The Yarra Valley is a well-respected Australian wine region which occupies the eastern half of the Port Phillip viticultural zone in the diminutive state of Victoria. At complete odds with the usual, hot and dry Shiraz-growing image of Australia, Yarra Valley is best known for its bright, complex wines made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
One of Australia's oldest and most celebrated wine regions, the earliest Yarra Valley vineyards were planted in 1838. Development continued apace for the next 50 years, so that by the 1880s wine production here was in full swing. It was at about this time that the dreaded root-eating phylloxera mite arrived in Europe from the Americas, and began ravaging vineyards in almost every wine region there. The continued influx of European migrants to Australia made it inevitable that phylloxera would reach Australia, but the Yarra Valley was fortunate enough to escape almost completely unblemished.
That lucky escape did not, however, mean that the region's viniculture was secure, with a change in wine fashions leading to its first decline. In the early 20th century the Australian national wine preference shifted substantially towards fortified wines and powerful red table wines, such as the intense Shiraz styles for which the Barossa Valley has become known. This left the Yarra's finer, typically lighter style of table wines struggling to compete, and many hundreds of acres of vines were uprooted in favour of more-profitable crops. It was not until the early 1970s that the valley saw the first signs of a viticultural renaissance.
Modern Yarra Valley wines generally include a range of premium red and white table wines, made from an established set of grape varieties in different mesoclimates. Overall, Chardonnay was the dominant variety here in the recent past, although it has now been surpassed by Pinot Noir. Comparisons between the Yarra Valley and Burgundy are not unknown, not only because of their preferred grape varieties, but also because they share a cool climate and undulating topography – interrupted by escarpments and ridges. The Yarra Ridge, in particular, bears more than a passing resemblance to a mini Cote d'Or, and it is at the eastern foot of the slopes that some of the oldest and most-prestigious Yarra wineries are located. Yering Station – the first commercial winery in Victoria – lies just beyond the lower slopes of the ridge, while Yarra Yering is just a few miles to the east.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz are the next most popular grape varieties on the Yarra Valley wine inventory. Cabernet Sauvignon has been sitting comfortably in the region's vineyards for years, providing many elegant wines – sometimes varietal, but more often blended with Cabernet's Bordeaux blending partners, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. This is an established pattern among Victoria's cooler-climate regions; Mornington Peninsula, immediately to the south, also presents most of its Cabernet Sauvignon as a Bordeaux Blend. Yarra Valley Shiraz is quite different to that of the Barossa Valley in South Australia, having more in the way of savoury spice than forward fruit.
The climate here is amongst the coolest of any Australian wine region, partly due to elevation – which reaches 1640ft (500m) – but mostly due to the hilly topography, which creates shadows, shelter and heat sinks. Rainfall is ideally distributed for viticulture, with a bias towards the early part of the growing season and a dry, if humid, ripening period and harvest. The only risk of spring frost is in the very coolest of years, and even then it affects only the lowest-lying vineyards, below the frost line. Due to the free-draining qualities of the soils (which are considered a significant plus for almost any vineyard), what little rain there is drains away rapidly. To prevent the vines shutting down entirely, irrigation is essential almost everywhere in the Yarra Valley.