The French word terroir literally translates to earth, soil. Yet in the world of winemaking, terroir embodies much more. It describes the climate, location, culture, taste, soil, people and tradition that give wine its texture and taste.
Darren Rathbone is the CEO and chief winemaker at Yering Station, a tranquil winery set in the hills of the Yarra Valley, less than an hour’s drive northeast of Melbourne, Australia. Growing up, Darren’s passion for science saw him complete a chemical engineering degree. But it wasn’t until after university that winemaking became a viable career option as his family decided to turn an expensive hobby into a family business.
It’s a warm, windy day in February when I meet with Darren. Before taking a walk around the Yering Station grounds, we sat at the corner of a large wooden table that I later discover is used for wine tasting. The room is made of stone with small windows that look out over the wide-ranging view of the valley.
It’s picking season when I visit, one of the many stages in the winemaking process that relies on the winemakers palette. Production from vine to bottle is an art and a science influenced by the terroir of this part of the world. It’s a process impossible to describe in the short time we have, although it becomes clear that Darren could passionately—and happily—talk about it all day.
Can you remember the moment you first developed an interest in wine?
Wine’s always been on the family dinner table. As I kid, I’d have a taste of Dad’s wine… I guess it’s a European idea to get a little bit of wine mixed with water. I hadn’t really thought about being in the wine industry professionally until I’d completed my chemical engineering degree at university. As I was graduating in 1995, my family invested in a small vineyard called Laura Barns, just on the other side of Yarra Glen. My first job after university was crawling around in the dirt and planting vines. My dad and I sat down together and he asked me “do we want to try and create a family business, do something that is generational that we can build together?” Then this property, Yering Station, came up for sale.
What was the property like when your family purchased it?
It was a dairy farm with a small vineyard and a small cellar door. This is a very historic location. In 1837, William Wyrie came down from New South Wales and set up camp where Chateau Yering, the hotel next door, currently is and said (as you could do in 1837) “I own this,” and by this, he meant everything from here to the centre of Melbourne. There were Aboriginal peoples living here and there was certainly a community, but from a British legal standpoint, as it was, he could stake his claim. He was the first person to plant vines in the Yarra Valley. About twenty years later the De Castella family purchased the land off him. They were really the pioneers of winemaking. They expanded the vineyards and established a real, commercial, viticultural position. They were winning prizes in Europe and, from all reports, producing some exceptional wines. In around 1910, the demand in Australia for wine was relatively small. People were drinking beer and fortified wines but they weren’t really drinking table wines. It wasn’t part of Australian culture. It wasn’t until the late sixties that there was a rebirth of viticulture in the Yarra Valley, predominantly based on cabernet and chardonnay.
What did your family envision for the winery?
We had this idea that we wanted to create a must-visit location, somewhere people would want to come back to over and over again. We also wanted to create a place where we could show our wines and the Yarra Valley in the best possible light. Here in the restaurant, we wanted to capture that view. Robert Ponte, who was the architect, and myself stood right here in ’96 in a big grassy paddock and pictured this building we’re in now.
It certainly feels modern, but also at one with landscape.
We wanted to create a modern feel to complement our modern wines, but we also wanted to respect the landscape. The rock is from a local quarry, the ceiling here with the scissor strats is a replica of a heritage-listed building on the property. We wanted to create something that is grand and comfortable at the same time.
It really is stunning. Let’s get back to your trajectory as a winemaker. You completed a chemical engineering degree. How did you learn about winemaking?
Really from a design aspect—in designing how the winery worked, the equipment and the process. By 1999 the restaurant was open and we had a lot of young vineyards coming on stream. I’d made a commitment to be in this industry, so decided to get a formal qualification and, as such, I applied to study at UC Davis in California. I looked at courses in Australia, France and Germany, but California was the winner. It was an opportunity to live overseas; it meant I didn’t need to do a language course; and while Californian culture isn’t hugely different from Australian culture in terms of lifestyle, it is somewhere different. It was a fantastic place to live.
“What I’ve realised from working in Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Napa Valley and here: you always start with the farming and the vineyard.”
Can you tell me about your experiences working in other wine making regions or countries? How do they compare to the Yarra Valley?
What I’ve realised from working in Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Napa Valley and here: you always start with the farming and the vineyard. It’s about understanding the flavours your vines can create and expressing them through to the bottle. It’s this idea of terroir, which is a combination of the land, the weather, the vines themselves, the people that tend to them. It’s also about taking into account the preferences of the culture: what people like to eat and drink. French wine goes really well with French food because for two thousand years the French have focused on pairing the two. The Australian wine industry, as we know it today, didn’t really start until the sixties. We’ve had to use a lot of technology, tools and science to catch up and understand more about the terroir we’re working with.
You mentioned the classic pairing of French food with French wine. How does Australia’s food scene influence the way you do things here?
I think the Australian food scene is one of the most interesting in the world. The multiculturalism means you can get every style of food you could possibly imagine. It’s indefinable. We can explore different directions. If you’re in a country with a history of a particular cuisine then that tends to drive you in one direction and leave you with less flexibility to experiment.
Let’s talk more about the literal concept of terroir. What effect does the climate and location have on a Yering Station wine?
