This was set to be an adventure and a half. Two weeks organised by Wine Australia taking in the Hunter Valley, Orange, the Barossa, Clare Valley, and Margaret River. What could possibly go wrong?!
A fairly gruelling flight had me seated next to a charming father and his devil child. Said devil child did nothing but thump the bottom of my tray table the moment I put my G&T down. Devil child finally fell asleep across my lap to the fathers profuse apologies as he made a move to wake him up. I begged him to let it sleep where it was so I could at least keep my wine in my glass rather than down my jumper where the majority of my gin was. Excellent lesson in contraception completed and I emerged bleary eyed into the Sydney sunshine.
Meeting up with the rest of the group was to take place on the Robert Oatley super yacht for a trip around Sydney harbour. Tourists were desperately trying to get a glimpse of which celebs might be on board. What a disappointment it must have been to see this motley crew whooping and waving in childlike glee! It was an incredibly surreal experience, sipping chilled Chardonnay as some of Australia’s most famous landmarks glided past. Definitely a bucket list tick.
Our first stop was the Hunter Valley, famous for the quality of its Semillon, Chardonnay and Shiraz. Industry legend and all round dude Bruce ‘Bruiser’ Tyrrell took us on an early hike up a ‘mountain’ affording gorgeous views over the valley as he explained a bit about the climate and how tricky it can be with high rainfall, cloud and humidity resulting in high rot pressure to produce wine there. Sipping his world class Semillon at 9am I concluded he had not only sussed the climate but also how life should roll on a daily basis. A morning constitutional and a morning tipple.
As a special surprise his team produced some freshly shucked oysters. Sadly I absolutely hate oysters and almost every producer, much to my horror, proudly and generously served them to us. Oscar Wilde once described eating one as being akin to having a heavy head cold. I couldn’t agree more! I was however, able to palm them off to my oyster loving friend thus avoiding insulting our hosts or bringing one up on their feet.
We visited the Hunter greats; Tyrrells, Brokenwood and McWilliams and tasted some world class wines as well as enjoying some fully fledged Auzzie hospitality. Hunter Semillon is such a unique, refreshing, complex and age worthy wine and yet it is so under-valued by consumers it offers extraordinary value. I have decided hence forth there must always be a case maturing in my cellar (currently Brokenwood)
Next up we drove up into the clouds to visit the high altitude region of Orange. Shorts and T-shirts simply didn’t cut it up there, it was long trousers, jumpers and huddling round the fire. For those of you who don’t believe Australia can be cool (metaphorically and meteorologically) then visit Orange! The purity and freshness of the wines gave them so much elegance and finesse, and of course the long slow ripening allowed for excellent accumulation of aromatic complexity. The Chardonnay, Riesling and Shiraz really shone. The Sauvignon would have done if I was any way Sauvignon inclined. Which I’m not.
One thing that really stood out for me was a school that had been set up to take in ‘problem’ children. It was effectively an agricultural school that taught them all sorts of skills including viticulture and wine growing. Initial concerns that allowing problem kids in the same proximity as alcohol were soon proven to be completely unfounded. The children, mostly late teens were absolutely thriving on the alternative education, it was incredibly inspiring.
From Orange we travelled in to the Barossa Valley where the mercury ratcheted right up and after the chill air of Orange it felt like we were entering a furnace. We attended a fascinating old vine seminar, tasting some incredibly fresh and energetic shiraz from this notoriously hot region. We were lucky enough to taste some of the most iconic wines in the region, exploring their history and the impact they have had on the region itself (Schild Estate, Turkey Flat, Peter Lehman, Yalumba, Penfolds). It was an amazing journey through the heart of the Barossa .
From the boutique to the absolutely blooming massive, we went on to Wolfblass. The vast sea of tanks were spread out before us like a shining silver town, the scale of the operation was beyond belief. The technology and knowledge employed here were astounding, there was a gadget or machine to carry out all the jobs, helping keep costs down by streamlining the process. The quality of the wines, especially when you consider the scale of production was impressive to say the least.
A quick deviation up to the Eden Valley to taste the breath takingly beautiful wines of Henschke was the crowning glory. Visiting the iconic Hill of Grace vineyard with its ancient vines before tasting the wine was something none of us will ever forget. Elegant, pure, subtle, complex, silken and so incredibly long and perfumed. Seven years on I can still remember the taste of that wine.
From the arid Barossa valley we travelled up to the higher altitude sub region of the Clare Valley, famous for its pure lime driven Rieslings and its peppery Shiraz. It was amazing to feel the change again in temperature and the resulting impact on the styles of the wines. We visited a number of small producers, had incredible tastings out on the terrace and explored the ethereal beauty of the Riesling, both dry and sweet. It had been an intense trip so far with vast numbers wines tasted and minor cramp forming in the right hand from so much note taking, and so it was decided to arrange a team cycle along the beautiful Clare Valley cycle route.
Maybe I should have mentioned to them that I was competitive. Maybe I should have revealed that I am accident prone. Maybe I should have tested my brakes before challenging the others to a race. As luck would have it I did none of the above, and giving the race everything I had, neck and neck with an equally competitive sommelier, we suddenly realised we were heading straight for a main road. We shot across it, mercifully free of traffic, and I jammed on the breaks. Sadly only one was operational, freezing the front wheel and sending the back wheel (and me) somersaulting over the handle bars. Not only did final judgement leave me in second place, it also left me with a right knee 3 times the size of the left knee. Embarrassingly, in one of the few totally sober moments of the trip, I ended up on crutches.
The final region on our tour was Margaret River in Western Australia where I was (mortifyingly) bundled into a wheel chair to get to the plane for fear that my slow hobble would make us miss the flight. I should have asked for a different driver as we did ‘wheelies’ across the asphalt. Yes you guessed it, it was the somm who had won the cycle race who was driving!
Margaret River weirdly reminded me of Polzeath in Cornwall. A funky, surfy seaside town that seemed to rain a lot. There were ‘roos chilling on the golf course, trendy micro breweries and hipster coffee shacks. There were also, of course, some pretty exceptional wineries specialising in Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and of course the Sauvignon/Semillon blends. We visited some excellent producers including Moss Wood, Hayshed Hill and Fraser Gallop but the stand out winery had to be Leeuwin Estate with their extraordinary Art Series wines; vibrant, pure, complex and so much potential for aging. I have one bottle of Art Series Riesling left in my cellar… I think I am due a top up!
It was the most information intensive, eye-opening, frenetic and at times dangerous wine trip I have ever been on, but I can guarantee one think we all took away from it is that there is no such thing as ‘auzzie wine’, they are so regionally specific, with ancient and diverse soils, varying altitudes and climates that feel like you are travelling between countries and seasons rather than regions. And this vast country still has a huge number of my favourite regions as yet un-visited; Yarra, Mornington, Adelaide, Mclaren… you’re next!