Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Australia Day 8: Melboune, The Grapes of Yarra Valley

Waking up early the next day was definitely easy, there was much to look forward to! My cousin and I had planned to take a trip up to Yarra Valley and we were excited about restocking his wine supply.

Yarra Valley is east from Melbourne through tall timber country, which includes some of Australia's best eucalyptus forests and vast stands of mountain ash, the world's largest flowering tree. The road through Eltham and Yarra Glen passes through the Yarra Valley wine region. The Yarra Valley is a haven for wine buffs with 35 wineries open for tastings and cellar door sales.

We had some recommendations for where to go but the place is so tourist-friendly you can pretty much pick up a driving map like this one from any stop or vineyard and DIY. We stopped first at Five Oaks, a small family-run boutique vineyard with a small but quality selection of wines.

Then, we moved on to Wild Cattle Creek, which fortiously had a dining room and restaurant. We were allowed to sit outside and also to tour around the vineyard where they were in the process of harvesting the grapes.

Our lunch was simple, cold pate, olives and meats, lamb salad and this jaw droppingly good gnocchi, which is one of my favourite pastas, hence it was one of the best meals I had, really. Of course, this was washed down with their Sauvignon Blanc, one of the crispier but more well-balanced Australian whites I've tasted, with a nice long flavourful finish (rare!). They are selling out so if you can get some, buy more- this was my favourite wine of the trip.

The third place we went to was Coldstream Hills and this place is really well-known. Rightly so as even the aspect, from its position on a little hill, is pretty and the set-up is clean, white and bright. They were so efficient at the tastings that I didn't stay that long and I didn't buy anything- their white wine was not as smooth as Wild Cattle Creek's and their reds were classically Australian- very sharp and spicy, not my cup of tea.

Bar none, the most beautiful and photogenic winery was the Domaine Chandon, the joint venture with the French Champagne house of Moet et Chandon, it was landscaped to an open, broad perfection, with cunning little walkways like this one.

They make some wine but their breadwinner is really their Chandon champagne. I'm not an expert so I don't know how different it really is from the original Moet, except that it seems a bit lighter and definitely fizzier but that depends on whether you want to Curvee Reserve, the Curvee Traditional etc. It comes at a 50% discount, at about A$30 a bottle, so you can imagine the frenzy of buying that was going on in the showroom. This was a huge hit with all the domestic and overseas tourists, most of whom also took the chance to go on a photospree on the lovely grounds.

We were pretty tired and a little high after all that champagne but we soldered on to De Bortoli and were well rewarded for our endurance. I had been a bit resistant to going because I feel that its such a common name and it reminds me of supermarket olive oil but it's actually a really traditional vineyard and tasting room with a great cheese counter helmed by a dedicated cheese-maker. We bought a board for $5, which included this brilliant barnyard Brie, Parmigiana and Goat's Cheese. It was so good my cousin bought a packet to take home and I would have done the same, were I not travelling again the next day.

The $5 sticky wine tasting in De Bortoli is also extremely worthwhile. It runs the range of three sweet wines, including their most famous Noble One Botrytis Semillion, a Noble Black, which is a gingery, balsamic, somewhat awful muscavado-ed dessert wine and three of their ports- while two were good, the one I loved and bought was a $27 bottle of 8 year old Tawny Port which tastes of toffee and moonshine. It's a different, very unique taste if you want to drink it neat and absolutely fabulous in brown sugar-based desserts or sauces.

After our super speedy but lovely tour of Yarra, we headed back into town. It would have been great to have had more time to explore the surrounding areas like the Dandenongs which is supposed to be a garden lover's delight, thick with cafes, restaurants and small art and craft galleries, or take Puffing Billy, the only survivor of several narrow-gauge steam trains, to Emerald Lakeside Park and Menzies Creek.

Australia is such a rich country and most Australians don't really travel enough domestically. I know I would. I think next time when I have kids, I will be like my dad and take them on these long driving holidays so that I can see all the sights and taste all the wines *grin*.

For more information on specific vineyards or if you're planning a trip to the Yarra yourself, check out this Visit Victoria link

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