Dispatches from Oz

"Three hidden food and wine treasures”

Here I am “Down Under” in the beautiful country of Australia, my wife Sue’s homeland.  Rather than visiting some of the well-known wine regions like the Barossa Valley, Coonawarra, Margaret River or Hunter Valley we decided to visit some lessor known regions where there are not only fine wines, but also a thriving food scene.  Of course, we also took in many of the tourist sites along the way!

The weather was quite a story during our visit.  Up north in Canada we often get a “polar vortex” when freezing Artic air shoots across North America as the jet stream pushes downward.  In Aussie we saw the flip side of that phenomenon called a “northwester”.  Hot air from north western Queensland forms a southerly flow, a “trough”, which pushes the hot temperatures down towards the state of New South Wales.  We experienced temperatures in the low 40’s Celsius down in Sydney!  Not only was the weather hot, but so was the political climate.

 Donald Trump was in the news. My greatest fear of his presidency will be the irreparable damage his policies will do to the environment. Tragic. But no one expected he would insult one of the most trusted allies of the U.S. so soon. Yet during our visit he did just that! He belittled the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.  He had called a formerly agreed upon a deal with Australia (done by Obama’s administration) to take in 1,250 refugees a “dumb deal” in an official phone conversation.  He then, reportedly, virtually hung up on Turnbull!  The reaction in the Australian press was incredible.  The best analysis I read ended with a senior defence specialist, Malcolm Davis, labeling Trump as “clueless”.  Many commentators pointed out that Australian armed forces had fought in every war of the 20th century, side by side with the U.S.  We met a few Americans on our travels and they seemed a little sheepish in saying where they were from.  Maybe we’ll see the phenomenon I experienced in the early 1970’s in Europe when I met Americans traveling with Canadian flags sewn on their backpacks… not that Canada is a particularly enlightened country, just benign in comparison.  One wonders if anyone can put a muzzle on the tweeting-mad American President and coach him to act in at least a semblance of a rational and diplomatic manner.  If nothing else, he’ll be fodder for jokes for quite a while I suspect, and articles entitled "Bafoon in the Whitehouse".

Back to my mission for finding some hidden treasures in Oz.  I visited three out of the way locations and found some amazing discoveries.  My story is broken down region by region.

  1. Orange (New South Wales)

My wife’s sister, Dianne lives in Orange and she’s a wonderful host.  This was our third visit and this time I was determined to suss out the best of the emerging wine industry in the area.  Orange was traditionally famous for being the birth place of the famous poet Banjo Patterson.  Agriculturally it was well-known for its apple production along with stone fruits (peaches, pears, cherries) and even figs.  Wineries are quite suddenly taking over, with grape growing becoming one of the top fruits grown in the region.  The attraction was the relatively cool climate found in the hills around Mount Canobolas – a one-time volcano – the name comes from an Aboriginal word, from the Wiradjuri tribe, and means “two shoulders”.  It is a sacred place in Aboriginal lore… and is now considered sacred by some wine afficiandos for a less spiritual reason – the soil.  Besides the ideal climate, the volcanic earth gives distinctive character to many popular grape varieties.  I was lucky to have the assistance of my brother-in-law, John Williams, a terrific artist and bon vivant, as my driver.  Along with willing passengers, Sue and Dianne, John navigated the windy roads to the wineries.  His driving skills not only saved me from driving on the left hand side of the road, but it also allowed me to indulge at wine tastings…sometimes three a day!  After a great deal of research and contemplation I determined some favourites.

Canobolas Smith Winery – one of the oldest wineries in the Orange region.  I loved the old Chardonnay wines…a revelation!  The Shiraz wine was also a winner, but the real surprise was “Melliodora” which was a delicious blend of late harvest Chardonnay and botrytis (the noble rot) affected Semillon grapes. I told wine maker/owner Murray Smith, a quiet gentleman in the truest sense of the word, that it reminded me of a lighter version of French Sauternes.  What a treat!

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Angullong Winery -  The wine tasting (cellar door) facility is located in the heart of the charming village of Millthorpe, an old gold mining town.  I gravitated towards their red wines and settled on their “Crossing Reserve”, an intense Shiraz that displayed peppery, fruity notes without the jamie character I find off-putting in many wines made from this grape in Aussie.

