Day III began with an early start at Yarra Yering in Gruyere. We’d already met winemaker Sarah Crowe at the Healesville Hotel a few nights earlier; she originally came from the Hunter Valley, but quickly made friends with the Yarra winemakers, she said. “People reached out as soon as I got here and said, ‘Hey Sarah, ace to have you here, come get a beer at the pub!’”
Dr. Bailey Carrodus planted his first vines here in 1969, producing his first vintage in 1973—some of the first wines in the renaissance of winemaking in the Yarra. Sarah now works with some of the oldest pinot noir vines in the Yarra, but she told us that, while it was wonderful to have this history, she felt the original selection of the site trumped vine age. We tasted through some barrels of the pinot noir, with four different clones planted in ’69, ’81 and ’84; only one of the clones is known for sure, the others a mystery, like the one affectionately called the “floppy clone.” She’s been tweaking the winemaking since she came on. While the wines are still unfined and unfiltered as “Doc” always did it, Sarah noted, she’s been working on bringing a new sense of grace and elegance to the pinot by reducing the time in barrel down to 10 months, and she moved to Stelvin screw caps in 2013.
Next stop Oakridge. Winemaker David Bicknell greeted us at the estate and walked us over to the glass-enclosed restaurant, where we sat down to a lunch by chef Matt Stone of local trout with gherkins, dill, fennel and trout eggs; grilled kangaroo with bean sprouts, mint, chili and basil; a vegetable salad cooked in whey, then char-grilled; Swedes (turnips to us), beets and carrots; suckling pig with fennel and apple; 60-day dry-aged beef with favas, asparagus and mushrooms; duck with beets and fried kale; macadamia custard with marron pear and ginger sorbet garnished with finger lime.
David started us with an overview of the valley, where, from the 1850s to the early 1900s, the majority of plantings were Bordeaux varieties on the valley floor. As winemaking production began to increase in the 1980s, more people began to plant pinot noir in the upper valley, where it was more difficult to ripen Bordeaux varieties. Oakridge established contracts with many of the smaller vineyards in the upper valley.
First we started on the 2013 chardonnays from Buck Hollowridge, Willowlake, and 864. “They’ve just got different dress sizes, the Willowlake has a little more to grab hold of,” David said. “Anyone can make super ripe wines and oakfuck them, I want something beautiful. Barrels were made for transport originally. I reckon some smart Roman figured out that wines transported in French oak were special and went with that. But, I get down in the mouth about high-octane wine. It’s a chore to drink. I want fruit flavor, not tree flavor.”
We then moved into the pinot noir: 2014 Willowlake, Lusatia Park and Lusatia Park B-Block. David said he’s seeing the effects of climate change: “Pinot noir is already starting to look difficult on the warmer valley floor. Over twenty years, we’ve seen a two-week shift, and with earlier bud break too.” Since he works with fruit from all over the valley floor and Upper Yarra, I asked how he viewed the valley as a whole. “We see the valley as a non-homogenous patchwork of different sites. It’s hard to say what it is because we’ve had enormous success with different varieties, so it’s hard to present the region as a whole.
Next up, we headed over to Coldstream Hills, James Halliday’s property, to meet up with winemaker Greg Jarratt, who took us to see the gorgeous amphitheater vineyards and taste through some killer barrel samples, even down to block selections before the final blends will be decided. Of special note were the D block and E-Top blocks of the Deer Farm Vineyard, which showed a beautiful purity and grace.
We then drove back to our home base at De Bortoli where we met winemakers Sarah Fagan and Andrew Bretherton and tasted through a wide range of wines. Sarah and Andrew make a pinot blanc, one of the very few nebbiolos in the valley, and as far as we know, the only gamay in the Yarra (much to the jealousy of the other Yarra winemakers who tell us they routinely beg Sarah to give them a little gamay to play with). Of special note was the 2015 La Bohème Syrah-Gamay blend and the delicious 2012 Section A8 Syrah, which captivated us throughout dinner at the Hargreaves Hill Brewing Company. Of course, dinner came after a quick drive through the vineyards in Andrew’s brand new car, where we chased down our first kangaroo sightings. It needed to get some mud on it and go for a proper test drive after all, and he needed to check in on the four-wheel drive… —Jared Hooper
This story appears in the print issue of jan 2019.
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