Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Bounty of the Yarra Valley

While spending some time in Melbourne, we decided to get out and enjoy the nearby countryside for a day.  What better way to do so than with a food and wine tour of the Yarra Valley?  We turned to our trusty Viator, one of our favorite resources for tours when we travel--it's a well-structured site with easy navigation and quality tours.  Through Viator, we located a small group food and wine tour run by Epicurean.

On Sunday morning, we were picked up at our hotel to join one other couple for the day.  Even if the van had been full, the tour is kept at a nice size to be able to enjoy the day and not feel herded around with a group.  Our guide was knowledgeable, fun and unobtrusive.  She set the expectations for the day as we drove out to the valley (always the least favorite part of these trips--kind of a boring drive out of town) and got us looking forward to a yummy day.  The little details were covered for us, such as a cooler of bottled water in the back and free wifi on board the van.

We arrived at DeBartoli winery for our first cheese and wine tasting.  DeBartoli in Yarra was established in 1989, following the purchase of the estate in 1987 by this Italian wine-making family. The estate is managed by third generation Leanne De Bortoli and her husband, De Bortoli Chief Winemaker Steve Webber.  We looked around the beautiful grounds a bit and then went inside to begin our tasting. A couple of knowledgeable staff members led us through the selections, while we tasted some amazing local cheeses.  They shared their opinions on favorite wines and you could tell they felt lucky to do this work.  We tasted one of their famed wines, "Noble", a sweet dessert wine and learned a real lesson in pairings.  The sweet wine and powerful blue cheese were a match made in heaven--neither element on its own really appealed to us, but together they brought out the best in each other. 

We left DeBartoli for Yering Station, which has a beautiful grounds with a nice produce and wine shop, a cafe and restaurant and an inn.  We were offered a huge tasting, but each of us narrowed down the options based on our preferences.  Our host gave us a time frame and told us about the layout of the grounds and things to see and do so we could enjoy our time on our own.  We sat upstairs at the cafe and had a mid-morning coffee break while we looked out at the surroundings and took a moment of wine respite. 
We had tasted a lot of the bounty of Yarra Valley, but there was a lot more to come.  We headed towards Domain Chandon for our included lunch.  Domain Chandon is part of the international company of Moet Chandon (Louis Vuitton etc.), which has certainly made its name as a luxury brand.  Sparkling wines are a big part of the repertoire here.  And, they continue their tradition of good branding and marketing with a wonderful commercial setting that draws in big crowds.
Not my favorite winery of all time...but a nice lunch spot.  We were seated with a great view of the vineyards and mountains beyond for our two course lunch.
The starter, a mix of antipasto, was quite good and fresh and served with one of their signature sparkling wines.  I chose a vegetarian tart for my main and really enjoyed its freshness.  The rest of the table chose the duck, which was good if not super inspired.  I think with the amazing array of seafood, beef, lamb and produce in the area--and being such a "foodie" hot spot, you could do better for a meal.  However, realistically, given all that was included in our tour--no complaints here.  After lunch, we were free to wander around or participate in their wine tasting, with a huge variety to try.  We took some pictures, enjoyed a few minutes in the sun on the chairs overlooking the vineyards and did a quick tour around their educational display.
Our last two stops of the day had a much different feel.  We went to Coldstream Hills, a small tasting room where we chatted amicably during the great tasting (while our host attempted to goad us in to a discussion of politics after telling the story of riling up another group about gun control).  We stayed neutral and kept the conversation to wine.  Coldstream Hills was founded by James Halliday, aka the Robert Parker of Australia (that's how the tour guide basically described him at least--anyway, he's an expert, who writes a lot about wine).  He knows his stuff, because they have consistently won awards and it was the first place to tempt our tour members in to shipping some home (not an option for those heading back to China).

Yarra Valley Dairy was our last tasty treat to round out the day.  This cute little farm/produce stand provided us with an outstanding cheese tasting and all types of tasty treasures.  Our host offered up some suggestions, from getting one of the local microbrews to a coffee and cake (all included) or shopping for some cheese and snacks to take home.  We took her up on the cake and coffee as all the treats looked so tempting and we couldn't fill up our suitcases with cheese (a pity!).

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