Posts Tagged ‘Wine tasting’

The Wellthisiswhatithink crew had an uncharacteristically busy weekend, including visiting the glorious Yarra Valley for a day out wine tasting.

And we unearthed an absolute gem.




The other side of Yarra Glen from Melbourne, on the road to Yea, stand some of the most famous wineries of the region, including De Bortoli, (where the expensive but unique botrytis-affected Black Noble is required tasting),  Yarrawood, (a very pretty spot with affordable food, free music, and well-trained cellar door staff, and the pretty scene seen above), and Balgownie Estate, (where the tasting staff were especially welcoming and knowledgeable too).

The old days when the cellar door was literally that – the barn door to where the wines were maturing, complete with a rough-hewn bar and a couple of stools with a crusty old winemaker waxing lyrical about this year’s crop – have long gone, sadly. These places today are magnificently run tourism destinations with superb restaurants attached and sometimes luxury accommodation too. It’s all very nice, and seductive, but perhaps without quite the rustic, authentic charm that the area used to have.

Which is why we were thrilled, turning right on impulse when leaving Balgownie Estate, to find another tiny little vineyard tucked away at the end of the lane.




Acacia Ridge is like it all used to be. Sure, they do marquees on the lawn and can arrange flash catering for you and all of that good stuff, but on this glorious autumnal day there was just a bona fide miner’s cottage, with the front room packed to the gunwales with a hens’ party checking out all the wines, and a back room for everyone else to enjoy a tasting, presided over by an unshaven and somewhat bleary-eyed vigneron, who was suffering a shocking hangover from the conjunction of the release of his Cab Sav Reserve the day before and his 81st birthday.

But despite a thumping head, his child-like joy in sharing his wines was infectious, (we quickly bought a box of the Cab Sav Reserve about ten seconds after we tasted it), and sat down to hear his story, all the while trying to keep out of the way of his energetic (and we suspect long suffering) wife who was working much harder introducing the girls to their wines, eruditely, to our ears.

Gavan Oakley, checking vines for mites

Gavan Oakley, checking vines for mites. His first customers were his patients in his dental practice.

Gavan Oakley used to be a dentist in suburban Blackburn, where deep in the last millenium he was also a Labor candidate for Parliament for the seat of Deakin (drafted in and very narrowly missing out on winning, a prospect he viewed with some consternation), a local Councillor, and well-known local figure.

As he explained, his claim to fame was “saving” the Blackburn Lake from developers, by persuading the then Liberal Premier of Victoria to chuck in a bunch of funds to rejuvenate it, which monies he got matched by his friend and famous Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, and the local Council.

Never let it be said one person cannot make a difference. Blackburn Lake today is one of the small but priceless jewels of Melbourne.

Anyhow, driven by the madness that leads anyone to grow grapes and make wine, and realising he was getting sick of staring inside people’s mouths, presumably, Gavan and his wife Tricia began the establishment of 4ha each of Pinot noir, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon in 1996. Halliday noted that most of the grapes are sold to other Yarra Valley winemakers, and when the Oakleys decided to have part of the production vinified for the Acacia Ridge label, they and some other small vignerons set up a marketing and grape-sharing co-operative known as Yarra Valley Micromasters. It is through this structure that the Oakleys obtain their Chardonnay, which complements the Cabernet Merlot and Shiraz made from their own plantings.

As their website explains: “The property was planted in 1997. The original plan was to sell fruit to the larger wineries. This is still going on, but because the fruit is of such a high standard, we decided to begin making our own wine. This was done under contract by specialist wine makers, local to the Valley.

The grapes are slow ripening, small bunch clones, ensuring intensity of color and flavour. Irrigation is used to a minimum, to assist us in achieving high quality fruit.  A full range of wines are available to taste, these including the popular Sauv Blanc, Chardonnary, Rose, Pinot, Cabernet Merlot, Shiraz and a few other surprises.”

At the Wellthisiswhatithink tasting desk, which is today feeling just the slightest bit over-trained ourselves, we strongly recommend dropping into Acacia Ridge if you’re anywhere nearby. And grab as much of the Cab Sav Reserve as you can afford. Which at just $25 a bottle, could be a fair bit.

It is drinking now a lot better than many more famous wines at twice or three times the price, (even when sourced at cellar doors), and a couple of years somewhere dark and temperate like your hall cupboard will undoubtedly release yet more complexity, if you can keep your hands off it. It’s already darkly plum-red, luscious in the mouth, and manages to magically combine rich fruit with a dry, grippy edge. Quaffable by all means, yet round and finished with an elegance that entirely defies it’s price. It tastes – and almost certainly is – a labour of love.

The type of love that saves lakes, in fact. In a word, superb. And the joy of finding a bit of the Yarra Valley like it used to be? Priceless.

Related reading:

My apologies, Dear Reader, for the break in transmission. This has been occasioned by a multiplicity of factors, including a French train strike, a French air traffic controllers’ strike, and the ingestion of vast quantities of exceptionally good cognac to relieve the tension caused by said exposition of the inalienable rights of the working class to withdraw their labour in pursuit of a just outcome.

