My second – and sadly much briefer – Australian odyssey of 2004 began in room 101 of the Royal Sussex Hotel in Paddington (London, not Sydney). It certainly felt like room 101 – I had a still not fully healed broken foot, a too heavy suitcase and a too light wallet. I was not happy. The sights at Heathrow were disturbing and ominous, too – ockers with mullets and earrings, rugby league shirts and empty cans of VB everywhere. Due to my ‘injury’, I had been given an aisle seat, though the spotty young oik in front of me at check in was upgraded to Business Class for some reason. Bastard.
The flight to Sydney is awesomely – and horrendously – long. I left room 101 in London at 7.30 on Saturday morning and arrived in Sydney at 9.30 on Sunday evening, with just one hour’s break in Singapore to stretch my legs. I was clean-shaven when I boarded the plane but had the beginnings of a beard by the time I got off. I looked and felt (and probably smelt) dreadful. And my foot was feeling swell, in every sense. I enjoyed the inflight film, though. Somersault is a very atmospheric, moody and atypical Australian made film. It starred a Scottish born, New Zealand raised, Australian based actor called Erik Thomson. Apparently he’s quite famous Down Under.
It was dark and raining when I collected my car at Sydney airport. Have you ever tried driving into Sydney with jetlag and a broken foot late at night when it’s dark and raining? It’s wonderfully challenging. I went in completely the wrong direction down the Princes Highway (I kept seeing signs for Melbourne rather than Sydney…) but eventually I found my way to the Intercontinental Hotel. I smiled for the first time in a long time. This was a seriously nice hotel, and I promised myself not to curse the AWB anymore. Perhaps they were looking after me properly after all – don’t they know who I am, I kept asking myself. Obviously not – until I arrived at this hotel. What service I enjoyed here! My car was parked and bags were taken up. The Liverpudlian lass at reception sighed when she saw my UK bank card.
My room on the 15th floor was magnificent, with a bed big enough for three people. I excitedly drew back the curtains, anticipating a spectacular view of Circular Quay and the Opera House. The view was indeed spectacular – of the Cahill Expressway. I cursed Paul Henry again. I also cursed Qantas, and decided to rename my accommodation the Hotel Incontinent as a tribute to the delicious in flight food that I had enjoyed.
I flicked on the TV and my name appeared on the screen – why doesn’t that happen at home? Then my name vanished and I was offered a choice of ‘Hungarian Sex Service’ or ‘Dreaming of Silvia’ for $25. I simply couldn’t decide, though eventually I declined this generous offer on the basis that the AWB probably wouldn’t accept it as an expense.
I woke up – or rather got out of bed, not having slept at all – at 5am. It was wet and humid outdoors, but I walked down to a deserted Circular Quay and Opera House – a magical sight. The Intercontinental’s breakfast was predictably awesome, and just what I needed after that filthy airline stuff.
Then it was finally time to hit the road and visit some old friends in the Hunter Valley. My first appointment of the day was at Tempus Two. Having dropped off my luggage at Hunter Valley Gardens, I went over the road to what I thought was the Tamburlaine winery, where I had enjoyed dinner with Iain Rigg on my previous Hunter visit. I tasted a few wines, they ascertained that I was a wine writer, and then I made my excuses that I had to leave to go to Tempus Two. The nice lady gently pointed out to me that this was Tempus Two. I was so spaced out with jetlag that I hadn’t even realised where I was. Somewhere in Australia, I reckoned, but I couldn’t be more specific than that.
Sara-Kate Dineen is the winemaker at Tempus Two. I was instantly smitten -she’s gorgeous, charming, and a good winemaker. S-K immediately joined my list of Aussie winemaker girlfriends that already included Vanya Cullen and Stephanie Toole, amongst many others. Sadly for me she is already married to the equally delightful (though rather less sexy) Dan Dineen, winemaker at Tower Estate. Tempus Two’s winery cost $12 million…The wines are sound, but nothing special.
My second visit of the day was to Tyrrell’s, where Grant Bellvé, who I swore was an Aussie until he showed me the All Black tattoo on his arm, hosted me. He gave me a really good time, with plenty of leg pulling. I complained at being given a beefburger for lunch (‘Do you know who I am?’); he told me that England were lucky to win the Rugby World Cup. There were plenty of stories about the legendary Murray, too. He’d have eaten me alive, I reckon. I was given an excellent tasting, with some older vintages of Vat 1 Semillon and Vat 47 Chardonnay very impressive indeed.
