Winsor Dobbin presents the latest in a series of guides to Australia and New Zealand's top wine regions.
The Yarra Valley is the home of David-versus-Goliath winemaking. While there are a handful of labels owned by the major conglomerates, the vast majority of winemakers are small- to medium-size operators following a dream.
Only a short drive from the suburban fringes of Melbourne, the Yarra offers a country experience with a dash of city sophistication. There are plenty of classy places to eat, trendy craft breweries and cellar-door tasting facilities of all shapes and sizes.
"As a region, we align ourselves with craft production rather than industrial production," says the chief winemaker at Oakridge, David Bicknell, who is one of several producers who have led the Yarra to a position of prominence when it comes to Australian cool-climate viticulture.
The Yarra certainly has a lot to offer visitors. It has more than 60 wineries with cellar doors and choices range from big names such as Domaine Chandon, Yering Station, TarraWarra, Coldstream Hills and De Bortoli Yarra Valley, to boutique operations such as Gembrook Hill, Medhurst Estate, Jamsheed, Mandala and Hoddles Creek.
The region has a real sense of community. Pop into a cellar door and you will be recommended another one, or maybe a terrific spot for lunch. That attitude is what makes it a great place for a weekend away, and the region is specked with resorts, bed and breakfasts and guesthouses that cater to a range of tastes and budgets.
How to get there
The Yarra Valley is a one-hour drive from the Melbourne city centre and slightly less from Melbourne Airport. All main domestic airlines fly to Melbourne and all major car-hire companies have desks at the airport.
Best cellar doors
Domaine Chandon, where the original homestead dates to the 1880s, was founded by champagne producers Moet & Chandon and was one of the leaders in popularising Australian sparkling wines. Visitors can enjoy guided tours and visit the riddling hall, where the traditional "methode champenoise" is explained. It also has a lovely on-site cafe.
De Bortoli Yarra Valley is one of the most popular tasting facilities and has some of the best-value wines around. It is also home to the popular Locale restaurant, which serves Italian-accented dishes, and a cheese maturation room run by master fromager Richard Thomas.
The impressive Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander complex in Healesville encompasses a cafe, restaurant, coffee roaster and bakery, and is a top spot for a coffee, meal, or to meet friends. It's young, lively and everything is done with a touch of panache.
Elegant and architect-designed TarraWarra Estate, owned by fashion entrepreneurs Marc and Eva Besen, is one of the most popular destinations, with its fine wines supplemented by an impressive art gallery - the TarraWarra Museum of Art - and restaurant. The relaxed eatery serves modern Australian food and features magnificent views as well as an open fire and terrace.
Medhurst is the newest Yarra hot spot, with a recently completed high-tech winery and barrel hall, as well as a popular tasting facility and cafe that is open Friday to Sunday. Visitors can see fermenters, tanks and equipment, and then enjoy share platters, along with gourmet sandwiches, dips, olives and a selection of cakes.
Also try Coldstream Hills (the best destination for serious wine buffs), rustic Yering Farm, Punt Road Wines/Napoleone & Co Cider, Dominique Portet, Rochford Wines, Seville Estate, Yering Station, Madden's Rise and European-style Tokar Estate.
Where to eat
The Healesville Hotel offers classic country-pub charm with city-slick service. It serves a bar menu for lunch and dinner and has seven beers on tap and several local wines by the glass. There is also an award-winning, upmarket dining room, which has an old-world ambience with open fires in winter.
Oakridge Wines at Coldstream is home to some of the most stunning chardonnays and pinot noirs in the country and there is also an excellent on-site restaurant, which is undergoing expansion.
Yering Station has a seriously good restaurant - next to a stunning tasting facility - that serves interesting modern Australian dishes. As you would expect, it has a wine list that highlights labels owned by its operators, the Rathbone family. High-flyers can arrive by helicopter. Only lunch is served. A regional produce store and an art gallery are also on site.
Bella Vedere at Coldstream is a perennial favourite with local winemakers and has a menu that changes daily depending on the produce available. It also has an on-site cooking school.
Eleonore's at Chateau Yering serves classic haute cuisine with a twist and is the best choice for fine dining with top-notch service. Chef Mathew Macartney has also been turning heads recently with his stylish cuisine.
Also try Mandala winery restaurant, Vines at Helen's Hill, Rae's at Balgownie Estate, Zonzo, Hargreaves Hill.
What to drink
Pinot noir and chardonnay are the grape varieties that have traditionally shone in the Yarra, blended in sparkling wines or varietal table wines. The warmer parts of the region, however, are producing elegant shirazes and cabernets.
Don't miss the world-class chardonnays from Oakridge, De Bortoli and Hoddle's Creek, and wines from smaller producers including Jamsheed, The Journey, Mac Forbes, Timo Mayer and Soumah, as well as favourites such as Mount Mary and Yarra Yering.
Try the Yarrabank sparkling wines. The TarraWarra 2010 K-Block Merlot is also well worth sampling.
Where to stay
Chateau Yering is an elegant and historic country house-style hotel in a heritage-listed Victorian mansion bordering the Yarra River. It is surrounded by beautiful gardens, has just 32 suites and is ideal for romantic weekends or a spot of pampering. Bed and breakfast packages start from $495.
Vintage House is a delightful self-catering three-bedroom cottage that strikes just the right balance between rustic chic and modern comfort. It can cater for up to three couples and is a short walk from the main street of Healesville. Costs from $180 a night.
The Balgownie Estate Yarra Valley Resort and Spa is part of the Balgownie Estate winery and cellar-door complex. It has 65 rooms and suites, a day spa, pool, fitness centre and Rae's restaurant. Rooms are available in several styles and start from $170.
The Healesville Hotel, which dates to 1910, offers seven rooms with country charm. The only setback is the shared bathrooms. Prices start from $110 a night midweek and $130 at weekends.
Also try RACV Country Club, Healesville; Mount Rael; Outlook Hill Vineyard Spa Cottages; the Sebel Heritage (ideal for golfers); Susan's in the Valley; and the Yarra Valley Grand Hotel, which has free music performances from Friday to Sunday.
Annual events include the Shortest Lunch each June, Shedfest in October and the summer concert series at Rochford Wines. Toolangi Wines holds a chardonnay masterclass and dinner every second year. The next will be Chardonnay 14.
The new Yarra Valley Cider and Ale Trail, launched late last year, offers visitors a trip through several regional and artisanal producers.
Other gourmet hot spots include the Yarra Valley Dairy, and animal lovers will find plenty to amuse them at Healesville Sanctuary.
The Dandenong Ranges are just a few minutes' drive away but offer a very different experience with rainforests, villages with cafes, art galleries, antique shops and nurseries, and other attractions, including the iconic Puffing Billy Railway (which hosts regular wine and food dinners on-board).
The Yarra Valley Visitor Information Centre is at the Old Courthouse, Harker Street, Healesville. It's open daily from 9am to 5pm, except Christmas Day. (03) 5962 2600, visityarravalley.com.au.