When I first moved to Melbourne and started reading up on all the must-do touristy experiences, I got my heart set on one in particular: Yarra Valley. Not surprisingly, most of my hostel crew was also down to visit the valley. After all, who wouldn’t want to spend a day walking around the countryside tasting delicious wine after delicious wine?
Flash forward four months and none of us had made it to the vineyards yet. We’d all settled into our Melbourne lives, and work schedules rarely overlapped enough to plan for big group day trips. Even more problematic was our reluctance to take a guided tour. When I travel, I tend to go for the freedom of exploring on my own, without the timetables and extra costs often associated with group tours. Still, after realizing that few of the vineyards are accessible via public transportation and that hiring a driver for the day would be pretty costly (of course, none of us wanted to play designated driver during our big wine tour extravaganza!), we finally got around to picking a date and booking a tour.
And you know what? Springing for a tour was so worth it.
Our day started bright and early (well, it was one of those mornings when nine sure felt early!) with pick-up not far from our St. Kilda apartment. After picking up the other participants around the city, we were off for the countryside with the promise of wine in our hands by eleven. Not a bad morning, right?
My only concern was the weather, which had quickly turned to grey rain during our drive. When our awesome guide Dirk pointed out the Great Dividing Ranges to our left and the Dandenongs to our right, we could only trust that the mountains were in fact there. In classic Melbourne fashion, however, the skies started to clear just in time for our first stop. Stepping out of the minivan at Yering Station, the first of four wineries on our tour, we were treated to gorgeous blue mountain views.
I loved Yering Station. After learning about proper tasting etiquette and sampling a few of the vineyard’s flagship wines, we were free to either sample more in the tasting room or explore the grounds. Joe, Ethan, Anna and I opted for tasting more wine, naturally.
Yering Station had some of my favorite wines of the day, but its vibe is what really made this one of my favorite stops. Light and bright, cozy and laid-back, Yering Station could have kept me all afternoon. I especially appreciated Saren, who was both fun and knowledgable while pouring us wines at their Cellar Door tasting bar. If I brought friends and family back to any vineyard from the tour with me, it would be here.
Next up: Balgownie Estate. We started with a half dozen or so wines to sample at the tasting table (one of which included a little chocolate pairing) before moving onto lunch. I had the impression that Balgownie was famed for its restaurant, but unfortunately both my ravioli and pinot noir were underwhelming. Lunch was great all the same, the perfect opportunity to relax, get to know our fellow wine-tasters and admire the gorgeous vineyard views.
After lunch, it was time for – what else? – more wine tasting. This was definitely the highlight of Balgownie for me, as all of the staff were informative and keen to answer questions. I learned a lot about how I love particular wines from one country but not from another (hint: it’s all about the soil) and had fun comparing notes. Balgownie definitely wasn’t disappointing, but at the end of the day, it didn’t quite live up to the other vineyards for me. While I loved the wine and adored the views, Balgownie seemed to lack character.
Yering Farm, on the other hand, had plenty of character. Small and family-run, Yering Farm houses its cellar door in a cute and rustic converted hay shed. Let me tell you — this place is nothing if not cozy. We were free to taste whatever we wanted here as well, which luckily for us included not only wine but cider made from their own Pink Lady apples. Nothing disappointed. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if our group walked away from here with more bottles purchased than from any of other stops.
Have you ever actually considered how champagne gets its bubbles? Until visiting our last stop for the day, I hadn’t either. We started our visit to Domaine Chandon, the Australian arm of the French champagne company Moët and Chandon, with a sparkling wine production tour. As it turns out, in the case of sparkling wine varieties like Champagne and Cava, it’s a long process that begins with adding extra yeast and sugar to a base wine, rotating the bottles at regular intervals over time and freezing the bottles to release all of the yeast build-up at the end. (Of course, your grocery store Andre is probably carbonated just like any soda…thus the difference in the price tag!).
After touring some of the production facilities, we each had our choice of a glass of one of four varieties of sparkling wine. The tasting bar here cost an additional $5, which is waived if you end up purchasing a bottle. While Domaine Chandon is known best for their sparkling wines, I was just as impressed by their still wines (the Shiraz in particular).
More than anywhere else we visited, Domaine Chandon felt grand. From its high ceilings and impressive tasting room to its somewhat uptight staff and sprawling grounds, the atmosphere here was decidedly more posh than the other wineries.
For all that it included — transportation, wine, lunch, full glasses of wine and sparkling, a whole day of amazing vineyard views and more wine besides — visiting Yarra Valley on a guided tour was absolutely worth the $120 AUD we paid. I even got over some of my anti-tour bias, thanks largely to our fun guide Dirk and a schedule that allowed us to visit four very distinct vineyards without ever feeling too rushed. We drank, we laughed, we met some awesome new people and drank and laughed some more. What’s not to love?
Notes for Visiting
We booked our Australian Wine Company Tour through Viator, and at $120 AUD I thought the experience was well worth the cost. Booking online was fast and easy, as was the transportation situation with different pick-up points scheduled throughout Melbourne. Our guide Dirk was funny, knowledgable and energetic. The tour also came with perks like a 10% discount on bottles purchased at most of the vineyards — perfect gifts for friends and family back home, or for yourself!