Small Producers Finding the Sunlight in the Shadow of Giants: Yarran, Durif and James Halliday’s Dark Horse Winery of 2021
Just before magic hour, as the blast of the sun had eased a bit, we headed out to Yarran winery in Yenda, about fifteen minutes from Griffith. Yarran wines is one of the Riverina’s (and Australia’s) rising stars, and is named for the beautiful native trees (acacia species) with generous canopies of feathery leaves that dot the landscape, providing welcome shade.
We were greeted by Yarran Wines’ winemaker and co-owner, the very energetic and engaging, Sam Brewer, who invited us into Yarran Wines’ charming, spacious, and award-winning, Cellar Door.
We were treated to a refreshing glass of bubbly: Yarran’s Cuvee Blanc – a spirited, tank method chardonnay redolent of apples, citrus, papaya and just a touch of biscuit – which we enjoyed out on the generous verandah of the cellar door as we admired the beautiful vista of vineyards spreading out as far as the eye could see, with the looming Cocoparra mountains in the distance.
Brewer’s parents developed Yarran’s vineyards from an old fruit farm they purchased in 1978 to supply grapes to larger local wineries, and the homestead remains a hop, skip and a jump from the tasting room. Yarran Wines had its first vintage in 1998, the year Sam graduated with a wine degree from Charles Sturt University. The family celebrated by fermenting a ton of shiraz in a stainless-steel milk vat for their very first vintage. The family name, Brewer, did not work as a name for the winery for obvious reasons, but inspiration was drawn from the native noble tree which spread its roots on the perimeter of the winery.
Brewer grew up working in his family’s vineyard, and would accompany his father each vintage to deliver grapes to local wineries, ignoring the advice of an older winemaker who, when young Sam asked him what kind of job winemaking was, said “don’t do it mate!” In addition to working in the family vineyard, he earned his winemaking chops working in larger wineries, including Riverina’s famed De Bortoli, as well as stints in Sonoma at Geyser Peak and Blackstone, in China, and in several other wine regions. After all that travel, he realized that Riverina, with still untapped potential for diverse and high quality wines, was where he wanted to be.
I was immediately impressed by Sam who reminded me of so many of the brilliant, ‘renegade’, micro-production winemakers I have met over the years. His passion is deep, his knowledge powerful but, true to his Australian roots, he is completely lacking in pretension and has the preternatural charisma typical of craftsmen/women driven by heart-and- soul dedication to their work. And, although one of his wine labels is ‘A Few Words,’ he is a voluble and articulate host.
As Sam acknowledged, you can pretty much grow anything in Riverina’s red sand and loam soils, studded with limestone rubble, and nurtured by hot weather, generous irrigation, and the absence of vine disease, all of which gleefully conspire to produce those rich, deep dark reds. The challenge, he says, lies more in how you manage the vineyards to achieve higher echelons of quality and complexity.
To that end, for the past 10 years, Yarran Wines has been focused on developing the vineyard for quality as well as for efficiency and sustainability. They have converted much of their energy to solar and are close to completing certification as an organic vineyard – something, according to Sam, that in spite of the hospitable climate, is no easy task. They have also focused on the hard work of hand pruning, foliage positioning and shoot thinning to increase fruit flavors. And, in line with current trends, they do not use any animal products during the winemaking process and fewer inputs.
As the sun threw delicate pink light across the vineyard, and a gentle breeze ruffled the vines, a beautiful charcuterie and cheese plate appeared, and Sam discussed the challenges of breaking out. While there is not as much competition in Riverina as there might be in other wine regions, there is also not much wine tourism and the region’s stigma for bulk wine production is an obstacle. At this point, although it had racked up some impressive reviews and medals, Yarran Wines had yet to receive the 2021 Dark Horse Winery of the Year Award – but it was very clear to all of us, both based on Sam’s dedication and the wines we tasted, that if Yarran could break out of the relative obscurity of being a boutique winemaker in this mega brand region, great things were in store.
We tasted his mouthwateringly crisp, tartly bright, Veneto style Pinot Grigio, that had a touch of acacia on the nose, and his beautifully crafted “A Few Words” Rose of Montepulicano, nose of soft rose petals and cherries that resounded on the palate, and that matched beautifully with the salami that Sam crafts himself.
Next up was Yarran Wines’ Shiraz line-up. First, we tasted Sam’s cooler climate “A Few Words” Shiraz’ made from fruit from up-and-coming region, Hilltops, which is midway between Griffith and Sydney, and a Shiraz from the much cooler Heathcote in central Victoria.
Both showed the hallmarks of assiduous and quality winemaking. Gold medal winner ‘A Few Words’ Whole Bunch Heathcote, which is whole cluster fermented, was lighter in body than many of the Shiraz’ I had tasted so far in Australia, with a soft earthiness, brilliant fruit, lingering spice and harmonic hints of oak. ‘A Few Words’ Hilltops Whole Berry Shiraz was sprinkled with black pepper, dark floral notes on the nose and generous fruit. While the fruit, and that cooler terroir, is at the heart of the identity of these non-Riverina sourced wines, the skilled winemaking that allows their differences to shine through was clear.
Yarran Wines Shiraz, which was highlighted by James Halliday in the Dark Horse award, was definitely a show stopper with a powerful body and an intense palate, full of ripe black plummy fruit reminiscent of a darkly seductive damson jam my grandmother used to make, with plenty of black pepper, roasted sweet spice and a lingering finish.
Here is what Halliday said about the Shiraz and Yarran: “It is doubly appropriate that one of the wines securing the Dark Horse accolade should be an estate-grown Riverina Shiraz selling for $15. If that is your price limit, Yarran gives you the best-quality wines, both white and red. Yarran’s track record suggests this award is no flash in the pan.”
