"Appreciating old wine is like making love to a very old lady. It is possible. It can even be enjoyable. But it requires a bit of imagination." Andre Tchelistcheff
Not sure about the above quote, but it was the best I could find. All the other quotes about old wine go on about it being the best. There are just so many romantic notions about old wine, old friends, and so on. And yet old wine can so often be a disappointment. It goes off.
Although. The reason I am talking about old wine is this particular - now empty - bottle of red wine - a shiraz - with some of our oldest Australian friends over a long lunch yesterday.
We - well they - I'm not a huge red wine fan myself, so I limited myself to a taste only - drank this bottle because David noticed the other day that one of his bottles of wine was leaking - and when he removed it he found that it was this particular bottle. And so he decided its time had come. We had to open it at last and try it. But, of course there had to be a plan B because it very likely had gone off. After all we do not have a proper temperature controlled cellar and never have. We merely have some wine racks in the kitchen/dining room and so they undergo all the temperature changes that occur throughout a Melbourne year. So a much more recent red wine was removed from the rack as well.
Early in the day David removed the cork - amazingly it came out in one piece, uncorked. Here it is today - and yes it is in two pieces, but that happened after it had been removed from the bottle. And look how stained it is with wine - the wine that leaked past it, which was actually a fair bit.
There was no wine above where the neck of the bottle begins. And you know I now remember our oldest grandchild, when she was quite young - maybe five or six - noticing that some wine was leaking. Why did we not do anything about it then? Or was it another bottle? You can just see where it has leaked over the edge of the casing at the top of the bottle.
Whatever the reason the wine was carefully decanted with David's special gadget which I think strains out the bits that collect in old bottles. You can see some still clinging to the sides in this photograph. There was none in the decanted wine though, and the wine was still red in colour. It hadn't turned brown. David, of course, because he tends to believe the mantra that old wine is the best - was expecting greatness, and I believe, that although it might not have been totally amazing, it was actually pretty good. The little bit that I tasted was surprisingly smooth to my uncritical and ignorant palate. So all in all a triumph.
I wonder how many other really old wines are hidden away in those wine racks?
For me though the benefit of all of this - apart from a subject for a blog - were the memories it evoked. I thought that it was a bottle that we had purchased on our first venture into rural Australia a year or so after our arrival in Australia. However, when I saw the date I realised that this could not be. We must have bought it later - a sentimental memory perhaps.
We set off in our green VW station wagon - identical to this one, which had a numberplate beginning JAM - I can't remember the numbers. 983? Our plan was to travel to the Murray River, via Heathcote (I think) and central Victoria, and then drive along the river, then down to Adelaide and back along the coast. Accommodation was camping - although maybe we didn't take a tent, but slept in the back of the car. I know for a fact that we did this at one spot - which I shall come to - but we may also have taken a small tent.
Buying that car was the first thing we did in Australia. We walked all the way along Kooyong Road from Armadale, where David's new employer had found us a flat to stay in for a couple of weeks whilst we found a new home for ourselves, all the way down to Moorabbin or somewhere near there, because we had seen an ad for this car. It was a long walk, but we bought the car, and, I assume, drove it back. What on earth we bought it with I have no idea, because we had very little money. It must have been pretty cheap. That car did us well for our first several years in Australia. My parents even drove it all the way to Broken Hill and back on their first trip to visit us. And there was plenty of room to sleep in the back if you laid down the back seats. Room for an entire double mattress.
But back to that first trip. We travelled up to the Murray through central Victoria joining the road along the river at Kerang I think. Where we discovered that the road did not in fact go along the river. We barely glimpsed it - only when we stopped for the night or a snack at places like Swan Hill, Robinvale and Mildura. One thing I do remember about that part of the drive was spotting Ibis for the first time. They were so exotic to me. I think I associated them in my head with ancient Egypt for some reason and they are extremely majestic birds. I now know that many consider them a pest and that they are not at all uncommon. You even see the occasional one around here. And they were certainly everywhere up in the Riverina. But beautiful.
At Mildura we started visiting wineries and this became one of the main focuses of our journey. At each winery we would taste, we would usually like something and we would buy a dozen, because shipping wine back to Melbourne was free - or at least very cheap - and we paid by cheque. And of course we lost count, and so when we arrived back home boxes of wine started to be delivered. There must have been at least a dozen dozens. So began our wine collection. And I did think that the bottle we drank last night was one of those. But it couldn't be because I see that it is a 1977 vintage, and by 1977 we were settled in Melbourne with two small children. There were no children on this trip.
Apart from the wine - the Riverina, the Barossa Valley, Coonawarra maybe Langhorne Creek - the most important event of that journey was striking up a friendship with Max and Helen. Alas, as you will know if you read this blog regularly, Max died early last year, but Helen is still with us and indeed she was supposed to be with us yesterday but has unfortunately broken her leg and so was not there.
Before I get to that encounter though I should just mention that prior to that meeting we had travelled the length of the Coorong - one of Australia's natural wonders - a series of lagoons behind a long sandy beach. Long - something like 100 km with a warning sign at the beginning of that particular stretch that warned there were no petrol stations for that time. Which panicked David a little, even though we had plenty in the tank, and so we dutifully filled up.
Just beyond the end of the Coorong, lies the little seaside town of Robe, which is where we decided to camp for the night. I do remember that we were sleeping in the car there, so maybe we had been doing that throughout the trip. I cannot now remember. Anyway we decided to barbecue, and saw this young couple with their two small boys barbecuing their dinner, beside a mulberry tree - I remember Max telling us that it was a mulberry tree. And so we asked if we might use their barbecue. Of course, they said, and invited us to join them which we did. And so began a very long and wonderful friendship. For we discovered that they lived in the same Melbourne suburb as us, and a few weeks later, Helen drew up in front of our house, reintroduced herself and invited us to dinner. Such are the chance encounters of life. All brought back to front of mind by a bottle of wine.
Is Laira vineyard still there? Yes it is, but, of course, no longer in the same form. So a little bit of history about Laira wines. The name comes from the name of a ship owned by Captain Henry Stentiford who bought the land on which the vineyard stands. Indeed he planted the first vines, some of which still exist. In 1950 Eric Brand and his wife Nancy Redman - sister of the owners of Redman wines next door - and at the time of our visit perhaps the top Coonawarra winery, bought the vineyard. At first Eric simply grew grapes for others but after 16 years he began to make his own with the first vintage appearing in 1966. So the wine we bought back then - let's say in 1971 - would have been an early vintage. At some point it was sold to McWilliams and now it is part of the Casella collection of family brands. Members of the Brand family are still associated with the winery, but not in major roles - at the moment. The current winemaker is a woman - Brooke Blair. How times have changed.
When we visited, the cellar door was little more than a shed. Recently a much glossier building was constructed, but one, which cannily has absorbed the old shed into the structure. We may have sat at those very tables to taste the wine.
It was truly one of those 'Open that special bottle of wine' occasions - albeit an accidental one. An old wine, that perhaps did indeed need a bit of imagination to truly appreciate, but the memories and spending time with good friends were worth it.
And a tick to my resolution to host meals with friends on a regular basis this year as well.