Sure there’s good wine to be found in the Yarra Valley and the Barossa, or Margaret River and the Hunter Valley, for that matter. But who wants to drive for hours to get to a cellar door? We Canberrans have it better than the rest when it comes to thoroughly excellent wine experiences right on our doorstep. Here’s our pick of viticultural gems across the Yass Valley.
There’s no place for wine snobbery in Wendy O’Dea’s world. No pontificating about obscure grapes and correct stemware or tasting notes evoking fragrant tobacco, desiccated crayon and funky leather.
At Dionysus Winery, Wendy and her husband Michael tell it like it is, and that’s as refreshing as a bottle of rose on a hot summer’s day. The pair planted their vines on their small winery in Patemans Lane, Murrumbateman, in 1998 and were the first in the district to grow alternate varieties, including tempranillo and gamay.
“We were a wine-drinking family who used to go on holidays to wine areas and talked about one day having our own vineyard,” says Wendy.
It has not been without its challenges.
Like other wineries in the area, 2020 was a wipeout due to the bushfires. But they’ve soldiered on, adding a quirky sculpture garden to the property where visitors can enjoy cheese plates with homemade quince paste, dried fruit, nuts and crackers from the cellar door.
Grab a seat in the outdoors tasting area and sample some of Dionysus’s list – including a sparkling pinot noir/chardonnay, an excellent riesling and tempranillo that we purchase half a dozen bottles of. The tastings are measured out in tiny beakers that are apt in these COVID-aware days. The tasting notes are a treat, with Wendy’s comments side-by-side with often contrary descriptions from Michael.
Wendy is clearly not a fan of sauv blanc – she suggests that this particular tipple be served to someone to get them to nod off to sleep and should be matched with party pies or sausage rolls. Michael reckons it’s “fresh and vibrant” and “goes well with soft cheese and cold meats”.
As their winery is one of the region’s smallest, most of Wendy and Michael’s wines are sold through their cellar door. I’m pleased about that … it’s a very good excuse to come back and keep an eye on the competitive tension.
When life delivers lemons, what else to do but make lemonade? Anurag Pandey has applied this proverb to the world of wine, with plans to turn Jeir Creek Winery in Murrumbateman into a magnet for tourists.
Anurag bought the winery from Rob Howell after its crops were all but destroyed by fires and pestilence. With no production this year, it was the perfect opportunity to look to the future, repairing trellises, bringing the soil back to health, sourcing new plants and working out the perfect plan to let others enjoy the amazing vistas from the property.
“We’d been searching for land that we could develop as a resort, with a multi-cuisine restaurant and a separate cellar door with smaller dining area,” says Anurag, who has a background in IT in India and Singapore and is working on the new venture with his wife, sister and brother-in-law.
Out in one of the paddocks, Anurag wants to build four or five cottages for overnight stays and, pending approval, a play area for kids, plus an amphitheatre and tennis courts.
“We want it to be a place where people visit, stay and play, whether they are young or old. A place for families,” he says.
Work has already started on the new restaurant, which is expected to seat up to 200 people. The cottages will hopefully be up and running in the next 15 to 18 months, says Anurag.
For the time being, though, Jeir Creek’s cool-climate wines remain a hot commodity for visitors. The cellar door offers tastings and sample plates of Indian food, a nod to the family’s Varanasi heritage. Highly recommended is a tasting of Jeir Creek’s museum wines.
Yass became an internet sensation when social media types sent the hashtag ‘Yasss’ viral. As unexpected promotion goes, it was pure gold. But what about the posh people? Surely #Yarrh is the next cab off the rank for a bit of free publicity? Yass Valley favourite Yarrh Wines is anything but snobby, but it does deserve its moment in the sun. From the sign out front that reads “Breathe Relax Enjoy” to the stunning 360-degree Yass River Valley vistas, everything feels a little bit less stressful here.
All Yarrh Wines are grown and bottled on the six-hectare estate by winemaker Fiona Wholohan and vigneron Neil McGregor, and the winery is committed to sustainable principles. Its Mr Natural range is treated with homemade compost and processed with minimal intervention. We’re eager to get down to some tasting and take a seat at one of the wooden tables in the beautiful cellar door, its floor-to-ceiling windows perfectly framing the pristine bushland outside.
