It was early Spring, back in those carefree days of 2008, when five young lads set out on a weekend trip to the Barossa Valley. They thought they were having a few days of wine tasting and nice food- who could have known it would go so horribly wrong?*
*It didn't go horribly wrong. This was just a cheap hook to draw you in.
There was Simon, economist and trip planner; there was young Hen, of the Red Hair, a stalwart companion on many a wine trip; there was Ronan, lawyer in training and son of The Man With The Giant Cellar; there was Medical Tim, famous throughout the land for his Tasty Tasty Food; and there was Rowan, the lowly scribe. By the end of the weekend one of them would be pregnant, one would be dead, and one would bear a terrible burden.**
**Yes, this is another outright lie.
Although nothing much happened that would make for a bad thriller novel, there was certainly wine enough for a post or two. A post like, say, this one. So, with only a minimum of further ado, let's get on with it.
Our first winery, late on the Friday drive up, was Murdock. I'm not sure if the gorgeous sunset is provided with all tastings, but they pulled it out for us. They also supplied us with extremely generous tasting pours, which were extremely welcome. They're a new winery, only a few months old, but their wines have a strength and a togetherness that many more settled places lack. Their chardonnay is one of the rare breed that avoids the temptation to be overly oaked and sour, and instead settles for a buttery fullness that was well worth the $20 asking price.
The next morning saw us visiting the Barossa Farmers' Market for lunch supplies. This was a wonderful little spot with Italian nonnas selling dirt cheap tomatoes by the sackful and a friendly local plying Tim with free potatoes. Suitably breaded, cheesed, tomatoed and sausaged, we set off for the first winery for the day.
The Willows is a charming little spot up toward the north of the valley, hidden at the end of a dirt track through the vines. This is one of those places more memorable for the visit than the wine, as our cellar hand had a life and an energy that was missing from the wet stuff. They were nice drops, absolutely, but lacked anything to lift them from the ranks of 'nice enough' wines, of which the Barossa has plenty.
We followed the Willows with a trip out to Henschke, a winery that has a pretty good name for itself, and one that I was looking forward to. Unfortunately, it didn't deliver. Just as gum trees next to a vineyard can add a hint of eucalypt to the wine, so a joyless cellar hand can add a distinctly sour note to anything you drink. Their entry level wines just couldn't compete with everything else on offer for that price, and their nicer offerings couldn't justify the inflated price tags.
I visited Yalumba at their Coonawarra cellar door last year, and was pleasantly surprised to find that they were one of the few big wineries that have both a) quality wines and b) their heads sufficiently removed from their own arses to know that they aren't the single greatest thing ever to happen to humanity (I'm looking at you, Hardy's). Their Barossa cellar door has a similarly nice range, including a few interesting organic wines and some nice blends at the upper end of the price spectrum. They do seem, however, to be falling victim to some manner of critical mass with their wine list- it's getting so big that the nice ones are drowned among the mediocre crowd. I think they'd do themselves a favour if they made half as much wine, but put the same total amount of effort in.
Next up was Barossa Cottage Wines. If wines were quilts, this would be the most amazing winery in the world. Because they make quilts. Not wines. We followed the 'Cellar Door This Way' sign, and found ourselves in a quilt-making craft room. With two bottles of very sub-par wine open for tasting. I'm still not entirely sure what was going on. Drug front? International quilting conspiracy? Either way, it was confusing.
We escaped to Bethany for a vinified antidote to Barossa Cottage. Now, imagine for a second that you're a lecturer at university and you've had a student enrol in your course for three years running. Every year they start out well, but by the end of the semester they've missed so many deadlines that you have no choice but to fail them. Replace university with wine tasting, Bethany with the student and some awesome character for yourself, and you've got our experience. The cellar door is beautiful, perched on a hill overlooking the valley. The people there are friendly and open, happy to help. The wines are just not that hot. Shirazes that start out well but die in your mouth, cab savs that smell great but fail to deliver. I've been there a few times now, and it's always the same thing. A shame, really.
Time for the penultimate one, then: Grant Burge. Their entry level stuff is good enough, but their three wines for $30 that are just spectacular. The Filsel shiraz in particular is a beautiful example of what a Barossa red should be- bold, chewy, strong and long and lean. So full of flavour that you'd need to take out a second mouth mortgage just to get enough space to fit it all in. They also have a ridiculously yummy 10 year old port that tastes like they've converted the world's supply of christmas pudding and caramel into liquid form. Not only that, but the grounds at the cellar door are spectacular: expansive lawns, manicured gardens, hanging vines, rusty old fountains. Grant Burge hits a home run big enough to make up for the poor perfomance of some of the earlier contenders.
Time for one last old favourite, Turkey Flat, before turning in for the day. Like a thoroughly confused roller coaster, we ended on a high. They avoid Yalumba's critical mass problem by only offering a handful of wines, but each is so exquisitely crafted that you'd feel like a philistine for asking them to divert their attention into anything more. They have a lovely marsanne-viognier, a rare blend that is full of warm, toasty flavours you don't often find in a white. Their reds are similarly impressive, and they finish off with the Pedro Ximinez, a sinfully decadent fortified that is a perfect end to the tasting, and to the day.
Suitably wined, we trundled home to recuperate our energy (with an intensive program of schnitzel and beer) before another big day.