It is common to make generalisations about wine regions and their wines. Grand statements like ‘Hunter Valley Shiraz tastes like….’ or ‘this wine reminds me of a left bank Bordeaux’ or ‘this is very typical of Corton’. And so on. The trouble is, grand statements or not, this is becoming harder to do. What does a ‘typical’ Yarra Valley Pinot taste like? or a Chardonnay or Shiraz (Syrah if you must). There is of course, no proper answer.
We have recently returned from a family holiday to Melbourne and the Yarra Valley, visiting just one producer a day. We have three boys (aged 7, 5 and 2) and seeing Mum, Dad and the aunties swirling, spitting and tasting wine is not their idea of a great time. The goal, hedonistic pleasure to one side, was to visit producers we were unfamiliar with. We wanted to see what was out there beyond the famous names and traditional wine styles.
One of the new buzz words in the Yarra Valley is ‘smashable’. Reader take note; I loathe this characterisation of a wine. And I dislike the casual arrogance of the word, as if a $25 bottle of wine should be drunk without any critique, thought or contemplation.
In the Yarra, ‘smashable’ invariably denotes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir retailing at around $25. Happily, there is immense value to be found here. Indeed, I would describe Yarra Pinot as the ‘new Beaujolais’. Pretty, fragrant, generously flavoured and supple; a joy to drink. Many of them can be chilled. Fun and playful drinks must be serious too and the Yarra Valley really does over-deliver at this price point.
The use of whole bunches for Pinot Noir during fermentation is a voguish wine making technique and judged correctly can have stunning results. Ideally, whole bunches lend the wine elegance, length, spice and greater structure with their slippery tannins. All the wine producers we visited and those featured in this article employ whole bunches to one degree or another.
There can be problems, however, if the stems are not ripe, the fruit isn’t ripe, or if the fruit doesn’t have enough heft. Also if the fermentation temperature is too high (cold soaking the fruit off their stems, prior to fermentation can lead to better integration and lacier tannins), or the length of time with the stems is too long.
Whole bunch Shiraz, like Pinot can be magnificent. However, in the past we have really struggled to find examples from the Yarra Valley that we like. Luke Lambert’s Crudo and Estate Shiraz’s are the bookends of the style. I love these wines. Full flavoured, filigreed and slippery structured they really do benefit from some time in bottle. Absolute bargains.
Whole berry fermentation is the most influential reason behind Yarra Valley Pinot Noir becoming the ‘new Beaujolais’. Put simply, grape clusters are put into a tank and fermented without being pressed prior to fermentation. Most producers will gently burst, press, the grapes during fermentation, so it’s not strictly speaking the same method widely used in Beaujolais known as carbonic maceration.
Whole berry fermentation enables the winemaker to extract aromatics, colour and flavour, without the burden of tannin. The best $25 Pinot Noirs from the Yarra will have structure, slippery tannins from the whole bunches, coupled with spice. The fruit profile is usually red fruits and plums with loads of acidity to brighten and lift the wine’s textural qualities.
The Yarra’s $25 Chardonnays can be equally as good, although some producers verge onto the lighter bodied spectrum. We like Chardonnay with a bit of heft. Flavour, weight, texture, mouthfeel and length are important at any price point, and this is what we’re after. Balance is critical however, and on the flipside of size, we don’t want anything flabby, fat or heavy.
Yarra Valley climate – the pitfalls
The Yarra Valley’s climate has a bit of the Jekyll and Hyde about it. It’s not really cool climate, nor is it hot. Extremes of hot and cold, high and low rainfall, humidity, high winds, you name it generalisations are difficult to make.
Chardonnay grapes can be hard to judge for the winemaker. Do you pick early, resulting in wines of pronounced acidity and lacking in ripeness. Or do you wait, biting the fingernails, trying to avoid the rain and excessive heat of summer?
Picking early has become more and more common, a trend which I don’t welcome. The wines are unripe and sour. They do not stand up to being oaked or left on their lees and they don’t flesh out with age. They have an uncanny ability to deliver no warmth or charm to the wine lover. Wine critics seem to like them, however, but like over oaked reds they stand out in a lineup of wines, particularly if your palate is jaded.
Beware the 12.5% alcohol Yarra Chardonnays! They don’t taste like Chablis, rather, like crushed granny smith apples and a dollop of lemon juice.
Oak and influence
The Jura may offer a signpost to those obsessed with low alcohols and high acids. Chardonnay, picked early to retain acidity can be topped up “ouille”, or not, “sous voile”. The second path, allows the wine to evaporate and slowly oxidise under a layer of flor, similar to the wines of Sherry. The wine can become richer, wildly exotic, spicy, nutty, mineral and textural. One of my favourite wine styles, which I think, has huge potential in the Yarra Valley. Unsurprisingly, Luke Lambert is experimenting with this and exquisite results can be found in his Chardonnay.
