Victoria’s Yarra Valley has a well-deserved reputation as one of the finest regions in the world for food and wine.

By Mark Muller

The ground slowly drops away in the pre-dawn haze and the paddock below is furiously lit by a blaze of burning gas as Andrew Davis gives the hot air balloon another blast. Drifting slowly upwards through the growing light, the patchwork folds of Victoria’s Yarra Valley reveal themselves in ever-increasing detail.
The valley was the state’s first recognised winegrowing district, with the Ryrie brothers planting Victoria’s first vineyard at Yering Station back in 1838. By 1900, some 400 hectares were under vine and, today, more than 2500ha of this fertile valley are devoted to the grape.
Along with a thriving wine industry, the Yarra Valley also supports many businesses engaged in the complementary pursuits of food and tourism. Given its proximity to Melbourne – the valley’s western edge begins just 45 kilometres from the CBD – many people have made their home here in order to capitalise on the thousands who visit each year wanting to experience top-class food, wine and accommodation. Despite this, the Yarra Valley does not have an urban feel – it’s definitely country. Small town leads to hamlet leads to village, all joined by the common pursuit of good living.
Andrew Davis has been flying balloons over the valley for close to five years now, and has worked for Global Ballooning both here and in Mansfield, Vic, for more than 10. He grins as he guides the balloon higher to catch the wind that will push us west towards Yering Station. “This is the best office in the world,” he says.
Later, over breakfast at Fergusson Winery, Andrew continues. “The Yarra Valley is very strong for ballooning because the river runs through it and creates stable pockets of cold air,” he says. Doubtless he’s right, but from a passenger’s perspective, the Yarra Valley is very strong for ballooning because it’s so beautiful and you land at places full of good things to eat and drink.
Peter Fergusson laughs as he listens to this. He’s one of the pioneers of ‘wine tourism’ in the valley (a role for which he was awarded an OAM in 2003) and, along with his wife Louise, who is a gold medallist in the European Culinary Olympics, is a stalwart of the area. The family planted their first vines in 1968, with Peter taking over the reins in 1982. “Back then, day-tour operators did traditional things, and wineries were a part of that mix, but only five wineries were open to the public,” he says.
Peter believed that people would be interested in learning more about the goings on of the winemaking process and set about establishing wine tourism as a progressive and profitable adjunct to his operation. It caught on and, today, the majority of the Yarra’s 70-plus wineries welcome the public, while the Yarra Valley Regional Food Trail covers more than 100 food-related options. Peter and Lorraine are quietly proud of this, and their winery and restaurant have a reputation that stretches far beyond the valley’s rim.
The train that Peter helped set in motion had a positive impact on the lives of many, through both the increase in numbers visiting the valley, the foodies that were drawn to cater for them and the accommodation houses of all sorts that now provide beds in which to rest happy, if weary, heads. For Matt Noble, the availability of this wide array of wine and food-orientated attractions has afforded him the opportunity to develop his own tour business. Matt had extensive wine industry and tour guiding experience in Europe and Australia, and regarded the Yarra as an ideal place to strike out on his own. In 1998, with one bus, he established his Australian Wine Tour Company, taking daily tours out of Melbourne. Today, he and wife Amanda run a small fleet of vehicles and drivers, and have won a variety of local, state and national awards.
“Firstly, I really like the wine that’s produced in the Yarra,” Matt says. “Then, of course, there’s the proximity to Melbourne, which means we have a steady and reliable supply of people wanting to come and experience what the valley has to offer.”
It has proved successful for the Nobles, and has given them the security to start a family and continue to expand their business. Matt is also involved on a broader level, sitting on the Victorian Food and Wine Tourism Council, a representative body dedicated to developing this important facet of Victoria’s tourism industry, and a variety of other local and state organisations. “It’s important to be involved,” Matt says. “For us to grow, and to be a part of our community, means putting back in.”
This spirit of involvement extends throughout the valley and is a constant drawcard for talented and innovative people. It is certainly part of what drives renowned cheesemaker Richard Thomas. He has spent more than 30 years honing his craft in places as diverse as King Island, Italy and Milawa, Vic, and has teamed up with De Bortoli Winery to build and work what he regards as “one of the best cheese maturing rooms in the country”. Richard is a craggy sort of a bloke who exudes a passion and knowledge for cheese that is as blunt as it is reverential. “You don’t eat cheese for nourishment, and you don’t drink wine for thirst – I’m just not prepared to waste time in life on boring cheese,” he says. “We’ve got the chance here to make really great cheese, and to properly mature and store really great cheeses from around the world, and that’s worth doing in my book.”
And it’s that spirit that should make visiting the Yarra Valley worth doing in anyone’s book.

This story excerpt is from Issue #52

Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2007