Victoria: Cutting Edge Meets Classic


Bastard Hill is not a vineyard name that rolls off the tongue easily. It instantly evokes images of hardship and toil—of back-breakingly steep slopes. It’s also a far cry from the classic Australian landscape, with much of the continent flattened by 3.8 billion years of erosion. But that is exactly what you find after snaking through tall timber forests that wind up to one of the highest vineyards in the Yarra Valley. The volcanic loam soils betray the area’s geological history, while the angled hillsides are also a godsend, helping fruit in the higher-elevation vineyards to achieve full ripeness. This is just one of a myriad of viticultural environments on offer in the southeast Victorian regions of Yarra Valley and Gippsland.

While bordering one another, the Yarra and Gippsland are also, in some ways, diametrically opposed. The inland Yarra Valley, located among the higher reaches of the Yarra River, which passes through Melbourne before entering Port Phillip Bay, is almost aristocratic, with nearly 200 years of winemaking history and a significant back catalog of long-lived wines. There are impressive cellar doors and fine dining options to match. The coastal Gippsland region is wilder and more rustic, an uncut diamond with flashes of brilliance and growing momentum. Between them, they showcase the cool climate of the southeastern corner of Australia generated by the nearby Southern Ocean.

Fog rising at Yarra Yering.

Twists and Turns in Yarra Valley

The Yarra Valley was Victoria’s first wine region, with vineyards planted soon after settlement at Yering Station in the first half of the nineteenth century. Phylloxera and economic hardship saw the last of these original vineyards pulled out in the 1930s. The first new shoots emerged in the 1960s, thanks to the establishment of Wantirna Estate, Yarra Yering and Mount Mary. Their proprietors—Reg and Bertina Egan, Bailey Carrodus and John and Marli Middleton—were students of the classics, with each having a slightly different take, although all were enamored by the wines of Bordeaux. Before Shiraz stamped its authority across the country, Cabernet Sauvignon, from these three trailblazers, became highly desirable and set the region’s early course. The Yarra, cooler than Bordeaux but warmer than Burgundy, became a home for elegant, midweight, finely balanced Cabernet Sauvignon blends, with refinement and aromatic detail the local hallmarks. These three pioneering wineries remain regional standard-bearers after more than 50 years.

However, in the late 1980s, the Yarra dramatically changed track and helped to kickstart a national move into cooler viticultural zones. While Cabernet Sauvignon had been the Yarra’s leading light and still should be in some parts, Melbourne’s vibrant food scene, with encouragement from a strong sommelier community and general wine culture, helped build what has become a revolution. The setting-up of the Coldstream Hills winery in 1985 by one of the country’s leading wine communicators, Burgundy fanatic James Halliday, no doubt gave plenty of others the confidence to follow his lead, as did Chandon, the local outpost of Moët & Chandon­, which was established in 1986. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay plantings exploded, with 50 new wineries emerging over the next two decades, as did interest in cooler, upper Yarra sites, with some vineyards planted at up to 400 meters in elevation. Today, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay make up almost 70% of plantings, with 2,500 hectares under vine. Unsurprisingly, over time, Yarra Valley also attracted some significant international players; Dominique Portet (with family connections to Château Lafite-Rothschild and Clos du Val) arrived in 2000, while California’s Jackson Family added local trailblazing winery Giant Steps to their Australian stable in 2020.

Yet the Yarra experienced more than simply a broadening of plantings and exploration of viticultural landscapes. The region also grew into a hive of creativity and was really the first in the country to truly embrace cool-climate winemaking at a broad scale, helping to evolve the national narrative. Aspiring vignerons scoured maps for cooler sites with advantageous solar exposure while leading winemakers tinkered with well-established winemaking techniques to help showcase the quality of local fruit in the best possible way.

That ethos remains to this day, the Yarra sitting on the cutting edge of the modern Australian style. Walk into any cellar, and it is not unusual to find wines that push the traditional local boundaries, including whole-bunch Cabernet Sauvignon, skin-contact wines made in amphora and more traditional styles crafted from Portuguese varieties. Newer grapes for the region, such as Gamay, Savagnin, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo and Sangiovese, are also increasingly found among classic Bordelais and Burgundian options. Experimentation has become a part of the regional DNA, while Yarra Valley has also retained a classical base of predominantly Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Yarra has something for everyone. Even Nebbiolo, that difficult Italian mistress, can flourish. Luke Lambert’s 2022 vintage is utterly brilliant and reminiscent of Cru Barbaresco.

