At National Liquor News, we love wine and the people who make it. Like many industries, Australian wine has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and its lingering impacts. To support the sector so dear to our hearts, we’ve relaunched the Wine Region Spotlight series that was a big hit in 2020. Each spotlight, we’ll focus on a region, to celebrate its local producers and shine a light on what’s happening there. This week, we take you to the Yarra Valley, VIC.
The Yarra Valley is home to more than eighty wineries, and is considered the oldest wine region in Victoria, having its first vines planted in 1838. It enjoyed prosperous growth for nearly a decade until it ceased to produce wine by the end of 1921.
It wasn’t until 1963 that winemaking activity relaunched and has since experienced exponential growth to now be known as one of the world’s premium cool climate wine regions producing popular varietals including Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Throughout 2021, wineries of the Yarra Valley have enjoyed a reasonably challenge-free season. After adapting to changes the COVID-19 pandemic brought, winemakers have made strides to get back to business as usual and have said this year’s vintage is one to watch.
National Liquor News spoke to the people behind Zonzo Wines, Innocent Bystander, Rob Dolan Wines and St Huberts to find out what this year has been like in the region.
A step in the right direction
Of all the wineries we talked to, one messaged remained consistent – that 2021 has been a big improvement on last year.
Caroline Mooney, Head Winemaker for Zonzo Estate, said the changes made in operations and a move to a new winery considerably changed its domestic production.
“In all honesty it has been a rollercoaster, but adapting expectations whilst continuing to chase high quality has yielded results,” Mooney said.
“Wine sales have been strong domestically and we have now settled into our new urban winery. This has had a huge impact on the level of winemaking control we have and it has given us greater opportunity to run small batch trials in the winery.”
Mooney said that pandemic also brought a blessing in disguise, shifting operations to place a closer focus on quality.
“The distraction of the current environment we are operating in has put even more importance on the need for attention to detail and focussing on the job at hand,” she said.
“Harvest commenced with a sudden start and then settled back down into a well-spaced and steady vintage. This gave us plenty of time to give each variety as much time on the vine or in the winery as it needed. It was a long vintage but the wines are looking great.”
The vineyard at Innocent Bystander, part of the Brown Brothers portfolio, has also enjored an improvement on last year, in both yield and quality
“It’s been a standout vintage in the Yarra Valley with excellent acidity, flavour development and yields across all our varieties. While the quality was excellent in the Yarra Valley from both 2020 and 2021, it’s been great to get back to normal yields after the low yielding 2020 vintage,” Mat Janes, Head of Innocent Bystander, told National Liquor News.
“Vintage 2021 was blissfully free of challenges, while we had a couple of mid-vintage rain events our growers were able to comfortably manage disease pressures and achieve optimal ripening. Our biggest challenge was running low on a few wines after a small 2020 vintage and a strong year of sales.”
It’s a similar sentiment at Rob Dolan Wines, where Meg Brodtmann MW, Head of Education and Global Outreach, said this year has been a standout for its South Warrandyte vineyard.
“This year has been simply amazing. The weather was looking challenging at one point as we experienced a bit of rain, but thankfully it didn’t impact the incredible quality of grapes we got through.”
For St Huberts, there were some small challenges, as Winemaker Greg Jarratt said: “Initially we had some staffing issues finding our vintage crew with borders closed, but ended up with a lovely and diverse local team. Weather wise – quite high rainfall during the growing season kept our vineyard managers on their toes to avert disease pressure.”
What separates Yarra Valley wine
Yarra Valley terroir is known to be evident in the region’s flavourful grapes with natural acidity and low sugars.
Mooney said: “With time to reflect and taste, the wines show varietal purity, beautiful balance of fruit and natural acidity. Class Pinot Noirs – they look just beautiful. With the long season we had, the later varieties (Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon) had plenty of time to develop and have great tannin, fruit and structure.
Janes added: “There is genuinely top-class wines across multiple varieties in the valley. Flavour development is exceptional and sugars stayed low and in harmony with some delicious crunchy acidity.
“Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are both looking awesome and some of our newer varieties, like Arneis are as good as we’ve ever seen them.”
For Brodtmann, the region has become known for its cooler climate varieties, but also has the potential to produce “a stunning Cabernet”.
She said: “From skin contact Pinot Gris, alternative Italian varieties and killer blends, there’s something for everyone here – and not just made for the sake of it, but truly done well.
“We have incredible Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, just astounding. We didn’t really have a summer it was pretty cool all year round so that is amazing to help our hero varieties really shine.”
Jarratt agreed with this and said: “Not only a beautiful place, the Yarra is producing some of the finest Pinot and Chardonnay in the country. Add to that some spicy Shiraz, classy, age worthy Cabernet and a mix of unfamiliar and emerging varieties, there is lots to like.”
Supporting the Yarra Valley
Yarra Valley wineries are embracing their full flavoured wines and encouraging Australian retailers to support local vineyards.
Mooney said: “Yarra Valley wines are real, beautifully made wines. I can’t think of a more important time to over deliver to the new and current supporters of our brand. There is also no better time to support local wineries.”
For Janes, supporting Yarra Valley wines means supporting top quality wines that focus on meeting multiple price points for different customers.
Janes said: “Retailers should support Yarra Valley because it is possible to get exceptional quality wines at a decent price. Innocent Bystander consistently delivers expressive and evocative wines that over-deliver for their price.”
Brodtmann meanwhile explained that supporting Yarra Valley wineries means helping a region which prides itself on maintaining a long-term goal for a sustainable industry.
“We believe in sustainability of the industry and are big supporters of our growers. Rob’s helped so many people over the years by paying a fair wage, being a mentor and supporting small business. Our long term relationships means our whole industry is sustained,” Brodtmann said.