Insider's guide to the Yarra Valley: wine, food, art and...wine

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Located just over an hour’s drive out of Melbourne, Victoria's Yarra Valley is a flat, sprawling region peppered with more than 50 wineries, cute-as-pie country towns, markets and even microbreweries. But though the Yarra Valley may be famous for its wine, there really is a lot more to the place than vino!

It’s possible to see most of these sights in an extended day trip but you could consider staying a day or three if you’ve got a long weekend to burn. Get ready to jump in the car…just remember to nominate a designated driver! Oh, and check opening days of places you’re visiting – as the Valley gets most visitors over the weekend, some places are shut on Monday/Tuesday.

So many wineries…which one to pick?

You’d have to spend a couple of days to visit all the wineries in the region - and you’d be quite drunk by the end of it. So we’ve selected a few choice wineries for you to pop into for a taste and perhaps a meal.

For first-time visitors, there are a couple of megasized wineries that qualify as 'must sees':

De Bortoli (58 Pinnacle Lane, Dixons Creek)

Probably the most-visited of all wineries. De Bortoli has over 240 hectres of vineyards. Their wines include sparkling, cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, pinot noir, chardonnay, pinot grigio, and more. Yep. Pretty much every variety. The highlight has to be the Richard Thomas cheese room – named after Richard who will serve you cheese, tell you everything you want to know and then serve you more cheese.

Domaine Chandon (727 Maroondah Highway, Coldstream)

The Moët lot from France found a sister property here in the Yarra and as a result have created a line of  delicious and reasonably priced still and sparkling wines. No, they can’t call it Champagne. The tour is a little hokey but takes you through to a surprise ending that doesn’t fail to elicit the 'Wahhhh!' from visitors.

Other biggies to check out include:

Rochford Wines (Cnr Maroondah Hwy & Hill Rd, Coldstream)

The claim to fame here has to be their 'A Day on the Green' series of concerts. Biggies such as Jamie Cullum, Diana Krall and Norah Jones have graced the grounds. Forthcoming guests in October 2010 include Simply 'we're retiring!' Red, John 'haven't I retired yet?' Farnham (an Australian musical legend), Cuban jazz groups and Blondie & the Pretenders. Rock on!

Yering Station (38 Melba Hwy, Yarra Glen)

Yering Station is also home to the monthly Yarra Valley farmers’ market held on the third Sunday of each month. Pick up organic veggies and meat, home-made pies, cordial, sinful sweets, organic olives, cheese, coffee – all made by small producers. Their restaurant is an elegant steel and glass structure set against a backdrop of lush vineyards.

For the seasoned, here a couple of places that are all about the wine. There’s no messing about with restaurants and you certainly won’t find the places swamped with tourists toting plastic tasting cups.

Yarra Yering (4 Briarty Rd, Gruyere)

Pssst, they don’t tell you about this place in the tourist brochures. The Dry Red No 1, 2 and 3 are the pick of the lot at this vineyard first established by the iconic Dr Carrodus in 1969 - and they sell out quickly. The cellar door remains open if there’s still wine for sale so check before you go!

Yeringberg (Maroondah Hwy, Coldstream)

You could be forgiven if you’re confused by the variety of wineries with 'Yering' in their name - Yering is the name of a nearby town and home to one of Australia's first wineries - but Yeringberg isn’t one you should quickly forget. Its cellar doors are officially open only once a year in May on release of their wines. Get the Yeringberg, a cab sauv with merlot, cab franc and some malbec. They are open by appointment at other times so ring ahead.

It’s not all about wines!

Winemakers had better watch out, microbreweries have started operating in the area. The Melburnian fascination with craft beers has pretty much exploded and there are several microbreweries in the area. For those who like their booze ice-cold, we salute you. Check these places out:

Coldstream Brewery (694 Maroondah Highway, Coldstream)

First opened in 2007, this brewery and attached restaurant are set in an attractive standalone brick building. Order a pizza and pair it with one of many Coldstream brews. There’s the Bitter, Special Bitter, Pilsner, Cider, Ale and the seasonal Summer Ale, Chocolate Winter Ale, Spring Lager and Autumn Porter.

Hargreaves Hill Brewing Company (25 Bell St, Yarra Glen)

While the other breweries serve up familiar local-style ales, Hargreaves takes you around the world with their selection: Hefeweizen, Kellerbier, Abbey Dubel, Stout, Pale Ale and Special Bitter. Can’t decide? Do a tasting of all six beers for $7! The restaurant serves wine too.

White Rabbit Brewery (316 Maroondah Hwy, Healesville)

Things are kept simple here: dark ale or white ale. Grab a sausage roll or pie from the Beechworth Bakery next door and come over for a brew or two. Beers on tap are $7 but grab a bargain by getting some stubbies for only $3.50 a pop.

Wait, there's more...

If you’re not into wine or beer, or if you’re the poor sap designated as the driver, there are other things to occupy your time while your mates get merry.

Healesville. You have to stop by this town. It’s just a friendly 'awww shucks' kinda place – wire baskets filled with produce spills on the pathway outside shops and locals seem to have permanent smiles on their faces. Look out for K&W Chocolates: their range of the sweet stuff will make you abandon that diet. Their barista serves Toby’s Estate coffee – not cheap at $3.80 for a coffee but by far the best in the area. A couple of doors up, check out the shop selling books, memorabilia, records and other bric-a-brac. We found some early U2 record singles and the 2nd edition of Lonely Planet’s Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei there!

Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander (336 Maroondah Hwy, Healesville)

Located at the end of the town of Healesville, this massive complex is part winery, part coffeeshop, part restaurant and it sure is popular. Expect to wait up to two hours for a table on weekends. Wood-fired pizzas keep the punters happy and White Rabbit ale and Giant Steps wine add to the merriment.

TarraWarra Museum of Art (311 Healesville-Yarra Glen Rd, Yarra Glen)

Head straight to the art museum before hitting the winery. This not-for-profit gallery has a revolving collection of Australian art. When we last visited, there were many Charles Blackman pieces (including quite a few from his Alice in Wonderland series). A Brett Whitely show starts on 6 November, 2010.

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