So you’re sick of those annoying friends who pretentiously drink wine to show off their knowledge and make you feel inferior?
Well don’t get mad, get even.
A trip to the NSW wine heartland of the Hunter Valley is more than an experience, it can be an exercise in self-improvement.
Hunter Valley Food and Wine month, held over June, offers a range of opportunities to learn the secrets of wine appreciation from the experts.
Here’s how I became a wine wanker in just two days…
HOW A WINE PROCESSING PLANT WORKS
I drop in at McGuigan Wines on McDonalds Road, Pokolbin for a winery tour, the first step in my education.
The iconic winemaker has gathered a slew of awards including International Winemaker of the Year, so I figure they must know a thing or two about grapes.
During the tour we’re taken into the inner sanctum of the production plant and the barrel room, where the heady, intoxicating smell of oak and wine hits you as soon as you walk in.
Our guide Matt talks us through each step of the production process, from picking, juice extraction, cleaning, cultivation, fermentation, “fining” and ageing.
“A lot of people assume wine is just made and bottled up,” he says. “But a lot a of the hard work is the process between when the juice is extracted and when it becomes wine.”
HOW TO DRINK WINE
Having learnt the basics of wine production, I’m off to the Hunter Resort’s Hunter Wine Theatre for a lesson in wine appreciation.
We’re taken into a laboratory-style room where we’re seated at long stainless steel benches and given an informative tutorial by Philip Hele, whose family started out in the the Danish food and hospitality business before he took over at the resort.
We’re poured four wines – a Semillon, a Chardonnay, a Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon – and learn the basics of spinning, fluffing, smelling, palate, flavours, sweetness, acidity, tannins and oaks.
Hele says life is too short to waste drinking bad wine and feels no one should be afraid to talk about wine.
“In your lifetime you can only drink an infinite quantity of wine, so it behoves you to drink good wine,” he says, adding “It’s better than talking about the weather.”
HOW TO PAIR CHEESE WITH WINE
Next on my course to wine self-improvement is an appointment with Jan Molenaar of Two Fat Blokes. As well as conducting a range of full and half day wine and food tours, the operation offers a course in matching wine and cheese.
The name is actually a bit of misnomer as one of the two original fat blokes has retired and the other (Molenaar) is no longer fat, having lost 30 kilos as a result of cancer treatment, which left him unable to taste anything.
“You don’t eat cheese to lose weight,” he quips.
Fortunately Molenaar’s beaten the disease and his tastebuds are returning, as he tells us during our tutorial at De Iuliis Wines.
We’re given a plate with nine different cheeses, which are matched with nine different wines. The rest is eating, drinking and assessing.
The Queso Manchego ewes milk cheese with quince paste and a Moscato Granita slushy packs a huge flavour punch, but there’s no beating the contrast of a salty South Cape Southern Creamy Blue with the delicious sweetness of a De Iuliis Late Harvest Semillon.
HOW TO PAIR STEAK WITH WINE
Finally, I head to the Hunter Valley Steakhouse to take on the steak with Shiraz matching challenge.
Shiraz is a misunderstood wine, says McGuigan’s Alex Holness, but the Hunter boasts a large variety of unique styles.
The steak and Shiraz matching experience is simple – we’re shown three cuts of steak and given three varieties of Shiraz.
The meat is then taken to the kitchen and cooked to medium rare perfection before being brought back out.
We’re presented with grass fed local beef, grain fed pure south Black Angus and a beautifully marbled cross bred Wagyu Kobe. To wash the steak down there’s a 2011 Brokenwood Shiraz, a lightly oaked 2011 Tyrell’s Brokenback and a 2012 McGuigan Cellar Select.
From there it’s mixing and matching, and half the fun is arguing over what goes best with what. But as the experts keep telling us, it’s all in the tastebuds of the beholder.
If You Go
Getting there: The Hunter Valley is located two hours north of Sydney by car and the wine region is directly accessible via the Hunter Expressway of the Pacific Motorway.
Staying there: The writer stayed at the Mercure Resort, 2090 Broke Rd Pokolbin.
Playing there: During Food and Wine Month, McGuigan Wines are offering aged Semillon and Shiraz tastings.
Hunter Valley Wine and Food month is held from June 1-30.
The writer was a guest of the Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association.