Part of that exploratory spirit is driven by the sheer variety of terroirs on offer. Elevations alone range from 30 to 400 meters, with every conceivable aspect. Some vineyards sit overlooking broad, open country, while others are tucked away in valley corners. The Upper Yarra paradoxically sits to the southeast, where the river emerges from the Yarra ranges. Here, in sub-regions such as Hoddles Creek and Gladysdale, younger red volcanic soils are common, while the lower Yarra is more characterized by older, sandy clay loams.

There are also continental aspects to the Yarra climate as a whole because of a level of protection from maritime influences. Here, temperatures drop quickly toward the end of the growing season, helping to retain acidity in the resulting wines. Overall, this highly complex range of terroirs and climactic conditions provides a broad palette of options in relation to grape varieties and styles, which sees quality wines ranging from Sauvignon Blanc to Northern-Rhône-like Syrah.

Today, though, while Cabernet can be king from the right site, the Yarra’s strongest suit is its stylish expressions of Chardonnay from leading exponents, which are generally sourced from the cooler, higher-elevation sites. Perhaps more than any other region, Yarra winemakers, particularly for Chardonnay, craft wines with a strong resemblance to modern, weighty Burgundy. Midweight, streamlined and savory, with moderate alcohol and gentle accents of new oak, the Yarra offers up many benchmarks for the modern Australian style, which is often achieved with significant use of solids and avoiding or minimizing malolactic ferments.

Higher vineyards are also important for the region’s stylish Pinot Noirs, particularly in warmer vintages, to assist in retaining finer aromatics, often aided by the significant use of whole bunches. Again, the wines are modeled on Burgundy with strong savory undertones, although they often possess attractive approachability. An important cornerstone to the recent success of the Yarra Valley and the development of these benchmark styles has been the quality of winemaking talent the region has managed to attract. The likes of Steve Flamsteed, Mac Forbes, Ben Portet, David Bicknell and Sarah Crowe have helped to refine the Yarra style over the last decade, with their work also having broader implications across the country.

Phylloxera Vastarix

It is, unfortunately, not all roses in Yarra Valley, although the challenges have also brought opportunity. Late in 2006, the dreaded Phylloxera was first detected, and while an extensive range of measures has been taken to halt progress, its slow march continues unabated. Australia is lucky to have many regions without Phylloxera, so this came as a wake-up call for the whole industry to increase protections around the country. Today, some, but not all, of the biggest names in the Yarra have prized vineyards under threat, with a massive regional replanting underway, the cost of which is likely to exceed AUD $1 Billion.

There is, however, a silver lining regarding wine styles and climate. Changing weather patterns have already had an impact, with some lower Yarra sites increasingly less well suited to early varietal choices, many of which were made decades ago (particularly for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir). There have also been significant gains in understanding various clones under Australian conditions, so vineyards are now being carefully replanted based upon a far-improved knowledge base, with a firm eye toward the future. This has increased plantings of what were previously alternative varieties, such as Nebbiolo and Tempranillo, but also resulted in better clonal choices, which can now be assisted with rootstocks that are well suited to regional conditions for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

There is also an opportunity for dramatic viticultural updates. A favorite has been moving row orientation from north-south to east-west. There have been significant changes in vine density and spacing to increase total vines-per-hectare, which not only provides more dappled light to the fruit zone but potentially also sees higher quality fruit available at a younger vine age. Shading the hot afternoon sun also improves the retention of finer aromatics. According to Steve Flamsteed, who was a key influence at Giant Steps for many years, “North-facing sites were more attractive back in the day when we were more about harnessing as much sunlight as possible. Now, it's more about hiding from it a bit, or at least managing that sunlight better—we are about a more dappled light approach.”

All these changes have allowed the Yarra Valley to put in new foundations that will help retain the integrity of high-quality cool climate Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon while also exploring new opportunities, including with Syrah. This dovetails beautifully with the refreshing Yarra ethos of protecting the classics while pursuing new potential opportunities, all through a quality lens. In the coming years, these changes will no doubt be viewed in a positive light, forcing Yarra Valley to think deeply about its future and act.

Giant Steps' Bastard Hill vineyard.


The drive from Yarra Valley to Gippsland is short, a 90-minute hop enough to reach the first wineries, but the differences are stark and multi-layered. Gippsland is a massive wine region, with less than 200 hectares planted out of a total land area of almost four million hectares, stretching from the outskirts of Melbourne around the south-eastern coast of Victoria up to New South Wales. The vineyards are largely found on the low coastal plain, hemmed in by the alpine ranges. Gone are the complex higher elevations of the Yarra and the grand cellar doors, now replaced by gently rolling hills and boutique operations. There is also a maritime freshness and vitality to the environment, with vibrant green hues betraying a region where rainfall and humidity are not in short supply. The combination of seaside location and mountain influence makes for an incredibly unique terroir, which in many ways is yet to be fully explored. You could almost say Gippsland is embryonic if it wasn’t for some very smart winemakers calling this remote corner of Australia home.

