‘G’day folks, I’m Nigel. I’ll be your (sober) driver for the day. This is my hat – it’s pretty damn big ay? There used to be corks hanging off it as trophies from my days getting trollied at the cellar doors we’re about to visit, but they’ve done away with cork now and screw-tops are too much of a hazard…’ These words – some of them actually uttered, some of them closer to wishful interpretations of what was really said – welcomed us to the wine-coloured bus that trundled us around Hunter Valley on a day-long vineyard tour that we used to ‘celebrate’ the Queen’s Birthday weekend.
Yes, that was almost two weeks ago now, but it’s taken us that long to recover from the weekend’s events. That’s not entirely true – I’ve just been so busy developing a Sydney-based wine-bar tour using my new-found knowledge from our ‘educational’ expedition, that I haven’t had time to write. As an explanation it’s not that far off the truth…
Anyway, after weeks of plotting our weekend escape via an endlessly amusing e-papertrail of group emails, and a few pre-Hunter warm-up sessions in Crown Street’s bars (I swear, I never drank this much in the UK – this is all Australia’s work) six of us set off for the vineyards of New South Wales’ infamous Wine Country. I know what you’re thinking – we just wanted an excuse to behave like backpackers again and go on a bender. I really want to say that’s totally unfounded, but let’s be honest there may be just a tiny speck of accuracy in that theory. One of the group did tweet something along the lines of ‘Wine wine wine!’ the morning of our departure… No, that wasn’t me.
It wasn’t just grape-based goods we were after, though – it was the lure of getting away from the city (the memory of a hellishly long five-day Easter weekend was too much to bear), seeing a bit more of Australia and, for at least one of our group, the promise of locally made cheese to go with the wine! Right, sorry, back to the bus.
Just a short drive away from our hostel we stopped at Rosemount and Lindeman’s Wines. At that point, I really don’t think I had entirely understood what I was in for. By the time we left – with a few bottles of wine in tow – around 12pm, we had already sampled about 10 wines, minimum three sips/gulps of each (otherwise apparently you don’t get an accurate gauge of what the grape tastes like, although personally, I think it’s a sales ploy. More sips = more inebriation = more transactions. Cunning) and the littlest member of our group was looking a tiny bit pie-eyed. And there are still at least three more cellar doors and four more hours of the tour to go. Could be an interesting day…
After this, the day continued to unfold rapidly – moving from the cosy living-room-like Constable Estate cellar door with its mascot, Matilda the cow, trying incredibly rich cheese at The Smelly Cheese Shop, whirring speedily through the range at a cellar door whose name I fail to remember (perhaps due to the copious quantities of vino and breakneck serving pace of the sommellier), before ending up in, oh who knows where, sampling what seemed like some of the best bottles of the day although our judgment may have been impaired by that point. By the time we virtually tumbled out the bus door at the hostel, we were all a little bit worse for wear – especially one of the boys who had mysteriously been hit by full-on flu halfway through the afternoon.
The question was, power on through the night (it was only about 5pm at this point) or crash out almost instantly? Power on through, of course, with an absolute disregard for the fact five of us were meant to be going horse riding the next morning. Hangover plus horses? Very ill-conceived plan. As it happened we were 1, hit by hangovers in the pub at approximately 9pm, which encouraged us to hit the hay at a ridiculously early hour and, 2, were greeted by torrential rain the next morning, which meant the horses (and ourselves) were let off the hook. Phew.
The rest of the weekend passed by in a blur (some of it misty-rain-drenched fuzziness, and yes, some of it alcohol induced) and before we knew it, we were in our hire car, Maxi, and heading back towards Sydney musing over the things we’d learnt. Which included the following:
- To us city kids, Hunter Valley is now to be known as ‘the wilderness’.
- Chardonnay is the wine producers’ version of a practical joke
- Soft cheese should never be served on sticks, like a savoury lollipop – however high-quality the fromage, it’s just wrong.
- Just because a bottle of wine retails at $75, doesn’t mean it won’t feel like you’re drinking gravy, with a hint of red wine added for good measure.
- Your grandparents’ favourite, Port, is actually pretty tasty, and may deserve more respect than it gets when being used as an ingredient in Cheeky Vimto.
- We are most definitely visiting Hunter Valley again. Especially as Goon is not allowed there…