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There's something magical about watching Melbourne fade away in the rearview mirror when driving an hour northeast to the Yarra Valley, one of Victoria's most accessible and picturesque wine regions. In autumn the vines transform into an ocean of oranges and reds, the hills silhouetted in misty shades of blue. Famed for chardonnay among other varieties, it's hard to believe that just 50 kilometres from the city are soils rich enough and a climate that sits somewhere between Bordeaux and Burgundy – even the French would envy it.
Alongside world-class restaurants incorporating local produce on every plate and award-winning wines (Seville Estate was crowned James Halliday's Winery of the Year in 2019, while Oakridge Wines won the 2019 Langton's James Halliday Chardonnay Challenge from a pool of 400 entries), the cellar doors here range from tiny, rustic experiences through to grand buildings that could be mistaken for modern art museums.
Winemaker Mac Forbes, who owns Graceburn Wine Room in Healesville, has a soft spot for Yarra Valley's cooler months. "I think that proper change of seasons is beautiful – it probably helps when you've got an open fire and you can stay warm when you're inside, but working with the vines as well, seeing them go through a proper dormancy – it's a really nice thing to be a part of," he says.
Here's why you should plan a road trip this autumn.
Fresh, local produce at Oakridge Wines: Supplied
At Oakridge Wines in Coldstream, co-executive chefs Matt Stone and Jo Barrett are fiercely passionate about using local produce, which means sticking to what's in season and using pickled and preserved ingredients from spring and summer in the cooler months. "We get to spend our days in the countryside with the chickens and in the garden; cooking great food and hanging out with friends who have also produced great food for us," he says. From fine diner Ezard at Levantine Hill through to local cafes like Nancy's of the Valley in Yarra Junction, businesses in the Valley make use of the bounty that surrounds them.
But produce isn't limited to the region's restaurants. Every Saturday the St Andrews Market brings a little bit of Byron Bay chill to the area, while the Healesville Organic Farmers Market is all about local fruit, vegetables, preserves, bread and more. Kitchen & Butcher in Healesville is part deli, part butcher, part baker and a whole lot of delicious, offering platters and hampers as well. Yarra Valley Dairy sells cheese from a century-old milking shed on its farm. Visitors can take cheese home or try it on the spot with freshly baked bread, charcuterie and beer and wine from independent makers.
Cellar doors with a difference
One of the most intimate wine tasting experiences at the Graceburn Wine Room: Supplied
While there are plenty of cellar doors in the Yarra Valley, Forbes' is unique. Off the main drag in Healesville, Graceburn Wine Room is a small restaurant with an even smaller kitchen that doubles as a cellar door for Mac Forbes Wines. In Coldstream, Maddens Rise is another contender for the unofficial small-but-mighty award. No more than a shed – albeit one with gunmetal-grey corrugated iron that's often filled with flowers – it overlooks the vineyard and is one of the most intimate tasting experiences in the Valley. Often overlooked, Medhurst Wines' architecturally designed cellar door is built into a verdant hillside. You could visit for a quick wine tasting, but the view of the countryside and small snacks like yabby arancini spiked with saffron are likely to make you linger.
One venue Forbes says is "easy to take for granted" is TarraWarra Estate. The winery and restaurant are run separately from the TarraWarra Museum of Art, but the not-for-profit gallery displaying Australian art is a drawcard in its own right. Next door the restaurant serves a seasonal menu created from the kitchen garden, while the cellar door is framed by stone and leads to an elongated space with circular skylights and an elongated wooden bar. There's also outdoor seating on the deck under shady native peppercorn trees. Not all cellar doors sell wine in the Yarra Valley, with Four Pillars in Healesville catering to gin lovers with its distillery door. Awarded the 2019 International Gin Producer of the Year at the 50th Annual Wine and Spirits Competition in London, you can swing by for a tasting any time before 5.15pm or take part in a masterclass in the former timber yard. Look through the round porthole windows into the distillery, where shiny copper sills work their magic on native botanicals.
Wine tasting at the TarraWarra Estate: Photo: Supplied
Living in the Valley is the best way to discover its secrets, but you can always pick Forbes' brain, too. His latest discovery is Healsviet, a small Vietnamese restaurant in Healesville that opened in September 2019. "It's in the old garage in the far end of town. It has only been open a few months but it's good." He's also a fan of the local mountain bike tracks, especially the O'Shannassy Aqueduct Trail. But ask him what the most underrated part of the Yarra Valley is and the answer might surprise you. "I love the 50-metre outdoor pool in Healesville. It's a classic country swimming pool with lots of mature trees that you can sit under on the grass, and I just think that's one of the gems. I love it."
Where to stay
Something fancy: Chateau Yering Hotel, a Victorian mansion on a 250-acre estate with old-world elegance, sweeping views and an award-winning restaurant (from $448 per night).
Something affordable: Yarra Valley Lodge, a tranquil country retreat with golf, tennis, a pool, fitness centre and spa. All 102-rooms have balconies or terraces (from $150 per night).
Something different: Yarra Valley Tiny House, 12sqm of ultimate escape overlooking a vineyard and the mountains in Healesville, complete with outdoor fire (from $220 per night).
Plan your next food and wine trip to the Yarra Valley: visitvictoria.com