The Yarra Valley is one of the cooler regions in Australia to grow grapes. There’s a wide variation in local climates and altitudes and the difference in temperature is significant. We’re forever trying to work out the process of matching which varietal sits on the right bit of soil. Being a cooler region makes for a much longer, slower ripening. This gives us a longer time to accumulate flavours in the vines. If all you’re looking to do is get enough sugar to convert into alcohol, to produce a simpler alcoholic drink, then you can do that pretty quickly with a lot of sunshine. But we make the vines work harder, allowing more time to accumulate the sugar levels. We’re also maintaining the natural acidity in the wine and developing more intense, deep, rich, complex flavours. We’re making exceptional pinot noir and exceptional chardonnay. They are two varieties that I think do the greatest in the Yarra Valley. Our shiraz creates a really interesting spicy drink, a lot of black pepper characters that reflect the climate. By having that length of time you get a richness and elegance about the wines that you just don’t much see in warmer climates.
It must take a long time to determine which varietal to plant where. Are you also introducing new grapes to the winery?
In 2007, an insect called phylloxera was identified in the Yarra Valley. This insect is slowly—and when I say slowly I mean about fifty years—but surely going to spread through the Yarra Valley and kill all the vineyards. We’re in the process of replanting the vines to phylloxera resistant roots. It’s unfortunate because it sets us back a long way. We’ve got a lot of thirty-year-old vineyards that are producing some exceptional flavours which we’ll eventually have to pull out. It’s a long, slow experiment, but on the positive side, we now have thirty years more experience and can better determine where to plant particular vines. We’ve also seen a shift in the weather over the last thirty years. Our rainfall is in a significantly different pattern to what it used to be, we’ve got more extreme heat days, more drought years.
“We’ve got people working around the clock twenty-four hours a day to get things at just the right time and just the right moment.”
This may be a big question, but can you walk me through a calendar year of the winemaking process?
I’ll do my best to summarise it. Starting in winter you’ve got pruning. You want to set up the buds to produce the shoots, bunches and grapes for the next year, not unlike pruning a rosebush. By early spring the buds start to shoot, they grow into the canes you typically imagine on a vine. Growing season takes us through spring and across summer in stages of flowering, bunch closure, and veraison, where the grapes change colour. If it’s chardonnay they turn yellow, if it’s pinot noir or cabernet they turn dark red. Coming into March through to April—sometimes earlier, sometimes later—is harvest time. So we’re out picking grapes at the moment. We’ve got to use our palates to decide whether we want to pick today, on Friday or next week. We’ll walk up and down vineyards tasting grapes, looking at the health of the vineyard, making sure there’s no mould or disease, and trying to chase birds away. Picking decisions are one of the most important decisions in the whole process. It’s exciting. You get a buzz to be around the winery at this time of year. We’ve got people working around the clock twenty-four hours a day to get things at just the right time and just the right moment.
An important moment. So you’ve picked the grapes, what’s next?
Then it’s time to ferment. The idea is that we want to get the right level of flavour, tannin and colour, which all come from the skins into the juice. There are many different techniques I could go into way too much detail about, but at the moment there’s a strong trend, particularly for pinot noir and shiraz, towards what we’re calling whole bunch fermentation. Yes, we measure the numbers and look at the sugar and tannin levels, but it’s really done on taste more than anything else. There’s no substitute for going, what does this taste like? Trusting your palate is part of the game.
That blend of art and science again…
It is indeed. Next, we’re transferring the wine into barrels. They sit in oak in the cellar for six to ten months, depending on the grape.
It’s clear people’s taste and palate plays a vital role.
Oh, hugely so. In the blending stage we line up two hundred glasses in the middle of this big table we’re sitting at now. With about seven people tasting blind we’ll go back and forth between wines. It’s reliant on our palette and our ability to smell, taste and decide: “this one’s really good, I think this one’s a bit weaker, I think if we put these two together it’s going to make a better wine.” That discussion can go on for days.
How do you respond to the ever-changing trends in the wine industry?
I like to use beer making as a comparison because it’s a similar industry. If you’re a brewer and you’re making beer, the time you start the process to the time you put it in a bottle is usually four, maybe five weeks. For us, we start pruning in June, three to four years later we’ve got a wine. That’s a long time for a business to carry a product. In the case of beer, if all of a sudden pale ale isn’t popular anymore and everybody wants to drink lagers, a brewery can switch pretty quickly from one brew to another within the space of six months. Whereas if suddenly people don’t like drinking chardonnay and they want to drink sauvignon blanc, it’s a big ship for us to turn around. So rather than try and follow the trends of the industry, for us it’s about staying focused on our passion, our passion for what our vineyard is capable of producing.
Wine is such a big aspect of Australian culture both in an intimate setting between family and friends and on the larger scale of gastronomy and tourism. I’d like to know, what does winemaking mean to you?
Wine’s part of the connectivity between people. It’s what brings life to a party and creates a social engagement. It’s a massive part of family, too. I guess wine’s lots of things to me: it brings together an application of my passion for science, an artistic outlet, there’s farming, there’s manufacturing, there’s tourism; it’s such an exceptional industry to be a part of.