Australia’s Coolest Wine Region: Yarra Valley

At the turn of the 20th century, Nellie Melba was one of the most famous women in the world—an opera legend with a name as recognizable as Adele’s and Beyoncé’s today (after all, Peach Melba and Melba toast were both created for her). Given the chance, wouldn’t you want to take a peek inside her private home?

You can do just that at Coombe, Melba’s former estate in Australia’s Yarra Valley.

Helen (Nellie) Porter Mitchell adopted Melba as her last name, a reference, in shortened form, to her hometown of Melbourne. (Photograph by Henry Walter Barnett, wiki)
Helen (Nellie) Porter Mitchell adopted Melba as her stage name, a reference, in shortened form, to her hometown of Melbourne. (Photograph by Henry Walter Barnett, wiki)

About an hour’s drive northeast of Melbourne, the Yarra features everything you might want in a wine region: farm-to-table meals, generously poured glasses, and gorgeous vistas that seem to go on without end.

Properties like Coombe add a level of depth and sophistication to the good-life culture of eating and drinking well that pervades the valley.

And though Melba’s cottage is reserved for private use, guests can get a sense of the socially conscious soprano at the estate’s on-site eatery, housed in what was once a garage—“Instead of Rolls-Royces, there’s now a restaurant here,” property manager Daniel Johnson told me—and small museum. On one wall hangs one of Melba’s suffragette ensembles, whose green, white, and violet shades were meant to embody the slogan “Give Women Votes,” while her massive Louis Vuitton luggage stands proudly in a corner, worn from age and many trips around the globe.

The new visitor experience at Coombe was spearheaded by Melba’s own well-heeled great-grandsons, one of whom is Lord Samuel Vestey, Queen Elizabeth II’s Master of the Horse. Daily tours of the seven-acre grounds surrounding the estate show off a line of regal elms, a lovely French rose garden, and rows of seasonal produce (I noticed spring asparagus when I visited).

Sipping a glass of award-winning Coombe Farm wine over brunch with a view to the estate’s gardens and sparkling 1913 pool (said to be the oldest in Victoria), where Charlie Chaplin once swam, delivers the perfect combination of nature and culture.

Beyond Coombe, the cool-climate Yarra Valley is still very much about the wine.

That much became obvious when I arrived at Oakridge.

Wine tasting room in Yering Station Winery (Photograph by travelingotter, flickr)
The tasting room at the Yering Station winery (Photograph by travelingotter, flickr)

Though the Yarra is known for its cool-climate varietals, such as Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, Oakridge general manager Danny Kane informed me that the region’s “fortunate geographic position” makes it favorable for growing many kinds of grapes.

As we savored a glass together with the valley spread out before us, Kane pointed to the hill directly in front of us. “That’s Mount St. Leonard, part of Yarra Ranges National Park.”

Oakridge has been churning out celebrated wine in the Yarra Valley since 1978, but its culinary offerings have been garnering more attention than ever thanks to new head chef Matt Stone.

Warm, approachable, and tattooed, Stone is a refreshing change of pace in the sometimes stuffy world of haute cuisine and wine. Despite a lack of formal training, he has thrived on his reputation as an inventive chef who champions the use of local ingredients. (Much of the produce found in his creations is grown on-site at Oakridge.)

The view from the restaurant’s patio is one of the valley’s best, especially when you’re enjoying one of Oakridge’s signature Chardonnays paired with Stone’s slightly smoky rainbow trout and broccolini.

I was feeling inspired, ready to make a bold career leap into the vineyard business. But at Dominique Portet I quickly learned, during a blending lesson with the charmingly rugged Ben Portet, that I have no future as a winemaker.

You have to be equal parts scientist and artist to create the best wines in the world.

Portet, a tenth-generation winemaker with family roots in 18th-century Bordeaux, swirled and sniffed, pouring tiny amounts of different varietals from beakers to create subtly different just-for-fun (i.e., not for sale) blends. Of course, you can splurge on a bottle of his art, like the popular André, named for Ben’s grandfather. Just don’t forget to stop and pet Alaska, Ben’s family dog, who might just be the real star of the estate.

Just down the road—conveniently, many wineries are located off Maroondah Highway—you’ll find Domaine Chandon, the Australian outpost of major commercial player Moët & Chandon.

Here, naturally, the emphasis is on sparkling wines. The visitor experience is what you would expect from a producer with such a storied history. Everything about the place exudes luxury and taste. “Wine makes people’s lives a bit happier, enhancing moments and friendships,” winemaker Dan Buckle told me.

For me, the Yarra Valley is all about moments—conversations, relationships, tastes to be shared.

My final stop of the day also happens to be the oldest vineyard in Victoria, Yering Station.

After visiting the elegant tasting room, which doubles as a constantly changing art gallery (with options to purchase), take a tour of the winery’s production facilities. That’s where I always find the best smell of all, the intoxicating scent of sugars being converted to alcohol—what was found in nature being transformed into human art.

Annie Fitzsimmons is Nat Geo Travel’s Urban Insider, exploring the cities of the world with style. Follow her adventures in Victoria, Australia, on Twitter @anniefitz and on Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.

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