Wine, chocolate and cheese. Three of my favourite things in the universe. When they are enjoyed over a lazy afternoon in the Yarra Valley, life is approaching perfection.
This week I had the opportunity to take a visiting Brisbane friend to the Yarra Valley, one of Australia’s oldest (and best) wine regions. The Yarra Valley was the very first wine region I ever visited and my first cellar door tasting experience. I hold it responsible for gifting me my love of wine, a love I have now turned into a career. It is also a beautiful, peaceful part of the world offering travellers so much more than wine.
Yarra Valley Chocolaterie and Ice Creamery
With Easter approaching the Yarra Valley Chocolaterie and Ice Creamery (YVCI) is heading into one of their busiest times of year. You might remember I was
brought in as an ice cream specialist invited to a preview of the Yarra Valley Ice Cream Festival a few months ago. Well, they were a little surprised that I had never been out to their home in the Yarra and suggested I stop by to check out the Easter range.
A chocolate shop in a wine area is not a new thing. In fact I had often thought it was a little strange that the Yarra Valley didn’t have one. The YVCI opened in December 2012 and it was well worth the wait. Right from the start, Ian and Leanne Neeland were focussed on making something special by offering educational experiences in conservation (and chocolate) and embracing the local community. The chocolaterie is a significant employer of local people and has a commitment to conservation; establishing wetlands to protect populations of endangered frogs, turtle and fish species. They have also planted orchards and a kitchen garden, providing unique Australian flavours for their chocolate range. There are no chocolatier training programs in Australia so the chocolatiers are brought over from France and Belgium. These talented people then offer their skills to train our local patisserie graduates in the art of chocolate making.
Pretty cool huh. All this has been achieved in just a little over two years.
We were treated to a tasting of a few of the ranges. We started with the Valley Bush Tucker range. The chocolaterie is on the traditional land of the Wurundjeri people and as part of supporting the local community, fifty cents from the sale of each bush tucker bar goes back to the Wurundjeri tribe. The beautiful artwork on the packaging is done by a local Aboriginal artist too. The range includes uniquely Australian flavours such as native pepperberries, Jindilli nuts and even hints of paperbark. My favourite was the Gum Leaf and Wild Honey – silky eucalyptus flavour and floral honey sweetness in a milk chocolate block.
Next up was the Kitchen Garden Range with flavours such as Honeycomb and Lavender (blew my mind!), Fig and Fennel, and Chia and Mandarin. The flavours were all really creative and even the crazy sounding ones (Toasted Coconut and Curry Leaf) were beautifully balanced and very morish.
Finally we tried the Single Origin collection. Cocoa beans have been sourced from a range of countries including Australia, and the more traditional cocoa producing countries such as Java and Madagascar. These were just amazing. All of them are pure chocolate but the range of flavours expressed range from sweet, smooth caramel notes to tropical fruit and bitter coffee. If you are into wine or beer tasting, you just gotta get into this.
Afterwards we had a bit of a roam and a shop. I was pretty taken with watching the chocolatiers work. Word on the street is that adult chocolate-making classes will be starting soon. Count me in!
The Easter range is stunning. I don’t know about you, but I get a bit tired of seeing the same old things in the shop every Easter. If you want something locally and beautifully handmade to make Easter just that little bit more special, then this is the place for you. Also, if you have little’uns you need to check out the free Easter egg hunts available from Good Friday to Easter Sunday.
Please note: There are always free chocolate samples available to try but private chocolate tasting sessions like ours are only available for group bookings (10+ people) at a cost of $3 per head.
Yarra Valley Dairy
After all that chocolate we needed to balance it our with some cheese. I discovered the Yarra Valley Dairy during my first trip to the Yarra Valley in 2004. They make a range of soft cow and goat milk cheeses which they rotate for tasting each day. They also do a fantastic value cheese platter for $32 with 4 different cheeses, a locally made chutney and a large plate of gourmet breads and crackers.
Dominique Portet Winery
Of course we had to finish the afternoon with a winery and Dominique Portet is a special one. Established in 2000 by Dominique, a French fellow with a phenomenal background. He trained at Montpellier; has done vintages in the Médoc, the Rhône Valley, Provence and Champagne; before a stint with his brother at Clos du Val in the Napa Valley. We met Ben, son of Dominique, and the 10th generation of Portet winemakers. The generations date back to the 18th century in Bordeaux- that’s some serious pedigree, and we are lucky enough to have them just up the road. We were treated to a bit of a backstage tour of the winery and I was delighted to see them disgorging a special release 2007 Tasmanian Sparkling (due for release soon).
Let me take a step back for a moment to explain disgorging. Sparkling wine made in the methodé traditionelle (traditonal method, or the Champagne method) is a pretty involved process. After the grapes are picked, a still wine is produced, and then bottled with a little extra sugar and yeast. Because the bottle is sealed (with a crown cap usually), as the yeast ferments the sugar, the carbon dioxide it produces is trapped in the bottle and makes the wine bubbly. When it is time to remove the yeast the bottles are gradually turned and tipped (in a process called riddling) so the yeast settles in the cap. The bottle top is frozen in brine (pictured above) and then a special disgorging machine pops off the cap, removing the frozen plug of yeast, tops it up with a little more wine (usually with a little sugar as well) and seals it with a cork. This results in a much more elegant sparkling than those just carbonated in a tank.
I’ve talked about this process a hundred times but never actually seen it, so this was a special little #winenerd moment for me.
To the wines!
Dominique Portet are best known for their rosé which is a dry Provençal style with the prettiest pale salmon colour. However, they make quite a significant range of wines including some quirky, experimental styles such as a Shiraz aged in oak barrels under water. I love that kind of creativity in winemaking. Not everything is on tasting but we did get to try: sparkling rosé, two Sauvignon Blancs made with and without oak ageing, Chardonnay, Shiraz/Cabernet/Merlot blend, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and a late harvest (dessert) Sauvignon Blanc. The wines across the range are elegant, concentrated and beautifully crafted.
My standouts were:
2013 Dominque Portet Origine Chardonnay ($40) with white peach, restrained citrus, a touch of oyster shell minerality and a lovely white flower character on the nose; backed up by a core of subtle French oak.
2014 Fontaine Shiraz/Cabernet/Merlot ($22) – some whole bunch fermentation provides jubey fruit aromatics with plenty of red fruits and spice on the palate and soft tannins. Super food-friendly and very slurpable. Only just released, this wine is a baby and needs about 6 months to show its best but is an absolute bargain.
And the 2014 Fontaine Rosé, always a favourite. Dry with lifted aromatics, restrained fruit, savoury elegance and a lovely, textural mouthfeel.
Dominique Portet Winery runs a number of special events and limited release tastings throughout the year. For all the latest news, you can sign up to their newsletter.
With that we had to head back to the city with our bellies full of chocolate and cheese, and our bags clinking with wine bottles. There is something just so refreshing about an afternoon in the Yarra Valley.
Disclosure: I was treated to a private tasting and a goody bag from Yarra Valley Chocolaterie and Ice Creamery and a ‘backstage’ tour at Dominique Portet. All other food and wine purchases were paid for. Big thanks to Q Strategies for the arrangements at the Yarra Valley Chocolaterie and Ice Creamery and Dominque Portet Winery.