Disclosure: I was invited as a guest on a wine tour with Wine Compass
I’m one of those people who rarely go for the ‘Feed Me’ menus at restaurants. I usually have an idea of what I want (and have done the research on what I want), and like to build my own adventure. I’m like this with travel too, often thoroughly planning and finding interesting places to go and things to do.
However, when Adam Nicholls, found of Wine Compass, came to me and asked if I’d like to do a tour of Yarra Valley, an area I thought I knew relatively well, I was positively thrilled to only know one of the three wineries on our itinerary.
Wine Compass started almost as a hobby, Adam being a wine aficionado, with a focus on wineries in the Mornington Peninsula, but has more recently been expanding his Yarra Valley offering.
What’s really great about Wine Compass’s tours though, is how flexible and tailored they are for the group. It’s not just a stock standard offering for everyone. Adam caters the tours depending on your group size, and what you’re after. Big group out for just a fun birthday celebration? Or perhaps you’re relatively well versed with the Yarra Valley and you want to get to know the makers and go wine geek a bit? Adam can cater for both.
So bright and early on a fresh, bur sunny Sunday, Adam picked up my girlfriend, Caryn, and I for a gloriously fun afternoon out in the Yarra Valley.
Although Adam took the two of us out, the best value really comes when your groups are around 5 to 8 and are about the same price as any of the other Yarra Valley tours. Regardless, you’re always paired with a host - who not only drives you but actually is interested and knowledgable about wine as well, so you can all share in your enthusiasm together if you want (although they will be far more sober than you by the end of the day).
Our first winery stop of the day, was Pimpernel Vineyards, a winery I may have never come across, located further down on the same stretch of road as Levantine Hill and Rochford wines. Intimate and unassuming, we were greeted by the owner Mark Horrigan, cardiologist by day, wine maker and lover all other times, who enthusiastically led us straight down from the cellar door to where all the magic happens.
Mark has a passion for old French domain wines, and utilises dry land cultivation techniques - so no watering, and all by hand to produce smaller but intensely flavoured grapes, higher higher skin to juice ratio, to make intensely flavoured wines. The grapes are all picked, by hand of course, and they’re even careful to lay the grapes out flat in one layer - more than that and they’ll start crushing each other and losing juice.
Mark easily moved through his labyrinth of barrels; Pimpernel has a loose 100 barrel rule, so that they can always know and stay on top of what’s happening in every barrel. It was clear how well Mark did know his wines, as we sampled the range. A particularly interesting exercise was sampling the most recent Chardonnay harvest, but from 5 different barrels and how distinctively each barrel’s characteristics could be tasted. Obviously these are all blended later for a balanced product, but even in that you can subtly taste the different barrels and woods doing their thing.
We went through Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Mark even blended us a pretty darned good GSM right on the spot.
Then it was time to actually go taste all the final product!
Tip - have a snack before you meet with Mark, I was definitely feeling the stand struggle after an hour in the cellar!
Pimpernel’s final products are just stunning. Elegant in execution, but not lacking in personality and flavour. The Chardonnay is vibrant, with gentle oak, and Caryn and I are smitten with the Pinot Noir’s. Pinot Noir No.1 is the ‘feminine’ pinot noir, velvety smooth, berry and plummy. Pinot Noir No.2 is the ‘masculine’ pinot noir, more structured, a little more earthy and robust. All of Pimpernel’s wines are stunning though, was definitely a struggle not to empty out the wallet right there and then!
Generously lubricated after our first session, Caryn and I roll back into the car and Adam takes us to our next destination, Oakridge Wines.
I have been to Oakridge, but it’s been a long time since I last visited, and the revamped cellar door and restaurant are looking spectacular. One whole side of the building is just glass, over looking the grapevines and the stunning scenery of the valley.
Oakridge does a beautiful selection of what the Yarra Valley is great at, surprisingly delicious Chardonnay (I love what wineries are doing with Chardonnay as a whole lately), fruity and delicious Pinot Noir, and some more unexpected wines. Meunier is not often made into a wine on itself, usually it’s blended to make Champagne, but on it’s own is an incredibly light and airy red - surprising for it’s colour! Although not my usual preference, I could imagine how good this would be ins summer, slightly chilled.
