Yarra Valley takes off in new direction

Because of its microclimates, winemakers in Australia’s Yarra Valley are moving away from planting traditional grapes and are starting to work with lesser-known varieties. Natasha Hughes MW speaks to vintners about the new direction.

A sunrise hot air balloon flight over the Yarra Valley in Victoria, Australia

If I asked you to name the grape variety most closely associated with the Barossa, the chances are the word ‘Shiraz’ would flash into your mind before I’d even finished asking the question. Similarly, New Zealand’s Marlborough is strongly linked with Sauvignon Blanc, Napa with Cabernet Sauvignon and Mendoza with Malbec. And yet, unlike many Old World regions, where the link between grape and appellation is virtually set in stone, New World regions generally afford growers the luxury of planting not only hero grapes, but a wide portfolio of others as well.

Australia’s Yarra Valley, near Melbourne, is a case in point. Like Burgundy, the region is generally linked to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but things could well have been very different. In the 1960s (the start of the modern era of winemaking in the region) Burgundian grapes were barely on the agenda of the Yarra’s pioneering winemakers.

“The first plantings in 1969 were quite a fruit salad,” says Yarra Yering’s head winemaker Sarah Crowe. “There was a bit of Merlot, some Malbec, Shiraz, Marsanne and some Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.” Bordeaux grapes predominated initially, although there were also significant plantings of Shiraz, a grape that has since outstripped Cabernet in importance at the winery.

The Yarra Valley lends itself to this kind of promiscuous planting for a particular reason. Although it has relatively little geological diversity – most of the area is dominated by either red volcanic soils or by loams with differing amounts of clay – there’s a high degree of variation in altitude and exposure. This allows growers great flexibility in terms of planting.

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