Last year, we sent a group of intrepid Majestic Wine Gurus on an adventure of a lifetime – to visit South East Australia with Wines of Australia. We asked Greig, Store Manager in our Newcastle store, to share his experiences.
It started with a short flight. And then a delay. And then a long flight that was very full. And then a really long flight with lots of crying babies on it. But you probably have very little sympathy for the travelling woes of a group of Majestic Wine Gurus who were arriving for an outstanding week and a half touring wineries around south east Australia.
We arrived in Sydney to be met by our chaperone for the week, Emma works for wine Australia and is a recently qualified MW so was ideally placed to guide our adventure. We had the chance to have a touristy day here – walking around circular quay and getting our regulation pictures of harbour bridge and opera house before getting the ferry to Manly for a delicious lunch (Warning: if you suffer from food envy, delicious food if going to feature quite often).
The more intrepid had a dip at Manly beach, then all returned to circular quay for a couple of beers and out for more delicious food (DF from now on). Up early and onto the bus, heading for Australia’s most visited wine region.
Hunter Valley’s success as a tourist destination may have a little to do with its proximity to Sydney, but there’s no doubting the quality and uniqueness of its wines. Guided by the redoubtable Neil McGuigan and winemaker Andrew Duff we sampled much Semillon and Shiraz and followed up with DF at Sebel Kirkton Park.
I must take a moment here to sing the praises of Hunter Valley Semillon, a vastly underrated and unique wine: In its youth, it is fresh and vibrant, with pithy lime freshness; give it three or four years in bottle and it is sullen and backwards, making you worry that you have kept it too long; after five or more years in bottle, a glorious transformation occurs – freshness remains but alongside a wonderful, toasty richness and layer upon layer of flavour.
Next, it was back to Sydney airport for the (comparatively) short flight to Melbourne from where we’d head the 40 or so miles east to the Yarra Valley, home of De Bortoli wines.
Yarra is a beautiful place, all rolling hillsides and lush, verdant greenery – looking more like the Trossachs than your preconceptions of Australia, though with rather more sunshine. We were shown round by winemaker Steve Webber and got to taste some exciting barrel samples, including the base wine for what will become a sparkling pink Nebbiolo.
The afternoon was one of the most enjoyable, and leisurely, of our whole trip. Going back to Steve and Leanne de Bortoli’s house on the estate and sitting out on the back deck chatting and drinking. DF included a spectacular salami made by Local Italian emigrants and some obscenely large hunks of beef cooked on the BBQ. We continued into the night with magnums, champagne, guitars and revelry.
From the less exalted states of Australia, the remainder of our trip would be in the producing powerhouse of South Australia, so after a morning tasting of the de Bortoli range followed by some spectacular pasta at their restaurant (DF), it was back to Melbourne to catch a flight to Adelaide.
Our first destination was an hour’s drive south into the Fleurieu Peninsula to the red wine haven that is McLaren Vale where we would be visiting 3 very different wineries. First up was the beautiful Chapel Hill estate and retreat, producers of the fabulous Vicar Shiraz which we were treated to an impressive vertical tasting of on arrival, followed of course by the good company of Michael & Bodi and DF.
The beautiful stained glass window in the chapel is originally from Glasgow and was shipped to Australia in the early 19th century to a church in Adelaide, finding its way to McLaren many years later.
The winery borders the Onkaparinga River national park so after a rather rainy morning walk of kangaroo spotting, we were off to one of the largest producers in the world, never mind the country.
The Tintara winery in the town of McLaren Vale is the home of Hardy’s and their many offshoots (including Tintara, Reynella and Arras) and we were met by 5th generation Hardy, Bill, who took us to the original Tintara winery. It was fascinating to see the remains (ruins?) of an old, Gravity-fed, winery and also how similar many of the parts remain.
We also had a chance to visit the actual Nottage Hill vineyard, which is no longer planted to its famous Chardonnay, but has some lovely Cabernet Franc growing in it.
We tasted through some of the huge Hardy range, with the Eileen Hardy wines real standouts, then headed back to Adelaide for dinner. DF was had at Ruby Red Flamingo, despite their interesting choice of artwork, followed by cleansing ales and some games of pool (well done to the shark of the group, Kathy).
We were back to the Vale the next morning, for the most fun winery of the trip, Wirra Wirra and were met by Paul and Sam with glasses of sparkling pink moscato – a great breakfast wine!
First up was winery philosophy, followed by a chance to ring the bell in their bell tower after which we were split into teams for our tasks – winners to receive magnums of the new vintage of the Church Block red.
Our opposition was team ‘winner’ against our rather more Aussie-baiting ‘8 for 15’ and first up was the trebuchet. A series of eccentric owners have provided Wirra Wirra with things like a bell tower, and a giant machine intended for laying siege to a castle.
War was not our intention, however, instead we were firing watermelons at a Wirra Wirra sign in a field. Despite two good shots, our melon was not as true as theirs and 8 for 15 were one down with two to play.
Next up was a blending challenge to try to create Church Block red, a fairly priced Aussie icon. We got to taste a couple of previous vintages, were told the sort of style that they aim for and then set about our pipettes and measuring funnels to create! We refined our blend over several stages to come up with a 55:28:17 Cabernet:Shiraz:Merlot blend that we thought would do the trick. After extensive tasting by winemaker Paul and resident MW, Emma, we were proclaimed winners: 1-1 and all to play for!
