One of Australia’s most renowned wine districts and one of its coldest viticultural regions is the Yarra Valley, which is located about 50 km northeast of Melbourne. Chardonnay and pinot noir are the area leaders, with cabernet and shiraz providing strong support. In addition to its winemaking heritage, the Yarra is one of the best-served wine regions for tourists, with a wide variety of cellar doors, restaurants, and lodging options at all price points.
The Yarra Valley is Victoria’s oldest winegrowing region, with vines originally planted there in 1838 by the Ryrie brothers at Yering Station, but there has been a major gap in that history. There are no existing vines from the original plantings in the Yarra Valley, unlike places like McLaren Vale and the Barossa in South Australia. In reality, the oldest Yarra Valley Wines are from the 1960s. Although phylloxera, a small bug that kills grapevines, claimed many of Victoria’s grapes, it was not to blame for the decline and eventual cessation of viticulture in the Yarra.
While phylloxera is now, regrettably, a problem in the valley, viticulture was actually traded for other lucrative farming endeavors, particularly grazing for dairy production, due to economic factors and changing tastes. Around 400 hectares had been planted to grapevines by the turn of the century (mostly in Yeringberg, Yering Station, and St. Huberts), but the industry was also in decline. In the early 20th century, fortified wines were growing more and more popular in Australia, with table wines scarcely making an appearance. A warmer region like Rutherglen, as well as the premier districts of South Australia and New South Wales, were significantly more ideal for fortified production than the Yarra Valley’s chilly temperature.
Commercial farming largely stopped in that trend in 1921, the year Yeringberg reported its final crop, and by 1937 there were no known vineyards in the valley. The widespread emphasis on fortified styles was undoubtedly a reflection of the era’s tastes, but it was also a more reliable way of production because oxidation and other spoiling problems were common due to inadequate winemaking facilities and frequently absent cool cellars. In the 1960s and 1970s, table wines began to reclaim market share thanks to improved techniques and a change in the cultural climate, finally reversing the trend.
The Yarra Valley saw a renaissance in 1963, when Reg and Bertina Egan planted the first vines at Wantirna Estate. The slew of now-iconic wineries that were built (Seville Estate, Mount Mary, Yarra Yering), as well as revived (St Huberts and Yeringberg), during the course of the following decade or two undoubtedly had the success of the Egans and the rise of table wine as contributing factors. De Bortoli (now known as Chateau Yarrinya), Domaine Chandon, Yering Station, and Coldstream Hills made waves as the industry continued to expand, and the 1990s saw a true boom with the establishment of 40 or more new wineries.
Today, there are far more than 100 established wineries in the Yarra, and many more labels source fruit and use the same winemaking facilities. Some of the most creative producers in the nation are in fact based in the Yarra, changing what the valley is capable of. However, innovation is not only the purview of mavericks; some of the more established players make just as significant contributions to coloring outside the lines. A good example is the change in chardonnay and pinot noir that De Bortoli launched in the early part of this century, where richer, fuller, and more oak-laden styles were traded in favor of elegance and transparency of production. The Yarra is now permeated with that tendency, and former students from De Bortoli (Bill Downie, Timo Mayer, Dave Bicknell, Paul Bridgeman, etc.) have spread out to have a remarkable influence on the valley.
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