Philip Shaw Winery – Here’s a winery that understands elegance and subtleness.  I have always leaned towards wines that don’t knock you over the head with fruit and extract -  I believe the nuances in wines’ complexity get smothered in their bravado.  Philip Shaw was called Australia’s top wine maker by Andrew Jefford of the New York Times (2010).  And, well-known Aussie wine writer, James Halliday, gave the winery 5 stars on four occasions!  What I also appreciated was the reasonable prices.  The Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon based wines were my favourites, tho’ their “No.17” blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot was unique and more than pleasant.

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Bloodwood Winery – When Rhonda and Stephen Doyle opened their operation in 1983 they were the first in the Orange region (over 30 wineries operate today). Their persistence and vision paid off.  We were privileged to taste a dozen wines in the company of Stephen – a man of nonchalance and dry humour.  His wines embodied the essence of most of the grape varieties we tasted.  Writer James Halliday also awarded him 5 stars – I couldn’t have agreed more!  I walked away with a 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon which I’d put up against any version from Bordeaux or California.  A class act.  (For fun, try Stephen’s “Big Men in Tights” wine!).

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While in Orange one must also enjoy the many other fruits grown in the region (not to mention the chocolate from Mudgee or olives from Cowra).  Apples give Orange its reputation for agricultural so it wasn’t any leap of intelligence required to point me towards Small Acres Cyder company.  What intrigued me was their ciders made in the traditional method used for Champagne (fermented twice, the second time in the bottle).  This is a time-consuming procedure but the result was exceptional.  Engaging and enthusiastic owner, Gail Kendell, led us through both hard and non-alcoholic ciders.  All made 100% from apple juice, no additives or short cuts,  they all showed well in the glass. A visit to Small Acres is well worth the effort.

When in Orange I highly recommend visiting the Agrestic Grocer which also houses a brewery and cheese maker.  It’s a great place to pick up foods and preserves straight from the nearby farms.  The work “Agrestic” means rural and/or rustic.  I love their brochure bragging about “unpolished, no waxed apples here”.  There is also a fine grocery right in the centre of Orange called The Harris Farm – it’s an Aussie version of Whole Foods, just, maybe, better!  For a good lunch head to the Duntryleague Golf Club.

Finally, if you have time to go to one of the pubs in town.  I enjoyed both the Royal Hotel and the Hotel Canobolas.  One night in the Royal they were showing a pay-for-view boxing match.  The testosterone was spilling on the floors as the predominately male crowd cheered their favourite boxer and ogled the buxom birds, Aboriginal lads and farmers. A few couples mingled from room to room.  The occasional policeman wandered through the crowd ensuring there were no fights that night other than the one on the blue screen.

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2. Tasmania

I had always wanted to visit “Tassie” for two main reasons:  it’s stunning beauty, and its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines.  I wasn’t disappointed on either expectation.  We started our explorations on the east coast near Swansea.  The first taste of wine was experienced over dinner at the Bark Mill Bakery Café where we ordered a bottle of Milton Vineyard’s Pinot Noir 2015 to accompany a vegie wood-fired pizza.  The wine was delicious… showing all those Burgundian smells and flavours…those hard to describe earthy aromas and berry-like complex tastes.  The pizza was very good, and I’d recommend the Bark Mill restaurant when visiting Swansea.  We were there on a Monday night and it was packed with locals and tourists (they also do nice breakfasts).

For our first excursion we picked a trip to Freycinet National Park.  Why?  In the heart of the park is one of the most picturesque bays in the world with a lovely name: Wineglass Bay!  For wine lovers one can hardly imagine a more appropriate destination.  To get a perfect lookout we had to hike, mainly uphill, about five kilometers.  The effort was well worth it as the view was spectacular… even the flowers, rocks and vistas along the way were lovely.  After descending to the base, we drove out of the car park and almost had a wallaby jump on our hood as he scampered into the bush.

