Autumn in the Yarra Valley by Victoria Ugarte

Peter and I embarked on a short trip to Melbourne in May to attend a charity ball.  Deciding on maximizing our stay, we  tagged on  another couple of days to the weekend.  With a great love for good wines, and  having lived in Melbourne for short periods of  time at separate times in our lives, we made the decision to visit the Yarra Valley Wine Region via the Dandenongs. Nothing prepared us for the richness and splendour of the Yarra Valley in mid-Autumn.

We decided to approach the Yarra Valley via the Dandenong Ranges, only 35 kms east of Melbourne’s CBD. Mount Dandenong, a mountain which is 633 metres tall, lends its name to the entire mountain range, the Dandenong ranges, of which it is a part. As we drove up the winding road of the Dandenongs, we marveled at the trees that were ablaze with the burnished hues of the deciduous trees at the turn of the season. We had booked a room at a small “B&B” at Olinda, a small town in the bushy and scenic Dandenongs.

Olinda in the Dandenongs

The town of Olinda in the Dandenongs is well known for its collection of craft and “antique” shops, charming Bed and Breakfasts (“B&B’s”) boutiques and restaurants/ cafes. It is also home to the National Rhododendron Gardens, and as Peter has a love for all gardens, this place was a “must” on our itinerary.

After we paid our entry fee at the National Rhododendron Gardens’ unassuming retail shop and ticket counter and walked through the shop’s back door into the gardens, an enchanted world unfolded before us. This was the garden of my dreams, where fairies and divas tiptoed through the forest and gardens as the songs of the lyrebirds, rosellas and other native birds echoed through the trees, shrubs and ornamental lake. Although none of the tens of thousands of rhododendrons, camellias and azaleas were in bloom, after all this was Autumn, we were treated to a visual wonderland of russets and golds. After an hour an a half of even paced walking in such tranquil beauty, our senses were sated and our batteries recharged. All of a sudden, the global recession seemed so very far away.

The room at our “B&B” was cramped and a great disappointment (we can’t always get it right). Nevertheless, the evening was salvaged by a simple and superb meal at a charming local pub, the “Pig and Whistle”, where we enjoyed a juicy eye fillet steak. Cooked to perfection, this was served on a bed of fluffy mash, wilted greens and caramelized onions, and washed down with a rich Yarra Valley Shiraz. Seated next to the open fireplace, with some light jazz filtering through the speakers, and looked after marvelously by the hospitable staff, time seemed to stand still for us.

After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast at the Ranges Café and Restaurant in Olinda, we headed off to explore the Yarra Valley Wine Region, armed with some very helpful tips from our waiter. As we only had one day to see this fascinating region, we decided to concentrate on 3 boutique wineries and 2 major ones.

The Yarra Valley Wine Region

The Yarra valley is situated a mere 60 kilometres east of Melbourne, and is made up of the towns of Yarra Glen, Healesville and Warburton. It is Australia’s oldest wine region, with a history stretching back 160 years. With its characteristic cool climate, and over 3600 hectares under wine, it offers elegant sparklings, including those made in partnership with French champagne houses, fine Chardonnays, complex Pinots, rich Cabernet Sauvignons and Shiraz, and many other blends.

St. Huberts Winery was our first port of call. 120 years ago, St. Huberts’ wines were the toast of the colony, winning international awards. It was also one of the properties that launched the Yarra valley’s second golden age in the 1960’s. The wines continue to be a good example of the region’s style. As we drove up the driveway to the Cellar Door, we were surrounded on both sides with rows of golden leafed vines amidst the rolling green hills, a sight to behold. At the cellar door, we were offered an informative and relaxed tasting experience. We particularly enjoyed their Cabernet Merlot 2006 and the Stag Pinot Noir 2008, both already drinking well but still needing another 5 years to reach their full potential.

The Dominique Portet Winery held a delightful surprise for us. As we parked our car outside the cellar door, we spotted a distinguished looking gentleman saying his “goodbyes” to a colleague. The gentleman turned to us as we got down from our car, greeting us warmly and introducing himself. This was Dominique Portet, and as luck would have it, he would be giving us our wine tasting.