But this tasting and meeting took place months before the Dark Horse Award, and what Sam was really excited to talk about were the grapes that he was evangelizing as flagships for Riverina and for his winery: Petit Verdot and, importantly, Durif. According to Sam, the very age-worthy, and late-ripening, Durif is the perfect grape for Riverina’s climate, and he passionately believes that Riverina can do Durif better than anyone. “It should be king right here in Riverina,” he says. (This was a not so subtle reference to a rivalry with the more famous, more upscale wine region Rutherglen which also produces Durif – Brewer thinks the Durif wines from Riverina, where almost every winemaker makes one, are as good as Rutherglen, if not better).
I agree that Durif, a forgotten French grape, offers a unique opportunity as a differentiating grape for Riverina – just as Carmenere in Chile, Tannat in Uruguay and Malbec in Argentina have blossomed into branding stars for those regions. Like those grapes, previously neglected, forgotten and practically disappeared from their native France, Durif has risen again – in both Central California (as Petite Sirah) and in Riverina. According to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, it acquired its somewhat ungainly name from François Durif, a French botanist and grape breeder and is believed to be the result of a natural cross that occurred in the 1860s in his nursery between the mostly disappeared Peloursin and the noble Syrah. It gained its other name in San Jose in 1884, leveraging the more familiar Syrah, for marketing purposes (Petite Sirah is actually a misspelling of the local name for Syrah in Durif’s birthplace of Isere in Eastern France).
Brewer points out that Riverina’s warmth means Durif’s tight bunches are not susceptible to disease, and the heat softens its often thorny tannins meaning less oak is needed (although the grape can support it), so the Riverina style is plush and true to the grape, which was proved out in the tasting of his inky black Block Series Durif, with its spray of violets on the nose. The fruit did indeed shine through, a spicy chocolate box of dark berries, and quite different from the overbearing oak found in many California iterations. Brewer is convinced that consumers will quickly warm to Durif – “if you like Shiraz, you will love Durif – it is Shiraz on steroids.”
I also enjoyed the velvety florals, ripe blackcurrants, and spiciness of his Block Series Petit Verdot, which showed so much more finesse than many of the single varietal Petit Verdot’s I have tasted.
After our tasting, Sam took us on a tour of the Yarran winemaking facility, which produces about 10K bottles a year and, like many of the wineries I visited in Riverina, the deep integration between wine making and homestead was clear as we walked past his mother’s house and through her garden to get to the winemaking operation. While not quite a one-man show, it is clear that this family winery relies deeply on Sam’s 24/7 labor and shares, with so many small production wineries, high ambitions fueled by creative energy, high tech equipment and hard work, in lieu of a large workforce.
Feeding my noble rot obsession, I asked Sam if he produced, or planned to produce, a botrytized wine and, on cue, he treated us to a delicious sip of honeyed nectar straight out of a vat of a botrytized Semillon wine not yet on the docket.
As we toured the tanks, it became clear that Sam’s wine is also for the birds, as we enjoyed the sight of a crow, oblivious to the finer points of the facility’s purposes, who had made its nest high up in catwalk of the vats….
To the delight of our crew, and the bemusement of Sam, Drew Lambert, intrepid journalist from @WineWankers, climbed up to interview the crow on his wine preferences. This was a moment that, in some ways, crystallized everything I loved about Riverina, Australia and winemakers like Sam – irreverence and a sense of fun with all due respect for the grape …..I couldn’t quite imagine a scene like this playing out in a Bordeaux Chateaux or a Napa estate…..
We ended our visit with a delicious plate of appetizers and tastes of multiple wines from other small production wineries in the region too numerous to catalogue in this blog.
Many were tasty, with a special call out for the very rare grape, Aranel, a Garnacha Roja and Saint-Pierre-Doré cross from the south of France, made by Riverina’s Berton Wines, who have one of the only vineyards that grow this grape in the world. I found it be an incredibly perfumed and floral, peaches and cream wine, with just the right amount of acid to crisp it up. I also loved the juicy, spicy Cookoothama Shiraz from grapes grown on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River.
These final tastings from boutique Riverina wineries that we simply did not have time to visit bolstered my growing view that this region is well positioned to shed its identity as simply the home of bulk wine and that wallaby. I had come to the Riverina hoping to make some boutique winery discoveries and, in just the first day, I felt armed already with a well-kept secret about this region that I looked forward to sharing. But, not surprisingly, James Halliday and his Wine Companion were many steps ahead of me. Pinpointed by Halliday and his tasting panel as one of the “best Australian wines, winemakers and wineries…to offer a true representation of the nation’s greatest names in wine,’ Yarran Wines joined an elite group of award winners for 2021. The national prominence resulting from the awarding of Dark Horse Winery of the Year for 2021 to Yarran Wines could just help Riverina find its footing as a wine destination for quality small production wines …….. but I feel quite sure that none of this will change the down-to-earth (literally) approach of Sam Brewer and Yarran Wines.
Click here for Introduction: Riverina Reconsidered
Click here for Riverina Reconsiderd: Part One: Griffith and Mino & Co
Yarran Wines https://www.yarranwines.com.au Covid Update from Yarran Wines: During this time of uncertainty, our cellar door is open strictly by bookings only for tastings and longer stays – takeaway sales still welcome and greatly appreciated.
Berton Vineyard https://www.bertonvineyards.com.au/
UnWined Riverina https://www.unwinedriverina.com/
Coming soon: Part Three – The Italians & Part Four – The Critter Label and the Big Guys
 Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding & José Vouillamoz. “Wine Grapes.”
 Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding & José Vouillamoz. “Wine Grapes.”