Ask most Americans about Australian wine, and two things probably come to mind: South Australia and shiraz. But there's so much more to Australian wine than that. Here, we highlight a wine region that may not be particularly well-known to Americans, but is a well-kept secret among Australians: the Yarra Valley.
The Yarra Valley is located about an hour's drive northeast of Melbourne, and is a popular destination for locals on the weekend. The landscape is reminiscent of the inland valleys in Santa Barbara, Calif., where rolling hills are dotted with picturesque towns, rows of grapes, and farms, subject to different micro climates throughout the region. The big difference? Eucalyptus trees. Those eucalyptus trees are the fuel for the infamous bush fires that rage through the region during the summer, fires that spread especially quickly when the trees, which are full of oil, explode in a shower of flames, spreading ash as a hot, fast wind blows. Suffice it to say, the Yarra Valley is definitely not an easy place to grow grapes for wine.
Despite the difficulties and challenges, the valley has become particularly well-known for its chardonnay, as noted by James Halliday, Australian wine writer, critic, and author of the Australian Wine Companion, considered the definitive guide to Australian wines. It was also chosen as the site for Domaine Chandon in 1986, Möet & Chandon's Australian operations, because of its cool climate and ideal soil. Domaine Chandon is widely credited with revitalizing the region's winemaking industry after the wane of the postwar temperance movement.
But, to get a feel for the region's best wines, we visited two wineries that are on Halliday's must-hit list: De Bortoli Wines, rated five stars by Halliday and considered "one of the best [vineyards] in Yarra Valley," and Oakridge, which was crowned the 2012 Winery of the Year by the Good Wine Guide.
De Bortoli Wines is well-known for its Noble One dessert wine, made from semillon grapes intentionally infected with noble rot, or botrytis, a type of fungus which concentrates sugar and acidity in a grape. Its pleasant aromas of orange and dried apricot flavor make it a popular choice to pair with fruit and cheese plates and citrus-based desserts. However, we also discovered that they have much more to offer than just excellent dessert wine.
And what about chardonnay? Well, that's why we stopped by Oakridge Wines on the southern end of the valley to sample some of the best chardonnays the region has to offer. Winemaker David Bicknell dispels chardonnay's reputation for being overly creamy or buttery with crisp, citrusy wines made from grapes harvested earlier than usual.
So spread the word — Australian wine is not just about inexpensive shiraz, and it's not just from South Australia. Check out the noteworthy wines we sampled along with tasting notes and suggested pairings in the slideshow.