The third and final visit of my first day Down Under was at Brokenwood. Iain Riggs and PJ Charteris – who had hosted me on my previous visit – were away at a wine show in Canberra but I was looked after extremely well by the immensely likeable Geoff Krieger. We tasted some wines together at the cellar door – which I suggested they rename Broken Foot in my honour – before going for dinner at the local watering hole Blaxlands. By now I was really struggling with jetlag (and a painful foot) and barely ate any of the lovely food that was put in front of me. I was in no fit state to appreciate the older vintages of Semillon and Graveyard Shiraz that Geoff had generously brought with him, either. In an effort to keep me awake, he persuaded the formidable Jodie Evans – Len’s daughter and manager of Blaxlands – to sit with us. That only made me even sleepier, so Geoff and Jodie finally conceded that I needed to sleep and so I was dropped off back at my accommodation at Hunter Valley Gardens. I slept soundly – until 4am. At least the early start enabled me to change my flight to Melbourne later in the day so that I could spend some more time in the Hunter.
It rained so much during my second day that I wished that I’d stayed in bed. Even though I had no official appointments, it was a busy morning. I popped to see Sara-Kate first thing and we had a coffee together. Dan appeared and offered me a tour of Tower Estate. I dropped some hints that I’d like to try and visit the great man himself at Loggerheads. Dan made the phone call and we were invited for coffee. (I needed a lot of caffeine today). Tower Estate has a magnificent hotel (Tower Lodge) attached to it. Why didn’t the AWB let me stay here? Paul Henry ought to be ashamed of himself. I tasted the wines and then went with Dan up to Loggerheads, which is a spectacular house in a spectacular setting, looking right across the valley. Len was busy preparing a fish when we arrived – judging from the size of it, I reckon it was a Great White Shark. Coffee was made and we sat down for a chat. Len was in good form and talked a lot – mostly about himself, naturally. I showed him some proofs of an Andrew Jefford article on Australian terroir from The World of Fine Winemagazine. He read it quietly, with the occasional nod of approval. Then he frowned and raised his voice: ‘It says here that Croser is the most influential figure in the development of the modern Australian wine industry. So which industry did I start? The post-modern one?’ Loggerheads is a big house, and Australia is a big country, but neither could ever contain the Evans ego. I beat a hasty retreat after that and returned to Brokenwood to say farewell to the gang there – and hopefully meet the Australian Test bowler Stuart MacGill, who was filming some TV programme or other at the winery. I didn’t get to meet Australia’s second best leg spinner but I had to change my flight again, due to this hectic morning. There was only one flight available, which left Sydney in an hour and a half – aagghh! I then had an unbelievably frantic drive back to Sydney in pouring rain, and made it to check in with ten minutes to spare. Not bad for a driver with a broken foot! The flight was interesting too, with some horrendous turbulence, which caused equal amounts of laughter and screaming.
Sydney was wet – Melbourne was gloriously sunny. Bliss! I’ve always preferred Melbourne to Sydney. (I certainly like Melbourners a lot more than bloody Sydneysiders, that’s for sure). My accommodation for the night was at the Grand Hyatt, no less, and I got a room with a view – St Paul’s cathedral on one side and the MCG (a cathedral of cricket!) – on the other. I ate dinner at the hotel – my metabolism was starting to settle down – and drank a bottle of Tempus Two Cabernet Merlot to remind me of the lovely S-K.
Another sensational breakfast preceded the two-hour drive up to Nagambie (in the Goulburn Valley) and my first appointment at Tahbilk. I was given a tour of the estate before a huge tasting of 35 wines, including verticals of the excellent Marsanne and 1860 Shiraz – with an hour to taste them all! No wonder my tasting notes were so pithy. Lunch was courtesy of McPherson Wines, a slickly commercial outfit. They have the cleanest bottling plant that I’ve ever seen. I was given 11 wines to taste, three of which were corked. Tut tut…
My last appointment in Goulburn was at Mitchelton, where I was given another comprehensive tasting of over a dozen wines. The Rieslings are good, but the other wines are less consistently impressive – the reds are rather heavy on the whole, with ‘big tits’, as my host Neville Rowe described one of them. (Jordan Shiraz, perhaps). There’s nothing wrong with big tits – in fact, I rather like them – as long as they have a bum to match. It’s all a question of balance, you see.
