Nestled in the heart of Victoria’s picturesque countryside is the Yarra Valley famed for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (and some pretty good Cabernet Sauvignons too). It’s our first time here and it only took an hour from Melbourne. It’s impossibly pretty from every angle (even when it rains), with rolling hills, lush green farmlands and some of the world’s best vineyards stacked almost as closely and rows of vines. This makes darting from winery to winery so easy. Less driving more drinking. My dining partner, Mr G and I embark on a wine-soaked journey through some of the region’s most renowned wineries.
Chandon – Australia’s home of fine sparkling wines
Sixty years ago, Robert-Jean de Vogüé and a few buddies travelled the world in their search to redefine sparkling wine. John Wright, (who ran Chandon California) took a bet on Victoria after visiting Oz in 1982, the rest is history.
I have wanted to visit since I first arrived in Australia a few decades ago. Mel Gilcrist welcomes us, (I love her awesome podcast “Wine with Meg and Mel,”). She shows us around. The winery is stunning, rows of vines stitched into the distance till they disappear on the horizon. It’s a rare patchwork quilt of nothing but blue skies, green lawns and majestic naked grapevines. We arrive into a sparkling paradise – an opulent bar and tasting area with soft pink leather booths, wooden curved central seating and the best views of ANY vineyard in the Yarra (Yes, we vistited over 20!).
The Tasting Bar – I’ve had my fair share of Chandon Brut over the years. I wonder if I am going to get busted at the bar given my prowess for their bubbles! However, this is a rare chance to experience multiple vintages and blends. I feel like a labrador whose owner has just whispered “walkies”. I AM SO READY!! We have five different vintages in front of us; Vintage Blanc de Blanc 2017, Vintage Brut 2016, Vintage Blanc de Noir 2010, Ruby Cuvee 2020 and Pinot Noir Shiraz. Our host takes us through each one. My favourite the Blanc de Noir. It’s been aged for over 40 months and made with 100% Pinot Noir grapes. It has a fine bead, pale straw, hints of sourdough richness with toasty hazelnut nut finish – the acidity is a good balance and length. $22 per tasting. Book ahead.
Lunch at Chandon: A Culinary Affair
As the midday sun bathes the vineyards in glorious light, we take our seats. We start with a selection of five tapas. It’s a tough choice whether to smear the organic sourdough with local goats cheese or dip it into an aromatic macadamia dukkah. Tasters of mount zero olives, cali spiced almonds and insanely addictive popcorn with Bahia spices kicks off an unexpectedly playful and generous start to our lunch.
We add the option of oysters and they are Sydney Rock stunners arriving on their own pebble beach. Entrees of caramalised onion tarte tatin is an original take on the apple version. Rich crispy pastry, oozy buttery sweet onions are all the better for a doozy of creme fresh. All of this insane greatness is covered by a garden of mustard cress to give you the illusion of health. It’s bloomin’ awesome. So too are the grilled prawns, here they are sweet and luscious with a tinge of leopard spots from grilling.
Tasting The Etoile – It is the most exquisite gem in Chandon’s effervescent collection. A passion project combining the hundreds of base wines across eight of the best vintages. At $120 a pop for a bottle, it’s had wine writers in raptures, even Huon Hooke called it a “Masterpiece of blending”. Oh well, go on then. It is without doubt a stunning wine. A silky fine bead, ridiculously drinkable with rich pear notes, subtle brioche almost gingerbread flavours and had some nutty spices too.
Main courses arrive with service that exudes seamless expertise, where every request is effortlessly accommodated. My half chicken resembles a sun-kissed vacationer from Ibiza – bronzed, irresistibly attractive, and ready to party. Mr’Gs pork cutlet is a masculine affair, with a Japanese sabre like bone taking centre stage of pre sliced and symmetrical layers of flesh. Beetroot, apples and artichoke create a sweet, sour battlefield for our attention in all the right ways. We finish with a delicious pecan slice accompanied with a rectangle of toasty coconut marshmallow good enough to be a desert on its own. A perfect spoonful or vanilla bean rice pudding is seasoned with vanilla and twinned with a baked pear which tops of an outstanding day.
Dominique Portet: Where Heritage Meets Innovation
In 2000, ninth-gen winemaker Dominique Portet founded his namesake winery in Coldstream, after a search for a terroir to rival that of their family’s native Bordeaux . This marked a new chapter in a winemaking legacy dating back to 1700s France. Today, tenth-gen Ben leads the team, honouring tradition, site, and innovative practices for exquisite wines.
It’s our second day in Yarra Valley and the sun is shining. It’s like walking onto a film set of a Chateau in France, the trees wallpaper the walls and pathways hugged by lavender are sending the bees into a frenzy of happiness. Inside, it’s a blend of tiled terracotta floors, arched windows and a refined tasting arena.
