Australia's Yarra Valley is the oldest wine region in the state of Victoria.  It's also one of Victoria's best-known tourist destinations.  Just 28 miles from Melbourne, Victoria's capital, Yarra Valley attracts over two million visitors per year, according to the Tourism Victoria Research Unit.  This historic wine region, only one hour's drive from Melbourne, is a world away from the skyscrapers and tram-filled streets of downtown.

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Yarra Valley History

Victoria's wine industry got its start in Yarra Valley.  In 1838, the first vines were planted on what is now the Yering Station property.  Many of the valley's first winemakers came to Australia from Switzerland; they settled in Melbourne, but quickly moved from the city to the nearby Geelong and Yarra Valley areas to plant wine grapes.  Yarra Valley led the way in production of quality Australian wines during the 19th century.  Unfortunately, tastes changed and fortified wines became popular.  This left Yarra Valley growers in a very bad spot, because the valley's climate is very cool.  When phylloxera arrived in central Victoria, Yarra Valley's fate was sealed.  The already unwanted grapevines were torn up to prevent the spread of phylloxera, and some of Australia's best cool-climate vineyards became pastureland.  By 1937, the Yarra Valley wine industry had completely vanished.

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Fortunately, changing tastes brought wine industry pioneers back to Yarra Valley.  In the early 1960s, several new vineyards were established, and some old vineyard properties were revived.  Yarra Valley's wine industry really took off in the 1980s when innovative winemakers increasingly turned their attention to cool-climate wines, particularly pinot noir.  The valley's winemakers have never looked back.  Today, Yarra Valley boasts over 80 wineries, producing everything from sparkling wines to dense reds, as well as a thriving wine tourism industry.

Geography, Soil and Climate

Yarra Valley is surrounded by mountains and forests.  The Yarra River and several creeks wander through the valley.  You can find vineyards in the flat river basin as well as on slopes.  Elevations range from about 160 to 1500 feet.  The valley's soils vary by location; in the center, soils are sandy loam or clay loam, but soils in other parts of the valley are volcanic and therefore quite fertile.

Yarra Valley's climate is, as previously noted, cooler than many other parts of Australia.  The average rainfall is about 40 inches per year.  Much of this rain falls during the winter and spring months; summers are cool and dry.  Drought is an occasional problem, as are wind and, more rarely, spring frosts.

Yarra Valley Wine Grape Varieties

Yarra Valley is best known for its pinot noir and chardonnay wines, but valley growers plant a wide range of wine grape varieties.  In addition to chardonnay, you'll find sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, semillon and viognier; the last two are primarily used for blending.  Red wine grape varieties include pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz.  Winemakers in Yarra Valley are known for their innovation, so you'll also find vineyards planted with many other varieties from around the world.

Visiting Yarra Valley Wineries

Yarra Valley's well-developed wine tourism industry caters to daytrippers from Melbourne – over two million of them per year.  You can visit the area independently by car or bicycle, or you can sign up for a guided tour at the Yarra Valley Visitor Information Centre.  Tour operators offer a wide range of wine experiences, from hot air balloon rides combined with winery visits to trips through the wine region by convertible or by horse-drawn carriage.

Everywhere you go, you'll find Cellar Doors, restaurants and artisanal shops selling everything from bread and cheese to local produce.  It's easy to experience Yarra Valley's thriving art scene, too.  The TarraWarra Museum of Art,  which was founded by winery owners Marc and Eva Besen, showcases Australian art in a sleekly modern building next to TarraWarra Estate.

Domaine Chandon produces both still and sparkling wines.  This winery, founded by France's Moët & Chandon, makes some of Australia's best sparkling wines.  You can take a free guided tour of the winery or opt for a self-guided tour.  Wine tasting classes are offered on Sundays; you'll need to reserve your space in this small-group experience well ahead of time.  Lunch and wine tastings are available at the winery's Green Point Room.

If city life is more to your liking, you can still visit a Yarra Valley winery.  Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander sits right in downtown Healesville.  After your winery tour, you can buy wine, cheese and bread at the on-site bistro or grab a table and enjoy a meal.  (Menu offerings are divided into "pizza" and "not pizza" categories.)

For a glimpse into the making of fine pinot noir and chardonnay, head to Coldstream Hills, founded by attorney, winemaker and wine journalist James Halliday.  Coldstream Hills' 2007 Reserve Chardonnay recently won the 2009 International Chardonnay Challenge in New Zealand.  The winery's Cellar Door is open 363 days a year.

De Bortoli Wines makes sweet white dessert wine as well as a full range of red and white varietals.  At De Bortoli's Yarra Valley winery, you can enjoy lunch in the Locale restaurant or try some wines and cheeses at the Cellar Door.  Check the winery's calendar for special events, including concerts and cooking classes.  De Bortoli's Yarra Valley winery recently won the "Best Tourism Winery" award at the 2009 Qantas Australian Tourism Awards.

Challenges and Opportunities

Yarra Valley's winemakers have been beset with difficulties in recent years.  The 2009 Victoria bushfires killed 173 people, charred five percent of Yarra Valley's vineyards and destroyed many homes and businesses, including three valley wineries.  Bushfires are an ongoing problem in Australia, and, in the aftermath of the 2009 fire, citizens, business owners and government officials are working to rebuild and to improve communications and safety procedures.  And, in true neighborly fashion, the region's winemakers have pitched in to help raise funds for those still suffering from the effects of the devastating bushfires.

Yarra Valley's winemakers must also contend with another recent worry – phylloxera.  Until 2006, Yarra Valley was phylloxera-free.  A small area was found to be infested with the aphid in late 2006, and the owners of the affected vineyard immediately took steps to destroy the vines and quarantine the area.  A second contamination zone was discovered in December 2008.  Because Yarra Valley was phylloxera-free for so long, most vines there are not planted on resistant rootstock.  This situation is, of course, being closely monitored, and the state government has established phylloxera infestation zones that are carefully reviewed each year.

Along with these challenges have come opportunities for Yarra Valley winemakers.  According to recent reports, the 2009 harvest was not tainted by bushfire smoke, which is excellent news.  While the Australian wine industry as a whole has suffered some setbacks recently, Yarra Valley's reputation for high-quality wines remains strong.   Yarra Valley wines continue to win awards, with chardonnay and pinot noir leading the way.  The winemakers of Yarra Valley are nothing if not resilient, and they are forging ahead with marketing campaigns and the hard work that comes with the commitment to produce wines that reflect the best aspects of individual terroirs.  Let's hope the next few years are a little less stressful for the Yarra Valley.