The Yarra Valley – A gourmet food and wine tour

Before they left for the UK the people who Phil and I are house and dog sitting for in Melbourne helpfully gave a long list of suggestions of what to do while we were here. The Yarra Valley was on the list.

This is our second time in the most livable city in Australia, and we packed a lot in when we were here in 2011. Yet it seems there is more to do. Based on our friends advice, we have booked a couple of day tours, have some more visits to National Trust properties lined up and plan to explore a lot more of the city suburbs by tram. There is also a lot of eating to be done in some seriously good cafes. More of these in future posts.

The Yarra Valley

What better way to start exploring and indulging in two of my favourite activities, eating and drinking, than a trip out to the Yarra Valley.

Having been advised, in detail, of what not to miss, and the vineyard to avoid, (coach tour place) I researched the many tour companies offering a day tour to the Yarra Valley.

Price wise, there was little difference between the operators and it came down to two in the end. One was $2 cheaper but seemed purely wine orientated, while the one we chose, Go West Tours offered a food and wine gourmet experience and included many of the places our friends had recommended we visit. Reviews on Trip Advisor were reassuring and the lunch that is included as part of the tour, looked very good indeed.

The Go West Mini Bus

The other consideration was, that while we like a drink, we didn’t want to be with a load of people, young or old, who were on the tour to drink themselves silly. This was wine and food tasting. We also like tours as it gives us the opportunity to meet other people, and share the experience.

The itinerary for the day can be viewed here. I have detailed the day below as I experienced it. Opinions are my own, I booked and chose the operator, and they were not aware that I would be writing about the tour. The cost of the tour included all the tastings and the lunch.

Pick Up

There were a number of pick up points around the city. We chose The Rendezvous Hotel on Flinders Street as our pick up location. Handy for Flinders Street Station and the tram stop, it was an early start, leaving at 7.30am for an 8.50am pick up.

We were early so grabbed a coffee at a 7 Eleven for a dollar and chatted to the Doorman, who was obviously used to people waiting there to be collected by Go West. I spotted the mini bus turning off up the road, so set off to check that this was our van. It was, and the guide, Damon soon had us on the bus, just as the heavy rain began.

We were not worried about the poor weather. This is Melbourne. If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. While Damon was prompt, unfortunately some of the party were running late, so we left the city a little later than planned. This happens on group tours sometimes. Damon kept us informed about the length of expected delay, and as we missed most of the rush hour traffic, it wasn’t a problem.

The group

Phil and I have been on a number of tours, and most of the time the groups have all got on. There were 17 of us, some from Australia, visiting Melbourne, the rest were a pretty international bunch, with people from Florida, Brazil, New Zealand, UK (us) and Malaysia. Some were quieter than others, but I never heard a grumble. Damon made sure he spoke to everyone in the group during the day.

Yarra Farm Fresh

This was the first stop. Yarra Farm Fresh fresh fruit and veg and related products. All produce is sourced as locally as possible. In the summer the main business is strawberry farming. Tasting apple juice, oranges, pears, walnuts, chutney and jams, is a good way to start a gourmet tour. The shop was busy with locals stocking up on produce which is reassuring. So often places like this are just set up for the tourists. The only downside: the toilet provision. This is a first stop for many tours from the city and yup, there was a queue. And not just the ladies. Men also had to experience the novelty of queuing to spend a penny as one staff loo was all there was.

De Bortoli

De Bortoli was our first wine tasting stop. We tasted eight wines. As it was well before midday the winery sensibly provided the most delicious French Brie with crackers to accompany the tasting and some water.

The first wine was ‘Bubbles’, Rococo Premium NV Cuvee, followed by ‘Quirky’ then ‘Elegant’ Whites. After tasting a Sweet White, Bella Riva Moscato del Re, which at 5.5% is almost responsible drinking, we tasted a Yarra Valley Estate Grown Pinot Noir. Then moved onto ‘Interesting’ then ‘Posh’ Reds. We were then invited to change glasses for the company flagship and award winning Dessert wine, Noble One.

If I had to choose a favourite, it would be the Rococo Premium Cuvee. None of them tempted me to part with my dollars.

As an experience, it was professionally presented, the setting is lovely, even through the mist and rain, and there was no hard sell.

Yarra Valley Dairy

Yarra Valley Dairy offers handmade farmhouse cheeses and not surprisingly the main purpose of this stop was to taste the cheese. The cheeses were predominantly goats cheese. After scoffing much of the brie at De Bortolli, you would have thought I would have been cheesed out. Not so. There is always room for more cheese.

