Barossa Valley weekend, part one.


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.

Why wine?

Red wine (Murray Street Vineyards, Barossa Valley)

I just returned from a weekend with friends in the glorious Barossa Valley. We had delicious lunches, we sat down and tried incredible wines, we laughed with cellar hands, we met one winemaker who invited us out the back and opened hundreds of dollars worth of wine and vintage tokay (aka muscadelle) for us to drink as he imparted his (slightly inebriated) life lessons.

At one point, Tim said (and I paraphrase) "I like wine, but I can only see it as something to accompany food. I can't get excited about it on its own". This is a fair point. With cooking, we can taste meals and be inspired to try it ourselves, we can experiment with different ingredients and combinations, we are free to make all manner of mistakes and enjoy each one, we can feel the thrill of creating something that makes people happy. With wine, however, we're limited. We can only taste what others have made, and (most of us) will never be able to make it ourselves. With wine, we can only be observers*.

So why wine?


It would be nice, wouldn't it, if there was a place in the world where you could live in a city that was blessed with a lovely climate, endless kilometres of sunny beach 20 minutes drive from your house, and approximately four hundred wineries within an hour of the city.

Oh, hang on, there is: Adelaide.


But since you poor sods aren't here, you'll have to buy your wine from the trusty bottle-o instead of the cellar doors themselves. And that means you'll need someone on the inside. What else are you going to do? Go to some stranger on the internet for advice?

To overcome this problem, I've got some great advice after the jump.

How to be a wine bluff

There are the serious wine buffs. These guys know what baume is, know why wine bottles have that little thing on the bottom, and know the best vintages from Chateau de le Nousseau Francais le Pois ooh la la (roughly translates to: Chateau of the something french the something ooh la la).

Then there are the rest of us. The wine bluffs. We know which wines are red (hint: look at the colour), which ones are cheap (hint: look at the price), and which ones are liquid (hint: all of them). This isn't a guide to being a wine buff, just a way to seem a bit buffer. Think about it as the vinified equivalent of stuffing balloons in your shirt to make your biceps look bigger. One note before we begin though- this isn't because there's anything wrong with being a wine bluff, but because it's hilarious to pretend to be fancy. By no account should these 'Bluff to Buff in Fourteen Days!' tips be used to be the kind of whiney winey wanker who thinks that saying something about the nose of a wine makes him special. That's just not on. You must only use your powers for good.

Enough about that. Let's get down to business.

There is a basic equation for all Winespeak:

nose + palate + finish = Bufftastic!

What this means is that you just need to say something about the nose (you can also call these the 'aromas' or 'bouquet':
Fruit, citrus, honey, oaky, butter, and floral are good for most whites, and the reds tend to align with earth, fruit, undergrowth, smoke, liquorice and chocolate. So, your first sentence will be something like "this opens with a lovely bouquet of honey and oak". The more outrageous your descriptors are, the more buff you seem. Kerosene (for riesling), pencil shavings, and barnyard have all been used to describe a wine's nose.

After you've waxed lyrical about the aromas, it's time to get to the tasty side of things. Many of the same terms can be used here (fruity and earthy and so forth), but now it's time to add some texture:
Chewy, silky, powerful, delicate, subtle, rich, vivid, bright, zesty, and smooth are all reasonable things to add here. Czech it out: "the grenache begins with a earthy nose which is followed by a subtle touch of chocolate on the palate". See how I put the nose and the mouth together? Oh yeah.

Time to rock this baby home. Let's get to the finish. This is what the wine leaves you with right at the end, and it's generally bigger with reds than whites. Here you can describe the length of the finish (sustained, lingering, etc) as well as the flavour. Again, many of the same terms can be used, but words like tannic and astringent are particular to the wine's finish. Hence: "this year's cabernet merlot announces itself with vivid aromas of cherries and stone fruits, which are delicately balanced by smooth tones of oak and plum on the palate. A lingering touch of smokey, tannic richness adds a welcome layer of complexity to this fine blend".

If you want to get ultra fancy, you can describe the acidity (crisp, sweet, or dry), the 'fullness' (full-, medium-, or light-bodied), and the complexity (well structured, balanced, nuanced, etc). And there you have it. Instant wine buff, just add water.

See how easy that was?*

*So, ah, even though this is easy, all the times I write about wine here it's, er, totally different. Not easy at all. I'd exlpain how it's different, but, well, it's so special and complex that you fools wouldn't understand. Yeah.

