The Next Yarra Valley Wine Revolution

Australia's cool-climate Yarra Valley made waves in the mid-2000s thanks to a group of young winemakers called "The South Pack." Julia van der Vink on the post-Pack era, winemaker Mac Forbes and the future of one of Australia's most progressive regions.

At 7 a.m. the cool condensation is just beginning to evaporate off the pinot noir clusters at the Woori Yallock vineyard. As the sun rises I regain a touch of circulation in my right hand, which is icily contracted around a pair of rusty orange clippers. Standing under the dew-dripping nets that protect the grapes from the vineyard’s resident population of magpies, our six-man crew has been picking pinot since 5:30 in the morning.

It is the end of my third week of the harvest working for winemaker Mac Forbes in Australia’s Yarra Valley, and after multiple trips to the vineyard to walk the rows and taste the fruit, Mac has finally made the call to have us pick the middle third of the vineyard. The fruit at the top and the bottom of the slope are still not ready.

Six vines down the slope, Mac is kneeling beneath the leaf canopy in a pair of camo-print cargo shorts, Blundstones and a yellow graphic tee, tediously handpicking the best clusters into the bucket at his feet. We have at least another five hours ahead of us, and the rise of the sun reminds me to pick faster before the onset of afternoon heat. With his face still submerged in the vine, Mac yells up the slope to me, “Don’t rush!” He pauses, leaning out from under a mess of vine, “The middle of Woori is everything.”

As far as great vineyards go, at first glance Mac’s treasured Woori Yallock vineyard looks entirely ordinary. Planted in 1995 by a couple of dairy farmers, the vines stand unassumingly on a loamy clay hill above a village whose main attraction is a Chinese bakery that specializes in chili meat pies and schnitzel sandwiches. With the exception of the family of kangaroos that like to spend their mornings at the bottom of the chardonnay block, it is a vineyard that looks like it could come from anywhere.

Despite its humble aesthetic, Mac believes that Woori Yallock is a site with tremendous strength. As a result of the vineyard’s altitude, and its southwest orientation in one of the coolest pockets of the Upper Yarra, it produces pinot noirs with incredible structural intensity. The wines are as lean as many Burgundies, but with an unabashed fruitiness and tannic tension that is distinctly New World. While Mac has been working with Woori Yallock for the last nine years, it is a site with potential he believes he is only beginning to understand. And thusly, it is a site that perfectly articulates the evolving identity of the Yarra Valley.

Over the past thirty years, winemaking in the Yarra has still not arrived at a cohesive regional identity. Aside from being one of Australia’s coldest mainland wine regions, there has not been an obvious common style or sentiment that has tied the region together. For the most part, this ambiguity is a result of the region’s relatively short history of grape growing. While the first grapes were planted in the Yarra at the end of the 19th century, all the vineyards were ripped out by 1920 when it became clear that farming cattle was significantly more profitable. It was not until the late ’60s, and early ’70s—when a small handful of wealthy doctors who had gotten a whiff of European wine replanted the Yarra in the pursuit of suitable vineyard land within a one-hour drive of Melbourne—that the region had a significant comeback.

Mac Forbes’ eponymous label first developed a reputation in the mid-2000s when the Yarra went through a revolution similar to the ‘New California’ wine movement. As a reaction to the heavy, point-chasing wines of the ’90s, in 2006 a nine-man group of young, predominantly home-grown winemakers pushed back against the overripe, heavily oaked status quo of Australian wine, and started producing lighter, leaner, characterful wines in the Yarra Valley. The group became collectively known as “The South Pack.”

While the wine industry in the Yarra has been gradually snowballing ever since, style of the wines has fluctuated massively. In the 1990s, there were some missteps. Despite the fact that the Yarra is a cool-climate region best suited for medium-bodied wines, when wine writers started regaling the fuller-bodied style of Australian wines coming out of the Barossa, many producers in the Yarra began chasing gold medals and the export market by producing bigger, riper wines.

Mac Forbes’ eponymous label first developed a reputation in the mid-2000s when the Yarra went through a revolution similar to the ‘New California’ wine movement. As a reaction to the heavy, point-chasing wines of the ’90s, in 2006 a nine-man group of young, predominantly home-grown winemakers pushed back against the overripe, heavily oaked status quo of Australian wine, and started producing lighter, leaner, characterful wines in the Yarra Valley. The group became collectively known as “The South Pack.” As a handful of individual small operators, many of whom had previous experiences making wine in Europe, The South Pack’s primary objective was to celebrate the vast diversity of wine styles that the Yarra was capable of producing. Throughout the 2000s the group marketed their wines together in order to raise the profile of the area.

While The South Pack’s collective marketing was effective at putting many small Yarra producers on the map in the 2000s, five to ten years later the ties holding the original movement together have slowly dissipated.

Instead of putting energy into promoting the region as a whole, in the past few years many of the former South Pack members have focused their individual projects on developing a deeper understanding of the distinctive sites within the Yarra. Though the individualization of projects has been divisive, it is indicative of a substantial growth in understanding of the region’s vineyards.

At the forefront of the next stage in the Yarra’s evolution, Mac’s own project is based around the delineation of the Yarra Valley subregions. While he works with pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling, sauvignon blanc, semillon, syrah and a mix of Bordeaux varieties, the axis of his program hinges on articulating the character of the four vineyards that he leases and manages, each of which bears the name of the town in the Yarra in which it is located: Woori Yallock, Wesburn, Gruyere and Hoddles Creek.

For the past few weeks leading up to our pick at Woori Yallock, I followed Mac on multiple trips to check up on the vineyard. “It is impossible to pick Woori Yallock in one day,” Mac says. As I trailed him up one of the rows of pinot noir, tasting grapes from vine to vine, he has explained why the same slope at Woori Yallock might as well be three different vineyards. “You can taste it.” Two-thirds up the hill, he pops a berry in his mouth stops dead in his tracks and points at a single vine. “Here,” he says. “This is where the flavor changes.”

At Woori Yallock, Mac attributes the segregation of the slope to the hot winds that influence the vines at the top of the block, and the slightly deeper gradient of topsoil at the bottom of the block. While fruit from all three parts of the slope will contribute to the final wine, he explains that treating the different parts of the slope separately is fundamental to capturing the vineyard’s deepest expression.

By looking closely at what makes each site unique—from soil, to wind influence, vine age, elevation, sun exposure and rainfall—his goal is to be able to make wines that contribute to the conversation and landscape of what it means to make wine in the Yarra Valley. “We have just emerged from the winemaking-driven philosophies of the early 2000s,” he says. Instead of implementing elaborate techniques in the cellar in order to achieve a certain desired outcome, “Now we are more in tune with the fruit. As a result the wines are becoming more interesting and engaging. We are finally defining what our style is as opposed to trying to emulate the style of other regions.” It’s a storyline that has been a pervasive one in the New World, as a younger set of winegrowing regions is beginning to come of age.

“We are trying to break outside the generic cycle of Australian wine,” says Mac, referring to an ideology focused on winemaking rather than winegrowing. “If you can’t figure out exactly why your own patch of dirt is special, then why are you doing it?”

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Julia van der Vink is a traveling winemaker and occasional freelancer. She is currently working at Forlorn Hope Wines in Napa, California.

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