Yarra Valley takes off in new direction


Feature findings

> While Australia’s Yarra Valley is linked with Shiraz, the area’s winemakers are developing a reputation for experimentation with other grape varieties.
> The area has a variety of microclimates. “Here in the Yarra it’s about picking your slope and matching varieties to that slope,” says Sarah Crowe of Yarra Yering.
> According to Philglas & Swiggot’s Justin Knock MW, the relatively small scale of the Yarra’s producers means that they are uniquely
placed to innovate and exploit new trends.
> Oakridge Wines’ winemaker Tim Perrin says: “Gamay, Grenache and Meunier are all growing in popularity. It’s driven by younger consumers looking for drinkability.

“The region spans quite a large area, and vineyards are spread across the valley and on different sides of the hills, creating a variety of microclimates,” explains Crowe. “Here in the Yarra it’s about picking your slope and matching varieties to that slope. Our north-facing vineyard has the warmth for later-ripening varieties, but on the east- and south-facing slopes different varieties do better.”

As a result of the variation in topography, growers in the Yarra can choose to work with late-ripening grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon, but can also make racy sparkling wines and aromatic whites. Even when working with the same grape variety, climatic differences between warmer sites, such as Seville or the Warramate Hills, and those prevailing in the cool Upper Valley, mean that harvest dates can be weeks apart.

But although Yarra Yering and a handful of other wineries in the region can ripen their Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot well enough to make acclaimed Bordeaux blends, it’s clear that plantings of these grapes are in decline (see box page 50). Like many viticultural decisions, the dwindling vineyard area devoted to Bordeaux grapes is probably down to commercial realities rather than issues of quality.
Giant Steps winery used to make a Cabernet-based blend known as Harry’s Monster, but its last vintage was 2014. “We believe that there are some wonderful Bordeaux blends made in the Yarra,” says head winemaker Steve Flamsteed, “but it was a real challenge selling ours. Deciding to stop production of Harry’s Monster was a marketing decision rather than anything else.”

One variety that has been part of the Yarra portfolio since the beginning, and which has seen growth in recent years is Shiraz. In the context of declining plantings of most of the major varieties, the area of the Yarra planted with Shiraz has grown by around 20% over the past 15 years. Part of the reason for the success of Yarra Shiraz (or Syrah as it’s more likely to be labelled) lies in the fact that expressions of the grape tend towards freshness and relatively modest alcohol levels (for Australia, anyway), the bright aromatic expression shown by the wines and the possibility of creating a range of styles.

“The warmer north faces of Gruyere and Tarrawarra tend to give us darker fruit flavours (and colours), whereas the cool red soil vineyards of the upper Yarra are very much about white-pepper perfume,” explains Flamsteed.

In addition, the growing popularity of whole-bunch fermentations can steer the wines in a particular perfumed direction. “The use of whole bunches is very common in the Yarra,” says Crowe, “and this works well because of our climate and the resulting grape chemistry means that we can maintain the integrity of the bunch throughout to allow whole carbonic fermentation.”

Australian consumers have certainly developed a taste for this style of Syrah. “Demand is growing,” says Flamsteed. “There really does seem to be a sweet spot developing in the market for unashamedly medium-bodied, perfumed reds.”

Australian wineries have always been sensitive to the demands of the market, but, according to London wine merchant Philglas & Swiggot’s Justin Knock MW, the relatively small scale of the Yarra’s producers means that they are uniquely placed to innovate and exploit new trends. “The Yarra has a bit more scale than the Mornington Peninsula or Tasmania, but they’re not under the kind of pressure wineries in South Australia might have to face when trying to innovate,” he points out. “If a producer in the Yarra wants to make 50 or 100 cases of Nebbiolo or Pinot Gris, it’s not too hard for them to sell the entire production. Larger producers aren’t going to produce wines in those kinds of volumes – it’s not relevant to their business – but if they have to make 1,000 cases, that’s a risk. As a result, the Yarra guys have more flexibility to innovate.”

Steve Flamsteed of Giant Steps

And that ability to play around and exploit new niches is being taken up with enthusiasm in the Yarra by even the most blue chip of the region’s wineries. Right now, De Bortoli’s Steve Webber is particularly enthusiastic about the possibilities of Gamay. “Gamay’s so suited to the region,” he says. “It makes a really cool wine, and I’m pretty sure that if I released a Gamay under the estate label, it would probably outsell Pinot and Cabernet combined.”

At the moment, Webber uses the entire Gamay production in an unusual blend with Syrah, but has already planted another few hectares of the grape, and hopes to bottle a solo cuvée at some point. Webber is also increasingly keen on Pinot Meunier, which he’s using to create a light-bodied, juicy red wine that’s low in alcohol and packed with attractive floral and red-berry aromas. And pretty much
the entire production of both wines is selling out in the domestic market.

Over at Oakridge Wines, winemaker Tim Perrin is equally optimistic about the prospects for these grapes. “Gamay, Grenache and Meunier are all growing in popularity,” he says. “It’s driven by younger consumers looking for drinkability. They’re after light dry reds that they can chill, that are easy-going with food. We started out by making 2,500 litres of dry red out of the Meunier in 2014 and now we’re making four times that amount – we just can’t make enough of it.”

Australia wine industry news

Australian wine brand Nepenthe is launching a selection of wines from its Altitude and Pinnacle collections into the UK, shining a light on the cool climate Adelaide Hills region. The two ranges include the Altitude Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Shiraz, as well as the Pinnacle Petraea Sauvignon Blanc and Pinnacle Gate Block Shiraz – all of which hail from the cool climate Adelaide Hills.
“The Hills is an inspiring viticultural region, the diverse microclimates bring complexity to our wines and challenge me as a winemaker,” said James Evers, winemaker at Nepenthe. “At Nepenthe we take a minimal intervention view on winemaking but ensure there is a human touch at every step of the process, leaving nothing to chance in the quest for quality. Both ranges are available on Amazon, with the Altitude range RRP £12.99 per bottle and the Pinnacle range RRP £19.99.
Meanwhile, it was revealed last month that China’s oldest winery, Changyu Pioneer, has bought an 80% stake in Clare Valley-based winery Kilikanoon Wines for AU$20.6 million, the latest purchase from the Chinese winery following acquisitions in France, Spain and Chile. With the rise of Australian wine’s popularity in China and an expected tariff reduction based on the two countries’ Free Trade Agreement, Chinese companies now seem to be looking beyond Bordeaux to purchase wine estates and Changyu is the latest to join in. Australia surpassed France in October as China’s biggest source for imported wines for the first time.
Despite Changyu’s majority stake, the deal would see Kevin Mitchell, the winery’s chief winemaker, and Warrick Duthy, managing director, continue to remain at their posts and keep their shares, reported local newspaper Times of the Coast.
Finally, UK bottler Broadland Wineries has secured “a significant deal” with Australia’s largest wine retailer. The partnership sees Broadland become the distributor for Pinnacle Drinks, which is part of Australia’s Woolworths Group – the owner of the supermarket by the same name and the Dan Murphy’s chain of wine stores, among other wine retail brands that are grouped under the umbrella company of Endeavour Drinks Group. Significantly, the tie-up gives Broadland access to bulk wine in Australia and New Zealand sourced by the Woolworths Group, which, with a dominant share of the Australian wine retail market, has more buying power than anyone else in this part of the world.

But despite the on-trend enthusiasm for lighter-bodied reds, there’s also a lot of love in the valley for grapes from southern Europe. “We’ve become incredibly interested in mid- to late-season white grapes at the moment,” says Webber. “I’ve got a feeling from tasting wines from Campania that Fiano could make something quite beautiful and textural if you treat it like Chardonnay. I also think the textural, fairly neutral whites you find in Southern France – Clairette, Picpoul, Bourboulenc, Grenache Blanc – would be interesting.”

Nebbiolo Inconsistent

One grape Webber is less enthusiastic about now than he was a few years ago is Nebbiolo. “It’s just too inconsistent,” he says, adding that he’s tempted to use his plantings of the variety to either make a lighter ‘Spanna’ style of wine or a rosé. “A lot of people are very interested in dry rosé in this country at the moment.”

But although some think that the Yarra may not be best suited to growing Nebbiolo, others disagree, and plantings are slowly on the increase.

Luke Lambert has long had a reputation in the region for championing the variety. He’s particularly excited about the potential for the vines growing on a rare granitic outcrop situated on the Denton View Hill property, believing that the site’s combination of soil and warmth will create the ideal conditions for the variety.

Iberian varieties also have their fans in the Yarra, and one winery that’s had a big success with its Douro blend is Yarra Yering. According to Crowe, site selection is – again – key.

“Touriga Nacional can be bloody awful if you don’t achieve full tannin maturity,” she admits, “but we have it planted on a free-draining site that’s completely north facing, so it’s warm enough to ripen the grapes properly.

“We’re still a relatively young viticultural area, and like much of Australia we’re only just beginning to trial various alternative grape varieties and assess their suitability. And, at the same time, consumers are more interested in experimenting than they were a decade ago. It’s really quite exciting.”

Evolution of planting of varieties in Yarra Valley (total area, in hectares) Source: Wine Australia
Grape variety 2001 2010 2015
Total area planted: 2,483 2,492 2,149
Cabernet Franc 16.8 12.1 12.78
Cabernet Sauvignon 491.8 343.9 285.7
Chardonnay 596.9 664.7 504.96
Merlot 204.6 120.3 85.32
Nebbiolo 4.3 4.2 20.51
Pinot Gris n/a 55.1 69.53
Pinot Noir 695.4 725.4 662.09
Sangiovese 6.2 5.9 16.54
Sauvignon Blanc 125.8 186.5 102.2
Semillon 13.0 10.4 13.2
Shiraz 239 246.4 292.88
Tempranillo 2.5 3.0 4.08
Viognier 4.7 30.9 17.05

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