Yarra Valley Red Wine Varieties
Pinot Noir is the grape variety that produces the most sort after red wines from the Yarra Valley. It could be argued that this is the red grape variety that is most capable of producing greatest diversity of flavours and wine styles of all of the Yarra Valley wine styles. In fact, Pinot Noir seems to reflect the particular vineyard and growing condition better than any other significant grape variety.
Wines made from Pinot Noir are therefore perhaps the hardest wines to categorise into styles as the diversity seems to resemble a spectrum more so than a small number of neat sets. The following generalisations may help with an understanding of Yarra Pinot Noir wine styles.
Aromatic or perfumed Pinot Noir
Cooler vineyard sites, earlier picking and the richer volcanic soils can all contribute towards producing a more perfumed style. Often these Pinot Noirs are not so much about body as delicacy and restraint. The most restrained and fine boned Pinot Noirs are probably particularly associated with earlier picked fruit.
Perfumed characters of Pinot Noir include the smell of flowers such as rose, tuber rose and violets. Other aromatic characters are cinnamon, nutmeg, sandalwood and musk.
Wine making techniques that ferment whole rather than crushed grapes are significant in allowing the perfumed character of the grape to retained in the final wine.
Fruit forward Pinot Noir
Styles that are more closely identified with fruit from warmer parts of the Yarra Valley and perhaps winemaking methods that are more focused on pulling everything out of the skins (as opposed to the gentler methods that protect aromatics). Soils are likely to be clay and loam over sedimentary rock, and base of the hills and ranges vineyards with some alluvial deposits.
Flavours include strawberry, red and black cherry and raspberry. Quite often a lick of new oak flavour is evident to complement the sweeter fruit notes and to provide some complexity. Choosing to harvest a little later will give a greater sense of fruit sweetness making for a more cooked or jammy sense of berry and cherry character.
Savoury and earthy Pinot Noir
Wine made from Pinot Noir can sometimes have flavour and aroma characteristics that are described as being earthy, mushroom or truffle like, or other times as being similar to aged or game meats. It’s perhaps harder to align these characters with particular parts of the Yarra Valley, making it plausible that these characteristics are perhaps encouraged by wine making techniques and the growing conditions of particular years.
There are however a very small number of vineyards in the Yarra Valley with soils that contain granite. These seem to produce Pinot Noir that is fine boned and restrained, but also tending to show earth and mineral characteristics.
Structured and dense Pinot Noir
As the Yarra Valley moves into it’s sixth decade since replanting began in the 1960’s there is a developing understanding of which vineyards are better for particular grape varieties, and even more particularly, which parts of these vineyards deliver a little extra magic.
Additionally, as vines gain maturity, they also deliver more in terms of grapes that provide distinctive character in the final wines.
It would also be fair to say that there a group of innovative winemakers and vineyard managers whose work at improving biological and soil oriented farming methods for vines has shown remarkable results in the quality of grapes achieved.
This combination of specifically great site, older vines and soil condition oriented vineyard management has started to produce Pinot Noir wines that have more presence, density of flavour and structural components such as acid and astringency. They are far removed from the perception of Pinot Noir being a light and fruity red.
and premium Yarra Valley red blends.
Pinot Noir may be the most noted variety for red wine production the Yarra Valley, but this has not always been the case. From the early 70’s through most of the 1980’s at least, it was wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon that re-established the reputation of the region for the production of elegant red wine. To this day a number of the regions most noted reds remain Cabernet Sauvignon based.
With few exceptions, Cabernet Sauvignon is most suited to the warmer sites of the Yarra Valley. These sites occupy the more northern end of the yarra, extending along the Maroondah and Melba Highways. Coldstream, Gruyere, Yarra Glen, Gruyere, Dixons Creek, Yering and Steels Creek are all town names and subregions with warmer vineyards. Other locations to the south with a history of Cabernet Sauvignon production include Seville and Wesburn.
Premium Yarra Valley Cabernet blends
Yarra Cabernet can be unblended, but many examples have at least small quantities of a complementary variety added, and some examples have a quite a lot of one, or up to four other varieties in the mix. The best examples of Yarra Cabernet have an aromatic character and an elegance that is rarely found in fuller bodied reds from warmer region of Australia. These wines are capable of aging for 10-20 years plus with correct cellaring conditions.
The aromatic and flavour characteristics of Cabernet based wines include red and black currant, dark berries, leafy and vegetable characteristics such as herbs, tomato, capsicum, and olive. Woody notes from barrel aging are generally present and include spice and vanilla characters in younger wines, and cedar and leather in older examples.
Other varieties most likely to be found in Cabernet Sauvignon based wines include merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. There are examples of Cabernet and Shiraz blended together as well, but not nearly as frequently as in warmer parts of Australia.
Shiraz / Syrah
The vineyards and subregions of the Yarra valley most suitable for Cabernet Sauvignon are those most likely to work for this other later ripening variety that has a tendency to go by a couple of names now.
Yarra Syrah / Shiraz is very much more medium bodied rather than full bodied in comparison to the super heavy weight reds of South Australia and northern Victoria. The wines also can, but not always, have an intensely savoury characteristic that is a little smoky and a little like fermented meats and olives. This is partly due to vineyard, partly due to choices about ripeness at picking and partly due to winemaking decisions. Typically these styles are harvested a little earlier and the ferments are often made up of a high proportion of whole bunches of grapes, stalks and all.
Fruit forward styles also abound, which are more towards the fruity generosity and broad sense of flavour of Australian shiraz from other regions, but always with that dimension of Yarra aromatics and elegance. Fruitier flavours include cherry, blackberry, and plum. This may become more summer pudding and jammy, or prunes and christmas cake dried fruits from wines made from later picked grapes.
Other red varieties and blends
Other red varieties grown in smaller quantities or recently planted for the first time include:-
For lighter bodied reds, Pinot Muenier, Gamay, Brachetto, and Grenache.
For more medium to fuller bodied reds, varieties include, Tempranillo, Merlot, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo.