Thursday, February 28, 2008

Visiting in the Wineries of Rutherglen Australia

Emily provided excellent driving directions from Jasper Hill to Rutherglen, and I therefore took the backroads of Victoria and rarely passed another car. However, I did pass two dead kangaroos – one in the very center of the road – that had been hit my cars. Ugh. I guess they are like deer here – very plentiful. There were many signs saying to watch out for both kangaroos and koala bears, though I did not see any of the latter.

Regardless, it was still a long drive and I arrived in Rutherglen around 3:30 and stopped at the Visitor’s Center. They provided a winery map and some hotel recommendations. My first stop was the Rutherglen Winery, right in town, which was very friendly and helpful. They only had one of the famous Muscat stickies, but many table wines, including a zinfandel which amazed me. The Duriff (Petit Syrah) for which Rutherglen is also famous, was excellent, as well as some of the dry whites. As usual, I did not drink the wine – just spit.

Next stop was Campbell’s Winery which was just down the road and had been recommended to me by the lady at Rutherglen Winery when I asked where I could find the full selection of Rutherglen, Classic, Grand, and Rare Muscats and Tokays (Muscadelles). Campbell’s had been operating for more than 150 years and was very impressive. The very kind hospitality manager, Scott, allowed me to taste the 4 levels of Muscat against the 4 levels of Muscadelle and it was amazing. He explained how they were made and how to differentiate. I found that I enjoyed the younger Muscats (Rutherglen and Classic) –because they were so aromatic and the older Muscadelles (Grand and Rare) – because as they age they gain more honey and toffee flavors. I ended up buying the Grand Tokay (Muscadelle) for $65 in 375ml. Apparently Australia is allowed to use the term “Tokay” for the next 5 years, and then must drop the term in respect for Hungary’s real Tokaj region.

I found a delightful inn (The Poacher’s Hotel) and after a refreshing
shower, a beer at the pub and a walk around the delightful mainstreet of Rutherglen, headed to a wonderful dinner at the Tuileries Restaurant. The evening was balmy, so I walked – Rutherglen was much warmer than Melbourne. Around 80 F during the day.

The next morning I had an incredible visit to Chambers & Rosewood Winery (also over 150 years old) where Bill Chambers took me on a tour of the vineyard and winery. They were actually harvesting the muscat that morning and I was fortunate that he was willing to take a break and show me around. He had just recently received a perfect score of 100 from Robert Parker on both his Rare Muscat and Rare Tokay, which he let me taste. It was like tasting a bit of heaven – rich, luscious, honey, toffee and dried apricots. Amazing, life changing wine. Roberta, the Marketing Director, was also there and very helpful. She introduced me to their rare Gouais grape wine – originally from Croatia via France - a dry white mineral-lemon wine which was quite refreshing. The tasting bar was a bit unusual – 20+ complete help yourself bottles of wine protected by nitrogen gas. Of course, the Grand and Rare Muscats/Tokays were not help yourself. This winery visit was fantastic! I will never forget it.

Last winery stop before heading out of town was the All Saints Winery which is located in a magnificant castle building with white roses. Very lovely place-- see video. Also stopped at Tabilk Winery on the drive back to Melbourne. Very amazing old and grand winery with a huge wildlife wetlands.

Heathcote & Jasper Hill Winery

On Tuesday morning, I called Jasper Hill to see if they were harvesting grapes, and fortunately for me they had decided to wait until Thursday. Therefore, they gave me driving directions from Melbourne and I passed through a beautiful country-side of rolling hills, eucalyptus and huge rock formations. Arriving in Heathcote – part of the Goldfields Country of Victoria – I was charmed by the little town and the Visitor’s Center. They provided a winery map and I was easily able to make my way to Jasper Hill where Emily, Ron, and Elva met me and provided a wonderful tour.

We started with their amazing house which they had built themselves by making mud bricks from the soil. We then ventured into the vineyards with the precious red Cambrian soil and the very tasty Shiraz grapes on single wire trellising. All farming was biodynamic, and they even sprayed with milk to prevent powdery mildew. A very impressive vineyard. We tasted the grapes and it was obvious that they were almost ready to harvest.

Next we headed into the winery and tasted the two famous wines: Georgia’s Paddock and Emily’s Paddock. The wines lived up to their reputation – being both powerful yet elegant, and showing terroir characteristics of mineral and mint. Both fruit and oak were restrained, but concentration of flavor was very high, and balanced well with the naturally high acids and velvety tannins. Emily, following in her father footsteps as a winemaker, also let me taste her shiraz, Occam’s Razor, which was fruity and delightful. Ron then walked me through the complete wine-making process, with the most amazing part for me being the fact that the grapes undergo maceration for at least 6 weeks – which explains the excellent concentration of flavor, color, and velvety tannins. It was a truly remarkable visit with an inspiring wine family.

