Experience the Yarra Valley’s amazing wine scene on this small group tour from Melbourne. You’ll visit four superb wineries for tastings, and enjoy a winery lunch with a glass of wine to accompany your meal. A stop at the renowned Yarra Valley Chocolaterie is another highlight. Duration: 8 hours (approx.)
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You could easily be tempted to spend your entire Melbourne visit dining in incredible restaurants, enjoying the city’s amazing café and bar scene, and getting amongst its plethora of cultural attractions.
However, what’s equally tempting is that in less than an hour you could be exploring the stunning Yarra Valley wine region, tasting world-class wines, meeting the winemakers, sampling fabulous gourmet cuisine, and getting to know the history of this magnificent region.
If you decide to include the Yarra Valley on your Melbourne ‘to do’ list, you do have a chore or two on your hands — trying to choose which of the valley’s 80 cellar doors to visit, and deciding who pulls the short straw as designated driver. Alternatively, set your mode switch to ‘relax’ and climb on board with Winebus Winery Tours. Today I’m travelling on their boutique Yarra Valley wine tour from Melbourne. We’re off to discover wineries large and small, taste some of the valley’s best and most intriguing drops, enjoy a winery lunch, and possibly, we’re told, cross paths with a friendly kangaroo or two.
I meet the bus at St Paul’s Cathedral, opposite Federation Square (there are a few other choices of pick-up location around the CBD). Ian is our driver and guide (and founder of the company) and he’s instantly likeable. Originally a farmer, he later spent time in France driving tours before launching his business in Australia, and it’s obvious that this is a passion as well as a job. I climb into the front seat of the comfortable minibus. Behind me are two friendly American couples, a Japanese lady, two Singaporean guys, a couple from Newcastle, and three French travellers. ‘This is a typical mix’, says Ian as we head out of the city. Ian’s tours carry a maximum of thirteen guests. This ensures an intimate and relaxed day out, where it’s possible for everyone to get to know each other with ease.
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We’re in luck with the weather. It’s a beautiful sunny day — not too cold, and not too warm. Before long the city gives way to gorgeous, hilly landscapes and gum tree-lined country roads. We stop to see if the kangaroos are out. Sadly they’re not, but Ian says we’ll come back on the way home.
We soon arrive at our first vineyard — Rob Dolan Wines. Rob Dolan started his career in the valley at Yarra Ridge Winery, before going on to launch two highly successful Yarra Valley brands – Sticks and Punt Road (‘Sticks’ being Rob’s nickname as a premiership ruckman with Port Adelaide Football Club). In 2014, Rob won Newcomer Winery of the Year for Rob Dolan Wines at the James Halliday Australian Wine Companion Awards. In the same competition in 2015, he received a Red 5 Star Winery Rating — signifying ‘an outstanding winery, regularly producing wines of exemplary quality and typicity’.
We breeze past the clumps of lavender, inhaling the floral-tinged air while looking out over the picture-perfect vineyard and gardens. Once inside the tasting room, we get to try a sparkling, a white, a rosé, and two reds. A couple of sips are poured into each glass and we swish, smell and taste while hearing the story behind each vintage. There’s time afterwards for a walk through the gardens, which would be the perfect setting for a wedding (and I think I overhear a woman discussing her plans).
It’s soon time to hop back on the bus and cruise along more country roads, while we choose our lunch meals (included in the tour package). They’ll be served at the next winery. After a few more historical anecdotes from Ian (most with a punch line!), we pull up under vivid pink cherry blossoms at Rochford Wines — rated a Red 5 Star Winery in the 2019 James Halliday Wine Companion. This family owned vineyard, cellar door, restaurant and concert venue caters to a larger audience than our first stop. In the tasting room we’re taken through several wines by one of the owners, who explains why each has its particular texture and flavour.
Lunch is served in the restaurant, and by this stage I’m wondering if we have time for a siesta as the garden looks like a delightful spot to curl up in! Luckily coffee is served. I gaze over the vineyards from the viewing deck, then visit the estate’s shop to purchase some of their locally made fluffy nougat (a perfect little present for family).
On arrival at Hanrahan Vineyard, we all gasp. This is rustic chic at its best, and there’s no way I would have found this place on my own. Think rolling hills festooned with grape vines, a gorgeous homely little cellar door, passionate staff and delicious wines that include a chardonnay for non-chardonnay drinkers (like a few of us today). The winery runs a popular ‘reverse BYO’ concept, where people bring their own food for jovial or romantic picnics and buy the wine. I get chatting to the French contingent. We climb the nearby hill and I take a moment to lie down in a field of flowers buzzing with the bees. It’s very hard to leave!
We manage to drag ourselves away, all dreamy from this slice of paradise. Ian bumps up the humour for his local stories that now come rolling out like Banjo Paterson poems and we laugh our way to the final winery — Helen & Joey Estate — which sits above a 200-acre property of cascading grape trellises. The winery’s signature unicorns are perched on either side of the terrace. What do unicorns have to do with wine? ‘The unicorn, like wine, is an enigma’, we’re told by our winery host. ‘It is ambiguous, often puzzling, stunningly beautiful, and subjective, and like wine the unicorn displays all things that we admire: strength, power and elegance.’
We trot inside for our final tasting and get into more detail about the estate’s drops. We all love the strawberry rosé. I purchase a bottle, while the Americans try to calculate how many kilos in wine they can possibly add to their luggage for their flight home tomorrow.
We have one final stop for the day — the Yarra Valley Chocolaterie & Ice Creamery. We’re certainly not the only ones that have decided to pay a visit and there are kids streaking around on sugar highs. Unable to brave the lengthy queue for an ice cream, I get a much-needed sugar hit with a sample of white chocolate, then drift outside to lie under a citrus tree. I gaze up at the clouds, thinking how lovely it is to get out of town.
On the way back to Melbourne we try once again to spot kangaroos. Success! We run up the hill towards the roos like paparazzi, and having recently returned from an extended stay in France, I think I’m more excited than anyone as I try to strike up conversations with these gorgeous creatures.
The wineries visited on this tour vary but wherever Ian decides to take you, I’m sure you will have a terrific time. The combination of large and small cellar doors is perfect, as is the timing of the stops throughout the tour. Just try to have an early night beforehand so you can really appreciate the day. You’ll arrive back in the city between 5 and 5.30pm, and so, yes, there’s time for a cat nap before dinner!
Ruby travelled as a guest of Winebus Winery Tours.
Additional images: Bigstock
Ruby Boukabou is a travel, culture and food writer based between Europe and Australia. She has written for The Age, The Australian, Qantas, Issimo, The Diplomat, Paris Voice and Inside Film. She has also produced culture and travel stories for the ABC, SBS and Screen Australia. When Ruby’s not writing, she is probably tap dancing. She is a founding member of the Paris Tap Crew (which produces the monthly Paris Tap Jam) and a member of jazz/world music group Le Shuffle Project.