On the Trail

Like Sonoma Thirty Years Ago

David Driscoll

Famous for its cool climate chardonnay and pinot noir, there are a few other things I’d like point out about the Yarra Valley to anyone who likes to drink. First off, almost all of the the wines I’ve tasted over the last few days are the perfect balance of upfront new world fruit, with old world balance and restraint. The wines are lower in alcohol and higher in acidity, but they don’t lack fruit or freshness. They’re not as sweet or as ripe as in California, but also not as tart or earthy as in Burgundy. For those of you searching for food-friendly, complex, aromatic, and terroir-driven wines that are affordable, humble, and—most importantly—drinkable in their youth (as in right now!), I don’t think I can over emphasize how dynamic the Yarra Valley selections are. Driving around over the last few days, I got the impression it’s what Sonoma might have been like twenty or thirty years ago, before the region blew up and the money began flooding in. There's not a lot of marketing here. The quality of the wines speaks for itself. Not only are the wines down-to-earth and easy to love, the people are as well. Let me introduce you to a few of them.

Allan Nalder is the owner of Helen's Hill, a producer we just began importing directly to K&L recently that specializes in single vineyard expressions. Quite frankly, it's one of the coolest wineries I've ever visited—ever. Not only is Allan a salt of the earth kind of character, he's not at all shy about sharing his passion for winemaking. "I'm not saying I don't trust anyone," he said to me when I asked him if he purchased fruit from other sites in the Yarra; "It's just that I don't trust anyone." Helen's Hill prides itself in using only estate fruit to make its absolutely fantastic pinot noir releases. "I know where every berry in each wine came from and I can take you to the exact spot in the vineyard where we picked them." To prove that very point two me, we jumped on his "gator" (and ATV with a flatbed attached to the back) and went for a drive. His wines are darker and fleshier than some of the bright and juicy pinots I tasted. They're like Pommard and Volnay wines, but more approachable and dependable. I liked both Allan and his wonderful wines immediately.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had run into Giant Steps winemaker Steve "Flamo" Flamsteed earlier in the week, but yesterday I finally went by the winery and tasted through their entire line-up with Cameron Gordon, the sales manager for the estate. Not only is the winery top notch, but their on-site restaurant is also spectacular. Stylistically, the wines of Giant Steps are sort of in-between Sonoma's Walter Hansel and Santa Cruz's Mount Eden: they have structure and heft, but also supremely pure fruit and plenty of lush textures that derive from that perfect ripeness. I was blown away by some of their expressions, particularly the Applejack Vineyard pinot noir, which you can buy for less at K&L than you can in Australia! There's something down-home, yet refined about Giant Steps that's hard to pin point. It's like a meeting someone who's really good looking, but is completely unaware of that fact. It's quite refreshing, to say the least.

One of the highlights of my trip was getting to spend an afternoon with Yarra Yering's winemaker Sarah Crowe, who was recently named "Winemaker of the Year" by famed Aussie critic James Halliday. The property is one of the Yarra's oldest with vineyards originally planted in the late sixties by one of the pioneers of Aussie winemaking, Dr. Bailey Carrodus. Since his death in 2008, Sarah has picked up the mantle and continued the estate's pristine tradition of supreme quality. If you're looking for the Château Latour of the Yarra, this is it. Not only does Yarra Yering make an outstanding Bordeaux-style cuvée, their new black label "Carrodus" editions (sold only at the winery unfortunately) are absolutely mind-blowing. The 2011 straight viognier about made my heart stop. I had to sit down on the ground at one point and close my eyes in order to take it all in. 

Then, of course, there's Oakridge: perhaps my favorite Yarra Valley producer and one that we've been directly importing for a number of years now. I don't think there's a better value in pinot noir or chardonnay at K&L currently and it was great to finally see the estate for myself. Oakridge makes a number of single vineyard and even single block wines (you can see the block 864 sign in the photo above) that really illustrate the unique and diverse terroirs in the region. I spent the morning with general manager Danny Kane tasting through the clean and crisp selections of white wines before taking a walk through the vines. 

Part of the reason the Oakridge wines pair so well with food is because food is high on the list of priorities at Oakridge. Not only do they have an organic garden growing on site, their house chef Matt Stone is a world-class superstar and you can taste his stunning dishes if you drop by the winery for lunch. That's the other thing about the Yarra Valley: they care just as much about food as we do here in California, they just don't need to jump up and down about it, or spend the entire time Instagramming each dish as it comes out. There's a quiet confidence here. You eat, you drink, you talk, and you enjoy every minute of it. All of a sudden, that fourteen hour flight from San Francisco doesn't seem nearly as daunting. If you're looking for wine country, with all the amenities of wine country, but without any of the pretense of wine country, it's here waiting for you.

-David Driscoll