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Tasmania has four designated “Wine Trails” – North West Wine Trail; Tamar Valley Wine Route; East Coast Wine Trail; and, Southern Wine trail (near Hobart).  We stayed mainly on the East Coast and found some real treasures.

First winery stop was Devil’s Corner Cellar Door and Lookout.  Besides impressive wines the winery has a tower which provides vast views of vineyards, water (Molting Lagoon) and the Amos mountain.  They also have a restaurant featuring local seafood and wood-fired pizza.

Our second winery, Gala Estate, was chosen because of wine Writer James Halliday’s “5 star” rating.  We met owner Grainne who led us through a tasting of her wines.  The Cellar Door was a small building, quite rustic but charming.  The Sparkling Rose was delicious with a yeasty bouquet, cherry-ish and citrus taste and a refreshing finish… we couldn’t resist buying a bottle for that night’s stay in Hobart.  The real star in Halliday’s 5 stars were the Pinot Noirs.  We tasted three versions, from young lightly oaked to premium estate wines… they got progressively better!  Our final East Coast Winery visit, including lunch, was Spring Vale.  We began with a visit to the Cellar Door located in old stables built by convicts in 1842.  Owner, and 5th generation family member, Tim Lyne, led us through a tasting.  Again, the sparkling wine was a revelation (something we found at every stop!).  “Tassie’s” reputation will not only be built on its Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, but also on their traditional method Sparkling wines.  After our tasting with Tim we decided upon a 2015 Pinot Noir which we carried over to the al fresco dining area – virtually in the vineyard!  Our meal consisted of fresh oysters from Melshell Oysters Farm Gate, au natural, and Tasmanian scallops from the northwest coast grilled with local hazelnuts and served in herbed butter… the flavours were almost orgasmic! I highly recommend visits to all three of these wineries.

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The next day we headed south for Hobart.  Along the way we picked up some Tasmanian smoked Atlantic Salmon (farmed), cheese, a baguette and some locally grown olives – we feasted on these provisions our first night in Hobart along with the Gala Estate Sparkling Rise.

The next day we decided to do some sightseeing and visited Port Arthur, a one-time penal colony.  Along the way we stopped three times to look at the coast line… it may sound a little corny, but every stop took us to another level of spectacular.  Port Arthur is only a bunch of ruins now but the stories remain.  Opened in 1830, the colony was most notable as the home of one of the first detention centres for juvenile boys, aged 7-16, in the British Empire.  These young convicts, often repeat offenders, were kept in a separate area called Point Puer.  Just like the older convicts these boys were used in hard labour, including farming, stone cutting and construction. Port Arthur was also considered a model for penal reform.  The results were somewhat dubious … it’s worth a visit so you can judge for yourself.

After two days in Hobart and exploring the downtown, especially the pubs and restaurants long Salamanca Street (there is also one of the best outdoor markets in Oz every Saturday morning held in that area).  The nightlife in the street can be best described as “robust”.  We left early on our third morning after checking out of the wonderful Hadley’s Orient Hotel.  Our first stop was the Wicked Cheese Co. – although we arrived twenty minutes before the 10.00 a.m. official opening time, we were greeted with open arms.  We left with a half a pound of their tasty aged cheddar, good stuff!

Next stop was Pooley Wines (Southern Wine Trail).  I was keen to visit them because they were Tasmania’s first fully certified environmentally sustainable vineyard.  And, as is usually the case with sustainable operations, the product was outstanding.  It must almost be a new law of gastronomy that environmentally aware folks are producing the tastiest food and beverages on the planet!  Best of all, they’re leaving their farms in fertile and sustainable shape for future generations.  Alleluia!  Sue and I met Shelly and Matthew Pooley and discovered that Matt had once visited our hometown of Guelph, along with an excursion to the Vineland research Station in Niagara.  What a coincidence!  After hearing the story of Pooley Wines we tasted a flight of most of their wines; a marvelous Pooley Riesling and an elegant, complex Butcher’s Hill Pinot Noir stood out from the rest.  We briefly toured the vineyards and I noticed the grapes hadn’t even fully started veraison despite this being early February.  I also saw the grapes covered in netting to fend off the birds devouring the crop.  Sue and I walked away with greater knowledge about the challenges of ‘growing’ wine in Tasmania…all we can say is please keep it up mate.

