Viticulture vulture: Learn the art of swilling in the vineyards of Victoria

Australia's southerly state boasts hundreds of vineyards producing world-class wines in a stunning setting.

My first glimpse of the Yarra Valley was at dawn. It was very cold, but the crown of my head was unbearably hot. Silence. Then a dragon's roar from above. Below lay the cityscape of Melbourne, sunlight leaking down long highways in streams of gold. The sun was rising from behind the valley and from the wicker basket of the hot-air balloon I could just make out the folds of the Yarra hills, veiled with mist. At my feet were sparkling skyscrapers but the glimmer on the horizon was enticingly close. The balloon sank almost imperceptibly and the sounds of the city came into range – traffic, birdsong, barking dogs.

Back at ground level – and restored from my 4am wake-up by strong coffee – it was time to give the Yarra Valley a close-up look. Just an hour's drive north east from Melbourne, Yarra is best known for containing more than 100 cool-climate vineyards, including big-name wineries such as De Bortoli, Yering Station and Domaine Chandon (owned by Moët & Chandon).

The region is recognised for its pinot noir, chardonnay and sparkling wines, with sauvignon blanc and pinot gris also gaining plaudits. I know all this, not because I'm an oenophile, but because Rich, my guide from Melbourne Private Tours, enlightened me on the drive up. It was the combination of renowned wine, farm-fresh food and an idyllic setting that drew me to the valley, rather than the desire to play out a Sideways-style road trip.

As we sped past orchards, smallholdings and vines, Rich pointed out the scars of the Black Saturday bushfires that devastated Victoria two years ago. Up to 400 fires were recorded in the state on 7 February 2009, resulting in the destruction of around five percent of the vineyards in Yarra alone; many more had their crop spoiled by smoke. After last year's refreshingly wet winter, most of the land has now recovered; as we drove on, cows munched contentedly on bright green grass, and vines combed the hillsides.

Our first stop was Dominique Portet, a family-run winery overseen by Dominique, a ninth-generation winemaker from Bordeaux. Eyes still bleary from my early start, I was relieved at his suggestion of a gentle immersion in Victoria's viticulture: we were going to blend our own wine. Dominque lead us to the warehouse where a refectory table was set out with three samples of maturing shiraz – the task was to decide the quantities to blend and then present it for tasting.

Mild panic set in. Ask me which reds I prefer and shiraz would rate highly, but blends? Without so much as a sniff of the stuff, my mind was starting to spin. Thankfully, pointers were given: taste and assess each for flavour, aroma and finish, then decide on a harmonious balance. It was surprising how – when guided – each aspect was suddenly revealed – and to my amazement my blend came top of the class.

I didn't have time to be smug about it; next stop was the TarraWarra Estate. Here, as well as prestigious pinot noirs and chardonnays, visitors have the opportunity to soak up culture at the contemporary art museum. Swooping around a hilltop, the dramatic rammed-earth TarraWarra Museum of Art follows the contours of the landscape and tapers to huge windows. Set up by philanthropists Eva and Marc Besen, the public gallery displays modern Australian art from established names such as Charles Blackman and John Olsen as well as Sally Gabori, an indigenous artist who started to paint at the age of 86. TarraWarra is about as avant-garde as things get in Yarra, and the available accommodation is no exception; farmstays, B&Bs and lodges offer charm, but not necessarily cutting-edge style.

The Yering Gorge Cottages are a happy compromise, with a dozen self-contained houses overlooking the Yarra River and Yering Gorge, densely blanketed in gum and tea trees. Each is furnished to a luxurious standard – wood-burning stoves, flat-screen TVs, spa baths and Wi-Fi are all available – but your eyes can't help wandering outside. With glass the only barrier between you and nature, you can lie in bed and watch kangaroos hopping around in the dawn mist, or galahs splashing pink in the eucalypt trees. I watched in amusement – and then exasperation – as a hot-blooded kookaburra pecked away at its own reflection in my bathroom window.

Amorous birds notwithstanding, my sleep that night was deep. I awoke to find a breakfast parcel on my veranda, which I consumed while gazing over the Yarra River.

If Yarra is the best known of Victoria's wine-producing regions, then the Mornington Peninsula, on the other side of Melbourne vies with it for beauty and exclusivity. Around 90 minutes' drive south of the city, the peninsula hugs the south-eastern curve of Port Phillip. Its maritime environment and hilly terrain mean that the 150-plus wineries span a variety of micro-climates, producing cool chardonnays to moderate shiraz.

