I’ve enjoyed wine tasting tours in South Africa, Hungary and Canada, so I mistakenly thought I knew what I was getting myself into when I signed up for the Out & About Wine tour of the Swan River wineries near Perth, Australia. Precisely at 9:45 AM on Saturday morning, I met the bus at the appointed place and hopped on with 20 others, including a 2 year old girl and a boy of about 6. I quickly befriended Mary and Henry, married Canadians from Edmonton who were celebrating her retirement as a pharmacist with a 6 week cruise of Australasia leaving the next day from nearby Freemantle.
Our guide/driver was Tony, originally from Cornwall but a longtime resident of Australia. In his prior life, he worked for Ansett Airline, but when it folded, he started fitting kitchens and bathrooms. Hours later, when I gently asked him if that line of work was so slow he needed a second job, he dodged the question and said something about liking to meet new people. Something was left unsaid; every person I ever met in construction had more than enough work, but I didn’t push him.
Tony explained that the wineries we would be visiting were those along the Swan River, some of the oldest in the country. Most of their vines had been brought over from South Africa in the last century. Grapes for both eating and making wine were grown, with lots of streetside stalls selling grapes. Then Tony asked where we would like to be dropped off at the end of the day – special requests were welcome including my hotel. Strange I thought; the bus tour doesn’t do morning pick-ups but does afternoon drop-offs?
A short 45 minutes later, the bus stopped at the first winery, Lancaster. Greeting us at the tasting table were 20 wine glasses, a plate of cheese varieties with biscuits and 9 bottles of wine. Our Lancaster host described each vintage – 3 whites, 3 reds and 3 dessert or late harvest wines – and began pouring a small amount in each glass. Naturally, I tried them all, enjoying their specialty, a Chenin Blanc the most, along with a cheddar cheese laced with peppers and chilies. Our host told us the late harvest wines were sweetest since they had been on the vines the longest and their sugar had been the most developed. The Canadian equivalent is the Ice Wine, left on the vines until after they freeze. Regardless of the title, I find the ice wines/late harvests too sweet.
I was feeling pretty good as we returned to the bus, thanks to 9 tastings all before 11:00 AM. As we were promised a gourmet platter lunch, I had skipped breakfast and eaten nothing but the cheese which I am sure contributed to the good feelings.
In the 5 minute drive to our next winery, Tony advised that we would have a total of 46 wine tastings today, but if we tried hard, we could push it to 51. “46 is a lot of wine,” I thought, “especially on an empty stomach. Best to pass on some of the dessert wines and use some spittoons.”
Stopping at Sandalford winery, another hostess greeted us with a table filled with 20 glasses and 6 full bottles of wine; 3 dry and 3 sweet. The last bottle was a Sandalford Sandalera, similar to a Port, but couldn’t be called Port since it wasn’t from Portugal. Nonetheless, it was 16% alcohol (as opposed to the usual 11% for wine) so moderation was the key. The hostess told us a little about each wine, then showed us a mark on each of the glasses. “This,” she said, “is the maximum allowable wine by law in Australia in each glass for a tasting, so do not go over it.” With that, she left. By my calculations, 6 bottles of wine divided amongst 20 adults meant each of us would have about 1/3 of a bottle to drink, all before lunch. I looked around for spittoons to avoid swallowing the wine but didn’t see any. Come to think of it, I hadn’t seen any at the other winery either. Apparently spitting out wine is not okay in Australia.
I sampled the Sandalera – it was very smooth- and a dry Rose before settling into a Sauvignon Blanc, careful not to pour over the magic line each time I refilled my glass. Standing around the table, the group got to know each other. Chris and his wife were a retired British couple from Nottingham visiting their daughters in Sydney and had stopped in Perth on their way back to England. A Polish fellow in construction with a name I couldn’t pronounce and can’t remember had been in Perth for 8 years. He had originally applied to come to Canada, but his application wasn’t approved before Australia welcomed him. He was traveling with his Scottish friend, a 6 year resident of Perth and his Indonesian girlfriend. A group of 10 consisted of an Australian couple and their kids and their friends from the UK. Lastly, a lady from Edinburgh who had lived in Perth for 6 years where she taught little kids and her friend, also from Edinburgh. Despite my inability to recall her name, she appointed herself the official photographer for the group and it is to her I owe my gratitude for the photos.
During the 5 minute ride to our next stop (the wineries were basically beside each other), I checked the internet to see how much the standard pour was for a tasting. It was 30 ml., so some quick math indicated that if I drank the standard pour 46 times, I would drink 1,380 ml. As a wine bottle is 750 ml., I would stop just short of 2 bottles???? I really needed to slow down, especially since I had still only eaten cheese and a few crackers. Meanwhile, Tony regaled us with wine trivia. “Why are roses planted at the end of each row of vines?” he asked. When no one answered, he volunteered “no self-respecting insect would chose grape vines over roses.” Makes sense, I guess.
At Windy Creek winery, 5 whites, 5 reds and 5 fortified wines were on the counter awaiting us. I restrained myself, trying only the whites and one fortified wine. I still didn’t like the sweetness, but it went down much easier than the first few sweet wines. I was beginning to get really hungry. No lunch was in sight, but the winery made and sold fudge, so I bought a bag of chocolate fudge and ate some but it wasn’t too filling.
Another very quick bus ride past Australia’s largest women’s prison and more wine trivia from Tony. “How many grapes in an average glass of wine?” he asked. We all shouted out various numbers, but no one got the correct answer, which is 78 or about 1 bunch.
Our lunch was at Sittella winery, but before we could eat, we had to sample both a sparkling wine and the wines we would like to have with our lunch. I chose a white and joined the rest for a delicious lunch. The star was a Scotch egg, which I had never had before. I’m not sure what its relationship is to Australia, or wine tasting. The British lady next to me had made them and delighted in telling me (three times) the recipe. “Hard boil an egg, wrap it in minced sausage meat, roll it in breadcrumbs and deep fry it. Very simple.” “Maybe”, I thought, “but where back in Toronto does one buy minced sausage meat?”
On the way to the final winery, Tony’s banter turned away from wine trivia to jokes. “Why wasn’t Jesus Christ born in Ireland? Because the Lord couldn’t find 3 wise men or a virgin there.” Enough with the jokes.
I had ceased writing down the names of the wineries. I am sure whatever I tasted at #5 was delicious, but my memory fails me. I did remember to take a photo with our host:
As if I hadn’t had enough to drink, Tony drove to a brewery for a glass of beer. As I had already drank my quota of a single beer per century at the Guinness factory in Dublin, I passed.
The coup de grace, so to speak, was the Chocolate Company. We indulged in white and dark chocolate and truffles before going to the tasting cabin and enjoying 4 liqueurs – one chocolate, one chocolate hazelnut, a mint chocolate and another that tasted good but my ability to remember anything was kaput by this time.
The ride back to Perth was much quieter. Most of us (save for the 2 and 6 year old) were napping. Tony had run out of jokes, but he did drop everyone off at their doorstep. We surmised this was probably because none of us would have been able to find our way to our hotels given the copious amounts of alcohol we had consumed, a final courtesy for which I was immensely grateful. Thus, my wine tour ended, quite inebriated, but very satisfied.