Wine Tasting – There are a number of different packages ranging from $15 through to the André Experience which includes a tour and tastings of their single vineyard wines along with their flagship André Cabernet Sauvignon. We enjoy our tasting over lunch. Starting with their sparkling rose. Dominique Portet was instrumental in creating the sparkling at Clover Hill, in Tasmania (another favourite of mine). Aged for two years, it’s a delicate, fresh wine with hints of strawberry. The 2022 single vintage chardonnay is a classic for the region best known for this style. It’s a fuller bodied chardonnay (very few in the Yarra are what I would describe as ‘big’) with notes of peach and stone fruits on the palate, good length balanced with a structured acidity. Definitely one for our cellar. The 2019 Cab Sav is stunning thanks to a great vintage year but also hand picked fruits and de stemming gives it a silky structure with lively blackberry flavours. It’s got a decade or more of ageing but even now the tannins are not too grippy..
L’Apéro Lunch – This is a romp through an elegant picnic in Bordeaux. We find ourselves a table by the arched windows and enjoy the rolling green hill views. This menu doesn’t cater well for non-red meat eaters, but the restaurant accommodated me with baskets of steaming, just baked french baguettes, fish goujons (from the kids menu) and an outstanding pumpkin and lemongrass soup which was so packed with flavour I nearly picked up the bowl and licked it clean. We start with a half dozen Boomber Bay oysters from Tassie which are magnificent. Mr G is in carnivore heaven tucking into a platter of cloud-like fluffy slices of chicken liver parfait sweeped up by addictive homemade poppy seed lavosh and pickled prunes. The duck and balsamic terrine is a serious block of flavour. It arrives with cornichons and walnut aioli topped with lavender flowers. It’s rich, dense but with bags of flavour. Their Korean chef cooks better French food than a native.
Rochford Wines: Mega Vineyard & Concert Venue
Rochford Winery is a beast. It’s a sprawling estate that includes two restaurants, a large outdoor terrace, gin bar, tasting area, a weddings & functions venue oh! and don’t forget the enormous 12,000 capacity outdoor concert amphitheatre. It’s big, but also beautifull thanks to those ridiculously pretty views of the Dandenong Ranges. It unusual for its size, in a wine region that has a more intimate feel to it.
Lunch at Isabellas Restaurant
We arrive for a 1pm Saturday lunch. Isabellas is an expansive dining room which is well set up for groups (or bus loads), which I have to admit is setting off a few alarm bells. Is this going to be a lacklustre dining experience? Whilst it lacks intimacy, the floor to ceiling glass dining room gives us stunning views of the Coldstream landscape.
Service is buzzy and friendly. A glass of 2017 Upper Valley Cuvee is far superior to the Prosecco, with grapes coming from a single vineyard in Gembrook and aged on lease for 5 years. It’s my kind of sparkling. Light buttercup yellow in the glass, but lots of stone fruits, yeasty bready nose and a good acidity. Mr G opens up with 2022 Pinot Noir, which is a delicate glass full of cherries, spices and even a touch of strawberry.
Starters arrive. The pork belly is a pretty dish, a perfect rectangle of luscious porky flesh has had the crackling removed, its side-car is a celeriac and apple remoulade, there has never been a better pairing. Stunning cooking by executive Chef Ramiz Shaikh. I order salt baked veggies. It might not sound sexy, but Oh My Goddess! A bed of corn puree provides a Hugh Hefner style veggie orgie of heirloom carrots, baby beetroot, broccolini and kale. It’s insanely good and I wish more chefs cooked like this, the use of salt draws out the water and intensifies the flavour of every legume.
Lemon chicken maryland is perfectly cooked, and arrives with a generous wedge of baked polenta, wild mushrooms, olive tapenade and jus. Did someone say 16 hour beef oyster blade? It’s a creative dish, served on top of a brightly coloured braised Moroccan spiced couscous tumbled with peas and a splash of basil pesto. We add sides of brussel sprouts, all glossy tussling with cirspy bacon. Why, oh why did our mums bring us up with this prince of veggies boiled to an inch of its existence? OK, my ‘size’ hangups about this place have faded. Isabellas is outstanding.
Tasting Bar – We luck out with a phenomenal Rochford host who takes us through the range. Like everything here – it’s big! We decide on the Estate Wine Flight which includes Sauvignon Blanc 2022, Chardonnay 2021, Pinot Noir 2022, ‘la Gauche’ Cabernet 2020, Syrah 2021. As we chat about our experiences and wine preferences it’s wonderful to get little surprises of ‘Oh we have something a bit special we have just opened’ try this. We loved the Toolangi D Block Shiraz 2019, plums, pepper, even liquorice. It’s soft in tannins but will be amazing to age. The team are fabulous, vibing off each other and at the end of it all we leave as friends, not customers nor journalists.
Having been to over fifty wine regions around the world, Yarra Valley is very special. It’s close proximity to Melbourne makes it an easy day trip, also the wineries are a tip toe from each other, unlike Margaret River or even the Barossa where you can travel significant distances. The ranges are an omni present drinking partner, the scenery is simply breathtaking. Finally, the quality of the wines is exceptional. The vineyards vary in production volumes, but the experience is boutique, you are served with love and the quality of the wines is outstanding. The only downside was that some of the more well known vineyards can charge $50 or more for a tasting which is quite unusual in Australia.
To stay – We highly recommned staying in Healesville as a base, it’s a lovely town, with character, the kind of boutique and premium high street we wish we all had; coffee, cheese, wine and a warm and welcoming community. We stayed at a wonderful new airbnb called Newgrove Views – see here for our review.