The greatest wines of the world are undeniably a product of place, embodying the particular constellation of elements that can be captured by the seeking roots and waving leaves of a grapevine. But some very special wines are as much a product of intense passion and vision as they are of a specific terroir. Someone must choose the land, must drive the posts, must plant the vines, and of course, make the wine.
These actions can be done with ordinary dedication or with extraordinary insight, and their results vary accordingly. As I journey through my adventure as a wine lover, I find increasingly that some of the most extraordinary wines on earth are also made by some of its most extraordinary individuals -- people whose sense of what they want from wine lies beyond the realm of common sense, tradition, or, occasionally, even sanity.
Doctor Bailey Carrodus was, in the truest sense of the clichÃ©, a renaissance man. Both a biologist and oenologist by training, he earned his doctorate at Oxford studying plant physiology, and traveled around Europe exploring its greatest vineyards before returning home to Australia to make a life, and a life's work for himself. That work began with the search for a site to plant a vineyard and build a home.
His search eventually brought him to the Warramate hills in the heart of the Yarra Valley, once a reasonably prolific wine producing region, but abandoned as such since 1921 when the last recorded wine was made in the area. In 1969, Carrodus purchased 30 acres of roughly north-facing hillside of silty loam soils laced with deep bands of gravel from prehistoric wandering streams. He immediately planted vines and built himself a home, both enterprises planned and recorded in detailed, longhand notes and meticulous sketches, and both clearly bearing the imprint of their maker.
The Yarra Yering vineyards were planted with both traditional Bordeaux grape varieties as well as varieties that Carrodus believed might be suited to the area, including Pinot Noir and several red and white Rhone Varieties. The vineyard rows were spaced wide to accommodate the basic farming equipment of the day. The spaces in between were cultivated with cover crops, and most notably, no affordances for irrigation were made, the doctor's intention being to dry farm the vineyard, largely by hand, and though never certified, essentially as completely organic.
The house that Carrodus built for himself would strike most people as austere if not downright odd. Surrounded by the wonderful gardens and trees that Carrodus carefully planted, landscaped, and tended, the house was made of simple cement blocks, unfinished both on the inside and out. In response to polite questions about how he enjoyed living in what amounted to a box of grey concrete, Carrodus would reply that the container was not important, the contents being the only thing that truly mattered.
This philosophy, if one could call it that, bore itself out both literally and figuratively in every aspect of the doctor's small winery. Carrodus purchased the cheapest glass bottles possible, and without regard for traditions, bottled every kind of wine in the same shape and color of bottle. The labels for the bottle were hand drawn and hand lettered by Carrodus himself each year for decades. The one thing the doctor paid handsomely for were the highest quality corks he could find from Spain.
The work in the vineyards and winery reflected a level of dedication to both quality as well as control that few winery operations in the world could possibly afford to match. The grapes were hand harvested and transported in small black plastic bins the size of a large salad bowl. These bowls with their whole clusters of grapes were dumped one by one into a manually cranked crusher which funneled the crushed grapes and juice and stems into custom designed 2/3 ton steel-lined wooden fermentation vats that would allow Carrodus to carefully shepherd even the tiniest sections of the vineyard separately through their fermentation as a one-man operation. Carrodus invented and built a small radiator-like device to cool these small vats, one of the few devices in the winery that required any electricity.
Carrodus' first vintage of wine was made in 1973, and that wine represented the first commercial wine made in the Yarra Valley since wine production ceased more than fifty years prior.
For the next 35 years, Carrodus produced wines that met his exacting standards, or, on occasion, no wine at all. On one famous occasion, he recalled a wine that he decided wasn't good enough after it had sold, offering full refunds to every customer. These were wines that fit no established model or style other than his personal vision for what kind of wine he should be making from the place he had chosen to do so. Only in comparison to the neighboring wineries that sprouted up over the decades is it possible to see the uniqueness of the doctor's approach. From dry farming and its miniscule yields, to the consistent harvesting of grapes weeks earlier than neighbors and the steadfast refusal to add anything but yeast to his grapes, Carrodus defied most local conventions before they were invented.
In total, the winery produced about 4000 cases of wine and with additional plantings, reached a total of about 80 acres of vines under cultivation.
By the end of 2007, the doctor's health was failing, and so he began searching for a winemaker to help him keep the winery operating smoothly after his long standing winemaking assistant Mark Haisma decided to move to Europe. Paul Bridgeman doesn't remember exactly how he first became a potential candidate for the job, but he remembers nearly four months of intermittent conversations (and tastings) with Carrodus about the position. Then one day, he got the call that he'd gotten the job.