Only once, I assure you, was yours truly heard to mutter “The working class can kiss my arse, I’ve got the foreman’s job at last.” Other than that, international solidarity was not breached. But please don’t tempt me to get started on the quality of mercy demonstrated by platform comptroleurs at Toulouse station. Just don’t, OK?


Still, all’s well that ends well, and God bless travel insurance. Which is how you find your faithful correspondent the day before his [expletive mumble deleted] birthday seated at a delightful dining table in front of an open window blessed with a Juliet balcony, through which wafts not only a cooling breeze (the weather is spectacularly warm, suddenly) but also the myriad sounds of arriving ferries, chirruping swallows by the thousand, and an endless stream of Italian boys on motorbikes revving their sewing machine engines louder and louder until the local girls (or even better, the non-Catholic visitors from Germany and points north) notice and bestow a curious look upon them. Ah, the joys of youth.


But I am getting ahead of myself. First let me tell of you of my only confrontation thus far with fascist architecture. Because confrontation is the word.

Milan station is widely lauded as a marvel of a building: big doesn’t begin to cover it, nor yet massive.

As one of the main train hubs of Europe it can be excused sheer scale, perhaps, but the style and tone of the place is a horrible reminder of the worst of times past. The Italians started building it back in 1908, but didn’t get very far, thanks to the intervention of WW1 and a few economic crises. That was, of course, until the arrival of Mussolini, who, with the benefit of diktat and threatening to shoot any workers who disagreed with him, managed to turn the original plans into a giant, monolithic celebration of national (read: Roman) identity, complete with stylised ancient warriors, eagles, and the rest of the nonsense paraphernalia of the era.

It is a horrible building, a cathedral of nationalistic hysteria, and like the medieval cathedrals in their day it served but one purpose – to be greater than the individual human spirit, to be a statement of state power, overwhelming and crushing the spirit of the one into the purpose of the many. “The state is everything” boasted Mussolini, and he meant it.

What makes it so horrible is that one can feel the siren call of its ridiculous posturing. Its vast ceilings cry out to be photographed, its vaulted arches and endless vistas are mesmeric, they entice the eye and the heart despite yourself.

Standing in Statzione Centrale, Milan, it is all too easy to understand how the tens of thousands packed into the Piazza Venezia could believe the silly man crammed into an ill-fitting uniform to be their saviour, and also how, when his posturing proved hollow and deadly, they could turn on him so utterly and execute the fleeing dictator in Dongo, just up the lake from where I sit now.

We called in on the ferry a couple of days ago, and the Italian crew still gleefully pointed out that this was where their ultimate home-grown rogue was captured and executed along with his mistress and members of his puppet Nazi-supported regime. They paid the price, ultimately, of all those charlatans who propose deceptively simple solutions to complex problems, but not before they had inflicted terrible suffering on those around them, which was then visited, with the invariable justice of God or history, on themselves; as it must surely be, lest the universe spin off its axis with the tragic madness of it all.

Beginning and end, in the space of a couple of days. Sadly, it had taken Italy, and Europe, much longer to see through his lies and conceits.


To happier matters. It is axiomatic, of course, that Benito made the trains run on time, unlike his benighted French counterparts, which is how we had found ourselves by and by in the tiny hamlet of Varenna on Lake Como, part of the “golden triangle” of villages about equidistant between Como at one end of the lake and Colico at the other, surrounded by spectacular Alpine peaks, and delighted to be at ground level, and not clambering around incautiously upon them.


Determined to get as close to real mountains as I am ever going to get – being convinced beyond reason that embarking on any incline greater than 5% invites a hideous death, cast from some rocky outcrop by a momentary mistake to smash, alert and awake, into the blessed ground we should never have left in the first place – let’s be frank, if God had intended us to leave sea level he would have given us crampons on our feet – we headed wide-eyed for the far north of the lake.

Colico is not famous for much, except, perhaps, for the best ice cream I have ever eaten, or maybe it was merely the location, nestled as the gelateria was in patch of shade and towered o’er by yet another peak. At this juncture the lake itself was home to innumerable para-sailers in a regatta – my apologies for the shaky boat-deck photo – and on occasions it seemed, too, as if they were somehow in awe of the snow-clad peaks that surrounded them, and were urging their kites to fly them higher and higher, to the pinnacles themselves, and beyond. It must be something to do with grandeur: it just seduces us as moths to a light. Perhaps this is why in cities all over the world we can now be encouraged to pay good money to tour sports stadiums even when no sport is happening. “Wow, look at all those seats, Dad!” “Yes, son, and so many.” Curious.


No exposition of a few days in Italy would be complete without a delerious discussion of food. Cognisant of my upcoming never-to-be revealed birthday, we decided to splurge on a visit to the famous Cava Turacciolo, which in any other world would be merely an interesting little wine bar, but which, arriving by ferry in Bellaggio on a picture perfect evening, offered itself to us as a mysterious Aladdin’s Cave, packed to the gunwales with rare local wines collected lovingly, and dispensed expertly, by Mario and Norberto and their crew.