It is not only the terroir that marks Gippsland as a special place. Without a long history and the baggage of consumer expectations, there is a distinct feel among the winemaking community of a counterculture, where new ideas and free thinkers are embraced. As such, it is also a home to small operations and wines that radiate with personality. The people and the wines share an approachability and charm, and during my tour, this was best exemplified by a tasting and chat with Mark Matthews at Caledonia Australis. For a new generation of winemakers pushed out of the Melbourne dress circle by astronomic vineyard prices, Gippsland offers an opportunity to pursue their dreams, often revolving around environmentally sound viticulture, while crafting stylish wines with a can-do, give-anything-a-crack attitude. The likes of Bill Downie, Neil Hawkins at The Wine Farm and Patrick Sullivan have coaxed superb wines from this pristine environment, which seems destined to attract more talent in the near future.

But growing grapes and making wine in Gippsland is not always easy. Vast national parks can be a source of wildfires that wreak havoc, most recently in 2020. Significant natural rainfall makes Gippsland one of the more challenging Australian climates viticulturally, so it is never likely to be home to broad-scale wine production. In terms of temperature change, however, few places are better protected from a warming planet, with the underlying humidity bringing an engaging energy and subtlety.

In fact, Gippsland produces some of Australia’s most understated and unique wines. While the wines are hard to categorize, as Gippsland is the same size as Switzerland, this cool, maritime and damp climate does offer something quite different from many Australian wine regions. There is not a hint of the powerful, fruit-forward, sunshine-in-the-glass national styles. In fact, it is quite the opposite. These wines are subtle, understated, finely tuned and distinctly savory, with marked acidity—wines designed for slow contemplation rather than immediate appeal. If Margaret River and the Barossa are at one end of the spectrum, then Gippsland is very much at the other. If asked to pick undervalued regions around Australia with significant potential to hit the big time, Gippsland would be close to the top of the list. It’s a region to watch. It also makes a delightful pigeon pair and contrasts with slick Yarra sophistication, although the coming years should see that gap narrow.


The growing seasons of 2020, 2021 and 2022 saw unusual weather patterns in south-eastern Victoria. While the last two decades have seen slow and steady increases in temperature, these patterns changed over the last three vintages, with a return to cooler conditions. For a region striving for success with Burgundian grape varieties, it comes as a welcome change, seeing some alterations in winery practices—malolactic ferments are coming back into vogue for Chardonnay to reduce underlying acidity. Overall, these are years that will please consumers looking for an alternative to Burgundy that will not break the bank.

The 2022 Vintage

Two thousand twenty-two had some challenges but was ultimately a successful vintage in Yarra Valley and Gippsland, although the season was cool and yields were low. The second successive La Niña year with a wet spring and cooler temperatures saw poor flowering, with some vineyards down 40% and stormy weather damaging young shoots. Significant rainfall fell regularly throughout much of the growing season, particularly Gippsland, increasing disease pressure in dense canopies. However, low yields were advantageous in winemaking, helping to get good ripeness and generosity of flavor in the resulting wines. Chardonnay is the standout variety for the year.

The 2021 Vintage

Two thousand twenty-one was a welcome relief from previous vintages, as the season was kind in both Yarra Valley and Gippsland. Settled weather during flowering saw yields bounce back from 2020 with healthy crop levels, and well-timed rainfall helped to keep canopies in good condition. The year was cool, but a largely dry end to the season, particularly in Yarra Valley, allowed winemakers to choose optimal picking ripeness. This is a standout vintage, yielding beautifully balanced and seamless wines from all varieties with excellent purity of fruit.

The 2020 Vintage

While much of Australia was warm and dry in 2020, conditions were more complicated in the Yarra and Gippsland. A hot and dry start had fruit racing toward another early vintage. Particularly unsettled weather at flowering did not help, hitting yields hard (down between 30 and 50%). In late November, wildfires broke out in East Gippsland, continuing until January. Some, but not all, of the fruit was smoke-tainted, with the affected wines discarded. Then, with regular showers, the season turned cool in both Yarra and Gippsland. That shift pivoted the vintage, creating lighter and fresher wines that are largely best enjoyed over the short and medium term.

I tasted these wines in Victoria in November 2023, with follow-up tastings in Sydney.

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