My accommodation for this night was my favourite of all the places I stayed at on this trip. The Harvest Home is in tiny Avenel, next to the railway crossing. One goods train that rumbled past took a full minute to go by – I timed it. The building dates from 1871 and has a wraparound veranda. I slept in the ‘Mary Boyle room’, which has a large bed that was rescued from a French brothel. Suzi McKay is owner and chef, and apparently is quite well known in Australia. We stayed up late with several bottles of wine to fuel us. She was really drunk by the time I sloped off to bed – a sort of antipodean female Keith Floyd, if you will. Before leaving the UK I had arranged to meet David Traeger, whom I had first met when I was working in Italy in 2001. Three and a half years and 8,000 miles later I finally caught up with him for dinner here at the Harvest Home. It was good to see him again. He’s well known in the Australian wine industry as a first rate winemaker and show judge but he’s never really asserted himself as people like Croser and Shaw have (David is terribly unassuming), so he remains something of an underachiever. But what’s wrong with that?
After yet another splendid breakfast the following morning, I headed off to the Yarra Valley to visit Coldstream Hills. I was optimistically hoping to catch James Halliday, though Len Evans had mentioned to me that Halliday was ‘Will o’ the Wisp’ and very unlikely to be around. My host was meant to be Jason Steele – but he was nowhere to be seen, either, and nobody at Coldstream know anything whatsoever about my appointment. I did a brief cellar door tasting before leaving very disappointed that the Southcorp machine had not been able to accommodate me.
My next visit, however, was an absolute pleasure. Yering Station is part of a portfolio of exemplary wines that also includes Mount Langi Ghiran and Parker Coonawarra. I tasted the full range of these with the group’s senior winemaker Darren Rathbone, a very likeable guy with whom I really hit it off. Over lunch we chatted about life, wine writers (especially Tim White!) and sport. Darren has a deeply enviable lifestyle, working mainly in the Yarra but living in the central Melbourne suburb of Carlton, only an hour or so from each other.
After Yering it was onwards to my home for the night at de Bortoli. Steve Webber is another great bloke who really gave me a good time. He’s very Australian, pronouncing ‘Chilean’ as ‘Chillayun’. We tasted some Pinots that a young tyke called Bill Downie had made. Bill spends several months a year in Burgundy and it shows – the wines are fantastic. Steve has a real eye for young talent. I drove over to the ‘flat’ in appalling rain and freshened up before going up to Steve and his wife Leanne de Bortoli’s house adjacent to the winery for dinner. Leanne’s mother (and Deen’s widow) Emeri was there, too. The chef for the evening was another youngster called Cameron Cansdell, who runs the de Bortoli restaurant. The food was outstanding – apparently Cameron’s girlfriend was away and he gets bored with cooking for himself, so he kindly offered to cook up a storm for us. I was unfortunately too tired and jetlagged still to enjoy this feast properly, but I still dream about it. Having said that, I stayed awake while Steve nodded off. What a pussy! I reckon the unwavering Englishman versus the narcoleptic Aussie is a good omen for the Ashes – and I have the photographic evidence to prove it.
The weather was much better the next morning when I drove all the way from the Yarra to the lovely Mornington Peninsula, via rush hour Melbourne. The delightful Geraldine McEwan gave me a very good tour and tasting at Stonier before my lunchtime visit to Dromana (part of the same group as David Traeger), whose winemaker Rollo Crittenden (son of Gary) looks like Andrew Flintoff. Then I caught the ferry over to Geelong (with less than five minutes to spare!) for a visit to Scotchmans Hill with Cate Looney, who says ‘no worries’ a lot (so do I, these days). My final visit of the day was at Shadowfax, where I finally got to meet Matt Harrop, whose brother Steve I had befriended when I was in New Zealand earlier in the year. Matt is what I’d call a ‘proper’ winemaker – he’s scruffy, dirty and extremely foulmouthed. A hands-on winemaker, I suppose you’d call him. He’s full of scurrilous stories, too, like the one about the early days of Matt and Sara-Kate Dineen’s courtship at Brokenwood, or the tale of (Pegasus Bay winemaker) Matthew Donaldson’s pig. The wines are very good too, but perhaps they lack the stamp of terroir that distinguishes truly fine wine. The drive back to Melbourne was horrendous – I’ve rarely seen such a downpour, and it was dark too. But what a day!
