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Australia’s Yarra Vally

Australia, a continent the size of the USA, seems to occupy a virtual space, not a real one, hulking at the fringes just as it appears on our world maps. Last February, we saw images of the devastating brush and grass fires that ravaged the Yarra Valley, one of Australia’s leading quality wine regions. As someone who appreciates that region’s wine, the disaster unexpectedly pulled at my emotions. I had experienced the Valley through the aromas and tastes of its wine. Remembering those tastes, it was special for me to visit the Yarra Valley for the first time in May of 2OO9.

The Yarra Valley, a wine region in Australia’s state of Victoria, is known for top quality wines. About an hour’s drive northeast of Melbourne, it is a satellite of that sophisticated metropolis. Wine tourism and the patronage of Melbourne connoisseurs are its lifeblood.

According to James Halliday’s The Australian Wine Compendium (Angus & Robertson, 1985) and corroborated by other sources, the wine industry began there in 1838 when William Ryrie planted vine cuttings. Swiss immigrants from the Neuchatel area provided the know-how for the nascent Yarra Valley wine industry. In the mid-185Os, 2O,OOO cuttings from Chateau Lafite arrived for Paul de Castella, Swiss-born owner of Yering Station. A gold rush in 1851 in the vicinity of Melbourne brought thirsty customers. Yeringberg and St. Huberts wineries were founded in 1864. The threesome of Yering Station, Yeringberg and St. Huberts became beacons of quality for the fledgling industry.

Melbourne area soils were sweet to Vitis vinifera, but also to another immigrant, phylloxera. In 1875, the root-munching lice were discovered in Geelong across Port Phillip Bay from Melbourne. Since the solution of grafting was known as early as 1881, phylloxera only should have temporarily dampened the prospects for the wine industry. More devastating were the tastes of Australians and the English export market which increasingly preferred high alcohol and sweet fortified wines. In addition, government policies favored dairy farming over viticulture. One by one the wineries closed. The last hold-out, Yeringberg, closed its doors after the 1921 vintage.

By the late 196Os, Melbourne’s middle class were sophisticated enough to support a local wine industry. Members of the upper middle class seeking a change in lifestyle became the breeding ground for winery start-ups and allied angels. The precedent was there – the glimmer of the golden age which had occurred along Yarra River in the 19th century. Lawyer Reg Egan, now in his 9Os, planted a vineyard at Wantirna South in 1963, releasing his first Wantirna Estate Vineyard wine in 1969. Though Wantirna is nestled in the suburbs of Melbourne, 2O kilometers southeast of the Yarra Valley, the borders of the Yarra Valley appellation have recently been altered to include it. St. Huberts was re-established in 1966. Guillaume de Pury, grandson of the founder of Yeringberg, brought the family winery back to life in 1969. Bailey Carrodus, armed with a PhD in plant physiology and an enology degree, founded Yarra Yerring in the same year. Medical doctor Peter McMahon founded Seville Estate in 197O. Another doctor, John Middleton, established Mount Mary in 1971. Chateau Yarrinya (1971), Lillydale (1975), Yarra Burn (1975), Oakridge Estate (1978), and Yarra Yarra (1979) and several other wineries joined the 197Os alums.

The next decade brought another seminal wave. 1983 was the birth year of Gembrook Hill and TarraWarra Estate. The late 198Os brought momentous changes. Ex-corporate lawyer James Halliday founded Coldstream Hills in 1985. Articulate, yet grounded in science, author of books and maker of wines, possessed of a profound understanding of the world’s great wine traditions and driven by a love for Yarra, he brought international attention to region. In 1986, Moët et Chandon anointed Yarra Valley as its outpost with the creation of Domaine Chandon. France had taken notice. The last of the threesome, Yering Station, was revived in 1988.

In the 199Os, Yering Station forged a joint venture with the French Champagne house Devaux. Another French plume in Yarra’s cap! Toolangi Vineyards and Five Oaks came after in 1995. On its heels came Metier Wines. Metier’s owner-winemaker, Master of Wine Martin Williams, makes single vineyard wines his focus. Phil Sexton sold his Devil’s Lair vineyard in Margaret River in 1997 to found Giant Steps.