On the similarities between Power Rangers and wine


Remember when you first saw the Power Rangers? They were awesome! Five cool kids who could, at will, morph into totally wicked evil-fighting colourful superheroes! Over time, the shows got better (relatively speaking, at least). There was a bit more depth, a bit more character development, the bad guys got more complex... the Power Rangers were moving up in the world.

Then you had better things to do. You missed a few shows, you went away for a while, and then it all went pear shaped. Next time you looked, there were eight power rangers, they could morph into dinosaurs and donkeys and spaceships, the plotlines became more and more convoluted. It went bad.

And this, give or take a few bad special effects and poorly dubbed action scenes, is precisely what happens to wine. At first, a good red will be quite straightforward: it's made from fruit, so the main flavours you'll taste will be- wait for it- fruity. Plums and berries and shiny red cherries. There will also be some tannins- these come from the skin of the grapes, from the stems and seeds and all the woody, non-flesh parts of the grape. The word the wine people use for the tannin taste in a young wine is 'astringent'- kinda like a dry, puckery sensation.

Over time, like their colleagues running Power Rangers, these tannins will improve things. The fruity flavours will remain, but will be embellished by the rich, smoky, earthy, woody flavours imparted by the tannins. This is why it's good to age some wines. They taste better and better over the years, because the tannins add more of this richness to balance out the fruit, and the final product can be amazing. When these tannins are done adding flavour they'll drop out of the wine as sediment and collect on the bottom of the bottle. This is why it's necessary to decant older wines before serving them.

The problem is that you can leave your precious wine a bit too long, wait for it to grow a bit too much, and then when you finally do open it you'll fine the bottled equivalent of Power Rangers: Dino Thunder, with mechanical triceratops that fire lasers out of their horns. This is what people in the industry call 'not good'. Instead of the nuanced and complex balance of finely interlaced flavours, you just get a mouthful of wet cardboard. The wine will look brown, not red, and it'll have a tart, vinegar-esque aspect to it. There will still be some flavour kicking around, but it will be some soggy relic of what it once was. Think about biting into an apple to find a powdery mush instead of crisp juicyness.

So there's no point trying to drink every bottle of wine at the very peak of its development. If you always drink a bottle too young, you're never going to be disappointed. I just wish I could say the same for Power Rangers.

Skillogalee Restaurant

Skillogalee Restauraunt: Beef & mushroom pie

It would have been hard for me not to enjoy Skillogalee Restaurant. My visit capped off six days in Pt Augusta that despite working, felt more like a week-long fishing trip. We'd spent the day driving home through the beautiful Flinders Ranges and past brilliant green fields of young wheat, with the occasional stop alongside pine forests to search for mushrooms (no dice). Our only care in the world was the worry that we might not get to Sevenhill before Skillogalee stopped serving lunch.

Skillogalee is a small winery in South Australia's Clare Valley. Their wine is well regarded, but for a wine ignoramus like me the restaurant is the big draw. What began as a way to offer tasters something to nibble on while they drank has become one of the area's best restaurants. It's also one of the Valley's best locations, though competition is fierce. Skillogalee nails it in the atmosphere department — hidden away at the cottage's verandah tables you can see vineyards, nature, and nothing else.

The style of cooking is "modern Australian", but given the elusive definition of Australian food I prefer to think of it as "the food served by nice places in winemaking regions all over Australia". That is: European influences, local produce, charcuterie and preserves, and the very liberal use of wine. We started by sharing a serving of country terrine with pickled plums, and cabernet-soaked bread with anchovy spread. The terrine worked nicely with the plums — I only wished that the individual components would have been more identifiable in taste and presentation. For me, the anchovy spread was a standout. Out waiter told us it was made in house from anchovies, ricotta, olive oil, and seasoning, and I plan to try to recreate it at home.


For main course I had a beef and mushroom pie, with the puffiest pastry crust I've ever encountered. Inside the filling was a rich, delicious stew that was a perfect remedy to a rainy day. Shane ordered fillet steak with potatoes, beans and a mushroom cream sauce. My small taste of it was delicious. Lucy ordered a well-presented confit duck leg with Puy lentils, snow peas, and an orange glaze. I didn't taste this one, so take my assessment with a grain of salt when I say that the lentils looked overcooked.

Skillogalee Restaurant: Duck confit with orange glaze

I would be remiss not to talk about the wine we drank, which was a 2004 Skillogalee Shiraz. One of the great things about eating at a winery is that while you wait for your food to come you can duck into the cellar door to taste the various wines on the list before choosing one bottle to bring back to the table. In a restaurant I never know how to pair a wine I've never tasted with a meal I've never tasted, so this was a big step forward.

Skillogalee is a renowned restaurant in a great winery on a hillside in the Clare Valley. You can't get much better than that.

