Sunday, 8 June 2014

Seeking's Adventures in Wine-derland

I remember my first wine tasting very well.

I was terrified.

I can't remember how we decided on the first cellar door, possibly someone had suggested they had good wines, it may have been on a tourist brochure; I don't know, but within minutes I knew I wanted to leave and never taste wine again.

You see up until that point I knew I really liked wine but I didn't know anything about it. I was brave though- my selections were based on the label, it had to be a 'cool bottle' and usually my budget was anywhere up to $20, but outside of these criteria I did not discriminate. While most of my mates were drinking premixes, I had found wine and I bloody well liked it. I drank sparkling in abundance. Red wine, especially shiraz, was tasty-good (and it looked grown-up and classy). I also stumbled my way through a bunch of cheap and nasty whites but every so often a colourful label choice would turn out to be drinkable, so I didn't write them off entirely.

I'm not sure where the idea for a tasting holiday in the Yarra Valley came from, but on that frosty morning in late May it nearly came to an abrupt end. The girl who new she liked bubbles and shiraz had arrived at Coldstream Hills. For those who don't know it, Coldstream Hills is a winery established by James Halliday- the esteemed wine writer and judge. It is a Serious Winery. I meandered in to the pure white tasting room, where the most elegant glassware I had ever seen was set up ready to go and I wanted to run for the (Coldstream) hills. A perfectly lovely cellar door attendant asked if I would like to taste their range and I was left with a tasting pour and the tasting notes/price list. I went into a spiral of panic, the thought 'I should not be here' was tunnelling through my brain and all I could see was white and the pale lemon wine in the super-elegant glass that I was too scared to pick up. Just when things couldn't get any worse I observed my first Wine Snob- a robust chap settled in beside me and started swirling maniacally and pompously proclaiming everything he could smell and taste. All attention was diverted to him for long enough for me to delicately lift my glass, give it a little sniff, taste it and set the glass down again without disaster. The wine, probably a chardonnay, just tasted like fear and with that I muttered my thanks and goodbyes, scurried out of the whiteness and cried.*

What was I going to do? On holiday in a wine region and I was never ever going to do a tasting again. I was too stupid and if I stayed past that first sip somebody was sure to notice my ignorance and kick me out.
Somehow later that day I was coerced into Tarrawarra Estate. At that time the cellar door was in a casual dining space. A combination of the noise from lunchers and a very chilled staff member got me out of my funk and tasting some lovely wines, and feeling good about it.
witchmount vineyard picture pinot gris

I was hooked. Ever since, most of my holidays have been to wine regions. Some of the highlights have been:

Ballandean, 2007, Tobin Wines. The winemaker happened to be in the tasting room that afternoon and after a bit of chatter about where I was from and what I did he revealed that he was also an (ex) Pharmacist. At that stage I was training to be an actor and we connected over the need for artistic expression. I was still very new at this wine thing and so he took it upon himself, that afternoon in his winery shed, to teach me. He opened back vintages of Savignon Blanc and discussed how the year was reflected in the wine. I learnt about the way Semillon honeys as it ages and he gave me words  to describe the wines I liked. He also tolerated me for close to 2 hours :)

Yarra Valley, 2010, Tarrawarra Estate. Back at Tarrawarra, the first time I took The Bookworm tasting. He was as nervous as I was the first time, terrified he would make a fool of himself. He wasn't really into whites back then and I had to convince him to just taste the whites on offer (a tasting is the best way to challenge your ideas about what you think you like). That was possibly a mistake as he discovered his deep and abiding love for oaky Chardonnay in the 2004 Reserve Chardonnay. He has expensive taste.

Heathcote, 2013, Condie Estate. I had booked a few nights accommodation in Bendigo, specifically for its proximity to Heathcote, an area known for ancient Cambrian soil and the extraordinary richness and complexity of it's Shiraz. I had requested a few wineries when booking a tour but the highlight of my trip was Condie (I have told this story before). It was a lesson in oak. I had spent a bit of time in my fledgling wine career mentioning oak- American or French- when asked to describe wines, and I knew that they expressed different flavours in the wine but I had never actually tasted the difference back to back. Richie, the winemaker, allowed us to taste ageing shiraz from different barrels and finally this oak business made sense.
condie estate winery red wine barrels
The original barrel shed room at Condie estate. They now have a lovely new building.
Often when I mention I am studying wine or that I work in the wine industry, people express a desire to learn more. It seems to be one of those things that, across the board, people lack confidence in. I like to relate it to art- whether you understand it or not; it can be appreciated, debated, hated, loved, discussed, assessed.
In fact the only wine that doesn't elicit my devout interest is the mass-produced, uniform, bland, easy-drinking stuff. Except that even as I wrote that sentence I started to disagree with myself. There is a place for wine that you don't need to think about; that is purely to refresh, aid digestion or just provide your daily dose of  polyphenols.

What I think it should not be, is a source of anxiety or insecurity. And if someone in the wine industry ever makes you feel that way, just tell them to stop being a big meanie.
witchmount winery vineyard sunbury go

One of best things about doing tastings is being able to purchase wine that you can be confident about giving as a gift or sharing with friends over dinner. Often when you chat to the cellar door staff you might collect a story about something funny that happened the year it was made or the weather they had and how that affected the wine (good or bad). Wine with context is so much more than just a drink. Wine is an evolving thing, each year the wine from the same vines can express different characters and that is what I find fascinating.
early australian winery picture tahbilk
The underground cellars at Tahbilk
tahbilk winery underground cellar wine first family of wine

Spending time at cellar doors and tastings is a fantastic way to learn about wine. The person behind the counter spends a large chunk of their day hanging out with the vineyard staff and winemakers and chances are they are pretty passionate about the product they are selling. So ask questions and learn!

wine coloured glasses photo wine glass
This is how the world looks through wine coloured glasses (I know, I know, I should have used the rosé pun :)

*I still haven't been back to Coldstream Hills but it is definitely on my list of places to visit. Please don't let me put you off, they have some stunning wines and all my discomfort was self-generated.

PS. The inspiration for the title of this post came from this fantastic book - an amazing introduction to wine if you would like to learn more.

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  1. Wine tasting in Australia is absolutely awesome. I reckon Australians have no idea how lucky they are to have this abundance of free, accessible and quality wine right in our own backyards.

    A few years ago we moved to Chile and the wine was one of the drawcards. We were lucky enough to travel to every wine region in Chile, and over the Andes to the gorgeous little town of Mendoza in Argentina. Back in Canberra now and we're thoroughly enjoying catching up on Aussie wine again.


    1. Canberra wineries are brilliant!!! Lived there for 7 years and loved every drop ;)

    2. Pretty jealous of you right now Lani. Would love to have more exposure to Chilean and Argentinian wine. The stuff that is imported in Australia is improving but I think the gems are still just available locally.
      Canberra's wine regions rock! Recently tried a Ravensworth Sangiovese (from Murrumbateman) in a Sangiovese trade tasting and it was the wine of the bracket for me.

  2. My favourite wine tasting has been in Central Otago. Lotsa $5 cheese plates to go with our tastings made the days so great

    1. Mmmmm so much world class Pinot. I think Australian wineries should jump aboard the cheap cheeseboard ship. Food seems a bit harder to come by in cellar doors here doesn't it?


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