Two weeks later on September 19, 2008 Dr. Bailey Carrodus died.
Carrodus had never married, nor had any children. In a flurry of activity, the winery was quickly purchased by a group of investors, led by Singaporean businessman Ed Peter, all of whom steadfastly committed to let the winery operate as it always had, in the hands of Bridgeman and winery manager Tim Hampton.
Indeed, little has changed at Yarra Yering. The entry hall and living room in Dr. Carrodus' house have been plastered and turned into a tasting room open to the public for the first time, and instead of the bearded Carrodus in his slacks and shirt, you will now find a strappy Paul Bridgeman wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with "The Yeastie Boys - Licensed to Spill" worrying over the fermentations with a different, but comparable intensity to the late doctor.
I will not be the first to call Yarra Yering's wines phenomenally good by any means, but these wines are really and truly exceptional. Above all the wines are almost breathtaking in their honesty. Tasting them provides the nearly unsettling sensation of tapping into something quite essential about what wine is, and should always be: a distillate of sun, earth, water, and a passion of feeling. The three or so hours I spent wandering the cellar and tasting these wines have entirely changed my sense of what Australian wine is, and has the potential to be, and more than anything, left me with the profound sense of loss for not having had the opportunity to meet the man responsible for making them. While I am not fully qualified myself, by lack of experience, to proclaim these some of the best wines made in Australia, I can heartily agree with any others who have been bold enough to say so.
1996 Yarra Yering Blanc de Noir Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley, Australia
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of honey and white flowers with a hint of yeastiness. In the mouth the wine has a yeasty, baked-apple and bread flavor with a nice lemon juice quality on the finish. Competent and pleasant, but missing some depth. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
1999 Yarra Yering "Dry White #1" Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc, Yarra Valley, Australia
Bright medium-yellow in the glass with a faint haze, this wine has a nose of lemongrass and a yeasty breadiness. In the mouth it offers bright lemon, sourdough toast and brewers yeast flavors. A long finish incorporates a hint of waxiness. Unique and distinctive, the wine hasn't been made in recent years as the vines were ripped out because the wine didn't sell well. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $36. Click to buy.
2007 Yarra Yering Chardonnay, Yarra Valley, Australia
Light green-gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of cold cream and wet stones with hints of white flowers and lemon curd. In the mouth it is gorgeously bright with bee pollen, lemon curd, and beautiful long chamomile notes on the finish. A very nice mix of fruit and more savory herbal components, this is a chardonnay with great personality. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Click to buy.
2003 Yarra Yering Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley, Australia
Cloudy light ruby in the glass, this wine smells of wet dirt and raspberry fruit. In the mouth it is gorgeously delicate and beautifully textured, with raspberry and reducurrant flavors mixed with a deep river mud quality that morphs to wet leaves in the long finish. Soulful and unique. Score: around 9. Cost: $55 Click to buy.
2007 Yarra Yering Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley, Australia
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of some sort of herb-encased mulberry and raspberry but with an otherworldly edge that is hard to pin down. In the mouth the wine is a strange combination of sensuality and rustic earthiness. It possesses gorgeous texture with faint tannins and perfectly balanced acidity. The core of the fruit in the wine centers around raspberry and redcurrant with gorgeous incense and spice coursing over a foundation of river mud. Impeccably honest. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $55. Click to buy.
2007 Yarra Yering "Gruyere" Shiraz, Yarra Valley, Australia
Medium ruby in color, this wine smells of blackberries and raspberries. In the mouth it is soft and bright with raspberry and blackberry flavors that bounce juicily along with light greenish herbs in the background. Friendly but not particularly profound. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2001 Yarra Yering Underhill Shiraz, Yarra Valley, Australia
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of hints of bacon fat and blackberry pie. In the mouth it is incredibly silky and smooth, with cherry, blackberry, raspberry and wonderful garrigue herbs that hover above a pounded earth floor and float through a long finish. Wonderful acidity and faint tannins add to the complexity. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. Click to buy.
2007 Yarra Yering "Underhill" Shiraz, Yarra Valley, Australia
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of mulberry and blackberry aromas. In the mouth it is beautifully textured with a silky medium body of freshly picked blackberry and briar flavors. Wonderful acids and a beautiful, wet redwood planking quality linger through a very fine finish. Ethereal tannins linger at the edge of perceptibility. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Click to buy.
2005 Yarra Yering "Agincourt - Dry Red #1" Bordeaux Blend, Yarra Valley, Australia
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of smoked meats, redcurrants, and cherry aromas. In the mouth it is gorgeously textured with sweet tannins and a core of bright cherry fruit mixed with exotic woods, cocoa powder, and beautiful floral characteristics that linger in the finish. Fantastic soft tannins give structure to the wine and are balanced by a wonderful acidity that makes the wine extremely juicy. A special bottling that is just a blend of Cabernet and Merlot. Score: around 9.5.