Skillogalee Restaurant (website)
Trevarrick Rd
Sevenhill, South Australia

Marienburg 2002 Reserve Shiraz

A faulty memory (coupled with a tiredness that prevents elementary Google searches) means the name eludes me, but I'm sure a person once said "wine is bottled poetry".

It's true enough, as far as I can tell. There are sauvignon blancs as bitter as the acrid gas in Wilfred Owen's Dulce Et Decorum Est, cabernets as dark and introspective as Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, and, if you're lucky enough, a muscat as seductive as Andres Marvell's To His Coy Mistress.

Still, perhaps whoever said it was poetic enough to mean something more than those direct comparisons. Perhaps they were alluding to the profound insights that both wine and poetry can awaken in us.

With that in mind, let me introduce the Marienberg Reserve Shiraz, 2002. It was a bargain at $22, and definitely a standout McLaren Vale shiraz. It opened with a fragrant fruitiness that sustained its distinct flavour as the heavier, woody notes arrived at the back of the mouth. It was delicious. I only bought one bottle the first time through, and returned within six months for another. There was none left. The 2002 Reserve Shiraz had been entirely sold out, and now (in all likelihood) I'll never drink it again.

So perhaps that's a bit of bottled poetry about life: things will come along that enrich your world, but everything is transient and the loss of something only serves to reinforce the value it once had. Or, on the other hand, perhaps it's just a lesson in buying more than a single bottle of wine when you find one that you like.

On midnight waterfalls and winter sun.


It's Winter in Adelaide, and the sun is shining. It glows in the pale sky, sending arcs of warmth through the chilled air. The coldness creeps from the earth to reclaim the day. Dew, wet with morning, sogs my feet with its frosty tounges. Still - the sun is shining. The breeze is pushed and tousled by the trees as they shiver off the night's cold. The sun is shining in a blue sky, in Adelaide, in Winter.

This is the kind of day that can transcend the strictures and structures with which we prop up our artificially busy lives. I have no thought for the papers that need reading, the room that needs cleaning, the report that needs writing, or the forms that need filing. This is not a day for such trivial needs. What I want, what I really need, are the simple things that are too often obscured beneath the tired-eyed exhuastion of a modern life. Sun in my eyes, a cool breeze in my hair. Food to eat, to nourish, to fill. Friends to share it with. Wine to celebrate it with.


It is now evening. We have stealthily sneaked into the conservation park that is a few minutes walk from my friend's house. We have walked the trails, lit by moonlight, up to the second waterfall. We climb over the handrail and sit on the edge with our feet flowing over, anchored to our bodies, swaying in the night air. The hills hide the street lights, and the stars peek shyly from behind the crowd of clouds that have settled over the sleeping city. We share bread, and cheese, and wine. This evening, our liquid lover is the liqueur verdelho from Sevenhill, in the Clare Valley.

It is the oldest winery in the country, and is still run by a handful of Jesuits who see their creations as the perfect expression of a love for God and for our extraordinary world. The vines are blessed before harvest. The priest who maintains the cellar door makes an incredible bolognese and always serves it with a bottle pulled casually from the cellar. The tasting list is ridiculously long, but the Scottish cellar hand who was there when I last visited saw that as no reason why we shouldn't try the lot. He'd pour a new glass before the old one had hit the counter, and would regale us with tales of gentle Armenian warlords and insane London landlords. Afterwards, we lunched on the grass and had a slow, full-stomached game of football before continuing on our way.

To continue, then: it is now evening. We are on a waterfall (dry, of course- this is Australia), bathed in stars, minutes away from the gridded city streets. We open the Sevenhill liqueur verdelho and splash it into the glasses that rest tenuously on the worn, undulating stone. It is a smooth, suave wine. It will court your lips, flirt with your tounge and seduce your throat. It starts with a warm, syrupy sense of honey and nuttiness, which then grows into a toasted caramel that understands the meaning of 'too sweet' and remains respectfully on the right side of the fence. Many of its liqueur contemporaries are dogged by a slick, oily shadow of taste that wipes its dirty feet on your tounge as it passes by. Sevenhill rise above this unpleasantness and the verdelho continues onwards, now with a full, chewable flavour of toffee that swells, pirouettes, bows and recedes with no trace of tartness or hastiness. This wine, my friends, is an utter gentleman.

And we drink. The world spins us slowly away from the moon and midnight passes unnoticed among these friends, this wine, this waterfall, and this lovely day.