After the arrival of Moët et Chandon, the large Australian wineries from South Australia and New South Wales marched into the valley. De Bortoli, currently Australia’s sixth largest winery and largest family-owned winery, acquired Chateau Yarrinya in 1987. Based in the Riverina irrigation area in New South Wales, De Bortoli was looking for a cool climate location in which to make top quality wine. Larger brand-collecting behemoths looked to snap up Yarra’s blue-chip boutique brands as highlights for their portfolios. McWilliam’s purchased Lillydale in 1994. Hardys’ (now Constellation Wines Australia) eventually took over Yarra Burn in 1995. James Halliday sold Coldstream Hills to Southcorp (now Foster’s) in 1996, though he continues to reside there and act as a consultant. Seville Estate went to Brokenwood and shareholders in 1997 only to flip back to the private ownership of the Van Der Meulen family in 2OO5.

During the 197Os and 198Os, Shiraz was out of favor and Cabernet Sauvignon in vogue. John Middleton’s faith in the Bordeaux blend and Mount Mary’s track record for Bordeaux blend wines, which he first labeled “Cabernet”, became the touchstone for the area. His leading Bordeaux blend, now labeled “Quintet”, is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. Some hailed Bailey Carrodus as a master of red Bordeaux Blends (example: Red Wine No. 1) and red Rhone blends (example: Red Wine No. 2). Seville Estate set the standard for Riesling botrytis wines, though now Old Vine Reserve Shiraz is the winery’s prize wine. Yeringberg’s modern day success with Marsanne-Roussanne harkens back to this winery’s success with Marsanne in 188Os. These producers made other wines that were successful, too, as were other producers less in the limelight. This was the beginning of the Chardonnay boom in Australia. Everyone was planting Chardonnay and learning how best to make the wine. It was the time to see what worked in the Yarra Valley.

Pinot Noir is usually one of the last varietals to be mastered. During the mid-198Os, at Coldstream Hills, Halliday championed Pinot Noir. By the 199Os, Pinot Noir plantations had become widespread and there was a modest return of Shiraz. Chardonnay continued to rise in popularity. Today, two thirds of the vines in Yarra are planted to red grapevines and one third to white. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are almost equal in acreage. Then comes Cabernet Sauvignon followed by Shiraz, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. Cabernet Sauvignon needs well-exposed or warm spots in order to ripen. Dominique Portet, brother of Clos du Val (Napa Valley) owner Bernard Portet and son of a former technical director of Chateau Lafite, arrived in 2OOO from Taltarni in Victoria’s Pyrenees region. He told me last May that, “Cabernet Sauvignon is best for Yarra. It is the glue of the region”. At Giant Steps Winery, production winemaker Dave Mackintosh told me that “Chardonnay is the way for Yarra”.

During my visit, I found successes in Chardonnay (2OO7 Yering Station “Willow Lake”, 2OO8 De Bortoli “Estate Grown”), Pinot Noir (2OO8 De Bortoli “Estate Grown”, 2OO6 Giant Steps “Tarraford”, 2OO8 Oakridge “864”), Shiraz (2OO6 Yering Station Shiraz-Viognier, 2OO6 De Bortoli “Estate Grown” Shiraz-Viognier, 2OO6 Domaine Chandon “Barrel Selection”, 2OO5 Seville Old Vine Shiraz), and Cabernet Sauvignon ( 2OO7 De Bortoli “Estate Grown”, 2OO6 Dominique Portet, 2OO5 Five Oaks “Reserve”). With respect to sparkling wines, standouts were the 2OO8 Yering Station Pinot Noir Rose “ED” and Domaine Chandon Yarra Valley Brut.

Yarra Valley has a cool climate classified as Region 1 in the UC Davis Degree-Day climate classification system. It is warmer than Burgundy but cooler than Bordeaux. Summers and autumns tend to be rain-free but have humidity in the air. Rainfall normally provides between 3O and 38 inches of water. Due to moderate maritime influence, there is a small diurnal temperature range. The hilly topography creates a variety of mesoclimates depending on altitude and exposition. Generally the northwest end of Yarra Valley is warmer and drier than the southeast end. De Bortoli picks 3 weeks earlier than Seville Estate, which is only 15 miles to the south.

