The dubious and unexpected pleasures of international wine

As the weather turns colder, and the nip in the air starts my chilblains itching, a winemaker’s thoughts turn to warmer climes. Whilst racking wines, one daydreams of warm beaches; long days lying on the sand, a gentle breeze stroking your bare (and white) tummy; balmy evenings at sea front cafes, enjoying tapas and whatever music and sparkling wine they have, wherever you are...

At this point, the barrel overflows and you hurriedly pocket your phone, swearing as you lose your dream villa on AirBnB, and hose away the mess instead. Then start filling the next barrel, wriggling your itchy chilblainey toes inside your explorer socks and wishing you’d worn your woolly hat.

June is a quiet time in our winery and vineyard. The wines are put away in barrel, and the vines have nearly lost all their leaves, awaiting pruning. Other farm jobs slow down, and so it is a good opportunity for a winemaker to broaden their experience and knowledge of the wines and winemaking techniques of foreign parts. As well as testing out their beaches and foods!

One of the mistakes that one can make, as one heads off as a wine tourist, is to assume that other countries do cellar doors and wine-tasting like we do here. This is not always the case. The welcoming cellar doors that we find in Heathcote, where boutique winemakers greet visitors and share their wines and stories, do not necessarily exist everywhere. Even though you may have been driving through vines for the last 6 hours, passing numerous chateaux and caves and bodegas and cantinas and vinarijas, does not mean that they are waiting for your beaming tourist face to brighten their day! They may be part of a local winemaking and marketing cooperative, selling their wine on. If a bit of regional wine-tasting is what you are after, it might be a good idea to do your homework first; work out which places do welcome visitors and offer wine-tastings and sales, and book your appointment, rather than just turn up.

However, once you do get tasting and experimenting in other countries, you discover how amazingly diverse and numerous are the grape varieties and wine styles that are grown outside our Aussie shores. Travelling throughout Europe, we have been dazzled by the array of previously unknown grapes that tantalise our taste buds, and we have realised how restricted our palates are in Australia, just because we don’t have all these varieties. As a
winemaker and wine enthusiast, I sort of thought I knew quite a few different varieties; however, for me, it has become a huge joy to find new and unfamiliar wines.

One trip to the French southwest some years ago introduced us to “Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh”- a white wine made from the grapes Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Petit Courbu (Who? What?) This wine is made in the village of Madiran, in Gascony, and can be dry (sec), sweet (moelleux) and dessert (liquoreux). The dry wine was delicious with local cured meats, etc., but the dessert form of this wine, paired with foie gras, was an absolute palate blowing
thrill. They also made a beast of a red wine, made from tannat, another grape we don’t see much of in Australia, but, interestingly, is the national grape of Uruguay. Who knew?

Its not just your knowledge of grape varieties that increases with travel. Our ideas of what certain grape varieties are for is challenged by the different wine styles of wines we find, made with the same variety of grape. The fact that sangiovese HERE, in THIS valley, tastes different to sangiovese from THERE, in the NEXT valley, is a revelation. Regionality, winemaking techniques and the effect of terroir on a grape is really obvious, when you find that one side of a hill produces different wines and different cheeses to the other side, just because of small changes in terroir. We had one memorable dinner on the border of Switzerland and Italy, in an old customs house, which had an extensive local wine list; a full page of reds, whites and roses. Except that EVERY wine on that list was made from merlot; reds, whites and pinks! And yes- each wine was different from the next, merely by virtue of its location. Who has ever had a dry white wine made from Merlot? Who would ever imagine such a thing?

The main presumption that is challenged by travel is one’s idea of what makes a “good” wine. We tend to think of a “good” wine having a certain group of characteristics; for example, a good shiraz is full bodied, black fruits, smooth yet chewy tannins and a long finish. A good chardonnay is buttery, full bodied, citrus and honeysuckle with a touch of oak... However, we have loved wines that would have bombed on the Australian Wine show circuit; wines that you would not give a second glance at. Wines that you would reject as too acid, too tannic, too “thin”, too astringent, come into their own in their local context.

Paired with the local foods, some of these wines surprise you, from the rough rose they keep in a plastic tank out the back of the truck-stop. to fill the carafs that await you on the tables, to the feral Chianti up in the forests of northern Tuscany that was the perfect match for the cured meats and game meats of the surrounding woods; to the leanly astringent whites of southern Portugal that sit so well with the abundant seafoods, and the sour, earthy sheep milk cheeses. These wines, that if I made them I would once have been appalled, are the perfect wines in these contexts, and you could wish for no other.

All in all, my wine travels have taught me much about winemaking. I have broadened my understanding of regionality and the effect of terroir, but not only terroir; the winemaking techniques, shaped by the cultural and daily habits and attitudes of the growers and makers, which in turn are shaped by the geography and history of their locality. I have learned that wines, cheeses and cured meats are as idiosyncratic as the people who make them. 

So, when you get off the plane, wherever it has taken you, leave your wine beliefs and prejudices at home. Taste everything with an open mind, allowing yourself to be immersed and surrounded by the new tastes, colours, flavours, sights, histories. I have learned that-bar actual wine faults- there is no bad wine. Just wine out of context. Smells and people of a new place, that make up the rich tapestry of travel.