On Saturday morning I flew to Adelaide, collected my car, checked into the hotel, saw the Christmas Parade (!) and then I was off again to see Michael Hill-Smith in the Adelaide Hills, who was as affable and knowledgeable as ever. My afternoon appointment was at Longview, a new name to me. The Coonawarra born owner Duncan MacGillivray made his money with alcopops and decided to invest in a new winemaking venture. The wines are a bit hit and miss at the moment but the vineyards have undoubted potential. What cannot be doubted is that Duncan is a lucky bastard – he has a magnificent house amongst the vineyards and a very attractive young wife and family. Bully for him. Duncan insisted that I try some of his steak before leaving, which was indeed very good but I had to tell him that I was having dinner at Penfolds Magill restaurant that evening and didn’t want to ruin my appetite.
I drove back to Adelaide through the lovely hills to meet the Penfolds winemaker Kym Schroeter and his wife for dinner at Magill. They must have wondered what on earth I was doing in Australia on an expenses paid trip – I looked dreadful, tired and unshaven. We got on extremely well and the food was terrific. I dropped hints that my birth year was 1971 (actually it’s 1974) but the best I could manage was a large glass of the 1993 Grange. Kym told me that he had never heard Peter Gago swear. I declared that to be ****ing amazing.
I went for a stroll down Rundle Mall on Sunday morning to buy myself a copy of the new edition of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanac Australia (I have all seven editions) before phoning my heavily pregnant friend Louise Hemsley-Smith, a Cambridge educated Nottinghamshire girl whom I’d met via Saint Hallett winemaker Matt Gant on my previous visit Down Under. We had been enjoying a filthy e-mail correspondence for several weeks and now it was payback time. I called Louise’s mobile and awaited a response. She answered the phone and was greeted with ‘Good morning, is that **** Louise there, please?’ Her reply? ‘Yes, speaking!’ We both enjoyed that one. Lou justifies her frequent use of the ‘c’ word by saying that ‘I’m reclaiming it for my gender’. She is the Germaine Greer of McLaren Vale.
Upon arrival in the Vale, I was given a whistle-stop tour of the area’s five subregions by Louise’s other half Joch Bosworth, of the eponymous Battle of Bosworth wines, before lunch at the Star of Greece restaurant – my second visit here – where the aforementioned Matt Gant was lying in wait. And bugger me if Erik Thomson, star of Somersault, the film that I had watched on the flight over, didn’t also join us.
The evening was spent with Lou and Joch at their idyllic place in Port Willunga, up the road from the restaurant. Louise was a hoot, referring to anybody or anything that she disliked – particularly Nottinghamshire barmaids – as *****. Joch – who if he were any more laid back would be comatose – cooked dinner and then sat quietly with a glass of wine. When Louise left the room briefly he sighed and said ‘You should see her when she’s not pregnant’. A fun, foul-mouthed, sunny day.
Like everybody else in Australia, I had to go back to work on Monday, but finally the sun was shining, even if my foot was agony. I was very excited about visiting Mount Hurtle and hopefully meeting the famously affable and cricket loving Geoff Merrill. He wasn’t there when I arrived, much to my disappointment, but the wines that winemaker Scott Heidrich showed me were first rate. The BMW wines made in conjunction with Ian Botham and Bob Willis aren’t bad at all. Merrill is famous (or more likely notorious) for having a life of unflagging indulgence – cricket, golf, holidays, and recently a baby with a young wife. Other winemakers that I met expressed awe rather than envy at such a lifestyle, but nobody ever has a bad word to say about him as a winemaker – quite the contrary, in fact – and this tasting proved that however idle he may appear to be Geoff knows how to make good wine. Just as I was finishing my tour and tasting the man himself appeared. We chatted about cricket and ended up with a £10 bet on who would win the Ashes. Geoff wanted £50 but I had to confess that I wasn’t quite that confident.
