The Perfunctory Traveller Goes Wine Tasting in McLaren Vale

by Mou Run / Sep 02, 2008 /
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The morning was chilly and the sky was partly cloudy. The possibility of rain just added to the number of foreseeable inconveniences that one expects on such occasions.

We drove to the school where a chartered bus was going to pick us up. People arrived in intervals. They were stylishly dressed; thinning jackets, scarfs, polished shoes and all. Being from the tropics as well as having suffered pneumonia as a child, I just don’t trust pretty jackets that don’t ensure warmth. A puffed jacket is the way to go. It made me look ridiculous

While waiting for pillow lovers to arrive fifteen or twenty minutes after the nominated time, we started our social day by pulling apart a copy of Cordy’s Advertiser, the only daily newspaper in Adelaide, and burying our heads in its different sections.

We took off at around 10:30. On our way, somebody suggested an early lunch at McDonald’s and the connoisseurs among us nodded so the bus driver veered into a drive-through. Between the times we asked the driver to take us through and when we actually did, a debate of sorts arose regarding the role of Multinational Corporations in the world; global warming, trade etc. I kept my mouth shut.

The smell of frying crisps, burning beef and chicken thrust its power through the window of the bus and the debate subsided immediately and we all channelled our orders of Big Macs, Quarter Pounders, cheeseburgers and whatnots through the passenger closest to the window. With greasy food in our stomachs we were ready to tour McLaren Vale.

McLaren Vale is about a half hour drive away from Adelaide. It is one of Australia’s oldest wine regions and home to some of the nation’s most famous vineyards. The region is picturesque. Located between the Mt Lofty ranges and the Southern Sea; visitors get a stunning vista regardless of the direction of their approach.

The region has a long and an insignificant history for outsiders. It was named after John McLaren, the Scotsman who surveyed it in 1839. John Reynella (eponymous for the neighbouring suburb of Reynella) started planting vines there in the early 1840s. Over the following two decades the industry expanded with purchases from Thomas Hardy and other names still dominant in the region today.

We arrived and started our tour at Leaconfield, a vineyard respected for its Coonawara Cabernet Sauvignon according to published reviews. We stomped into the classy settings with an air of being out of place. The take-away bags of McDonald’s betrayed our supposed cultural knowledge of wine. We started on cheese platters we had booked to accompany our wine tasting and launched into the business.

I started drinking wine without any appreciation whatsoever in 2005. Then it was just alcohol. I like a bit of alcohol from time to time. As Edward Abbey observed or experienced and concluded: "A drink a day keeps the shrink away." I don’t strictly observe the wisdom but I agree with it.

In 2006, I had the good fortune of having Jane my girlfriend’s friend and her brother Jake who is a vigneron and connoisseur under my roof. Then I had learned the basics of how to appropriately hold and swirl a glass of wine, sip and move it in the mouth and all that.

I must confess that I hate small talks, dislike dress-coded parties and generally would prefer beer to wine. Yet something about wine aficionados draws me to wine. I want to be able to smell and taste the ingredients of Grenache to the details enthusiasts discern. So I put my case to Jake. He looked at me thoughtfully and said: "you know what? Wine tasting is subjective." I waited. "All that stuff about ingredients is" a male elephant’s dropping. "There is more or less to it but real experts know the ingredients for each wine beforehand."

It made perfect sense.

In 2006, a famous Australian connoisseur, vigneron, and wine critic by the name of James Halliday republished Australian Wine Companion for the tenth time. To me the title sounds genuinely esoteric enough to be buried in some obscure specialist bookstores but it climbed to the national bestseller list – at last, for James.

After my conversation with Jake I pondered the possible reasons that could have triggered a mass purchase of a book on wines and vineyards. In Down Under or In a Sun Burned Country as the book is variably available, Bill Bryson looks at the titles of the locally published books in one of my favourite second-hand bookshops on O’Connor Street, in Adelaide and recorded a few thoughts on the subject. Australia probably publishes and indeed sells books on some of the most obscure subject in the English speaking world. One of the bestsellers in the previous years too was a total wellbeing diet book written by scientists affiliated with CSIRO (commonwealth scientific and industrial research organisation). But that is to digress.

After Leaconfield, most of us were tipsy. We pushed to Middlebrook where we were to have lunch and proper (paid for) drinks and got even tipsier. On a day like this, one expects things to unfold in the order of F. Scott FitzGerald’s sagacious sequence that "first you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you."From Leaconfield to the last vineyard, which we reached when we were genuinely drunk and so can’t recall its name, the process must have been complete.

I tasted mostly the white wines. Cordy, one of the funniest and wine savvy women on the tour may have been observing me. At our last vineyard she came close, towering above me with a penetrating gaze. I thought she was going to crack a joke. "You are quite the white man, aren’t you?" she said.

"No!" I said rubbing my finger on my arm. "I am a black man."

"You got me."

We laughed. As the day came to a close, I felt that it was a day well spent. Of all those things that worried each one of us, none happened. It only drizzled. Nobody was too drunk to technicolour yawn in the bus.

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