Yarra Valley: The wine, the history

The Yarra Valley was one of Australia’s most important premium winemaking regions in the period 1860 to 1900. The grape plantings at St Huberts, Yeringberg and Chateau Yering alone exceeded the total of the plantings in the Yarra Valley as at 1986. The quality of the wine was of the highest order: at the 1881 Melbourne International Exhibition St Huberts received the grand prize awarded by the Emperor of Germany for the Most Meritorious Exhibit in all categories.

Given that the exhibition covered every type of agricultural and industrial produce (and that there were 711 entries in the wine section alone) the achievement of St Huberts was indeed remarkable; the other exhibits vying for the grand prize included a steam engine and a felt hat.

Wine production ceased in the Yarra Valley in 1921, the last vintage being made at Yeringberg in that year. The reasons for the decline were changing land use requirements (dairying replaced grape growing) and a marked change in Australian wine production from fine table wine to heavier fortified wine. Declining soil fertility is also believed by some to have contributed to the economic malaise which led to the end of the industry in the Yarra Valley at that time.

While the cool climate of the Yarra Valley is clearly unsuited to the making of fortified wine, it is particularly suited to the growing of grapes for fine table wine. Using the Heat Degree Day system of measurement, Healesville has an index of 1158, marginally warmer than Dijon (Burgundy, France) at 1115, but cooler than Bordeaux (France) at 1238, and significantly cooler than Coonawarra (Australia) at 1259.

Although total production from the Yarra Valley is still too small to be separately recorded in national wine production and viticulture statistics, it has already achieved pre-eminence in the production of pinot noir table wine. In 1987, Yarra Valley wineries received 15 out of 18 gold medals awarded on the National Wine Show circuit in the Pinot Noir Classes.

Moet et Chandon, the largest Champagne house, acquired a substantial property in the Yarra Valley (less than five kilometres distant from the Coldstream Hills Vineyards) and has established a large vineyard and winery (the latter to serve as its operating base in Australia) on the property.

There are now over 40 wineries (and approximately 85 vineyards) operating in the Yarra Valley, with a number of additional wineries in the course of construction or scheduled to come into production over the next few years.

The background

The history of wine in Australia has an amazing way of repeating itself. Fashions in taste change, economic conditions and the scourges of nature take their toll, but the truly great wines and vineyards that bear them will always re-emerge. Such is the history of the Yarra Valley in Victoria.

The district is situated around the towns of Lilydale, Yarra Glen and Healesville with some vineyards in the outer suburbs of Melbourne. Vines were first planted in the Yarra Valley around 1840 by William Ryrie, a farmer who came south from New South Wales in search of good land. This district, however, blossomed with the Swiss settlers who were encouraged to immigrate to Victoria by Sophie, wife of the first Governor of Victoria, Charles La Trobe.

Sophie was the daughter of the Swiss Counsellor of State and was well-connected, mixing in circles which included the brothers Hubert and Paul de Castella, ancestors of our famous marathon runner, Robert de Castella. Hubert founded St. Hubert’s Winery in 1854 and another of his countrymen, Baron de Pury, founded Yerinberg in 1862.

These Swiss pioneers were well versed in winemaking and viticulture and had a great influence on the growth and success of the area as a wine-producing district. St. Hubert’s Winery won the German Emperor’s Grand Prize for the Best Australian Wine Exhibitor in the Great Melbourne Exhibition in 1880, for which the grand Exhibition Buildings in Melbourne were built.

The prize reflected the ideal wine-growing conditions of the area. Vineyard areas in the Yarra Valley expanded rapidly and by the late1860’s they covered around 150 hectares.

By 1890, Victoria produced almost 60 percent of Australia’s wine – more than all the other states combined. Unfortunately, around this time, tastes changed and fortified wines became the fashion. The lack of knowledge about bacterial spoilage meant, too, that bad wines abounded, as fortification became the norm.

Cool climate, low-yielding areas that produced fine table wines, such as the Yarra Valley, died out and by the early part of the 20th century, most vineyards in the Yarra had ceased operating.

The last vintage was at Yeringberg in 1921. It is often thought that the vine louse, phylloxera, was responsible for the demise of the Yarra Valley, but surprisingly it was one of the few areas in Victoria not attacked and decimated by this disease.

The re-birth of the Yarra Valley came more than 40 years after that last vintage in 1921. There is a certain rivalry between the new pioneers as to who was actually the first in the renaissance. However, I feel the honour should be shared. In 1963, Reg Egan, a Melbourne solicitor, set up residence and started a small vineyard of several hectares in the outer Melbourne suburb of Wantirna South. Now he crushes about 15 tonnes each vintage.

Although a little south of the Yarra region proper, I feel this is rightly classified as a Yarra Valley vineyard. A little north of Wantirna Estate is Kellybrook in the suburb of Wonga Park.

Darren Kelly founded his enterprise in 1962 and made both still and sparkling wines from apples grown in his orchard; today the vines vastly outnumber the apple trees.

In the 1960s renowned winemaker Dr John Middleton also began growing vines and making wines as a hobby. The true renaissance started in the Yarra Valley in 1968/69 when St. Hubert’s Yarra Yering, Fergussons and Yeringberg all got underway with planting.

They were followed closely by Chateau Yarrinya (now de Bortoli’s) and Seville Estate in 1971 and more lately by Yarra Burn and Warramate in 1976.

Many other ventures have been successfully launched since. Chief among them is Domaine Chandon, the offshoot of the French Möet and Chandon Champagne company. This venture started a wine tourism bonanza with many wineries building restaurant, galleries and other hospitality adjuncts.

These include the fabulous Yering Station complex, the state of the art Eyton on Yarra, the restaurant at Lilydale Vineyards, Fergussons were certainly in the forefront of this move, and today the visitor to the Yarra Valley is extremely well catered for. Wine tourism has gripped the Yarra, the annual Grape Grazing in March sees this at its zenith with wine, food and music pumping out. Many excellent restaurants and cellar door hospitality areas each week attract thousands of keen wine drinkers, from all corners of the world. The Yarra Valley is once again a wine mecca.


This article first appeared in Victorian Lifestyle Property magazine.