Australia 2017 – 4. Yarra, Mornington & Geelong

Late in 2016 Tom Cannavan spent 10 days touring several of Australia’s most important wine regions for this report. It will be published in five parts.


Victoria: Yarra, Mornington and Geelong

On the south-eastern coast of Australia, surrounding the beautiful city of Melbourne, the State of Victoria boasts numerous quality wine regions, perhaps best known today for some of the top Pinot Noir and Chardonnay terroirs.

There’s pressure on all of these vineyards from the burgeoning city and developers looking to expand into the suburban areas around, but there’s pressure from a potentially more worrying source too: Phylloxera. It took me a couple of visits, wondering why I was not being shown around vineyards but only wineries, to realise that Victoria’s winemakers (and those in other regions) are currently in something of a state of lock-down. That’s to prevent the spread of the dreaded Phylloxera louse which has recently reared its ugly head in significant parts of the state. Entering vineyards is discouraged, and is tolerated only after boots and equipment have been thoroughly disinfected. The movement of workers and machines between vineyards is also being carefully controlled.

It might come as a surprise to learn that much of Australia’s vineyard is planted on its own roots, not on the resistant American rootstock so prevalent around the world as the first line of defence against Phylloxera. In a region like Geelong, for example, vines are invariably planted on their own roots, so the bio-security measures that are in place are taken very seriously indeed. Still, there are many in the industry who say infestation is inevitable, and some are already digging deep to re-plant on rootstocks before the doomsday scenario becomes reality.

THE YARRA VALLEY

It’s impossible to sum up the Yarra Valley in a few soundbites. Very much Melbourne’s playground, the city is also an influence on the wine industry: “It’s so diverse and has such a great food and wine culture,” says Mac Forbes, pictured left, continuing, “Melbourne is constantly pushing the wine industry – If we were five hours away from Melbourne the wine industry would probably be very different.”

That translates into what one of the other winemakers present at the group tasting I attended describes as “Quite an ad-hoc dry wine industry,” explaining that there are all sorts of little pockets of things planted, suited to the local soil and climate, but also the needs of the city’s bars, restaurants and consumers.

Yarra’s modern foundations were built on sparkling wines, but the grape harvest dates today are more than a month later than they were twenty years ago. Whether this is caused by climate change or not, it means that dry wines are now also the region’s forte, particularly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (a lot of it originally planted for sparkling base). Gamay is seen as a potentially important alternative variety and plantings are growing, though from a very small base. Yarra is also the traditional home of some excellent Cabernet Sauvignon wines too, though it’s a tougher sell than Pinot today, and in this particular tasting I found Syrah also showed very strongly.

Read 16 tasting notes on Yarra Valley wines

YERINGBERG – HISTORY IN ACTION

Whilst in Yarra I had the opportunity to visit one of its most historic and renowned estates, Yeringberg. Founded in 1850, Yeringberg is one of the original Yarra wine farms. It remains in the same family hands, and I met up with Guill de Pury, grandson of the founder, and his daughter and now winemaker, Sandra (right). We toured their fascinating 1885 winery, a national treasure and surely the cutting edge of winery design in its day with a small ‘train’ that runs on rails in the rafters, depositing grapes into casks below, in an entirely gravity-flow mechanism (there’s a very similar system in Louis Latour’s historic Château de Grancey in Burgundy).

Back in the 19th century, 60 acres of vines were planted, the market largely being exports to the UK which still had a shortage of wine due to Phylloxera in Europe. By 1921 the English market had dried up, and Yeringberg was the last to abandon wine growing in the valley, converting to sheep and cattle farming. That continued until 1969, when several Yarra families determined to revive the industry, so Yeringberg planted small amounts of grapes again. Today they make wine from only a tiny three hectare block (though grow grapes for other concerns). Pinned to the old cellar doors is a marvelous collection of wine show certificates dating back 100 years, many of them for wines made from Marsanne, which is still grown in tiny quantities though superseded by mostly Bordeaux varieties today.

It’s an iconic label, regarded with huge affection, and producing some of the region’s very best wines in tiny quantities. Sadly that means they are also difficult to source, the top wines rarely seen on the market as they are snapped up on allocation by regular buyers.

Read 6 tasting notes on Yeringberg wines

MORNINGTON PENINSULA

Lying so close to Melbourne, Mornington was always a popular destination for city dwellers, but even as late as the 1970s it was not considered for vine growing because of its cool climate. Soils here are on a basalt base from ancient volcanic events, becoming increasingly sandy towards the tip of the peninsula where viticulture peters out. There’s plenty of rainfall in one of Victoria’s most maritime regions, though no great altitude with vineyards running  to 300 metres. Ocean breezes are influential and undulating hills give different aspects, and suitability for different varieties to be grown. Above: the vineyards of Kooyong/Port Phillip Estate looking towards the Bass Strait.

It’s a well-developed region with 60 cellar doors, many with restaurants and very good visitor facilities. Around 450 hectares of Pinot are planted, followed by 250 hectares of Chardonnay. With 100 hectares, Pinot Gris edges Shiraz (60 hectares) into fourth place – though there are scores of other varieties grown in small proportions. Domaine Chandon still takes a lot of fruit from the region, so there is potential for sparkling wines, but as one winemaker told me “It’s a lifestyle region as well as a farming region, so land prices are very high due to competition from developers. There’s a shortage of fruit, especially Chardonnay, but not a lot of potential for expansion.”

It’s a region that is “getting a lot smarter with water,” in common with other Australian wine areas, one aspect of which is increasing organic matter in vineyards and not having bare earth between rows: doing so by just 1% can save 100,000 litres of water per hectare, per year, I was told. Winemakers present at a masterclass I attended gave a run-down on recent vintages: 2013 a great vintage; 2014 a very good vintage, especially for Chardonnay; 2015 a great vintage, possibly the best ever for Pinot Noir.

Read 10 tasting notes from Mornington Chardonnay masterclass

Following this Chardonnay masterclass, a series of other Mornington Peninsula wines were served before and during a particularly good lunch at Port Phillips’ on-site restaurant.

Read 10 tasting notes on Mornington Peninsula wines

GEELONG

Sitting just across the bay from the Mornington Peninsula, Geelong was one if the first regions planted In Victoria in the 1850s. By 1895 the first great wave of Phylloxera had destroyed the industry, and no new vines were planted until the 1960s. Sixty years of good quarantine means the majority of vines are today planted on their own roots. It is a big region, further divided into the Bellarine Peninsula, Moorabool Valley and Surf Coast, with around 60 wineries and 150 vineyards. Bellarine is an interesting terroir, largely composed of black basalt soil over limestone, though the soils of the volcanic Moorabool Valley are not dissimilar. On the Surf Coast sandy soils predominate, on a coast exposed to often rugged Bass Strait weather.

The area’s reputation is built on Shiraz, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but is also a happy hunting ground for a host of alternative varieties, from Primitivo to Gamay and from Lagrein to Monduese. Classified as a cool climate area, vineyards run to around 400 metres above sea level, with temperatures moderated by its coast.

Read 16 tasting notes on Geelong wines

Go to: Part V – Tasmania: where Australia plays it cool

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *