On the Trail

Hunting in the Yarra Valley

David Driscoll

Located about an hour to the east of Melbourne, the Yarra Valley is the Sonoma of Australia: a cool climate growing region that specializes in pinot noir and chardonnay and offers a more down-home and personal experience for wine country tourists. While winemaking in the Yarra dates back to the mid-eighteen hundreds, styles, selections, and practices have continued to evolve over the years, reinventing themselves over again even during the last two decades. I've become rather smitten with the wines over the last few years thanks to my colleague Ryan Woodhouse, who has worked tirelessly to promote the Yarra's low-alcohol, clean, fresh, and food-friendly selections since joining our staff sometime back. His passion and knowledge of the area instilled a passion in me, one based on the simple and straightforward nature of the winemaking. There's no pretense in the Yarra, and there's little tolerance for pedantry or typical wine country posturing. The producers here make wines to drink, not to collect or fawn over in the cellar, but in no way does that practicality imply a lack of depth or quality in the final product. For the past twenty years there's been a commitment to organic and biodynamic practices in the vineyard, as well as a hands-off philosophy in the winery. Whereas before a number of producers hoped to mimic the great wines of France, today they're embracing their own identity; one distinctly rooted in individualism.

While most of my appointments this week are at wineries with whom Ryan has already established relations, I decided to devote a bit of my time to exploration and community outreach; hoping to potentially add a few new direct producers to our already potent stable. My friends over at Four Pillars distillery had been raving about the wines from a somewhat new upstart called Payten & Jones, a small project started by two friends from the Yarra with experience in the industry. Behn Payten spent a number of years working as a winemaker at Punt Road, even working on some of the Dalwhinnie wines that we import to K&L, and his partner Troy Jones works in sales while managing time over at Four Pillars. I spent the afternoon with Behn tasting through a handful of his wines and touring his estate vineyards. Behn's dad Peter, a viticulturist and consultant in the Yarra Valley, also helps with the project, working to source additional fruit beyond the pinot noir and chardonnay sites on Behn's property. Having worked at Botobolar in the early eighties, Peter Payten had an early role in organic farming in the Yarra. Botobolar was the first organic vineyard in all of Australia when it was founded in the seventies, and his experience there has proved valuable to those producers who continue to move away from pesticides and other chemicals.

Located just outside of Healesville behind one of the Yarra's highest peaks, Behn's original house perished in what's referred to as "Black Saturday" in the Yarra; the horrendous wildfires that savaged the region's hillsides and killed more than 170 people back in February of 2009. Having talked with a number of folks in the area over the last few days, it's clear the tragedy is still fresh in their minds and the blackened trees that still scatter the region are a stark reminder of that carnage. "After the fire a lot of outside money came in to help rebuild," Behn told me as we gazed out over his vines. "When they rebuilt the infrastructure it was better than before. There was more awareness at that point and today we're stronger because of it. Before then we tried to make pinot noir like Burgundy and cabernet like in Bordeaux, but today we understand what Yarra is and how the fruit responds in turn."

Having spent the early afternoon tasting the Payten & Jones estate pinot noir and marveling in its pure-fruited freshness and aromatic finesse, I asked Behn if we might have a look at the vineyard site, so we took a drive up to his home on top of the ridge. We were joined by his daughter Pia, who helped us navigate beneath the tarp meant to keep out local pests and animals. "We get kangaroos here and loads of wombats," he said with a chuckle. I was dying to run into one, I told him. "We'll keep an eye out," he replied. "They'll be here by dusk." In addition to his estate selections, Behn is making a lush, yet vibrant grenache and a solera-aged, non-vintage sangiovese that about knocked my socks off. The wines are modern in their expressiveness, but classic in their restraint. In essence, they represent a style currently embraced by a number of forward-thinking Yarra producers: wines made to drink in their youth, but with complexity and elegance. The best of both worlds, if you ask me. 

As we moved to Behn's deck just behind his fantastic swimming pool, he brought out some home-cured venison sausage and a huge knife he had forged himself at a local cutlery. "That's a knife," he said without an ounce of sarcasm, harnessing his best Paul Hogan for me. I had thought the old Croc Dundee stereotype might be passé at this point, but I was secretly charmed by Behn's relaxed and laid back nature. There's not one bit of snobbery in the guy, and his wines are as humble and easy-going as he is. As we nibbled and sipped, Behn kept watch with the binoculars for some of Australia's famous wildlife. I stood by with camera in hand, re-pouring tastes of the delicious estate chardonnay that balanced the full-malo richness with a bit of bitterness from the tannins rather than acidity—a novel idea!

Sure enough, just as Behn had promised, a few curious creatures began to emerge from the hinterlands. This was about as close as they got, seeing that a strange American with a large black camera kept inching closer in search of a more detailed photo. It's not often you get to drink dynamic bottles of pinot noir and chardonnay while observing a family of kangaroos in the wild. But that's part of the Yarra's inherent charm. It's a different version of what we think of as wine country; and one that I quite prefer. There's a certain quirkiness that a number of producers once questioned, but today have come to embrace.

-David Driscoll