We opt for the Wine Flight only, a choice of four each from a selection of four whites and five reds. They are delivered to the table in bulbous-bottomed beakers lined up on a small wooden board. Those who want to make an event of it can order a Winemaker’s Sail which matches wines with homemade, locally sourced foods.
I’m a fan of the 2019 Pinot Noir and the 2018 Brunette Sangiovese. My husband reckons the 2019 Riesling is pretty good too.
“It has excellent acidity and will age gracefully,” he reads from the tasting notes, adding: “Just like you.”
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I choose not to argue when he suggests we buy a few bottles for later.
It’s been a few years since I visited Shaw Wines and I barely recognise the place as we roll slowly up the driveway. How is it that I don’t remember the architectural lines of this imposing wood, concrete and metal building plonked in the middle of rolling vines and manicured gardens? It turns out I’m not going mad.
Three years ago, Shaw moved from its modest cellar door into this modern monument to wine, designed and built by owner Graeme Shaw. Graeme and his family were ahead of the curve when it came to predicting the future of wine-tasting.
As their old cellar door became more crowded, they decided to move to sit-down tastings and realised a whole new space would be required.
Today, Shaw’s cellar door feels like a well-kitted-out restaurant, bookended by two cosy fireplaces. But the focus here is very much on the wines, with tastings offered around spacious tables, allowing guests to relax and take their time.
There’s also a more private space for wine club members. Tanya Olinder, daughter of winery owners Graeme and Ann, who is Shaw Wines’ director (her brother Michael is vineyard manager), says the set-up was a boon for the winery when COVID-19 came along, enabling them to continue tastings with virtually no change to operations. While light snacks are available with the wine tastings, Shaw has been careful not to step on the toes of Olleyville, the restaurant now ensconced in the older building.
It’s a good plan.
We pop into Olleyville for lunch, and while the space is not as pretty as the new building, the restaurant more than makes up for it with some awe-inspiring food. We share a plate of roast free-range chicken served with seeded labneh, green tomato and piccalilli, and a casarecce pasta with wild mushroom soubise, truffle, pangratata and an egg yolk.
On the side, we order braised sugarloaf cabbage with toasted almonds and roasted jap pumpkin with hummus and crisp kale. There’s a fork fight for the last morsels on every plate. We’ll definitely be back. This is winery restaurant food at its finest.
A lot of people would have thrown in the towel after the year that Greg and Libby Gallagher had. But losing their entire crop to smoke taint and then having to rebuild their onsite cheesemaking facility after it was destroyed by fire hasn’t stopped the owners of Gallagher Wines from dreaming big.
The cheese factory is back up and running, and Libby and Greg’s daughter-in-law, Cansel Can, has joined the team, which also includes the Gallaghers’ winemaker daughter Lauren.
“We’re producing more cheese than ever,” says Greg, adding that the next addition to the vineyard is a $1.5 million cellar door and cafe that was put on hold after the fires but is now back on the agenda.
“Our current cellar door can cater for 15 to 20 people. The new one will cater for 60, and the cafe another 50. It will be a brand new, architecturally designed building with lovely views of the dam and the vineyard and the Brindabellas.”
Greg, who has worked as a winemaker in many of Australia’s famous wine regions, found himself in the Yass Valley after a process of elimination.
While working with Adelaide’s Wine Research Institute in the early 80s, he met a bloke who’d researched how flavour compounds were influenced by climatic conditions.
“I told him I wanted to make a particular style of shiraz and listed all the flavours. I used his feedback and maps from the Bureau of Meteorology to find the best place to do it. I was really surprised that Canberra pipped Coonawarra and other better-known areas for the best spot.” And he hasn’t looked back.
“There’s a lot of confidence here – tourism in the Yass Valley is growing exponentially. The wineries of the Murrumbateman area are generating more and more buzz in the industry and more people are coming to visit. Their only complaint is that there is hardly anywhere to eat. That’s why we’re going ahead with the new cellar door and cafe.”
Before travelling to any of the wineries listed in this feature, contact the venue directly to ascertain current operating hours. Some wineries may be closed temporarily due to COVID-19 restrictions. To plan your visit to the venues in this story, and other Yass Valley highlights, visit Yass Valley.