Wine lovers looking to experience a wide range of grape varieties, stunning blends and cracking food could do much worse than visiting the Yarra Valley.
The Victorian region is home to 10 wine producers featured in Good Weekend magazine's 52 Top Wineries list, published today in The Age. Just 45 kilometres east from Melbourne's CBD, the Yarra Valley claims the most wineries on the list, compiled in collaboration with independent wine website The Real Review.
"The Yarra Valley can produce an amazing range of varieties at a high level," says The Real Review's principal wine writer Huon Hooke.
"This is because it has a range of altitudes affording a range of climates and also a variety of soil types. The southern parts have exposure to moderating winds from the south, so, amazingly, it's Bordeaux, Burgundy and the northern Rhone rolled into one."
The highest placed Yarra Valley winery on the list is Yering Station, the site of Victoria's first vineyard, established in 1838. Doug Rathbone bought Yering Station at auction in 1995 and the winery remains in the family.
"Yering Station was mainly a cattle farm with 20 acres of grapes when I bought it," says Rathbone. "We took up the job of rebuilding it into a winery and vineyard and my son, Darren, went to California and studied oenology to show he was serious about the business."
Hooke singled out Yering Station's Reserve shiraz viognier and Scarlett pinot noir, plus the diversity of Yarra Valley pinot noir in general.
"Yarra Valley pinot noir can be delicate, refined and aromatic in the higher altitudes, or richer and weightier in the warmer districts," he said. "Chardonnay likewise, while the warmer areas around Lilydale do great cabernet and red Bordeaux blends. Not to mention shiraz, and white Rhone blends like Yeringberg's marsanne roussanne and Yarra Yering viognier."
The region is also capable of lovely sauvignon blanc and riesling, says Hooke, who also acknowledged more recent Yarra Valley grape arrivals such as tempranillo, touriga, nebbiolo, barbera and the fashionable gamay.
"It has the varieties that are in vogue today. It's pretty hard to get by with two or three specialities these days, and the more strings to the bow, the more successful a wine region can be."
Winemaker Darren Rathbone says he is "pretty happy" with the quality of Yering Station's grapes in 2020, however the coronavirus pandemic has meant revenue is down by around 35 per cent across the business.
"We've had good retail sales through bottle shops and online, but with the majority of restaurants closed over the past three months we've been hurt pretty bad.
"We also export to 20 countries including the UK, China and North America and, of course, those markets have been hit by the pandemic too. We're surviving and fighting but it's been a hard slog. Thankfully, sales are beginning to pick up with restrictions easing."
A day tripper's guide to the Yarra Valley
"It's incredible how drop-dead beautiful our region is," says Caroline Evans, chief executive of Wine Yarra Valley, a non-profit industry association representing wine growers near towns such as Coldstream, Healesville and Yarra Glen.
"We have gorgeous mountain ranges and national parks perfect for hikes or short walks between visits to cellar doors. We were thrilled to welcome visitors back to the wineries last week as restrictions around public gatherings were eased."
For wine tasting
Most of Yarra Valley's 70 or so cellar doors have reopened, says Ms Evans. "There's a richness of choice - no matter what your preference is in terms of wine style, you're going to find it. There are full degustation restaurants at many of the wineries too, plus cafes and casual dining options."
Other Yarra Valley producers on Good Weekend's 52 Top Wineries list include Oakridge, Yarra Yering, Mount Mary and TarraWarra Estate. Ms Evans says social distancing and safety requirements mean wine tasting will be "massively" different to the way cellar doors operated before the pandemic.
"Tastings must be done seated and in groups of no more than six people with 1.5 metres between anybody that didn't arrive together. We're also encouraging people to book for tastings so we can get more visitors though the doors with timed sittings."
For a pub lunch
The term "old world charm" is thrown around a lot these days, but the Healesville Hotel has it in spades. An open fireplace is on hand to accompany pinot noir and pot pies, while a garden barbecue supplies slow-cooked brisket and grilled chicken on the weekends. The pub wine list is a ripper.
Healesville Hotel, 256 Maroondah Highway, Healesville, 03 5962 4002
For a gin and tonic
The gin slingers at Four Pillars are back pouring cocktails and tasting flights across the company's range of juniper-based spirits. A free tasting at Australia's most handsomely furnished distillery will require booking in advance.
Four Pillars Gin Distillery, 2A Lilydale Road, Healesville, 1800 374 446
For coffee, cake or dinner
In Yarra Glen's old Colonial Bank building, former Former Merricote chef Matt Binney provides top-end dining by night and casual brunches by day at Heartswood. "Being able to order Matt's comfort food to takeaway has been a godsend during the pandemic," says Ms Evans. "All the locals are stoked Heartswood has reopened for dine-in service."
Heartswood, 25 Bell Street, Yarra Glen, 03 8201 7470
For next-generation wine
The Frazer family (which also owns winery restaurants Stones of the Yarra Valley and Meletos) opened No. 7 Healesville last year, an enormous space featuring a restaurant and urban winery that acts as a finishing school for young winemakers. Wines produced by the class of 2019 can be enjoyed alongside dishes such as braised ox tail with gnocchi and silverbeet.
No.7 Wine Bar and Restaurant, 7 Lilydale Road, Healesville, 03 8727 3000