The deciding event was predictably quirky, it would all come down to welly wanging! Various techniques were on show but we came to the last throw needing something special to wrest the giant bottles of wine from team Winners arms.
I’m delighted to report that your author managed to produce a winning throw with his unconventional ‘backwards-over-the-head’ technique. Not quite the Fosbury Flop, but I bet Dick doesn’t have a magnum of Church Block headed his way.
We finished with one of the most colossal ‘light’ lunches I have ever seen and a great tasting including my favourite red of the trip, the Absconder Grenache (production is tiny, so if you want to try one you’ll probably have to make very good friends with me) and sadly bid farewell to a lovely place.
Our sadness was predictably short lived as we soon arrived at Penfold’s stunning Magill estate. We were toured around the historic buildings and cellars by winemaker Jason and got a real feel for the huge history of the place. Soon though, we were drinking history rather than seeing it.
A tasting of current vintage whites followed by the entire range of reds, all from the 1998 vintage was eye-opening and great to finally get to try an aged bottle of the legendary Grange, though for me the 407 Cabernet edged it on the day. We ended in the cellars with DF – a cheese platter, chocolate brownies and long-aged, fortified Tawnies – Port style but made from Shiraz and Grenache, they were a revelation whenever we tried them.
An evening of DF at T-Chow with a smorgasbord of wines (oxidative, skin-contact Riesling, anyone?) was ended with the customary cleansing ale. Lewis and I also dragged ourselves out of bed at 1am to go and find a 24hr bar to watch the Wales v South Africa rugby. Close, but no cigar.
North next, with the Clare Valley our destination, one of the (relatively) cooler regions of South Australia largely due to its elevation. Our first visit was to Taylor’s winery, known in the UK as Wakefield because the name was taken already by the famous Port house.
A mercifully light lunch with a glass of fizz set us up for an intriguing winery tour with gregarious winemaker Adam. Taylor’s are a great example of producing quality on a large scale and to exacting standards – they are certified to an extremely high ISO standard and have some pretty impressive kit on hand. Our range tasting was impressive and entertaining, the estate wines are great value and they make some serious higher end wines.
We followed up with a quick change of clothes, cleansing ales at a local pub and DF sat in the barrel hall. I dragged myself out of bed at 1am again for the Australia v Scotland rugby. I can only apologise to my immediate neighbours for my language across the final 20 minutes. Closer but still no cigar.
I wrapped my bottle of Absconder Grenache in my now unrequired kilt and grabbed a consolatory breakfast before setting off on the short journey to Jim Barry wines. Second generation Peter Barry met us in his Assyrtiko vineyard with a glass of delicious Florita Riesling, followed by winery tour and pasty.
We headed off to the Armagh vineyard in a pair of vintage cars. Sadly, only one of said cars arrived at the vineyard as the more elderly of the pair had a waterworks issue on the way. We had classic, Aussie ‘burgers’ cooked by Peter – slices of steak in a sandwich with beetroot and a fried egg – not fancy, but most certainly DF.
For pudding, we enjoyed local Giant Twins ice cream and learnt how the ice cream factory was crucial to the development of quality Riesling in Clare. Because of its presence, there was a ready supply of ice and other coolants to allow the cooler ferments that preserve the delicate aromatics of this wonderful grape.
Whilst we were glad to escape the flies, we left Clare knowing that we only had one region left to visit before the inevitable return home. Off to the Barossa we headed, with our first stop Peter Lehmann. Set in beautiful grounds, the winery is also buttressed by the oldest Shiraz vineyards in the world which were amazing to see.
An excellent range tasting showed the weight of Barossa Shiraz and the value across the Lehmann range. DF followed with the regulation hunk of cow accompanied by a refreshing chimichurri.
We managed to sneak in an additional tasting this evening (as if we needed it). Zoe is a Majestic alumni who now works for Two Hands winery that we were
eager to catch up with and she visited us with a few samples to take us through their range of bombastic wines.
Our final day was with Yalumba, where we saw some of the most diverse parts of wine production of the whole trip. First up was a visit to the cooperage, where Yalumba still make a large amount of their own barrels – it’s great to see this sort of skill still being continued on a small scale. A tour of their wine museum showed that they have been a serious importer of wine for some time – many of the greatest wines in the world are stored in their archives and made us all very jealous.
A range tasting that showed the benefits of blending Cabernet and Shiraz was followed by a lunch that highlighted the Germanic roots of the Barossa – all pickles, breads and smoked meats. DF.
One of the most interesting visits of the trip followed – after a drive around the Pewsey Vale and Heggies vineyards, we arrived at Yalumba’s vine nursery. The majority of wine vines currently planted in the world have to be grafted onto an American root stock to protect them from the phylloxera louse. It was fascinating to see the new plants grown from the union of two seemingly dead pieces of wood and I enjoyed having a go at grafting a vine myself.
One final dinner of DF and we were heading back to Adelaide for our flights home, albeit with 9 hours layover in Singapore – enough time for some Singapore slings and a trip into town for some more DF!
I would like to offer my heartfelt thanks to everyone who was so generous with their time, enthusiasm and expertise. Particularly to Emma Symington for her organisation, knowledge and good humour.