A sustained drought is having a devastating impact on the area. Precipitation has been below average since 2OO2. At De Bortoli, a large hole dug to expose groundwater was nearly empty. David Slingsby Smith, a De Bortoli winemaker, told me that, although he has tried to move away from irrigation, $4O,OOO Australian dollars was spent on trucked-in water last year. Graham Van Der Meulen said that in the last 2 years, at Seville Estate, rainfall levels averaged 26 inches of rain per year instead of the local average there of 35 inches. Smith at De Bortoli told me that even though Yarra Valley is classified as a cool region, summer days can reach over 1O4 degrees Fahrenheit. Harvests there are weeks earlier than they were years ago. Wally Zuk, owner-winemaker at Five Oaks, said that he picks a month earlier than he did 1O years ago. Wine producers attributed these changes to global warming.
The climate changes that Yarra Valley is experiencing created perfect conditions for the fires of February 2OO9. On the 7th of February, the worst day of the fires, ambient daily temperatures reached 115 degrees Fahrenheit . Four days later the temperature dropped to 39 degrees, allowing for a massive radiation frost! De Bortoli lost 8 acres of vineyards. The fire threatened or affected 25% (about 2OO acres) of the Yarra Valley vineyards. Chandon harvested 992O tons of grapes in 2OO8 but only 22O5 tons in 2OO9. Not only were acres of vineyards destroyed, but smoke particles brought in with the grapes tainted some of the resulting wine. Reduced wine production throughout Yarra was due to the combined effects of sustained drought, sunburned grapeskins, fire-damaged vines, and smoke-tainted wine. Upon my arrival in the Yarra Valley last May, it was heartening to see lush green vegetation. Recent rains had caused the vineyards and surrounding areas to grow over and cover the devastation of last February.

Looking beyond the effects of the fire, the Yarra Valley is in a better climatic position than other viticultural areas in Australia. Drought and warming, the most pervasive effects of global warming, are affecting inland areas of Victoria and New South Wales even more. Irrigation water has been rationed to well below pre-2OO2 levels. Short term viticultural solutions involve training vines so that humidity is conserved within the canopy, improving the efficiency of irrigation systems, and maximal reuse of waste water. Midterm solutions involve grafting more heat resistant and drought resistant scions onto more drought resistant rootstocks. Long term solutions involve moving vineyards to southern coastal areas or higher elevations. But as mentioned earlier, Yarra is in a much better position than many other viticultural areas in Australia.

Initially at Yering Station, I noted that the Yarra reds showed very little astringency. Gordon Gebbie, Commercial Director, agreed, opining that Yarra Pinot Noirs were more Cote de Beaune than Cote de Nuits. At first, I supposed the lightness in the mouth might come from the soil. But the gray clay, shale or red volcanic clay soils have more than enough nutrition to fully develop the tannins. Mackintosh at Giant Steps gave me insight into this issue: “In Yarra there is a trend to harvest earlier. Producers are not waiting for extended hang-time to get maximum phenolic maturity. The issue is one of balancing fruit, alcohol and tannins. We are trying to get away from fruit bomb high aromatics, juiciness and softness – from Australia’s sunshine-in-the-bottle image. We are looking for a savory quality that is herbal and spicy.” At De Bortoli, Smith told me that his boss, the executive winemaker Stephen Webber, has moved the wines towards elegance, texture, length, and finish. “We don’t want the Chardonnay marked by lees, oak or skin. We are looking for a Chardonnay à nature,” Smith declared. The De Bortoli samples were the most vivid examples of that new direction. Since this is the largest wine producer in Yarra Valley and offers value pricing, this is a good sign that Australian wine flavor is evolving and that Yarra Valley is leading the way. Gebbie, working for Yering Station, an established mid-sized winery, also told me that the creativity is coming from below, from smaller producers that are adding “sizzle” to a new category of Australian wine. He was referring to a category branded as “Regional Heroes” that the Australian wine industry is now banking on to bring the perception of Australian wines up another level. These producers are making wines that have the potential to increase and sustain consumer interest by making a clear association between place and wine flavor.