Stepping back in time: a visit with Yeringberg
As you will have seen from last week’s post, there were many vinous highlights on Arblaster & Clarke’s South Australia & Victoria vintage tour. I thoroughly enjoyed leading it and sharing my take on what makes Australian wine so exciting. On a personal note, no visit was more eagerly anticipated than Yeringberg – I’d never been though, on my first trip to Australia, my group savoured a bottle of Yeringberg Marsanne Roussanne over our farewell dinner. I couldn’t believe we’d been to the Yarra Valley and not called by. Finally, 12 years later, expectations were high as we paid homage to Yeringberg on the last day of the tour. I’m confident that I speak for all my party when I say the place, the people, the wines, concluded our trip on the highest of high notes.
So what’s so special about Yeringberg? First off, it was one of the Yarra’s first and finest wine estates in the 19th century, when it was particularly renowned for its ‘White Hermitage.’ Like equally acclaimed contemporary, St Huberts, Yeringberg was an off-cut of Chateau Yering which, first planted by the Ryrie brothers in the 1830s, was the birthplace of Victorian wine. However, it was Swiss immigrants who forged the Yarra’s reputation for fine wine. First, Paul de Castella, who acquired Chateau Yering from the Ryries and charged fellow Swiss Samuel de Pury with expanding it. Then, in the 1860s, Paul de Castella’s brother Hubert (who founded St Huberts) and Samuel de Pury’s brother, Baron Frederic Guillame de Pury, who founded Yeringberg.
As the name suggests, Yeringberg is located on a hill. It was a spine-tingling reminder of last year’s trip to the site of James Busby’s Kirkton vineyard in the Hunter Valley. Although neither it, the house or winery have survived, old photos show that the house similarly sat atop a hill with pine trees either side. Kirkton’s gravity-fed winery was dug into that hill, while Yeringberg’s winery (built in the 1880s and protected by the National Trust) sits atop the hill. How good is it that Yeringberg and the de Pury family are still there to give voice to Australia’s wine history? Meeting with the Baron’s grandson Guill de Pury and his great-granddaughter Sandra – the winemakers – their deep connection with the land was palpable. This grounded pair are very much part of it, which I guess is unsurprising when four generations have farmed the land – they still run sheep and cattle.
Not that making wine here has been plain sailing. In 1921, the winery at Yeringberg was among the Yarra’s last to shut down when, following an economic depression, the wine industry fell into a deep slumber. Guill de Pury was among the first to re-plant vines in the Yarra Valley in 1969 when, he told me, table wines became fashionable once more thanks to a new wave of immigrants from Italy and Greece. He chose the exact same frost-protected north-east-facing slope as his grandfather (though, at just 4.5 hectares, today’s vineyard is much smaller). Marsanne was re-planted from the off. Also Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with Shiraz and Viognier planted subsequently.
This original site has flourished – “perfect for Cabernet”, said Guill, though Sandra de Pury reckons a phylloxera attack is all but inevitable given that it arrived in the Valley in 2006 and all their neighbours have it. I asked her about the vineyards planted along the driveway on the other side of the hill, some of which appeared to have been grubbed up. She told me that the Merlot was grubbed up (“we didn’t like it”) and the vast majority of fruit from these much more recent plantings (1999) has been sold off.
As for the estate wines, the winery may have National Trust protection but it’s where the wines are made. Age-old graffiti marks the walls.
Shelves were stacked with pails which bore more than a passing resemblance to alpine wooden milk pails. These days, modern dairy equipment comes in handy – de Pury’s small stainless steel fermenters, one shaped like a billiard table, reveal a farmer’s pragmatism.
The same pragmatism shines through in this old building’s design. It was constructed by David Mitchell, one of the region’s best known builders and stonemasons using stone from the property itself.
Mitchell was also the opera singer Dame Nellie Melba’s father and I like to think he had an eye on acoustics too, though I’m told the high roof, open at the eaves, was to allow for air circulation – old fashioned cooling I guess!
A factor which Mitchell astutely also took into account when it came to glazing the windows. The north-facing (sunny aspect) windows are frosted, while the south-facing windows are clear. It all makes sense of this estate’s 19th reputation for white wines.
Although the grapes were received on the top (second) storey, thereafter operations were gravity-fed. You get a feel for the size and industry of the original incarnation (80 acres of vineyard) when you see the railway wagons, rails, points and switch handle, which I had a childish urge to pull!
Here are my notes on the wines.
