“We’re not defined by our history … our history is a part of us, but it’s not all that we have,” says Sandra de Pury, winemaker and the fourth generation to produce wine at Yeringberg Estate.
It was in 1863, during the pioneering years of the Yarra Valley, that Swiss-born Baron Frédéric Guillaume de Pury would become the first in a long line of de Purys to choose to make history on the 485ha estate called Yeringberg. Few producers nowadays can claim such an illustrious history, but the vineyard and farming property, marked by little more than a creaking white wooden gate and rusting sign, manages to embrace both the significance of the past with all the innovative thinking required to keep a wine producer relevant.
A few months ago, I was fortunate enough to work a vintage at Yeringberg with Sandra, parking around the back of the heritage-listed stables and treading my work boots carefully through the wooden press room that forms the centrepiece of the grazing paddocks, vineyards and family homes that support the three generations of de Purys living on-site.
Every morning, the most recent Guillaume de Pury – or Guill as he is affectionately known – would whiz past me on the back of a quad bike, wind whipping through his white hair as he rolled down the front drive to check on the sheep. An hour or so later, he would join us in the cellar for a few minutes to see what was going on that day.
“In the beginning, I was just helping him on the big days of racking and during vintage,” says Sandra. “As the years went by, I did more and more of the decision-making. I think it was a fairly seamless transition. For the last decade I’ve been fully responsible for all the decisions but I will still seek Guill’s opinion about things. I can’t see any reason for that to change.”
After the estate’s vineyards were pulled out for economic reasons in the 1920s, it was Guill and his wife, Katherine, who replanted the original vineyard slope in 1969 with chardonnay, marsanne, pinot noir, shiraz and several Bordeaux varieties. His cabernet blend – the Yeringberg – received critical acclaim, while the hallmark Yarra Valley champions of pinot noir and chardonnay remain, to this day, consistently elegant and refined examples of both varieties.
When Sandra and her brother, viticulturist David de Pury, became involved in the business at the turn of the century, the family embarked on planting one of the front slopes with three blocks of shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and viognier.
The viognier, first released under Sandra’s purview in 2008, was, as she describes “very much my idea and my wine” and rounded out the family’s selection of Rhône white grapes, as well as serving as a subtle “seasoning” to the latest rendition of shiraz.
“With the viognier, I started with a clean slate and no history, and I could do whatever I liked,” she says.
“With the marsanne roussanne, I use inoculated yeast, ferment it in stainless steel, control the temperature. It’s a bit of a heritage thing – that’s how Guill made it. Whereas, the viognier is completely the opposite … wild ferment in barrel with no temperature control.”
Producing viognier and a renewed version of shiraz, as well as using larger format oak, wild fermentation, more solids and earlier picking times are all tweaks that Sandra has introduced over time.
“Every year, with everything I do, I will step back and go, ‘How did that go? How could I have done that better?’ If you approach life like that, it keeps it interesting and everything slowly gets better,” she says.
Her latest project, a varietal cabernet sauvignon from the 1999 plantings, was produced in 2017 and 2019, as a vintage dependent release.
“There are some years where cabernet by itself is not really a complete wine, and it really needs all the other bits and pieces that go with it, and there are other years where it just sings by itself.”
The original winery space out the back of the press room – with its milk tanks serving as open fermenters (20th-century refrigeration limitations have a lot to answer for) and wine show certificates lining the walls – now houses a pneumatic press and destemmer. Both of these are recent additions, with a view to subtly modernise production.
“There’s been lots and lots of changes over the years and improvements and buying better equipment. We’re not in any sense standing still.” Sandra pauses. “It’s all about not changing the essence of Yeringberg wines, but a continuous attempt to make them better.”
If there was anywhere one might get an inkling of what that essence feels like, one only has to walk down the narrow, weathered wooden steps of the underground cellars. This is where all the wines are aged in barrel, balanced upon the original wooden stillage used 150 years ago, and surrounded by heavy stone masonry quarried on-site.
Sandra pulls out one of the original bottles, with the original Yeringberg label, from a dusty wooden rack. “This isn’t just a winery,” she says, a rare twinkle behind those horn-rimmed glasses.
“You’re working in a museum. There’s a very special feeling of working in the same space… using the same equipment that has been used by many hands before, there’s a real thrill and a real reverence about that.”
A few months later, vintage 2021 is all quietly resting in barrel and those cold, stone cellars are still again for another year. It’s been a Goldilocks vintage for many with plenty of rain and a slow, drawn-out ripening season that saw fruit come in with relative ease.
“It’s a long, patient game growing grapes and making wine,” says Sandra, laughing softly. If there is one thing the de Pury family does not lack, it’s patience.
David drives past in one of the white farm utes, a couple of sheep dogs bouncing happily in the back on the way to the back paddocks. Upon first impression, the brother and sister team could not be more different: David with a light tread and easy smile, Sandra with her shoulders set and studied expression. But the two are united in one critical thing – the future of their family’s legacy.
“We’ve made a decision that Yeringberg is going to be around in another 100 years,” she says. “So we’ve embarked on a multi-year grafting program. We are currently in our third year of taking cuttings from our vines and getting them grafted onto rootstock, especially with old vines where we have unique clones or particular old clones that we can’t buy from nurseries.”
While Sandra builds and innovates the winemaking program, David – who manages the vineyard and the farming side, has significantly expanded their tree-planting program. The family has planted more than 100,000 trees in the past two decades alone, as well as setting aside 11% of the property for revegetation.
“It’s a win-win,” Sandra says. “I think most farmers recognise that if you want to be there for a couple hundred years, you’ve got to look after the environment, especially when you’re a multi-generational family that lives off the land and wants to continue to live off the land.”
We walk up to the top of Quarry Hill and look down over the property, watching the sun set over the surrounding valley. Tasman and Orlando, Sandra’s two sons, are driving back from the station and a couple of David’s boys are kicking a footy next to the vineyard while several cows look on. History is not the only thing the de Purys have at Yeringberg, they also have a wonderful future ahead of them.
2011 Yeringberg Marsanne Roussanne, A$65
Carefully cellared in the original underground building, this museum release has a rich palate balanced by mineral saline and mouthwatering acidity. Notes of pistachio-laced nougat, fleshy yellow peach and aurora plum are interlaced with classic floral honeysuckle and white lily aromas.
2018 Yeringberg Viognier, A$35
Intensely perfumed and varietal in its showcasing of fragrant papaya, green melon and ripe pear characters, the 2018 release is rich and textural, with finishing notes of pastry spice and vanilla bean. The wine’s rounded, full-bodied mouthfeel is balanced by delicate phenolics.
2018 Yeringberg Shiraz, A$85
A superbly integrated combination of fresh, sweet liquorice and wild blackberry gives this wine an almost boysenberry-like freshness, while the subtle notes of graphite and fine, brambly tannins produce a cool-climate shiraz with incredible finesse. A stand-out from the current releases.
2018 Yeringberg, A$98
Traditionally cabernet-dominant, the 2018 release showcases hallmark Yarra Valley elegance and fresh acidity, while intertwining masterfully balanced new oak with generous fruit weight. Soft plum skin, cassis and red cherry sit beneath layers of cedar, sandalwood and cocoa. Destined to improve with time.