. Paul de Castella, one such friend, purchased the estate which would eventually become the famed Yering Station. As the colony’s supply of Pommard dwindled, Paul began producing wine and everyone was pleased to find this wine even better than the Pommard! Word spread fast and soon Paul’s older brother, Hubert, and Baron Guillaume de Pury came to join Paul in Yarra Valley. Together, they established three massive vineyards and wineries and kicked off the region’s first golden era. By 1875, Hubert De Castella’s Saint Hubert Vineyard was supplying the booming Melbourne wine market with around half a million bottles of wine per year.
The golden era came to an abrupt halt following the stock market crash in the 1890s, the arrival of phylloxera in Victoria, the increased popularity of fortified wines, and heavy competition from the South Australian wine industry. In 1921, Yarra Valley ceased all wine production. But like so many other new world regions, the Yarra Valley wine region experienced a renaissance in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Dr. Bailey Carrodus of Yarra Yering produced the first vintage in over 50 years in 1973 with fruit coming from his innovative vineyards of un-irrigated, low-yielding vines. The region’s perspective was shifted with this vintage and winemakers returned with an emphasis on high quality over quantity.
The Yarra Valley wine region is unlike the majority of Australia’s other wine regions, boasting a cool climate with minimal diurnal temperature change and some maritime influence from cool breezes coming off of the Great Southern Ocean. According the the Wine Yarra Valley website, the region is cooler than Bordeaux but warmer that Burgundy. A good reference point for you French wine lovers out there.
Summers here tend to be relatively dry, cool, and humid with more rainfall in the spring and winter months. The average rainfall during the growing season is around 560mm, though the region sees 750-950mm of rain year round. The average temperature during January (Australian summertime) in Yarra Valley is 19.4°C.
The topography of Yarra Valley is widely diverse, which is why so many varieties can thrive in this region. On the northern side of the valley, soils are relatively acidic and with high drainage. Soil types range from loamy sand to clay loam with red-brown clay subsoils and most are low fertility soils. Higher fertility, deep, red-volcanic soils can be found in Hoddles Creek, Seville, and other parts of the south side of the valley. Altitude ranges from around 17-1300m.
As an aside, the Dandenong Ranges run through Victoria and are adjacent to the Yarra Valley. You would be remiss if you didn’t take a short drive over to the Dandenong Ranges National Park to experience Victoria’s natural beauty.
The cool climate of the Yarra Valley wine region sets the stage perfectly for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. While these varieties flourish beautifully here, the region is also producing exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. You’ll also find countless other varieties ranging from Riesling to Pinot Meunier to Nebbiolo.
I don’t know about you, but I LOVE cool climate wines. I feel they tend to be more nuanced, elegant, and refined, depending on the winemaking style, of course. For those who have dabbled in South Australian Shiraz from Barossa Valley or McLaren Vale, you can expect a different style from Yarra Valley. While South Australian Shiraz favors ripe fruit flavors, chocolate notes, and bold mouthfeel from heavier tannins and high alcohol, Syrah in the Yarra Valley tends towards characteristics of France’s Rhône Valley Syrah. The style exhibits that lovely trademark black pepper spice of French Syrah and many other cool climate Syrahs grown around the world. Many Yarra Valley Syrah producers are also co-fermenting with Viognier to enhance aromas and textures of the finished wine. This is a winemaking style that originated in the Côte Rôtie of the Northern Rhône in France.
The newer style for Yarra Valley Chardonnay favors fruit picked at lower sugar levels with higher acidity. This results in more citrus, stone fruit, mineral, and floral aromas and flavors. Producers are generally steering away from the heavily oaked style Australia was once recognized for and today Chardonnay in this region has a much more elegant reputation.
Pinot Noir is one of if not the premier red wine of the region. I am a huge fan of this variety and enjoyed tasting my way through the range of Pinot Noir throughout the valley. Yarra Valley Pinot Noir is light to medium bodied and styles range from aromatic and perfumed (roses, violets, warm spices) to fruit forward (red berries, cherries, strawberries, jammy) to savory and earthy (mushrooms, truffles, aged meats) to structured and dense. I found some of my personal favorites at De Bortoli, Oak Ridge, and Giant Steps. Both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are often picked early for sparkling wine production.
Cabernet Sauvignon is another popular premium red of the region. Aromatic and flavor profiles of Yarra Valley Cabernet tend to include notes of dark berries, red and black currants, and vegetal characteristics like bell pepper and herbaceous qualities. Barrel aging also contributes notes of vanilla, spices, and even leather and cedar. Cabernet Sauvignon is often blended with small amounts of other varieties like Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.
There are seemingly endless options to choose from when it comes to Yarra Valley wineries. If you want to hit some of the region’s more historic spots, then don’t miss Yering Station, Yeringberg, and St. Huberts. Chandon is a must visit for bubble lovers and tourists alike because the vineyard views are spectacular, as are the sparkling wines. Levantine Hill is producing phenomenal wines with a French winemaking influence, albeit at a noticeably higher price point. Giant Steps in Healesville is the perfect stop if you’re looking for a range of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or a bite to eat. My personal favorites and must visit recommendations for the region are De Bortoli and Oakridge. The wines at both are stunning through and through. In addition to exceptional wines, De Bortoli possesses an impressive family history, while Oakridge, in my opinion, has the most magnificent estate in Yarra Valley.