Hahndorf Hill 2004 Shiraz

Hahndorf Hill is one of the jewels of the Adelaide Hills. This is something you make a ring out of, something you put in a crown. You want to show it off. There are other wineries I prefer, but they're the kind that are scruffy pets you know and love, or dog-eared books you return to fondly. Hahndorf Hill is a jewel, rare and precious.

It's a gorgeous cellar door set on a second story balcony overlooking the vineyards. It's officially a 'micro-boutique winery', which means it only makes a tiny amount of wine. The air is rich with oak and art, jazz and joy. The cellar hand says I remind her of her father, and I like that she recognises me now. It's owned by a couple, two lovely down to earth guys who quite humbly go about their business. Their wines are organic, or carbon neutral, or biodynamic, or some combination of the three.

I had their shiraz two weeks ago. It was a sunny winter's day in Adelaide, and my parents and I had lunch outside under the bare vines. Crusty bread from the Italian bakery down the road, mustard, ham, tomato and avocado. There isn't really a need for anything else.

Now, if you recall, shiraz from the Barossa is usually big and full of spice and life. Unlike the Barossa's warmth, however, the Adelaide Hills are a cool climate region. This means that the grapes are slower to ripen, so there is more acid and less sugar in the grapes. Acid in wine is like blue blood- the more there is, the more refined and elegant the wine will be. Sugar, on the other hand, is more like drinking while pregnant- the more you have, the more likely it is that your baby will be an alcoholic. Thus, the warmer climate Barossa (grapes ripen early, hence less acid and more sugar) has big, unrestrained flavours and fairly high (~14%) alcohol content. Unlike offspring, this isn't a problem at all; it's just a very different flavour. The Hahndorf Hill shiraz, on the other hand, proudly displays its cool-climate pedigree. It has a soft, silky mouth feel ('mouth feel' is one of those complicated wine terms that roughly translates to 'how it feels in your mouth'). It doesn't bombard you with flavour at first, but slowly reveals layers of chocolate smokiness that continue to develop even after you've swallowed. It's a very seductive, sophisticated wine. If a Barossa shiraz is a firey old grandad with war stories and battle-scars, this is more along the lines of your classy aunt who always carries herself with grace.


Wine tasting myths

Apparently, to taste a wine you need to swirl the glass (to bring in oxygen), examine the colour (to see how old it is, and how long it spent on the skins), check the legs (to see the alcohol content), smell it once (the freshest part of the bouquet), smell it again (to find the deeper, more complex flavours), then sip it (because, you know, we've got these buds of taste on our tounges).

This is ridiculous.

It's far more important to be drinking it with friends. To either be sitting in the sun or rugged up and warm beside the fire. To laugh and almost spit a mouthful out, to spill a few drops when you're pouring and not be concerned about the tablecloth. Who cares what the bouquet opens with if you're not having a good time?

A story: Coonawarra, October 2006, Punters' Corner cellar door. We entered for a tasting and were served by the ice queen herself. In the museum of Curmudgeonery, she's the main exhibit. During the International Trollop Symposium, she was the keynote speaker. If she was a food, she'd be the bit of corn that gets stuck behind your tooth for a week that develops into a flesh-eating infection. If she was a metaphor, she'd be even worse than that one. She was, in short, unpleasant. And the wines all varied between mediochre and dull, with some highlights making it all the way up the scale to humdrum. A few days later, at a different cellar door, Punters' Corner was enthusiastically recommended to us and we grudgingly agreed to give it a second chance. The second time around, it was delightful. Our host was warm and welcoming, the conversation flowed, and the wine- the wine tastes good! It's delicious! The same wines that were boring a few days before became interesting, complex, wonderful! The elements of the wine that are rated by a proper tasting- the things that get it medals or points or stars- were not as important as the environment we tasted them in.

Of course, if you've got the wonderful atmosphere sorted then the quality of the wine comes into play a little more. In this case, I believe there are two rules. One, put the wine in your mouth and two, see if you like it. If it tastes good, then it's a good wine. It's possible to embellish the second rule a little, but only if you want to. You can see if it has different flavours in different parts of your mouth (fresh fruityness at the front, perhaps, and rich earthyness at the back). You can try to think of what the flavour reminds you of (red cherry? Cut grass? Lime? Chocolate?). You can focus on how long you can taste it for after you swallow, or what the difference is between its smell and its taste, or how it feels in your mouth (dry? fuzzy? silky? bitey?). All these things are wonderful ways to get more involved in what you're doing, but they're all strictly optional. Not knowing the difference between terroir and tannin has no bearing on whether or not you're qualified to know what tastes good and what doesn't. And it certainly doesn't stop you enjoying it.