If you haven’t noticed, Yarra Valley Chardonnay benefits from oak and lees contact, adding weight, flavour and texture to the finished wine. Clonal selection is important however, as their various characteristics will play a huge role in the wines ability to withstand the extra treatment, or the extent of it. Succulent flesh, with stone fruits and citrus are predominant, with oak adding notes of spice, nougat, smoke and wood. The best Chardonnay’s invariably have a sense of weightlessness. The components, seamless, with the finest satin threads.
Following is a selection of our favourite finds from the Yarra. Not the more iconic producers, rather we wanted to showcase the value that can be gained with plenty of wine tasting and a little research.
This wine has a gorgeous nose of orchard fruits, smoke and hints of spice. The palate is rich, fine and succulent. Yellow peach, citrus, figs, nuts and lovely spicy oak flavours. Absolutely spot on. A Chardonnay for all palates and occasions.
A huge perfume of red fruits, Asian spices and smoky/gamey notes announces the 2018 Appellation Pinot Noir with a bang. Light on entry, the wine builds texture and body in the mouth. Red and black cherries, cranberry, Asian spices, earthy notes and fine sappy tannin notes. Incredibly detailed, controlled and balanced. Beautiful wine. Absolute drop dead bargain.
Dappled don’t seem to put a foot wrong. A star. This is from a site in Macclesfield, Yarra Valley. Natural ferment, larger format oak of which 25% is new. Left alone largely. Bottled. For your pleasure. This is a wine that invites you back for more. Cinnamon and clove spice over green melon and pulpy grapefruit – bouquet and palate. Flinty mineral characters zinging through the primary fruit detail, the wine draws long and to a tight, squeaky finish. It’s loaded with charm, precision and leaner but well-drawn chardonnay characters. Yes thanks. 94 points, Mike Bennie – Winefront
The 2018 Les Verges from Dappled is blessed with intense and complex aromas of white peach, ripe nectarine, white flowers, roasted almonds and flint. The palate offers a dense core of white stone and citrus fruits, which becomes very focused and taut towards the finish. Flavours linger with a salty flintiness. Delicious.
Beautiful bright and ethereal aromas of red cherries, ripe raspberry, earth and smoke.. building more complexity with time and air. The palate leads with juicy dense red berry fruits that stay fresh and fine with cork screws of fine tannins and earthy complexity intermingling. Freshness always stays in the foreground. Delicious.
This is a medium-bodied Shiraz matured in a combination of old oak barrels and tank. It’s designed to be approachable young but could also benefit from up to 10 years in bottle. This will allow time for the whole bunches to fully integrate. Bursting with fresh blue, red and black fruits and spice. The palate is pulsing with energy – cool climate bramble fruit and broad slippery tannins.
Another cracker from the Yarra Valley winemaking legend that is Luke Lambert. The 2018 Syrah is deep, dark and structured. Bursting with red and black berry fruits, spice and plenty of crisp acidity to keep things nicely in check. A wonderful expression of cool-climate Australian Shiraz.
Another great Chardonnay from this artisan, Yarra producer. The 2018 Luke Lambert Chardonnay has lemon zest and green apple flavours on the palate. Plenty of saline minerality and a crisp acidity that lingers long. As always, something a little bit different and special – in a good way!
Get onto this. It’s an excellent wine at an excellent price. It has power and presence, fruit and spice, and it crackles long through the finish. Whole bunch influence here is clear but the fruit swaggers on through. I tasted this a few months ago and liked it; I tasted it again today and loved it. It’s a good trajectory. Beet, cherries, nuts and stemmy, smoky spices aplenty. It’s not the top wine in the Toolangi range but it acts as though it is. 93 points, Campbell Mattinson.
On the money. Lovely wine to drink. Enough flavour, enough complexity, a bit of style and a satisfying finish. Honeysuckle, flint, stonefruit, malt and toast. Oak is sinking deliciously into the wine. Bran/toasty oat-like highlights too. The more I looked at it the more I liked it. 93 points, Campbell Mattinson, Winefront.com.au
Crushed and pressed with full solids straight to oak (20% new), both primary and malolactic fermentations going through wild. It’s wondrous wine. Flinty, direct, pure and authoritative. It tastes of oatmeal, white peach, toffee apple and cedar wood though (a) everything is cut and freshened by citrus and (b) those flinty, struck match notes are stitched into every cranny. The finish, wow, it doesn’t, or not in a hurry. One swallow brings a summer of flavour. 98 points, Halliday Wine Companion 2020
The 2018 Pauls Lane Pinot Noir is of course more deep and luscious than the entry level Toolangi Pinot, but still very drinkable now. Layers of fleshy plum fruit with rose petal and earthy notes. Balanced by fine, powdery tannins and a long complex finish that perfumes the mouth with sour cherries and sappy freshness.
Prices quoted are in any six.