Chef Matt Stone is the brains behind the kitchen, with a focus on seasonability and local produce, and I like that he keeps the menu options limited but beautifully presented.
Dishes such as caraway pastry with smoked trout, caviar and fine herbs, and wild mushrooms with lentils and coddled egg. I of course, could not go past the silky smooth chicken liver pate with baby radish and decadently buttery brioche.
Get the chunky hand cut chips, they’re golden and divine.
Mains are simple, but so elegant. Lamb, pumpkin, seeds, harissa and fetta for Adam, duck breast with swede, chestnut and raspberry vinegar for Caryn, and the rainbow trout with XO butter with broccolini for me. I was amazed at how generous the portions were.
Trout’s way underrated in my opinion, and I absolutely love seeing more and more of it come up on menus. At Oakridge it was perfectly cooked, loved the heat from the XO sauce and the crunch of the broccolini with it. Perfect.
Although very, very sorely tempted by dessert, with the combination of all the wine previously and the generosity of the serving sizes, we had to skip this time. Blasphemy, I know!
So on to our final destination it was. A little further from the main Yarra Valley winery area, and off the beaten track, we pulled up in front of Yileena Park.
First thing you notice? It’s so peaceful, further removed from the main drag, the cosy little cellar door is surrounded by greenery and lushness; where we were greeted by the bleating of a cheerful 3 day old lamb that frolicked in a paddock and two of the sweetest donkeys. Poppy and Freckles happily amble over to the gate for a chin rub (and a carrot if you’ve got one).
Bob and Diane Curtis, who first established their vineyard in 1998 and then opened their cellar door in 2006 (8 years later!) have done an amazing job in creating the most cosy and intimate of spaces, where you want to sink into a chair in front of the fireplace with a good book and a big ol’ red.
And Yileena Park is exactly where you’ll get those big ol’ reds that I love. Bob sits down with us and takes us through some of their beautiful wines - their releases are usually no younger than 4 years old as their reds are big in tannins, bit in structures and are more traditionally crafted which means they need a bit longer to age before they’re good for drinking. Even then, you could easily age any of the wines Bob introduced to us for a good time longer (but they’re definitely great for drinking as is!)
Even the Chardonnay is aged, a 2012 release, which is simply a rich golden colour and gorgeously fruity on the palate still.
As my dad was always a big fan of big red Shiraz’s as a kid, I adored everything we drank at Yileena Park, despite many of the wines being 6 years old, they were heaving with dark red fruit and just a nice amount of tannin that had started to soften.
The 2008 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was simply a stunner and one of the best things I had drunk all day. Gorgeously smooth, but still retaining structure, this was a beautifully matured wine which just feels like velvet as it goes down. Totally fruity too.
Not pictured but bought, were the Botrytis Semillon and Aged Topaque, both fantastic after dinner wines which aren’t too sweet or sugary on the palate but generous and rich in fruit. I think I only ended up having a couple of glasses of each when I got home and my dad promptly devoured the rest before I had a chance to get to it over the next week!
Bob also works with a friend to develop a range of smoked goods, from merlot infused smoked salt, smoked olives and smoked olive oil to smoked duck and an amazing smoked stilton cheese that just tastes like bacon-y goodness. Yeah, I went home with some of that for sure!
Although Adam had initially said we could see how we were going and could pop into a bakery, or dairy if we had the time, by the time we filled up on wine and the stories of the winemakers, 3 places was all we could manage!
Throughout the whole day Adam had kept the pace easy and relaxed, Caryn and I feeling we always had a good feel of everywhere we went but never staying for too long either. Adam’s insight and knowledge was also fantastic to be able to tap into and his tolerance, as we got more and more, uh, lubricated with wine, was also very impressive!
Easily one of the must fun Sunday’s I’ve had in a while, and highly recommend if you’re looking for a tour or a slightly more unique experience in the wineries, where you get to meet the wine makers, explore new places and feed adorable donkeys.
1300 339 463