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Pooley Wines is in the southern wine region and was our only visit in that area as our time in Tassie was getting short… and our next destination was Launceston and its wine and food show ‘Festivale’.  As we approached Launceston we noticed a sign for Josef Chromy Wines (Tamar Valley) and our car turned off the highway, wine was calling.  Despite our time crunch, we couldn’t miss visiting this winery.  Why?  How about the fact that they made a Chardonnay in 2011 that was named the best Chardonnay in the world at the Decanter World Wine Awards in London, England!  I tried the 2012 and immediately thought of a Burgundian Meursault, a bit leaner and fresher, but with all the buttery, nutty flavours and wonderful bouquet.  We tasted most of their other wines, but the Chardonnay took the prize.  In terms of all the Tasmanian wineries we visited, Josef Chromy delivered the most complete experience for a wine loving tourist – their facilities had beautifully manicured gardens, a well-organized Cellar Door, an award winning restaurant, a display vineyard, lakeside pavilion, etc.

Our final night in this terrifically beautiful island was spent at ‘Festivale’ held in a nice park in central Launceston.  We feasted on paella and lamb burgers while sampling wines at a few of the booths.  We tasted a Stolen Pinot Noir from Domaine Dawnell which was a very young and expressive 2016 tipple served directly from the barrel.  My overall favourite at the show was Bream Creek’s 2015 Pinot Noir… another winner from this grape, grown on this land originally known as Van Diemen’s Land.

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Note:  Beer lovers -  When I first started coming to Australia I was always amazed to find a paucity of full tasting beers.  This despite the Aussie’s reputation as a beer drinking nation.  Well the good news is that this situation has changed.  There are many fine craft breweries all over the country.  The one that piqued my fancy was the Two Birds Golden Ale – made by Australia’s first female owned and operated brewery – the beer itself was crisp and spicy with a nicely balanced level of hops.  My favourite name for an Aussie beer was James Squire’s “One Fifty Lashes” (a good pale ale). James Squire was a convict who made his way in life to eventually creating Australia’s first commercial brewery in 1798…all their beers have one common characteristic, “taste” - something the big brewers should consider!

  1. Shoalhaven(NSW)

 Flying back to Sydney we boarded a train down to Nowra (an Aboriginal word for “black cockatoo”) which is located on the south coast of New South Wales. We were staying with one of Sue’s old traveling pals, Faye, who provided excellent reconnaissance for our week in this emerging wine region. Our first stop was the Coolangatta Estate which had won awards for their Semillon wines – we soon learned why. We started with a young example and enjoyed its fresh, lemony flavour but the real winner was their aged Semillon which showed a mellower, more mature profile. Admittedly their reds were a little thin which was expected because of the maritime climate and lack of consistent sunshine. However, I did buy a bottle of wine made from the Tannat grape largely because one rarely sees it used outside of France, with the exception of Uruguay where it has become the national grape variety. The wine had a lovely black cherry and slightly tannic taste that was very pleasant…it went very well with our pasta and herbed tomato sauce the following evening.

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It’s easy to get lost in the wine scene in OZ as there are so many damn good wines! So, to preserve our “foodie” credibility we decided to head up to Kiama for their Wednesday Farmers’ Market. The directions said it was held at Black Beach but we were not prepared for a market that was virtually on the beach! It was a lovely set up with many different booths. Along with some vegetables, we bought mangoes, figs, strawberries and white peaches all at the peak of ripeness. While spending time in Kiama make sure you visit the famous, and impressive “blow hole”. It’s quite a sight to see the surf emerge out of a hole in the rocks cascading fifty feet or more in the air!   

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The next morning we left first thing in the morning and headed south in search of some well-known cheese makers. The first stop was the Bodalla Dairy which has a long history of dairy and cheese making dating back to the 1860’s.  The facility includes a milk bar café and accommodation.  The cheeses were quite good, including various flavoured varieties.  Our next destination was the historic ABC Cheese Factory in Central Tilba (I wish the English language would have a better name than “factory” for cheese making facilities… something like the French “fromagerie”!).  The town of Central Tilba was charming and well worth the visit alone… but my favourite thing was the factory’s Premium Vintage cheddar.  It had a nice full flavour with just the right degree of sharpness… perhaps the best thing was the very reasonable price.