I had a lovely prawn lunch at Chapel Hill, where my host Michael Fragos confessed to being a West Bromwich Albion supporter. A Greek Australian supporting the Baggies? I was deeply confused. (In fact, I’m confused about why anybody would support WBA. Even if you live in West Bromwich, it’s much better to support the great Aston Villa, surely?) My third and final visit of the day was to Haselgrove, a very slick, modern winery making slick, modern wines. Good clean fun, but nothing more than that. Finishing at about 4pm gave me a bit of time to visit my beloved Adelaide Oval, for me the most beautiful cricket ground in the world (and I’ve been to a few!)
A quiet night in resting my foot was the order of the evening before a very busy day in Clare on Tuesday. The weather was magnificent. First pit stop was at Leasingham before a lunch appointment with Tim Adams. Tim was out when I arrived so I did a quick cellar door tasting of his gorgeously fleshy wines before the man himself arrived. He shook my hand and my eyes bulged – I was certain that I would have a broken hand to match my broken foot. We went for lunch in Sevenhills before a whistle-stop tour of Clare and its subregions. Tim ****ing swears a lot and tells filthy stories about other Clare winemakers. He saw me busily writing them down before scowling at me and warning that ‘If you write any of this down I’ll ****ing kill you’. I put my notebook away, not wanting to shake hands with him again. He’s a lot of fun and his wines are smashing.
A very enjoyable visit to Knappstein with the very affable Paul Smith was followed by an appointment at Jim Barry wines where Peter Barry hosted me. He’s a hoot. I asked him about the Armagh vineyard: ‘It has a canopy like my hair, bald on top and longer at the sides’. I was deeply impressed by the signed Bradman bat and the label of the Cover Drive Cabernet Sauvignon. Peter later sent me a signed poster of this, which now has pride of place in my lounge.
Accommodation for the night was with my mate Stephanie Toole of Mount Horrocks. Stephanie and her friend Jeffrey Grosset (who was unfortunately away) have a gorgeous cottage just up the road from their own house. It’s a really lovely place to stay, right up there with the Cloudy Bay Shack as one of the best pit stops in the business. Stephanie went to put on her makeup and best jeans – I bet she wouldn’t have done that if Jeffrey was there – and we went for dinner at the Rising Sun in Auburn. We were chatting easily when a huge bear of a man with a family entourage walked in. I disappeared to the loo and when I returned bugger me if Stephanie wasn’t sat with ‘the bear of the Barossa’ himself and his family. It was Peter Lehmann. By coincidence, Peter’s son Phil was due to host me at Yalumba (where he makes some of the white wines) the following day, so it was great to meet him beforehand. But what a day in Clare! Five appointments, a decent lunch, almost a broken hand, some wonderful wines, a signed Bradman bat and then dinner with Toole and Lehmann! As good as it gets, I reckon.
Phil gave me a great time at Yalumba on Wednesday morning. The wines are fantastic value for money, I reckon, all impeccably made and packaged, and he’s doing very well with the whites that he oversees. Then I had a big tasting at Orlando with winemaker Sam Kurtz. Not quite a journey into the heart of darkness, as the reserve Jacobs Creek wines are very soundly made and I certainly wouldn’t object to drinking them.
Stephanie had mentioned to me that a certain O. Clarke Esq. was doing a book launch in Adelaide on Wednesday evening. I set out to investigate where and when this important event was taking place with the help of Phil Lehmann, whose mother Margaret knows everything that happens in South Australia. We tracked it down and I was told just to turn up. So I did. Oz was a little bit surprised when I walked in while he was holding court: ‘My goodness! A friend from England!’ (He doesn’t have many friends from England, you see). There were – count ’em – ten people attending this major book launch. Poor Oz. His publisher ought to be ashamed of themselves, sending him all the way to Adelaide to flog his book to ten people. But of course – as always when I meet young Owen – there was plenty of beer afterwards. I was convinced that I had a 10am flight to Perth the next day so I tucked into the Leffe with relish. When I got back to my hotel I discovered that my flight was actually at 8.35am and I started to regret all that Belgian beer, which doesn’t mix well with Barossa Shiraz.
