From An Old Dog Who Learnt A New Trick

I stayed with my aunt and uncle for 10 months earlier this year. They thought they had fully explored the world of wine - until I arrived.

Me getting my hands (and feet) dirty in our Saperavi.

Me getting my hands (and feet) dirty in our Saperavi.

I am a wine lover, a lover of wine. I just love saying the word. Wine. And I love them all, red, white, bubbly. Or in more detail Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Cab Sav, Shiraz, Durif …

Our holiday travels in Australia were almost inevitably structured around wine regions – Perth and south – Yallingup, Margaret River! A drive to South Australia, the Barossa, the Clare! Victoria? The Yarra Valley, King Valley, Rutherglen. We even went to the Werribee Zoo once and found a winery literally next door. Everyone thought that was hilarious, and very apt. And on it goes.

In the late 1980’s my first foray into wine was copious amounts of Houghton’s White Burgundy. Oh wasn’t I the sophisticated young adult (well, I hadmoved on from Passion Pop). I can then remember distinctly when Sauvignon Blanc hit the markets in the 1990’s, and this was way before the average person had heard the word Marlborough. This was Plantaganet Wine’s Omrah Sauvignon Blanc from Mt Barker. The catch cry of the day among my friends and I was ‘Oooh ahh Omrah’; we bought it by the case. I certainly got on the Marlborough wagon when it arrived for many years and looking back now realise that this part of my journey was probably what stripped my palate of any sensible discretion when it came to choosing wines. 

As I got older I thought my palate was becoming a little more refined. We started drinking Riesling, chose Durif’s when we could, paid a little more for what we thought were better made wines. We were more selective about the cellar door experiences we chose, we paid the dollars and went to the fancy wine dinners when they came to town, we searched out smaller producers and lesser known names and every now and again we would be daring and try a Chardonnay, darling.

It wasn’t until I was entering my 50th year that I discovered the true nature of wine, and how good and totally fulfilling a lovingly made wine could taste.

We even made our own natural wines under the supervision of our our niece, Louisa. All we needed was some good grapes, a borrowed press, two barrels and a bit of patience. We learnt how simple it is really - it doesn't need to be complicated, just a little bit of care and attention to detail. 

I will backtrack a few years first. Louisa had been living in Melbourne for several years and had just opened a boutique wine bar and restaurant. We visited there in her first year and she poured us a few wines. “You choose!” we said. Lordy Mumma, I could not believe what I was tasting. It was like an assault on the senses. I couldn’t believe she would serve us this. I could barely swallow it! Not my style thanks. A bit too strong for me thanks, mmmmm very bitter I thought. “Got a sauv blanc?” I asked. 

Louisa had opened a natural wine bar, the first of its type in Melbourne. We saw Louisa intermittently over the years but never made it back to the wine bar. “Not quite our thing” we thought. In the following years we also knew that Louisa had ventured into wine making as well, making her own natural wines.

Skip forward five years. Louisa had not long closed the wine bar and shut up shop for various reasons when she came to stay with us for Christmas. She came bearing an armload of wine – her own label – and of course we welcomed her with our own open arms. We had tried some of her wine in the previous year and liked what we tasted. Come in, come in … oh yes put those over there!!!

This began our journey with natural wine. Wines made with minimal intervention, from sustainably managed farms, and with little or no sulphur. During many summer evenings over January – as we had invited Louisa to stay (who wouldn’t invite a wine maker to stay?), we gradually learnt about the craft of making natural wines and what was inherently wrong with the ones we had been drinking. In these early days there were many references to sulphur, fining, filtering, and references to the many things that were added to wines – up to 50 or so different additives - during conversations over a bottle. Whilst I wasn’t really understanding what I was hearing, I was understanding what I was experiencing. My palate was changing, becoming more attuned to natural wines. I was beginning to taste notes I had never tasted before and my experience with wine was reaching new heights as a result.

Our very own Chardonnay.

Our very own Chardonnay.

Louisa encouraged us to be a little bit more experimental with our choices – (once we’d ran out of her wine we had to be) introducing us to regions such as Burgundy, Ribeira Sacra and Sicily. We were guided to trying wines from different parts of the world – to wines that were naturally made more natural, with a lot less sulphur and not necessarily fined or filtered (think - stripped of all the good stuff).

When prompted she would explain (again) the role of sulphur in wines and how the addition of too much of this preservative would affect our health – in particular our state of mind (and motivation) the next morning. 

Before too long I realised that it had been several weeks since I had woken with that unpleasant not quite headachy but not nice strain around the eyeballs.

I was also looking forward to enjoying a wine like I would a meal. And oh, the joy when the two were paired together. And the flavours! What’s that tobacco taste I started experiencing? Oh, that’s the tannins. That feels like I have a mouth full of ripe juicy grapes! Oh, that’s what grapes actually taste like. 

Volatile acidity, fruit forward, oxidative, reductive, these were all words that were foreign to me but I was beginning to understand them.

Nine months later and wine is a whole new adventure to me. And the thing is, these wines are good for me! Full of all the nutrients and antioxidants that are meant to be found in a natural fruit juice. No hangovers, no slow mornings and no more quaffing a bottle fast in search of an elusive drop of body or flavour. New Zealand Sauv Blanc! God no, order me a case of that Amrit Chardonnay, darling!

On occasion recently I’ve had the situation where I’ve had to partake in a ‘conventional’ wine, typically laden with sulphur, and the reaction is immediate. What is that horrible taste down both sides of the back of my tongue? The sulphur. I can almost feel the headache coming so I choose not to have another glass if nothing else is available. These days I’d rather have a beer than a wine like that.

by Vanessa Hayden

Lou ChalmerComment