Yarra Valley was an excellent choice for us as it was completely feasible to make a day trip out of visiting several vineyards and including a relaxing lunch stop at one of the excellent restaurants.
Our first stop was De Bortoli where we were first greeted with lush green vineyards. Our visit to the vineyards at Yarra Valley was very much on a different scale than when we visited the wine estates in Cape Town, South Africa. In the Cape Winelands, we were on an intimate tour led by a professional guide where we were fed a lot of very interesting facts and history on the winelands and wine making in the South African region. This time at Yarra Valley, we made a very casual trip out of it with the family where we picked a few of the top wine estates in the region and made a stop at those places.
In addition to wine tasting, De Bortoli offers cheese tasting with a fee so if there is anyone who would like to accompany their wine tasting with cheese, that option is certainly available.
The 2010 Yering Station Cabernet Sauvignon won us over at the wine tasting and we bought a bottle of this medium to heavy bodied wine so we could enjoy it during our Christmas dinner.
Given Yering Station's stunning and beautifully landscaped gardens, I think it is safe to say that you don't have to be a wine enthusiast to enjoy this wine estate. In addition to the historical winery building and barn, one can easily do a self-guided tour and walk among the lush and well manicured lawns.
Within the Yering Station estate is where Sweetwater Cafe can be found. Exiting from the historical building where we had the wine tasting, we walked through the lush greenery toward Chateau Yering. We entered this well maintained historical house hotel before being led into a casual dining room that has ample natural sunlight surrounded more greenery just outside the windows. Sweetwater Cafe offers excellent food, it came as a very good lunch option for us.
There is an ongoing joke between T and I that I don't eat as much salad as he does, but if I was given this goat curds salad everyday, I could very possibly devour them for lunch everyday. The fresh greens, radish, and candied walnuts made the salad complete. The pan seared snapper won me over with its moistness still contained within the piece of cooked fish. The roasted pork belly was tender and flavorful at every bite.
We quickly finished up our lunch at Sweetwater Cafe so we could drive over to Domaine Chandon and arrive in time for their free 30-minute guided tour. As the name suggests, this wine estate was established by Moet & Chandon, the famed French maker of still and sparkling wines. Champagne was originated from the town of Champagne, located east of Paris, and therefore only sparkling wines that originated from the town of Champagne can be called, well, champagne. The rest of the world calls it sparkling or bubbles. From the very beginning, champagne has been the house sparkling wine for Moet. Down the years, the business was handed down to his great grandson and brother-in-law and that was how it became Moet & Chandon.
Moet & Chandon soon realized the demand for champagne outweighed what they could produce in France even though they had a million acres of vines and was one of the largest in the region. That led to the search of different parts of the world for regions where grapes could be grown to make quality sparkling wines. There is a strict variety of grapes used to make champagne which is made up of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.
Besides opening branches in Brazil and Napa Valley, the region of Yarra Valley was found suitable because the lush greens stayed throughout the dry summer period which was due to the way the soil retains its moisture. In addition to the vines grown at Domaine Chandon at Yarra Valley, they contract 50 growers from around the region including Tasmania and South Australia. The reason for this is to get a variety of grapes that grow in different soils, altitudes, and temperatures which lead to wider characteristics and a greater complexity in the resulting wines.
The entire process of wine making is cyclical and dependent on the time of the year. In spring, the buds start to appear and flower heads are produced. Pollination then turns it into fruit. Summer is when the fruit goes through the ripening process. At the same time, the vines are pruned to prevent too many leaves from forming a canopy and sheltering too much of the fruit. Come fall the leaves start to drop and during winter the vines become completely dormant.
Harvest time is at the end of every summer and as an example that every detail counts, the grapes have to be at the right sugar level before they can be picked. This detail goes as far as bringing the grape into the laboratory to test the current sugar level before the green light is given to start harvesting. The grapes can be hand picked which is a more delicate way as the grapes are picked in bunches. It is a slow process which can leave the grapes to be under the hot sun at long periods of time. Another quicker way is by using rods that vibrate and hence shake the vines so that the ripened grapes will drop down onto a conveyor belt. However, this quicker process can also bruise the grapes.
The picked grapes are brought into the winery dock and tipped into the stainless steel machine that has a presser underneath. The first level of juice from the pressing is considered premium quality and used in most of their sparkling wines. As the pressing continues, the grapes have longer contact with the skin which changes the structure of the juice and hence processed separately from the first level of juice. When yeast is added to the juice, sugar from the fruit is turned into alcohol. Through this process of fermentation, gases are allowed to escape through vents in the machines. The yeast then dies and falls to the bottom of the tank, creating a base wine. The winemakers then get together to taste and assess the base wines and determine the percentage of each variety that will go into making the resulting sparkling wines. Some sparkling wines can be made from as many as 45 base wines depending on the winemakers.
At Domaine Chandon, the white wines spend time in the barrels for up to a minimum of 10 months until they are ready to be bottled. The process for red wines is a little different. When red wine grapes are crushed, the juice color is clear. Red wines get their color from the grape skin. When the juice from red wine grapes are collected, both the juice and grape skin are placed together in open top fermentation machines. With the addition of yeast and through the fermentation process, gasses are produced which cause the skins to rise to the surface which forms a hard crust that needs to be broken up. It takes about 2 weeks for a full bodied red wine to get the color its need before it goes into the oak barrels. Red wines are aged in oak barrels from between 18-22 months.
As part of the process of producing sparkling wine, after bottling the cap is put on. Before capping it, sugar is added and when the wine gets activated from sugar there is nowhere for the gasses to go and therefore remains in the bottle. The yeast gradually falls to the bottom of the bottle and the longer the yeast sits in the bottle, the more premium the wine will be. After a minimum of 18 months or when the winemaker is happy with it, the yeast is taken out by machines. The tip of the neck of the bottle is let to freeze, turned at a 45 degree angle, and then caused to shoot out the frozen part of the yeast due to the pressure in the bottle. The amount of pressure is just enough to remove the sediments in the bottle without removing the bubbles.
Domaine Chandon makes their sparkling wine the traditional way like in France; they just can't call it champagne since only sparkling wines made in the town of Champagne can be called champagne.