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On our route back home we couldn’t help but notice the many towns which were given Aboriginal names.  The Australians (read British) were just as destructive as we Canadians (again, read British) in our treatment of our First Nations.  In a story that parallels Canada, the Aboriginals were slaughtered by colonials…those who weren’t killed by force were almost eradicated by the European diseases that were inadvertently brought by settlers.  Thankfully there are finally some efforts to honour the Aboriginal culture and make recompense for past horrors.  After all, they have inhabited the land through two ice ages! One of my favourite towns was named “Ulladulla” which literally means “safe harbour”… a great sentiment for my wife Sue and I, intrepid travellers are we.

Before heading into Nowra we decided to have dinner at Cupitt’s Winery.  In our tourist book this place had received some good reviews so we thought it worth a try.  As far as tasting, I stuck to their Sauvignon Blanc as it was the only grape grown on their estate.  It was made in more of the French style, emphasizing the complexity more than the fruit.  I found it a touch austere and followed up with another glass of Sauvignon Blanc with fruit grown in the Yarra Valley, Victoria. It was a much better wine.  Our dinner, a little on the expensive side, was quite good (7 out of 10).  I had some local oysters as a starter which were a little muddy to my taste.  Our main courses were very good… but not as good as the wonderful view of the vineyard and paddocks full of grazing cows.  The one thing the winery could work on was the restaurant acoustics…service, however, was excellent.  Their wines will surely improve as they take the farming part of wine making more seriously and start growing more grapes.

After a few days of exploring and enjoying the gorgeous beaches of the south coast, we set our sights on one final event:  The “Stomping of the Grapes Festival” at Crooked River Wines.  There was entertainment, food along with barrels filled with crushed grapes.  It cost $10 to partake and I couldn’t resist!  (The money went to the Westmead Children’s Hospital).  It was a good time.  I left with my final wine purchase of our trip.  Cooked River’s “Premium Range”, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chambourcin (yes, they grow this French Hybrid in this region) and a little Shiraz.  It had a nice freshness for a Cabernet with the usual black currant flavour accompanied by ripe fruit derived from the other two grapes with an intriguing touch of cinnamon. 

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Reflecting on the whole experience I must say the coast lines in Shoalhaven and Tasmania stood out…as did the birds and their songs and sounds…and, if you like beaches, they don’t get any better than those in Oz. Fair dinkum!

WEBSITES/EMAIL

Orange:

Canobolas Smith – winery@canobolassmithwines.co.au

Angullong Vineyard – www.angullong.com.au

Philip Shaw – info@philipshaw.com.au

Bloodwood – BigMen@bloodwood.biz

Small Acres Cyder – sales@smallacrescyder.com.au

Agrestic Grocer – INFO@THEAGRESTICGROCER.com.au

Duntryleague – reception@duntryleague.com.au

Tasmania:

Bark Mill Bakery Café – e.barkmilltavern@bigpond.com

Milton Vineyard – wine@miltonvineyard.com.au

National Parks – www.parks.tas.gov.au

Devils Corner – info@devilscorner.com.au

Gala Estate – hello@galaestate.com.au

Spring Vale – www.springvalewines.com.au

Melshell Oysters Farm Gate - www.melshelloysters.com.au

Hadley Orient Hotel – www.hadleyhotel.com.au

The Wicked Cheese Co. – www.wickedcheese.com.au

Pooley Wines – www.pooleywines.com.au and  matt@pooleywines.com.au

Josef Chromy Wines – www.josefchromy.com.au

Two Birds Brewing Company – www.twobirdsbrewing.com.au

Bream Creek – fred@breamcreekvineyard.com.au

Shoalhaven:

Coolangatta Estate – www.coolangattaestate.com.au

Bodalla Dairy – www.bodalladairy.com.au

ABC Cheese Factory – southcoastcheese@bigpond.com

Cupitt’s Winery – www.cupitt.com.au