The Yarra Valley + Video

A beautiful valley surrounded by mountains, with small wineries and charming little towns. It is known for its pinot noirs and chardonnays. About a one hour drive from Melbourne, there are no direct highways – and you must spend time driving on the left side of some very windy and hilly roads. I managed to only go the wrong way twice and ran over 3 curbs; turned my windshield wipers on about 10 times, but otherwise the drive was fine. I arrived in the small town of Yarra Glen first and followed a sign that said wineries, but they were all closed on Monday. Apparently small family wineries are only open on weekends. Frustrated and tired, I decided to drive directly to Healesville – the heart of the Yarra Valley wine region and stopped in the Information Center to obtain a map. Smart move. I will now do this in every wine region, because the other maps I had purchased were not that detailed.

So even though I left the hotel at 1:15pm, I didn’t arrive at the first winery until 3:30. It was Rocheford and had some excellent high acid cool climate wines. The viogner was stunning – very crisp and aromatic. Not the usual heavy bodied honey bomb. The Riesling was like biting into a lime. Very tart and refreshing. The pinot noir was light and fruity, but their specialty was chardonnay. I tried the reserve and was impressed with the minerality and complexity. They were setting up for a Rod Stewart concert that weekend, so there was a large construction project going on in the back of the winery. Apparently this winery is known for concerts. Of course, I didn’t actually drink any wine – just tasted and spit. There was no way I was going to drink wine and drive on the left side of the road.

Next stop was the famous ColdStream Hills owned jointly by James Halliday and Fosters. The cellar door service was exceptional – very knowledgeable people working here. They treated me well and let me taste their very well made wines. The reserve chardonnay and pinot noir were my favorites – high acid; good fruit; some minerality, and layers of complex notes. They were able to explain step by step how the wines were made. Very helpful. Also tried the Merlot, Shiraz and Cab Sav.

The third winery was a small family run establishment that was recommended by the Info. Center when I asked to visit a small local winery. It was Tokar and included a Tuscan style house for the owner with the winery, cellar door and restaurant behind. Lovely view of the vineyards with a rose garden in full bloom. When I walked in, the place was deserted – it was 4:30 – and the man behind the tasting bar said he was the vineyard manager but that he could help me. Of course I was thrilled to get to talk with the viticulture expert so we had a nice converation about trellising, soil, clones, rootstock, farming practices, and bird netting. One of the first things you notice about the Yarra Valley during harvest is all of the bird netting on the vines. He said they didn’t believe in it and used the small silver flags instead. They made pinot, tempranillo, cab, and shiraz. I tried all 4 and thought I had been transported back to the Russian River. The pinot was huge, with lots of ripe raspberry fruit and heavy texture – plus the winemaker had been very liberal with spicy American oak. It was tasty, but not what I expected from the Yarra which is more known for lean, elegant pinots. I commented on it and the manager said they let their fruit hang as long as possible because that was the preferred style of the winemaker and owner. Anyway, we had a nice chat and then I headed on down the road to Domaine Chandon.

Domaine Chandon was closed because it was after 5pm, but I was still able to wander around their beautiful grounds. Definitely worth a stop to see the vineyards, garden, and tasting room with the huge glass windows. I then headed back to Melbourne and arrived at my hotel near the airport around 6:30. By that time I was hungry and craving a glass of pinot noir because I never got to drink any wine at the wineries. The lamb they served was excellent, but I was very disappointed to find that the only pinot on the menu was from Marlborough. Good, but not what I came to Victoria to taste. There should be some kind of policy in wine tourism countries that local wine should appear on restaurant menus. No trouble falling asleep that night.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Flight Over to Oz

After a nice filet migon dinner at Harris's SteakHouse in San Francisco with Zia and Mike, I headed to SFO airport. Of course my upgrade to business class didn't come through because the plane was full, but since we left at 10:20pm, I took an Ambien and was asleep before lift off. I awoke 8 hours later and got to know my seat mates -- a girl from Syndey who gave me driving advice for Australia and an American rock band member from Michigan. He was on a world-wide band tour with his 5 friends, and I learned how tough it is to make money in the music industry anymore because of all of the pirating of music. He said they get paid anywhere from $200 to $2000 a show, and have a range of 50 to 5,000 people show up -- with bigger audiences in Europe, and an amazing group of 22,000 in Japan. But after paying their agent, manager, and costs, they barely get any money. He said he often saves his $10 per day food per diem to help make ends meet, while his wife keeps down the fort at home. Tough life -- you have to be dedicated to be a rock musician now. He said the name of his band was Still Remains.

The flight landed a little late in Syndey, but I easily made my Melbourne connection and checked into the hotel by noon. Driving the rental car on the left side of the road was another story -- see Yarra Valley.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Packing for the Trip

Have successfully scheduled several winery appointments and also have been invited to help pick grapes and assist with crush in the McLarenvale. Busy packing and praying to get upgrade to business class. Bad storm coming into the Bay Area today. Hope it won't delay the plane. Let's think positively!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Photo From My Vineyard

Trying to Schedule Winery Appointments

I leave for Australia in less than 6 days now, and am desperately attempting to set-up some appointments at wineries. Of course, since I am going close to grape harvest, this is difficult because everyone is so busy. However, I've had much help from friends and am getting closer to confirming some appointments. I also think I may just drop by some of the wineries and see if I can help out.