Photo: Alex Aslangul
You know 'em. The dingy little rooms that reek of old booze where even the most sophisticated spit and in which the rules are just as hazy as the people who walk out. Yep, welcome to the cellar door. Our roving sampler Campbell Mattinson offers some tips on making the most out of your next visit.
The last thing any of us need is a set of rules telling us what we can and can't do when it comes to wine. It's just top stuff. There's loads of it to enjoy, drink, share and to learn about. That's it. If I want to rip the top off a big bosomy bottle of red that's absolutely primed, and match it to fried dims sims from the two-bit chipper 'round the corner, then why the hell not? Sure, I might have a problem with the way I relate wine to lingerie, but hey, if I'm enjoying myself and not hurting anyone, then that's fine. That's wine.
But when it comes to getting out there and spending time visiting wineries, well, some of the old rules stay. Actually, they don't, but there're some tips that help you get the most out of it all. Simple things, like: don't drink and drive, keep an open mind, and especially, don't forget to undo your seatbelt before trying to charge the tasting room.
But seriously, here's a case of the best:
1. Ditch the fragrance for the day
The best way to taste a wine is to smell it (love sentences like that), but it's pretty hard to smell a wine if you're smelling like the inside of an orchid hothouse on show day. Tends to provoke comments like: "can't smell the friggin' wine, but the rude bugger beside me is redolent of honeysuckle and leather". When you've got a day of tasting ahead, go easy on the fragrance.
2. Get a feel for where you are
Ringing around a few wineries, I kept being told this: "It's a good idea to get a feel for the winery/vineyard when you first arrive. Look around the grounds -- at the vineyard, the buildings. Soak it all in. It helps give an understanding of where the wines are coming from, what the wines are offering". Romantic, huh?
3. If you chew and taste you're a bloody idiot
Must be something about all things dental (what was it, after all, that Mrs Marsh was dipping that chalk into?). But under all circumstances avoid toothpaste and chewing gum (and anything remotely mint-flavoured) within driving distance of a wine tasting bench. Mint is the phylloxera of the mouth. It's a wine-killer.
4. Huck that mouthful
Spitting is actually an old Scandinavian word meaning "stained white shirt", and was most commonly found in the proverb (roughly translated): "Those with the stained white shirt laugh loudest at those with the light blue shirt (and flashing northern lights)". You might only get a splash of each wine in each glass, but a few whites and a few reds at a few sites and a few sheds, and it adds up fast. You need a designated driver. But try to spit anyway -- you'll learn heaps more. Besides, where else can you spit and be drop-dead sophisticated at the same time?
5. Food fight
No need to chuck a hunger strike before a visit to the wineries, but you'll probably find wines less appealing if you've just stuffed three chooks and half a kilo of spuds into you. Same goes with strong flavours -- avoid them before tasting wine. You want to be comfortable, you want your mouth to be boringly neutral, you want to feel like you've just snogged a water cracker. Actually, a water cracker is a perfect start.
6. Easy Tonto...
In some winegrowing regions the vineyards are so close together that they make pubic hair look positively spaced out. This creates temptation. How Many Wineries Can I Do In A Day, and If I Manage Them All Will The Local Vignerons' Association Give Me A Free Ice-cream? Not good. The truth is, three or four cellar doors (OK, maybe five) in any one day is plenty -- but make the most of each. Ask questions. Take your time. Do any available cellar or winery tours. And be alert for wines made from unusual grape varieties, or wines available from cellar door only. As a cellar door man at Yering Station vineyard said: "The most common thing people do wrong is try to fit too many wineries into the one visit. Space things out. Take breaks. Look after your palate". (Or as a girl down the back of the school oval once said to me: "Any given mouth on any given day can only deal with so many given flavours" -- Daphne Einstein, I think her name was).
7. On your bus or on your bike?
Size matters. Or the size of your group does, anyway. It matters in the way you'll be treated at the winery itself. But it also matters in the way you approach it all. Basically, if there's a busload of you then you'll have a great larf and taste plenty of good booze and probably have winery reps telling you all sorts of good stuff about the wines they've set aside for you. You're even a half-decent chance of nabbing a 'behind-the-scenes' look at the churly wurly bits and get to inhale the sweet smell of new oak barrels too. Cool. The bad part is that you might not get to taste the wines you want. If you're on your own or with only a couple of others, you'll get the better selection ... so what do you want, a good-time taste of the place, or a cruisey taste of the best?
8. Word up before you come...
This whole visiting system works a whole lot better if you find out a little about the wineries you're going to visit before you get out there. If you can, find out what they're renowned for (if they're renowned for anything, that is). I mean, you don't want to say no to the bottle of Muller Thurgau and discover later that it's the only remaining Muller Thurgau in the southern hemisphere, and that it's an absolute cracker, now do you? I mean, it's about street cred.
9. Or of course, you can always cheat...
Sure there are some cellar door hands out there who just shouldn't be, but mostly, really, the staff at cellar doors are pretty good. Pretty knowledgeable. So use 'em up. Ask them what the winery specialises in, whether they have an unusual or a particularly impressive/renowned wine. Then ask them what their personal favourite wine in the line-up is, and why. Try it and see what you think. It's also a pretty ripping idea to let them know the wines you enjoy drinking (throw the brand names at 'em) and ask if they have anything in that style, or that they think you might like. Cellar door staff are like stockbrokers: their job is to match the wine to the client.
10. Now that's an order
Really, you can taste wine in whatever order you like. Nobody'll care. However, try to work your way down the list in the order they're presented (you don't have to taste them all). There's a logic there. The list is usually arranged like you might for a grown-ups meal. Sparkling, crisp white. Buttery white. Light red. Heavier red. Dessert/sweet white. Fortified. Or something like that. Rules or no rules, it is pretty hard to judge a delicate riesling if you've just charged up the deep-dark-sweet-like-liquid-sex special reserve muscat. (It's also worth asking whether you can have one of the tasting sheets ... so that you can mark down the ones that you liked. Just impossible to remember otherwise).
11. Open up and say ah
Keep your mind open. Different regions, soils, winemakers, oak, climate, etc can impart markedly different tastes on a wine ... so if you don't like South Australian shiraz and you're doing a tour of the Hunter Valley, for instance, don't assume that you don't like shiraz ... it tastes different there (it's more leathery, sweaty, crazy ...). This goes for all grape varieties and regions. Really.
12. And then there's the question of price
A-hem. Ah, how much? Well ... a minefield topic really, with no clear advice possible, but it should be pointed out that it's a common misconception that winery prices are always higher than your local discount dealer. Alternatively, it's also a common misconception that wineries are the best place to buy wine. The fact is, most of the time your local dealer is cheaper, if there's access to good volumes of the stock. Often though for previous vintages and "sought-after" wines the cellar door price is actually cheaper. Not always. But sometimes. So bugger it, buy what you like.
Really though, it's beautiful out there in wine country -- just get out there and sniff and swirl them babies, and enjoy yourself.