After few weeks of heat waves in Southern California, it was nice waking up to a brisk winter morning in Yarra. Sarah to a run, while Jared and I listened to the local wildlife starting to stir and watched our breath fog up. After a big breakfast of fried potatoes with “bush spices and mountain peppers,” fennel sausage and back bacon we hit the road for our “benchmark tasting”—a blind tasting of wines from across the valley meant to give us an overview of the region—at the Wine Yarra Valley office.
Starting the day with 33 wines before 10 am can be a challenge, but this wasn’t too bad: The first thing we caught on to was how elegant the pinot here are across the board. We tasted from northwest Yarra heading southeast into the Upper Yarra, climbing in elevation and moving from sandy loam soils into red volcanic rock. The wines seemed to gain layers of structure as we went on, while the alcohol levels seemed to drop as we headed into cooler climes. Across the board, we were struck by the savory tones of the pinot noirs and, as the locals like to call it, the “peacock’s tail”—a bright and complex finish.
As we wrapped up the benchmark tasting, Ben Haines arrived. Even though he doesn’t live in Yarra Valley anymore, Haines is still involved with some amazing projects including Warramunda and The Australian Truffle & Wine Company. We tried a few pinots from these producers and one that he’s still working on a name and label for. Ben’s own wines are bottled with his name on them; he likes to focus more on Rhône varieties, including a vertical of marsanne that was absolutely enlightening.
We tried to outstay our welcome with Ben, but we had to leave and head to Seville Estate. What a treat! This is truly an old-is-new situation. Seville was one of the first premium plantings in the Yarra Valley, established by Dr. Peter McMahon in 1972. It’s currently owned by Graham and Margaret Van Der Meulen, who have gone out of their way to bring McMahon’s grandson Dylan back to the property as winemaker. This was one our farthest trips into the Upper Yarra where it is cold and phylloxera is not an immediate threat. Dylan and Graham took us into their cellar where we tried barrel samples with different winemaking, whether whole cluster or de-stemmed, etcetera. Then we came back out and did a vertical of pinots and chardonnays back to 2003 with some of the best duck I’ve ever had courtesy of Margi, served with Morello cherries she had pickled herself.
That wrapped up our official visits for the day, but we had one more we wanted to make happen. We had tried a wine by Anthony Fikkers during our benchmark tasting and wanted to find out more about it. Fikkers has been a winemaker around the Yarra Valley for a number of years and most recently was working at Barrique, a wine store, while doing a little garagiste project of his own. We got ahold of his cell phone number and arranged to meet up with him at Barrique. While he purchases all of his fruit and makes infinitesimally small quantities, these are worth a try if you ever get a chance. Across the board, innovation seemed to be the theme to his wines, with a core of purity to the fruit that shines through in every bottle.
That was when we had to throw in the towel as jet lag was getting to us. We grabbed some supplies from the local grocery store and headed back to De Bortoli to cook dinner and regroup. As we chatted over dinner, the shocking thing to all of us was how much in agreement we were. Truly a shock considering the personalities involved! —Paul Coker
This story appears in the print issue of jan 2019.
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