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Andrew Catchpole visits Australia's 'Regional Heroes'

Published:  11 August, 2010

There's nothing quite like a kangaroo sighting to kick any lingering jetlag into touch so soon after tumbling off a flight to Australia.

Better yet, a mob of kangaroos grazing on the lush hillside just beneath James Halliday's tasting room in the cool, cloud-sheathed Yarra Valley. I've hooked up with the winners of the UK independent retailer Australian Regional Heroes promotion for their trip Down Under and to see these bizarre bouncing marsupials among the Chardonnay vines is a fitting touch to the day. We've just worked our way through a Yarra Valley Chardonnay Masterclass at Yering Station as part of a fantastic, full-on 10 day immersion in Australian vinous regionality, spanning the finer nooks and crannies of both Victoria and South Australia.

I'm with Rachael Armstrong and Robert Crosland of Tanners, Matthew Parkinson of Hennings, and our host Regan Schwartz of Wine Australia (The third winner, Philip Amps of Amps, can't make it out until later this year).

These 'Regional Heroes' have already spent a day visiting Heathcote and the Macedon Ranges, where Ron Laughton's stunning wines at Jasper Hill set the pace for visits to Shelmerdine, Curly Flat and the sparkling wines of John Ellis at Hanging Rock Winery. A classy introduction to regional Victoria and, having visited these wineries myself last year, sorely missed as I lounged on a double-decker plane over Asia.

No worries, though, as the highlights of day two were a Yarra Valley Chardonnay Masterclass at De Bortoli, followed by lunch and a Pinot Noir Masterlass at Yering Station. Fuelled by flawless flat whites - and Melbourne must have a coffee culture second only to Milan - we arrived at De Bortoli to be greeted by winemakers Steve Flamsteed (Giant Steps), Sarah Fagan (De Bortoli) and Timo Mayer (Mayer and Gembrook).

The Chardonnay tasting was an eye-opener for the group. Yarra's identity as a producer of cool climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir was a given but what this tasting revealed was the clear sub-regional diversity within the valley. Overall the wines were poised, underscored by zingy-fresh, mineral-edged acidity, mostly malo and (almost) oak free, with elegant underlying concentration. But most notable, as we tasted our way from warmer valley floor to the cooler elevations, were the subtle differences in wines.

Twelve wines ranged from the fuller, stone fruit ripeness of an '09 Sticks No 29 by way of a walnutty, lanolin scented '07 Yering Station Combe Farm Valley, to the concentrated yet rapier fresh '08 Giant Steps Sexton Vineyard and a minerally, beautifully balanced '07 Gembrook Hill. Shelmerdine, PHI, Mac Forbes and Punt Road wines weighed in too, showing a cool, elegant, mineral-slaked face of Australian Chardonnay, each with a developed sense of place.

"We began to make Chardonnay's we liked, that we wanted to drink, a decade or more ago," Steve Flamsteed told us. "And once people come around to realising the style of wine we are making I believe we can capture Chardonnay and make it Australia's own variety."

The Pinot Tasting at Yering Station proved equally satisfying, again taking us on a tour of the Valley from Gembrook in the upper valley to De Bortoli on the valley floor. These were aromatic, savoury edged wines, showing elegance, leaning towards red fruit, but with savoury edges and a lick of food-friendly acidity typically wrapped around a mineral core. It's a similar story with Yarra's potential hidden gem, namely its aromatic, spicy Shiraz (or Syrah) which has more in common with the northern Rhone in style than the better known styles out of Barossa and elsewhere.

A great day, rounded off by some accomplished wines (and Kangaroos) at Coldstream Hills, and a rambling Giant Steps tasting into meal at the laid back gastronomic temple that is Phil Sexton's Giant Steps winery. Aside from sublimely fresh oysters, punchily-flavoured pizzas, goat-cheesed stuffed piquilo peppers, fresh King Fish, T-bone steaks and much else besides, Sexton and Flamsteed covered the table with a generous selection of wines from producers across the Valley and other outposts of Victoria. It capped a day that was a pretty good insight into both regionality, but also the matey cooperation with which Aussie winemakers approach the world.