Another Winery Crawl: The Yarra Valley, Australia

Thanks to a birthday gift from our daughter, Kate, we headed out to the Yarra Valley wine region last week for yet another winery crawl.  Here are some notes from our trip on wines, food, where to stay, etc.

Wines: The Yarra Valley is a cool climate, so the wines are markedly different than the wines of the Hunter Valley and the Barossa region. I could taste the difference most in the Yarra Valley chardonnays, which have a more refined structure and subtle flavor than the chards of warmer regions like the Hunter.  The Mornington Peninsula, another cool climate region near Melbourne, produces similar chards (in fact, my favorite chardonnay in all of Australia is produced by the Willow Creek Vineyard in Mornington).

My favorite chard in the Yarra Valley was from Coombe Farm, which is owned by the descendents of the world-famous opera singer, Dame Nellie Melba (for whom we can thank for peach melba and melba toast).  In addition to its distinct chards, the Yarra is well-known for its Merlots and Pinot Noirs, although I did not find a single one that I loved (which, in all fairness, could have been a function of the cellar doors we visited).

Food:  About 100 of the approximately 130 wineries in the Yarra have cellar doors (a tasting room) and many have restaurants attached.  My favorite meal happened to be at the Healesville Hotel; but we also enjoyed the Innocent Bystander Cellar Door & Restaurant, and a lovely lunch at the Tokar wine estate.  For other gourmet options, try lunch at Oakridge  (incredible views but make reservations!) and dinner at De Bertoli or Wild Cattle Creek Estate.

Tours:  I personally do not like group tours, especially in wine regions.  I like to take my time and increase my chances of having a chat with the wine maker or owner at smaller venues.  But, driving isn’t wise either if you are tasting, especially when the right side of the winding, narrow road is the wrong side.  We had a private tour (thanks to my daughter!) with Evergreen Tours.  Geoff, our guide, was knowledgeable about wines and the region, very friendly and fun to talk to, and offers pick up and drop off as far as Melbourne.

Where to Stay:  We stayed at the historic Healesville Hotel and I was thoroughly charmed.  The hotel is a lovely walk back in time — even a bit spooky at night, which adds to the experience!  But, part of the price of staying in a properly restored, historic property is a tiny inconvenience: bathrooms are shared.  We were there in the middle of the week so we did not have problems getting access to the incredible shower and big claw foot tub, but weekends might be a different story.  If you like historic properties, the shared bath will be worth it, at least for a short visit.

If you want to go 5-star, the only real choice is the Chateau Yering.   Located in a Victorian mansion next to the oldest winery in the Yarra, the Yering is nestled among beautiful gardens and offers guests luxurious furnishings and spectacular period art.  (Fair warning: rooms start at about $600 per night.)

Accommodations are not plentiful in the Yarra, so if you prefer to stay in Melbourne, call Geof at Evergreen and have him pick you up for a day tour.  Pick up is at 10:00 am and Geoff will have you back in Melbourne by 5:30 pm.

Things to do beyond wine and food:  One of my favorite memories of the Yarra was our sunrise hike up to the lookout point at Mt St Leonard.  From here you can see the entire Yarra Valley, including many hot air balloons coming to the valley from Melbourne.   You can take a short walk to the top (good for sunrise since the forest is very, very dark) or choose one of the longer trails in the Toolangi State Forest to end up at the top around sunset.

I also thoroughly enjoyed Alowyn Gardens, and the Warratina Lavender Farm.  If you are like me and you can’t stomach the thought of tasting wine before noon, these are good places to visit during the morning hours.

Cycling:  I really wanted to do some cycling in the Yarra, but the narrow, unfamiliar roads and the carloads of wine tasting tourists gave me pause.  If you are going to cycle in the Yarra, I highly recommend going with a group (contact the Yarra Valley Cycle Club for example and get details on group rides.) Alternatively, you could take one of several wine and cycle tours offered by local vendors.

If you visit Melbourne, the Yarra Valley is worth the one hour trip.  The wines are solid, the locals are charming, and the food is fabulous.  Best of all, you can still walk into a cellar door and find yourself face to face with the winemaker, who is more than happy to spend some time chatting about wine.

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