The Portet family has an unmatched record in the Australian wine industry. Dominique Portet is of the ninth recorded generation in a family of vignerons dating back to eighteenth century France. The son of Andre Portet, vineyard and winery manager of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild in Pauillac, Dominique’s training began at one of the world’s most illustrious red wine properties. Arriving in Australia in 1976, he quickly became integrated into the Australian wine industry, working in conjunction with such wineries as Taltarni Vineyards, Pyrenees, and Clover Hill, Tasmania. The year 2000 saw the beginning of Dominique Portet’s own label. His son, Ben, having gained impressive winemaking experience both nationally and internationally himself, now ensures that Dominique Portet winery will maintain its deeply seated place in Australian soil, keeping the respect for his forebears from France and his father’s pioneering spirit. Coming from Bordeaux, Dominique works with the grapes that he knows: Sauvignon Blanc,  Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Merlot. He has introduced Australians to the refreshment of Rose over 2 decades now (65% Pinot Noir and 45% Chardonnay), a light and delicate “methode champenois” sparkler with a delightful aroma of summer berries and grapefruit. Dominique Portet’s 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, an inaugural vintage for Ben Portet, has a delicious creaminess and complexity. Peter fell in love with a truly classic and wonderful 2006 Shiraz, but my personal favourite was the 2007 Dominique Portet Fontaine Sauvignon Blanc, fruity enough with characters of melon and lychees, but with a well-measured density of texture and neatly integrated acidity. I say bring on Summer!

The next winery on our itinerary was Warramate, a family owned and operated winery established in 1970 by the Church family. Since the beginning, the focus of the late Jack Church was on sustainability: the vines have been “dry grown” (without irrigation), hand pruned and hand harvested, making Warramate wines a real labour of love. Small quantities of premium quality, handcrafted Riesling, cabernet merlot, Pinot Noir, and Shiraz wines have been grown, and continue to grow, from vines that are now 38 years old.

David Church, son of Jack, is now the chief winemaker, and his style is characterized by finesse, elegance and refinement. Their 2007 Riesling reflected floral lime and stone fruit aromas, and lemony acidity on the palate, getting a length of flavour from the non-irrigated vines. The 2007 Pinot, a sensational drop, displayed a depth of character and complexity added by French Oak maturation. Unfortunately, the late Jack Church never got to taste the Pinot Noir that he planted. We rounded our tasting off with the 2005 Cabernet Merlot, a full, luscious and well balanced Red, and the 2006 Black Label Shiraz, displaying complex dark fruit and pepper characteristics which integrated well with oak on the palate.

The thought of lunch and our rumbling stomachs found us driving through the very impressive Yering Station. Yering Station was Victoria’s first vineyard, originally planted in 1838. Purchased by the Rathbone family in 1996, it is now a state-of-the-art winery and award winning wine tourism destination.

Within the extensive property of Yering Station is the Historic House and five-star Hotel, Chateau Yering. Featuring heritage furniture and fittings all throughout, it has been accepted into the prestigious “Relais & Chateaux” Association. Lunch had us dining at the atrium style “Sweetwater Café”, which offered Modern Australian cuisine in bright and light-filled surroundings. The lunch deal was hard to beat with an entrée, main and glass of wine at $39 per head. My Confit Rabbit Terrine and Fillet of Snapper were absolutely delicious. Chateau Yering also offer a fine dining experience with “Eleonore’s Restaurant” and a function room that is perfect for weddings with “The Oak Room”.

The Cellar Door, like the rest of Yering Station, was extensive and doubled as a retail store and art gallery. We tasted some impressive wines too. Their 2005 Yering Station Nebbiolo, available only at the Cellar Door, had cherry and apricot on the nose with hints of tar and dustiness, light bodied, dark berry fruit with well integrated tannin and earthy fruit. The 2004 Mr. Frog Cabernet Shiraz was my favourite, with dark cherry and blackberry characters and hints of leather and nutmeg on the nose, while the palate showed dark berry fruit with great intensity. This wine drinks very well now.

Our last stop was Balgownie Estate Vineyard, Resort and Spa, and home of Rae’s Restaurant. The Resort offers 65 rooms with picturesque views over stunning vineyards and the undulating hills of the Yarra Valley. Unfortunately, arriving at 4:30 in the afternoon, we were unable to sample the cuisine of Rae’s Restaurant and head Chef Jason Flygenring. Of particular interest to us was the fact that Rae’s boasts its own vegetable garden and harvest their own crops for use in their kitchen.
At the Cellar Door, we loved Balgownie Estate’s 2007 Pinot Noir, which won the Silver medal at Australia’s Small Winemaker’s Show in 2008, as well as the 2006 Estate Shiraz, which displayed rich blackberry fruits, licorice and splashes of red fruits and spices, with a long finish.

And so our time at the Dandenongs and Yarra Valley came to a close, with memories of taste sensations and breathtaking vistas that will stay with us for a lifetime. As a fellow Australian, we’re here to tell you that we struck gold at the Yarra Valley. As a world traveler, I urge you to come and taste, touch and smell the produce of this bountiful region.

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