This was also a gift and coffee shop. If you are self driving around the Yarra Valley, this is one place I would recommend to stop off for a break and have the coffee and cake. The views from the coffee shop are amazing. The cake looked good too.

Once again, like the farm shop, the dairy was not just there for the tourist dollar. It is a well established family business, serving the local community. At only an hour out of Melbourne, it well placed for a pleasant drive out of the city for coffee and cake while you picked up some yummy cheeses. If I was organising a tour, I would possibly make it the first stop on the tour for morning coffee. Because I really wanted some cake. And no queue for a loo.

Rochford Wines

We stopped at Rochford Wines  for a ‘Tasting Plate and Wine Flyte lunch. The main courses were  Wild Mushroom Risotto, Braised Wagyu Beef Cheek, Venetian Duck Ragu and Tasmanian Salmon. I struggled to decide between the salmon (served on a polenta cake with ratatouille vegetables and gremolata) or the beef (12 hour braised cheek, horseradish and potato puree, Tuscan cabbage in a Rochford red wine jus). I was swayed by the tour guide opting for the beef. I reckoned as he had been here before he must know what was a good choice. He did.

The Entrée was Crumbed Artichokes with parmesan, pea shoot tendrils and Irish salad cream (I have no idea how a salad cream can be Irish, perhaps it has whiskey in it?) and the dessert was Chocolate Delice with salted caramel sauce and a hazelnut praline.

Lunch at Rochford Wines

When all three courses were presented to us like this, my first thought was, how odd, my second, that will never fill me up.

Rochford Wines

Each course was matched with a wine, from left to right, a 2014 Sauvignon blanc, a 2014 Rochford Club Chardonnay and finally a 2013 Rochford Club Cabernet Merlot.

Everyone in our group seemed to enjoy the food.  I had a peek at what everyone else had chosen and all the mains looked good.

While at first I thought that this was an odd way to serve lunch, it worked. There was no faffing around waiting for everyone to finish each course, important for tours on a schedule. This is a big restaurant and I imagine in the high season it gets very busy. They also offered a full menu in addition to the Tasting Plate, for those with more time to linger over lunch and wine.

As for my concern about the amount of food on the plate, I asked my dining companions what they thought. My Kiwi dining neighbour had also thought that the portions wouldn’t be enough for him  but we agreed that it was just about right for a lunch. The entrée was well presented and seasoned and the beef was so tender, you didn’t need a knife to cut it, it just melted in the mouth, and the accompanying vegetables were well seasoned. The dessert was delicious and incredibly rich, so the portion was just right. Although I really wanted to lick every last morsel of it from the plate.

Of course Rochford also want you to have time to look around the shop and spend some money. Or you could climb the spiral staircase to the tower and enjoy the views. Which is what I chose to do. Fortunately, by then, the rain had cleared and the sun had come out.

I am not a spender. I don’t buy stuff I don’t need and use what I save on  what are to me the important things, such as travel and good food. However, if you are a spender, the gift store sold both some quirky gifts.

There was also a gallery featuring some stunning photography by Sharyn Walker, of Change of Focus. Rochford also host music festivals including A Day on the Green, and a Cuban Jazz festival. It would be a pretty cool music venue I reckon.

The Yarra Valley Chocolaterie and Ice Creamery

Obviously, after lunch and wine you need chocolate, right? I am not mad keen on chocolate so a visit to a chocolate factory wasn’t high on my gourmet experience list.

Art work at the chocolaterie

I was brought up on Cadbury’s Chocolate. I live in Birmingham near Bournville, the home of Cadbury’s chocolate. I won prizes at school for writing about Cadbury’s chocolate. I know chocolate. Cadbury’s have a theme park in Bournville, a Quaker heritage and despite being bought by Kraft who messed with our Creme Eggs, Cadbury’s is chocolate. So go impress me, Yarra Valley.

The last time I visited a chocolate outlet was on a tour of the Margaret River Region Lots of tubs of pastilles or buttons to sample, expensive products and, as it was Australia Day, heaving with families and young children. I was prepared to be underwhelmed.

The Yarra Valley Chocolaterie and Ice Creamery makes chocolate products crafted by their talented team of Belgian and French Chocolatiers, and the chocolate range is exclusive to the Yarra Valley Chocolaterie.

Kitchen Garden Collection

As part of our tour we were given a special tasting of their Kitchen Garden collection. This is very different to any chocolate I have ever tasted, with combinations of fig and fennel, honeycomb and lavender and toasted coconut and curry leaf. Opinions were divided over every one we tasted. I personally think mint and orange should not be allowed near chocolate, it is just wrong, yet fig and fennel worked for me. The lavender, not so much.