2004 Yarra Yering "Dry Red #1" Bordeaux Blend, Yarra Valley, Australia
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of dried cherries, wet dirt, and woodsmoke. In the mouth it offers dried cherries, fresh cherries, orange rind and mulling spices wrapped in faint, powdery tannins that have a delicate sweetness to them. The incredibly long finish incorporates beautiful notes of cedar and orange oil. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $55. Click to buy.
2006 Yarra Yering "Dry Red #1" Bordeaux Blend, Yarra Valley, Australia
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of bacon fat, mint, and bright cherry and mulberry fruit. In the mouth it offers stunning, bright spicy plum and cherry fruit with exotic woods and spices that linger in an impressive finish. Astonishingly smooth texture, accentuated with faint powdery tannins that contrast with perfect acidity. This wine is the epitome of balance. The finish, which my notes describe as "gobsmackingly aromatic" lingers literally for minutes. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $55 Click to buy.
2007 Yarra Yering "Dry Red #1" Bordeaux Blend, Yarra Valley, Australia
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a gorgeous nose of incense and cherry fruit with incredible floral overtones. In the mouth the wine is astonishingly balanced with the poise of a ballerina. The core of the wine contains cherry fruit surrounded by what I can only describe as "an atmosphere" of fennel seeds, anise, mixed dried herbs, and orange peel flavors. Quite extraordinary and incredibly drinkable. A mere 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Click to buy.
1989 Yarra Yering Dry Red #1 Bordeaux Blend, Yarra Valley, Australia
Cloudy medium ruby in color with a dark brown haze, this wine smells of coffee with milk, stewed cherries, and smoked meats. In the mouth it has an astonishing, sexy, silky texture and delivers beautiful dried cherry, coffee-with-milk, sticky date pudding and lingering cedar flavors that hover with a sweet rosemary quality for minutes in the mouth. Definitely advancing in age, this wine is drinking beautifully, but I don't have the experience to predict how much longer it will last. Score: around 9.5.
2007 Yarra Yering "Dry Red #2" Shiraz Yarra Valley, Australia
An interesting blend of 98% Shiraz with little bits of cofermented Viognier, Marsanne, and Mourvedre, this wine smells of mulberries and white flowers. On the palate the wine is exceedingly delicate, even feminine. Fantastic mulberry and cassis flavors with floral, exotic citrus oils and garrigue herbs linger through an incredible finish. Fantastically elegant I sat for minutes as the finish sailed onwards in the back of my mouth. Outstanding. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $55. Click to buy.
2007 Yarra Yering Merlot, Yarra Valley, Australia
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of a fistful of green herbs and plums layered on a wet chalkboard. Wonderful tart and juicy plum fruit courses through the palate with notes of dried herbs and incense that emerge on the finish. Beautifully balanced and incredibly drinkable. Fantastic acidity. Astonishingly just 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Click to buy.
2007 Yarra Yering "Dry Red #3" Red Blend, Yarra Valley, Australia
Medium garnet in color, this wine has an unbelievable perfumed nose of violets, cassis, and plum. In the mouth it is exceedingly soft and velvety, with powdery tannins wrapped around flavors of cassis, plum, cedar, mulberry, amazing concoctions of fruit and exotic woods. Fantastic acidity makes the wine juicy throughout its time in the mouth and for minutes afterwards. An unusual blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta CÃ£o, Tinta Amarela, Alvarelhao, Roriz and SousÃ£o varieties. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $60. Click to buy.
A TASTE OF THE FUTURE OF YARRA YERING
I had the opportunity to taste many of the above wines in their current vintages out of barrel, as well as their various components.
Despite the disastrous and deadly brushfires in the Yarra Valley in 2009 the vintage at Yarra Yering was excellent. Not only is there not a trace of smoke taint (Bridgeman says their location and prevailing winds prevented it) the wines are fantastic and perfectly in keeping with the quality and style evidenced by the earlier vintages I tasted out of bottle before and after my barrel tasting.
I can say with relief and excitement that the 2009 wines will likely be fantastic, and that Bridgeman seems to be embodying the spirit and vision of Dr. Carrodus while at the same time, clearly forging his own path. Perhaps the highest compliment one could pay to Bridgeman at this point is that he is clearly both talented and inspired enough to not have screwed anything up. After tasting and listening to him talk about the wines I have little doubt that Yarra Yering is in excellent hands.