Oz was also aboard the hangover special to Perth in the morning. We went our separate ways when I collected my car and he disappeared in his chauffeur driven limousine. And so off I went on the long, long drive from Perth to Margaret River. Thank God for cruise control, I say. En route I stopped at Capel Vale for a tasting, which was a little disappointing, unlike the beach up the road. I dropped off my bags in Margaret River before a visit to Cullen with Vanya’s winemaker Trevor Kent (Van was away at some organic conference or other). Trevor is a lovely bloke and I was hugely impressed by how before we left he hosed down all the vats that we had tasted from. It’s little things like this that make the difference between being merely excellent and being great, and we all know what Cullen is. Dinner was at Vat 107, where the food was very good but the wine list seems a bit haphazard, though naturally Trevor and I were drinking what was left of the cellar door samples that we’d inspected earlier. I took a bottle of Diana Madeline Cabernet Merlot with me for breakfast. The diurnal/nocturnal temperature variation caught me by surprise – although it had been very warm during the day, it was distinctly nippy this evening.
Friday morning saw me visit Cape Mentelle, where I had yet another (!) terrific tasting and lunch. I burned off some calories with a walk on the beach at Prevelly Park before catching up with the Australia-New Zealand Test in Brisbane. Later in the afternoon my final MR visit was at Howard Park, who really excelled in their hospitality. David Burch took me on a tour of the estate’s vineyards. He was giving me the usual spiel about being faithful to the terroir blah blah when we encountered a group of vineyard workers enjoying a refreshing beer. David thought that it was very funny when I declared that I had now seen and heard more than enough to write my article on Howard Park’s vineyards. That evening I joined Howard Park’s very affable owners Jeff and Amy Burch for one of their Margaret River Wine Festival dinners in the boardroom, along with several other people who I’m sure had paid rather more than I had for the privilege. We drank some older vintages of Howard Park reds, which I wasn’t entirely convinced by – they were a bit lean and mean for me. Jeff took me downstairs to his magnificently well-stocked cellar, where I stood admiring his 1982 clarets. In the blink of an eye a bottle of Cheval Blanc was opened, to which I helped myself for the rest of the evening.
It was a very warm night. Amy asked me if I felt hot, and I replied that ‘I’m very hot baby’. She giggled and warned the other guests that there was more to me than meets the eye. It must have been midnight when I left with two sexy sandgropers in the back of my car, having agreed to give Sharon and Jenny a lift home. Another day to remember with pleasure.
On Saturday morning I had to drive all the way from Margaret River to the Swan Valley north of Perth for my final winery visit at Houghton. The drive took six hours, including a breakfast visit to the fabulous hotel of Sue and Sen Ong, whom I had met at dinner the night before. Sue told me that she had enjoyed watching me wind up Sharon and Jenny by asking them ‘Do you know who I am?’ I enjoyed it, too. Houghton’s cellar door was incredibly busy, though I was assured that this was a quiet day! The heat was astonishing – how can you possibly grow good grapes here? But they do make good wines and I tasted the full range before eating a large though not particularly pleasant lunch at Houghton’s cellar door restaurant. I was the only person with a cloth on my table, however, so I shouldn’t complain. I didn’t have to ask ‘Do you know who I am?’
My last day – Sunday – was mercifully free of visits, so I was able to buy a didgeridoo for my sister. I was damned if I didn’t get to see some cricket before flying home, too, so I spent most of the day at the WACA watching the Pura Cup match between Western Australia and Queensland and also keeping abreast of the Brisbane Test. Glenn McGrath did the damage by scoring 61 – the third highest ever score by a number 11 in Test cricket – and then taking three wickets to bowl out the Kiwis for a pitiful 76. 22-year-old Michael Clarke scored 141. That boy is a bat out hell and could cause all sort of problems for England this summer.
The Fremantle Doctor blew across the ground and knocked over my beer cup, soaking my jeans in the process. But I didn’t care – the sun shone, I drank beer and I ate a 4+20 pie for lunch. I didn’t want to leave but sadly I had to, having had a truly wonderful two-week tour of Australia’s wine regions. Even with a broken foot I enjoyed myself. Thank you Websters, CWW and AWB very much indeed. Long may your sponsorship of the Young Wine Writer of the Year Award continue.