Yeringberg Marsanne Roussanne 2013 (Yarra Valley)
In 2016, an unusually compact year, the hand- picked Marsanne and Roussanne (the latter typically picked some two weeks after the Marsanne) were co-fermented. A tank sample showed terrific fruit. The finished 2013 vintage is a 60:40 blend. It’s a subtle yet powerfully intense wine, its classic honeysuckle and ripe but firm pear held like cards close to the chest – a strong hand, the best cards yet to be played. Sandra told me that this wine ages well and I can believe it. It has a sense of architecture (phenolic structure) and purpose, the finish long and very balanced, with well-integrated, insistent, stony acidity. It completed fermentation in barrel (all old) and was aged for 10 months in barrel prior to bottling. 13%
Yeringberg Viognier 2013 (Yarra Valley)
This wine is made from just one clone of Viognier (642) which the de Purys value for its flavour and structure. The vines are now over a decade old. It’s the most fruit-driven of the whites and markedly richer than the Marsanne Roussanne – it flexes different muscles! In the mouth it bursts with ripe pineapple, peach, apricot and lychee flavours – fruit salad with a dash of syrup/gylcerol for roundness and sweetness. A hint of fennel through the finish strikes a savoury note. This wine was wild fermented and aged in old barrels on lees for 9 months. 14%
Yeringberg Chardonnay 2013 (Yarra Valley)
The vineyard was planted in 1974 and 1981. The majority of the ferment started off in tank and, part-way through ferment joined the balance of the wine in French oak hogsheads, 30% new. It was aged on lees with regular battonage. The wine in new barrels underwent malolactic fermentation. Long in the mouth with silky white peach, firmer pear/quince and savoury lees-driven undertones. Rolling acidity – mineral rather than citrus – makes for a relative dryness and draws out a long involving finish. Palate weight and potency is delivered with great subtlety. 13%
Yeringberg Pinot Noir 2013 (Yarra Valley)
Sourced from mature vines planted between 1969 -1974 – clones MV6 and the Rutherglen clone (originally from Great Western). The wine was aged in Burgundian oak barrels, 30% new for 19 months and bottled unfiltered and unfined. The oak lends enticing five spice lift to nose and fleshy, quite langorous palate of squishy, soft strawberries and plum. Fine but tapering tannins assert a light grip to the finish. Good balance and length if missing a bit of energy and lift for my taste. 13.5%
Yeringberg Shiraz 2013 (Yarra Valley)
The de Pury family have had “a love hate relationship with Shiraz,” said Sandra. Both her grandfather and her father planted it and pulled it out. Her brother planted three clones (PT23, 1654 & the “100 year old” clone) in 1999 on the north side of the front drive – the last seven rows on steeper, rockier soils. She reckons this more north-facing, warmer site together with climate change explains why this planting has fared better. It was co-fermented with a “tiny number” of Viognier bunches. Some grapes were fully de-stemmed and crushed, others whole berry and around a 10% whole bunch component formed the bottom layer of the tank. Like the other wines it was basket-pressed. It was then aged for 19 months in French oak hogsheads, 25% new. This medium-bodied Shiraz is very fleet of foot with an attractive frame of spicy, savoury tannins to its juicy red and black fruits. Like the Pinot Noir it’s very broachable already, with more to give in the medium term.
Yeringberg Yeringberg Cabernet blend 2013 (Yarra Valley)
This Bordeaux blend is the jewel in the crown of the reds. It comprises 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc, 10% Merlot, 7% Malbec. 6% Petit Verdot. For Guill, Yeringberg’s vineyard is perfect for Cabernet, which he describes as producing “soft wines with not a lot of tannin but somehow they keep going.” He happily recounts showing a 1915 “Sauvignon” (as it was then labelled) to Hugh Johnson which prompted comparisons with Lafite. The 2013 Yeringberg was aged for around a year in French oak barriques, 40% new. The nose is savoury and perfumed at the same time, shot through with dried herbs and balsamic which make you salivate before you’ve even put it to your lips. In the mouth it is exceptionally soft (very Yarra), with chamois leather tannins, chocolatey oak, warm gravel and indistinct dark fruits. Almost a little soupy seeming – it’s not a pretty Cabernet. But then the perfumed dried herbs and balsamic – cracks to let the light in – bring lift and layer to a long, drawn out finish with insinuating acidity, lovely balance. This is a brooding but unusually sensual, shapely Cabernet. Like the Marsanne Roussanne it needs time to reveal itself – I’m convinced (bought some!) it will open up and mesmerise the taste buds down the track. Sandra and Guill reckon it peaks at 8-9 years old and plateaus for another 10-15 years plus. 13.5%