Lately a number of boutique wineries have sprung up in the region, but rather than making a whistle-stop tour by car, I decided to take a more leisurely trot around the hinterland instead. I say trot, but plod is probably a better description. The last time I'd ridden a horse, it had swiftly decided to part company with me: that was 20 years ago. Happily, Horseback Winery Tours had no expectation of riding ability, and I was introduced to Danny, the stables' 18-year-old "follower".

I saddled up and set off behind owner Bev and her son Paul from their stables in Red Hill. A gentle amble through some fields ensued, with their golden retriever by our side and the wind rustling the trees. Country lanes gave way to tracts of wildflower-strewn forest, and tracks lined with gum trees. Our destination was T'Gallant, a Fosters-owned winery that has held on to its independent character, and which has a delightful cellar door in an inviting vine-painted storehouse.

We tied up the horses and set off to sample a range of 2008 wines: a sparkling Ophelia, Grace pinot grigio, Juliet sauvignon blanc, Tribute pinot gris... then three more reds. The key here, is to swill and spit, particularly before you've eaten lunch. But it's easy to get carried away when the sun is streaming in, and the bottles are so enticingly named and adorned with pink flowers, hearts and butterflies.

By this point I was feeling more than a little wobbly, but definitely more confident of my riding ability. I resolved to be more professional at our next stop. Danny, too, was feeling more self-assured and decided to break into a trot as we took off for Ten Minutes by Tractor. This sleek winery overlooks a gentle gorge in Main Ridge, the highest point on the peninsula, and is named because of the length of time it takes to reach each of its three vineyards... by, er, farm vehicle.

Diners in the restaurant were sitting at tables next to huge picture windows overlooking the vines. I had wine of my own to sample, so took my place at the cellar door counter to swill a 2008 chardonnay and a delicious 2009 pinot noir, at first sweetly spiced and then savoury. There were premium-range single varietal chardonnays and pinot noirs too... and by this point the terminology was almost making sense to me.

It was a wrench to leave, but the Port Phillip Estate made a majestic finale to my journey. The home of Kooyong and Port Phillip Estate wineries is leading the way for destination vineyards with a dramatic limestone and rammed-earth building that opened just over a year ago. Inside lie a panoramic restaurant, tasting room, winery and six ultra-luxurious suites. The monochrome interiors, timber ceilings and concrete floors unfurl along a hilltop overlooking magnificent views that stretch over the vines to the sea.

The suites are the newest addition, offering visitors the chance to linger after dinner or a tasting and wake up to the stunning view. I could easily be persuaded. This first glimpse of Victoria's vineyards would hopefully not be my last.

Travel essentials: Victoria

Getting there

* The writer flew from Heathrow to Melbourne via Doha with Qatar Airways (0870 389 8090; Returns fares from £885. Other airlines serving Melbourne from the UK include Qantas, Emirates, Etihad, Cathay Pacific, Singapore, Thai and Malaysian, all via their hub cities.

Staying there

* Yering Gorge Cottages, Yering, Yarra Valley, Victoria, Australia (00 61 3 9739 0110; au). Cottages sleeping two start at A$259 (£162), including breakfast.

Visiting there

* Global Ballooning (00 61 3 9428 5703; Hot air balloon rides over Melbourne cost A$350 (£218) per person. Yarra Valley trips from A$290 (£181).

* Melbourne Private Tours (00 61 419 571 800; offers tours of the Yarra Valley starting at A$245 (£153) per person.

* Horseback Winery Tours, Red Hill, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria (00 61 3 5989 6119; Tours start at A$110 (£69) per person.

* TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville, Yarra Valley (00 61 3 5957 3100; Daily 11am-5pm, to 7pm Fri-Sun; A$5 (£3).

* Dominique Portet, Coldstream, Yarra Valley (00 61 3 5962 5760;

* T'Gallant, Main Ridge, Mornington Peninsula (00 61 3 5931 1300;

* Ten Minutes by Tractor, Main Ridge, Mornington Peninsula (00 61 5989 6080;

* Port Phillip Estate, Red Hill South, Mornington Peninsula (00 61 3 5989 4444;

More information


Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'