Wine tasting in the Yarra Valley of Australia has been one of the real highlights of our adventure so far, and truly a highlight of our four days in Melbourne!
We love visiting vineyards and doing tastings.
In the US we’ve done wine tours in Napa, Sonoma, Russian River Valley and Temecula, California, in the Willamette Valley in Oregon and even in Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Internationally we’ve tasted in Mendoza, Argentina, Reims and Burgundy, France and Stellenbosch, South Africa.
We were excited to to add Australia to the list!
And here’s a spoiler: I have fallen in love with Yarra Pinot Noirs!
Wines of Australia
Australia has a long and proud tradition of winemaking.
Yet when people – particularly Americans – think of Australian wine we often think of Shiraz. And, specifically, Yellow Tail Shiraz.
There’s a very good reason from that, as we learned during our wine tasting day!
Back in the 1990s and 2000s Australian wine, particularly big bold shiraz were all the rage in the US.
Those shirazes owed much to the Penfolds brand, which established Australia’s wine reputation with its famous Grange shiraz and a handful of other collectibles.
But then came the financial crisis and Great Recession which wrecked a lot of Australian producers. At the same time, the value of the Australian dollar surged to a 25-year high against the US dollar. To make it a bad news trifecta, drought and bushfires decimated vineyards and wineries in Victoria.
Interest in Australian fine wine crashed, and American importers and retailers cut their Aussie selections by 50 per cent.
Most of those big bold Australian shirazes disappeared from restaurant wine lists.
At the same time, Penfolds was caught up in turbulent mergers, and even sales of Yellowtail, after years of growth, flattened out, as inexpensive alternatives such as Malbec from Argentina flooded into the US market to fill the gap left behind by Australian Shiraz.
But today Australian wine is making a big comeback. At this point 65 regions grow more than 100 different varietals for nearly 3,000 wineries.
One of these regions is the Yarra Valley.
Finding an Affordable Yarra Valley Wine Tour/Driver
The Yarra Valley wine region is less than an hour from downtown Melbourne, making it an ideal day-trip from the city.
We shopped and shopped for the right tour company/guide. We didn’t want to do a huge bus tour…we don’t like tasting in a crowd and besides, we really prefer to visit smaller boutique wineries.
But we are no longer in a position simply throw money at the problem and hire a private driver for the day as we might have done in the past.
After a massive amount of research we came upon Three Koalas Wine Tours and its wonderful owner, Vlad.
Other private or even semi-private tours were asking $300AUD and $400AUD PER PERSON.
Three Koala’s price is $99AUD, with a 4-person minimum. Winner on cost!
Best of all, Vlad just got us. He not only agrees with but lives our wine tasting philosophy: try wines you can’t get anywhere else!
Case in point: Chandon. We have been to Chandon wineries in 2 countries: the US and France. When we told Vlad that Chandon (a staple of every wine tour in Yarra) was a hard pass for us he was thrilled. So were we.
So we hired Vlad. And even paying for the empty 4th seat, we saved a lot of money by using Three Koalas Wine Tours.
Our Wine Tasting Day in the Yarra Valley
Vlad picked us up bright and early (10 AM) at our AirBnB. We collected James on the other side of town and made our way to the Yarra Valley.
During our hour-long drive we plotted out the day – with Vlad making many suggestions that confirmed the research James and Lisa had done in terms of finding boutique wineries that have great reasonably-priced wines.
Once we had that sorted, Vlad contacted the vineyards and made sure we would be accommodated upon arrival.
Cellar Door 1: Badgers Brook
Our first stop defines boutique wineries and cellar doors. This family-owned vineyard focuses on Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Shiraz.
Badgers Brook specializes in estate grown, low yielding vines and most of their catalog is only available at their cellar door.
Vlad loves the Badgers Brook Cabernet Sauvignon so much that he bought a case of the 2013 vintage to lay away for a few years.
Personally my favorite (this would become a theme during the day) was the Pinot Noir, which was reminiscent of Pinots for the Willamette Valley in Oregon…which I LOVE.
This was my favorite and the one I took back to Melbourne:
But after a photo and video it was time to move on!
Cellar Door 2: Coldstream Hills
Our second stop was recommended by both Vlad, who loves it, and James who considers Coldstream Hills to be his go-to wine.
While the brand is slightly less boutiquey, it’s still not a goliath.
All of the wines were very approachable and the tasting room itself was gorgeous.
When we told the pourer that we were heading to Hobart next and intended to do some wine tasting there too he got so excited!
He told us how Coldstream Hills had beaten all of the Tasmanian sparklings – generally considered to be the cream of the Australian sparkling crop – at the Hobart International Wine Show.
Then he brought out the trophy and gave us a generous sample of the winning sparkling wine to prove it.
My favorite was the single vineyard Deer Farm Pinot Noir. It has white pepper flavor characteristics like nothing I’ve had before.
Lisa was partial to the blended Pinot so we took one of each back to Melbourne.
Cellar Door 3 and Lunch: Soumah
Soumah is known for wine but famous for their lunch.
We did both!
The tasting at the Soumah is extensive. There were 9 or 10 tastings, and when I mentioned that I love buttery oaky chards we went down that rabbit hole with tastings too.
After such a generous tasting it was very much time for lunch!
As I said, Soumah is really known for their lunch.
The lamb was really special. It was like pulled meat…but then reformed into a cube and charred. It was…AMAZING.
Lisa’s swordfish was also excellent.
Cellar Door 4: Pimpernel
99.9% of Australian wine are screw-tops. Australians find corks to be fussy, expensive and inefficient.
Pimpernel is the .01%. They are proud that their wines are corked with state-of-the-art non-corkable cork.
Once again the Pinot Noir blew me away and I took it back to Melbourne.
I wish I could say that it was as good as at the cellar door, but the fact is that as of this writing we have been unable to find a corkscrew in Australia…screwtops are so ubiquitous that we can’t find a corkscrew anywhere! Staff in stores have laughed at me for asking! Sigh.
UPDATE – In the end Lisa used a knife, spoon and other kitchen implements to dig out some of the cork then force the rest of the cork into the bottle. The wine, once opened, was delicious!
Tasting fees have just recently been implemented in the Yarra Valley. All the cellar doors we visited had a posted fee of $5AUD per person. But these were waived for our entire group at every cellar door we visited based on either a single bottle purchase or just out of friendliness.
The Yarra valley is an oenophile’s delight. The wines are really lovely and drinkable.
I went into the day expecting Shiraz but came out LOVING Yarra Pinot Noirs. I can’t recommend them enough: go find and try one!
The valley itself is beautiful and vibrant fall colors made for a gorgeous day of tasting.
And in the end, on the ride back to Melbourne, we were happy…if a bit sleepy.