Our visit coincided with the Victorian Winter School Holiday and the chocolaterie was very busy. There were activities for children, some were making chocolate in part of the open factory area. Yet there is a lot for adults too, the range of chocolate is vast. Out of all the places we visited on the tour, this was the one most targeted at the tourism market and they do it well. It is not tacky tourism, the product is of high quality and the ice cream looked good too. I was just too full after lots of cheese and a good lunch to try any.

Coombe – The Melba Estate

Coombe, once the home of Nelly Melba, a famous opera singer, was the last winery we visited. All very sleek and a bit swanky, there is a restaurant here and  a gallery dedicated to Nelly and of course, a gift shop, selling up market gardening accessories. The gardens are available to tour.

We tasted a number of wines, but as I failed to mark them on the tasting notes, I have to rely on my memory.

We started with the sparkling 2012 Nellie Melba Blanc de Blancs, and the White Wines were a 2013 Coombe Farm Pinot Gris and the 2012 POLO Chardonnay. The Rose was the 2014 Coombe Farm Rose, and the Red wines were a 2012 Coombe Farm Merlot and and Inaugural Release 2014 Coombe Farm Shiraz. Again, as with the first tasting nothing jumped out at me and shouted buy me.

Top Tip

This is the last stop on the tour and I highly recommend you make a visit to the loos here. You have about an hour till you get dropped back into the city, depending on traffic, which is reason enough. However, the toilets are seriously swanky, with lovely soap and hand cream and individual hand towels. And that alone warrants a visit.

Would I recommend this tour and company?

Yes. The Yarra Valley is close to Melbourne to make it an easy day tour and there is a lot to see and do. It is not too touristy, as many of the places we visited were serving the community first and tour buses were a bonus. We were unlucky with the weather, but nonetheless the scenery was beautiful, green and lush, although there is some evidence of the bush fires that ravaged the area on Black Saturday in 2009.

The stops were well chosen, a good balance of food and wine from the area, and the lunch was very good.

The tour guide was relatively new to the company, and it showed at times. However, he was so personable and enthusiastic about the tour, the food and the region, it did not impact on the quality of the tour. We all have to learn.

The music played throughout the day was well chosen, and I was very happy to point out to Damon that UB40 are from our home town, Birmingham, when he played Red, Red Wine.

The other track that gave us a giggle, I have linked at the end of this post.

Customer Service

I had one minor niggle. And it was minor, in that some of the information on their website was out of date. The actual itinerary was correct, however further down the page there was a mention of a brewery that is now closed and a visit to a winery not on the itinerary.  There was a big sign on the bus requesting that we email the company with our feedback, whatever our experience. So I emailed the Managing Director.

At 10.32, the day after the tour, I sent this

Had a good trip yesterday with Damon. He kept to good timing without rushing anyone and the lunch at Rochford was very good.

 You may want to update your website however, as some of the information about the trip is now out of date. I had planned to pick something up for supper and I think the brewery is now closed.

Our next stop is in Healesville, the epicurean heart of the Yarra Valley region. Here we’ll have an opportunity to relax with the freshest of beers & ciders at White Rabbit Brewery or to perhaps taste another range of wines at Giant Steps Winery. You might like to indulge in an afternoon snack at the award-winning Beechworth Bakery or pick up something for your dinner from Yarra Valley Pasta.

Before returning to Melbourne, the winery tour will visit the premium Oakridge Winery for another sampling of the cool-climate wines produced in this region.

The response at 10.32 was:

This is an automatic email response.

Thank you for your email.

I am on leave until 20th July, so will be making a priority of spending some time with my family, instead of attending to your e-mail.

However, I will be checking e-mails periodically and will endeavour to deal with any urgent correspondence as soon as is feasible.

I’ll try to get back to you after I return from leave.

Should you have a matter that requires urgent attention, please contact our office on (03) 9485 5290. echo
regards,
Terry Smit
Managing Director

Fair enough, it is the school holiday and I love the honesty in the out of office response, what lucky kids. Then but 15.40 I received this email:

Hi Coral,

Thanks very much for your e-mail.

I appreciate you bringing this oversight to our attention and am not sure how we managed to miss updating this. I have now had the site updated to reflect the adapted itinerary since the closure of the White Rabbit Brewery.

I’m glad Damon looked after you and the group so well.

Thanks again & best regards,

Terry Smit

Managing Director

I checked the website and yes it had been updated. This was a response from a guy on leave, and not only did he respond but did what he said he would.

And that is what I call good customer service.

I am still not convinced about Aussie wines though, so I will finish with this from Monty Python.

Remember, enjoy wine, responsibly.

 

 

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