Max Allen’s excellent book “The Future Makers” includes a chapter entitled “Back to the future.” It explores a revival of old traditions in Australia’s vineyards and wineries and I reckon it’ll be well worth catching up with Allen at next month’s Real Wine Fair (click here for details) where he’s delivering a talk (trade only) entitled “The Real Wine Songlines – A new direction for Australia”.
Australia’s Yarra Valley region, Victoria, is a veritable hot bed of “future makers,” many of whom I caught up with in February. I also visited Yarra Yering, one of the region’s seminal wineries which, in 1973, released the Yarra’s first commercial wine since 1923.
Botanist and founder Dr Bailey Carrodus’ then seemingly idiosyncratic techniques – small batch ferments and liberal use of stalks – are among those “back to the future” techniques which have once again found favour with a younger generation. Similarly, his championing of blends and alternative grape varieties (including terraced vines of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cão, Tinta Amarela, Tinta Roriz and Sousão from Portugal pictured, Italy’s Nebbiolo, Sangiovese and Barbera as well as a few French outliers like Carmenere).
Carrodus died in 2008 and, today, winemaker Paul Bridgeman carries the torch, continuing the good doctor’s work. Before we focused on the handicraft that happens in the winery, we toured the vineyards, with Bridgeman’s Jack Russell in toe. North-facing, with its sweeping vista of the Yarra Valley, the location on the Warramate Ranges is simply magnificent.
According to Bridgeman, Carrodus’ search for the perfect location was assiduous. Having visited renowned European vineyards, he rigorously applied what he’d learned about site and varietal selection when he acquired Yarra Yering in 1969.
Located above the valley floor, the frost risk is low and sun exposure very good. Bands of gravel make for free-draining, hungry, loamy soils which, dry farmed, remain lean and mean because, as Bridgeman points out “we’re in the business of wines that age for 20 years.”
Carrodus was no less assiduous about his choice of winemaker. Bridgeman was appointed winemaker shortly before Carrodus died. The interview process lasted four months and, every second Tuesday at 5pm, Bridgeman would meet with Carrodus for a blind tasting, or to discuss matters vinous over sherry. Bridgeman tells me Carrodus left him detailed notes and, sure enough, his fingerprints are all over the winery process.
For a start, the most striking thing about the winery is its stack of 92 half ton tea chests (pictured). Designed by Carrodus, these small batch open top stainless steel-lined fermenters are bunched up for warmth and, where necessary, ice is used to cool down ferments.
Though the hand-picked grapes pass through a vintage crusher destemmer, Yarra Yering use lots of stalks, which explains why you’ll find perforated cylinders (pictured) containing stalks in the tea chests. Bridgeman says it’s not just for extra tannin, but also for extra juiciness to the mid-palate. The cylinders, another Carrodus design, serve the same function as a tea leaf infuser, making it easy to control extraction.
Both white and red wines are pressed in an aged basket press and the wine then goes straight to barrel in underground cellars which were built in 1996. The finished wines are neither fined nor filtered. The label, designed by Carrodus of course (and each apparently originally hand-lettered by him), represents the winery’s initials and two wine glasses.
Has Bridgeman changed anything? He tells me he has picked up the sulphur regime since he arrived and, in the vineyard, cultivation is greener. Otherwise, he says, the new owners’ take is that “Yarra Yering is a jewel. It just needs to be polished occasionally.” And to be clear, that’s just lightly polished, for Bridgeman is quite clear in his belief “wine doesn’t have to have all the corners rubbed off – there’s room for edginess…otherwise you limit expression and potential.”
Yarra Yering Chardonnay 2010
Due to be released in May, despite having undergone (as usual) a full malo-lactic fermentation, there’s nothing soft and creamy about this Chardonnay though, in a nod to convention, it does have a dash of vanilla. It’s a muscular, well built wine – Bridgeman says “not pretty, the wine’s got shoulders.” Though the acidity is lower, it puts me in mind of some top (ripe but dry) Loire Chenin Blancs with its stony pear and quince fruit – flesh, core and (nutty) pips ‘n all. Plenty in reserve here. An interesting wine.
Yarra Yering Dry White Wine No. 1 1998
At one point, this Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blend was history. It was last made in 2000 when the vineyard was replanted to Malbec. Bridgeman says the occasional Sauvignon vines “jumped up” and, because verticals of Dry White No. 1 so impressed him, he planted cuttings and is set to revive the label with a 2011 vintage. The 98 is indeed impressive, stately even with a gravelly, stony undertow to its intense citrus zest and lemon butter-edged palate. Long and limpid with a wash of mineral acidity, it’s very good.
Yarra Yering Pinot Noir 2008
From a warm year, this is a deeply coloured, weighty Pinot with involving, velvety layers of damask and chocolate laced black and red cherry and strawberry fruit. It’s possessed of lovely richness, breadth and depth of flavour, without any loss of definition or freshness. Muscular and impressively balanced. Incidentally, a barrel sample of the 2011 looks very promising, perfumed, intense and spicy though Bridgeman describes the vintage as “a real trial.”
Yarra Yering Underhill Shiraz 2004
This 100% Shiraz comes from the Yarra’s last cool year before 2011. Unlike 2011, it was also a dry year. From a lower, westerly site on more clay-based soils near the winery planted in 1974, Bridgeman says it produces a relatively dense style of Shiraz. The 2004 is savoury and gamy with a generous palate of dark fruits and liquorice, a touch of tar too. A firm, cool sweep of tannins keeps it well in check, while a stemmy, green note adds edge. Flavoursome.
Yarra Yering Dry Red No. 2 2006
This blend of Shiraz Viognier and Marsanne was first made in 2003 (when it also featured Mourvedre and Pinot Noir!) Planted in the mid-80s, the Viognier must be among Australia’s oldest and, from a single vineyard/parcel, produces just a barrel and a half of wine. If not one for the brett police (according to winemaker Paul Bridgeman, it’s “in the roaring 40s”), it’s a gorgeous wine. Sensual and perfumed like a Cote Rotie, it reminds me why the northern Rhone region is sometimes referred to as the Rhone’s Burgundy, though its richness of fruit is distinctly Australian. A soft swathe of tannins and beautifully integrated acidity carries a long and languid finish. Very comfortable in its skin, which feeling it imparted to me as I slowly and contemplatively spun out my glass.
Yarra Yering Dry Red No. 1 2004
This inky blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Petit Verdot entices with its spicy, perfumed nose. In the mouth, though firmly underpinned by tannins, the juiciness of its mulberry, black berry and currant fruit keeps it rolling. Anchored and fluid both, it has terrific mouthfeel – great push and pull – with a garrigue-like, lavender-accent to its bottomless finish. To infinity and beyond. Venerable.
Jam Lady Jam Yarra Yering Marmalade
Warming to the theme of Max Allen’s talk, Jam Lady Jam might just feasibly be a songline. In fact it’s the name of this marmalade’s Healesville-based maker, who sourced fruit from Carrodus’ Seville orange grove – seven trees which he tended as rigorously as his vines. Carrodus used to pick the fruit in the first weeks of spring when it was perfectly ripe, as did Jam Lady Jam on 25 October in his memory. It’s a delicious thick cut marmalade. Like the wines, ripe fruited but pithy – well structured and balanced. Perhaps in homage to Carrodus’ use of stalks, my jar has quite a few pips! I’m eking it out slowly with mid-morning coffee.