We had been alerted to the Cava by other travellers, and it did not disappoint. A mere two rooms, plus a connecting corridor, seemingly tunnelled out of the hillside and blessedly cool, to nurture the hundreds of precious bottles of vino rosso and bianco that were crammed onto its walls, which girdled us like a cocoon.

We had arrived early, still not au fait with the Italian preference for doing nothing significant until at least 10pm, which meant we were blessed with Norberto’s close attention, as he described each wine he suggested to us in minute detail, taught us what to search for in the nose and taste – disagreeing gently when we argued for caramel as opposed to what he announced firmly was liquorice – and holding forth wisely on the various ancient methods that had gone into each bottle.


With one, apparently – the Sfursat, 100% Nebbiolo with the grapes allowed to dry for three months before pressing – the story, and the experience, amounted to an insight into the whole of the surrounding society. Wine had been made this way, Norberto explained, in luxuriously tiny amounts, for over 500 years, by artisan producers working in their own homes. All the wine made thus, which demonstrated an incredible alcohol content and a clear aroma and taste of cherries – you will pick it up most clearly on your gums, he patiently intoned – is drunk locally, and unknown in the outside world. Pity: it was entrancing.


A dedicated red wine drinker, I surprised myself by preferring – of everything we tasted, and there was plenty – a discrete gently oaken Chardonnay from the Lake Garda area, called Bellavista Alma Terra.

It offered itself politely, blushingly, and pacifically, like a Victorian miss in a crinoline dress taken at the flood by a rampant Lieutenant … pale straw in colour, perfectly balanced, fresh and inviting and completely more-ish. I wanted to buy a bottle of what we had tasted by the glass, and settle in contentedly for the evening, but Norberto clucked disapprovingly. “Buy some to take home” he muttered, remarking that it was “fruity and refreshing” almost as if those words were criticisms. “Here you have a chance to taste something … Special.”


So we did. We invested in the cheapest edition of a range – Amarone – that runs to bottles costing hundreds of Euros. It had been teased and coaxed from grape varieties we had never heard of, and presented a deep, mysterious burgundy in colour – almost black – with huge pepper and plum flavours, and a head-numbing 16% alcohol. From Verona it was – Romeo and Juliet country – and it immediately made one want to stand on the table and sing Nessun Dorma, or take on the the whole world to right wrongs and slay dragons. Little wonder poor old Tybalt ended up run through by a rapier. If the locals were getting shit-faced on this stuff it’s surprising any of them were left alive by the end to tell the tale.

So the wine flowed – a little too fast for Norberto’s taste, but we explained with equal patience that we were Australian, and he simply nodded sadly and politely – and then, in this temple of grapes, the real surprise.


Lovingly prepared compliments to the wine – bitingly bitter and huge green olives, a plate of achingly sweet ham so thinly sliced as to be almost ethereal and dressed with twin breasts of buffalo mozarella so fresh they were still molten in the centre, twinned with a spread of blissfully rare, sliced roast beef dressed with Parmesan and Balsamic vinegar, followed by a buckwheat tagliatelle drowning in cheese and dotted with potatoes – who knew? – and finally a selection of cheeses selected for their capacity to lift the roof off your mouth, and your preconceptions.

Not a crew to shy from strong cheese, one concoction nevertheless defeated us: in the way that one is first defeated by, say, a fiery Thai salad, one is bruised but fascinated, and determined to return to fight another day. A seemingly innocuous mixture of goats’ and ewe’s milk, it was simply too pungent to be approachable. Next time.

As one contemplated the last few days, one was struck forcibly by how Norberto and his team were the very antithesis of the statism so glorified by Mussolini and his ilk. Hard-working individuals, modest, unprepossessing even, and dedicated to principles of excellence and courtesy, with a passion bordering on the obsessional to create experiences – the marriage of the perfect wine with the perfect sliver of rare roast beef – that are utterly ephemeral in their nature, and yet are what, in reality, make life worth living. That make enduring “society” worthwhile. There was nothing of the showy arm-waving fairground balderdash of Mussolini in Norberto’s quiet certainty. His was a world that mistrusts big and celebrates miniature, a world which knows that in honest precision, and care, and dedication and sheer hard work, mortal man can sometimes touch the face of God.

I asked him if he bought in his beef ready cooked, and he looked horrified. “No, no!” He almost wailed. “Oh,” I said, abashed, “do you have your own cows?” He snorted, “I would have no time to look after the wine.” Ah.

He explained that he chose the beef from a local he knew well, but always cooked it himself. No-one else could cook it the way he did. I pondered how he had. It was somehow gently pink all through, with no signs of caramelisation on the outer, yet it was clearly roasted and not slow-cooked in water. No high-faulting modern cooking methods here. I asked him how he created the flavour, and yet kept the beef so ineffably moist, so that it literally fell to pieces on the tongue.

He smiled gently. “Magic.”

Just so. Ciao.