Google and gurgle your way to drinking pleasure

As wine drinkers we’ve never had such choice as we do today – the offerings of more than 2,300 Australian and 500-odd New Zealand vignerons, as well as a widening range of imports. Paradoxically, as the number of wine brands expands, liquor retailing continues to consolidate as Coles and Woolworths carve up the trade – and now account for probably more than half of Australia’s take-away liquor sales.

The two giants club each other in capital city press ads each Thursday, fomenting local competition. Together with our local independent retailers they offer a good range of wines – remembering that different outlets offer a different focus.

But what we find at even the best intentioned retail outlet barely touches what’s out there in the wineries. Discovering these gems is rewarding. But like most forms of mining the search involves lots of sifting to uncover pay dirt. These top tips may help you find drinking pleasure in our great regional specialties.

Recognise the keys to quality
Marketing, advertising and packaging send a thousand cues quite often relating to everything but what’s in the bottle. And what’s in the bottle?  Wine made from grapes. The most important information to find (and it’s not always on the label) is the grape variety or varieties used in making the wine, the origin of those grapes, who made the wine and the vintage.

With an appreciation of the types of wines made by the main grape varieties and a feel for regional differences comes understanding. Regional specialisation is now well advanced in Australia and yields some of the greatest drinking pleasure.

As winemaking influences how wine tastes, it helps to acquire some understanding of cellar styles. And, of course, vintages make a difference, especially in marginal grape-growing regions. The further up the price and quality ladder you go, the more you need to know, and the more benchmarks you need in your head to make good value judgements. Take the time to learn as you move up the ladder. Be prepared to expand your frame of reference.

Check regional show results
While our capital city shows attract the most publicity, the results are largely irrelevant to wine drinkers as the same wines seem to win the major gongs. The real action these days is in regional shows open only to local wines. Many of these (Canberra, Limestone Coast and Barossa, for example) post their results on the web. The results give an overview of what varieties do well in a region. And if you’re buying on the strength of the results, you can safely drill down past the trophy and gold medal winners to silver and bronze medallists, too – these will be above average regional wines. The main caveat is that some of the better producers don’t show their wines. So, take the show results as a good, but not definitive, opinion.

Check, as well, results of the Winewise Small Vignerons Awards, held each year in July, at www.winewise.net.au

Read the reviews
Most newspapers and magazines offer wine reviews. You’ll find some reviewers more in tune your palate than others, so follow them if you have time. But as this slow-drip approach gives regional glimpses rather than overviews, James Halliday’s comprehensive annual Wine Companion can be a useful resource ¬– especially the overall rating of wineries. Caveats: I find some of the ratings for very small makers to err on the side of generosity. For wine reviews in general, scores out of 100 give a false sense of precision and tend to cluster misleadingly in a small range.

Visit the winemaker’s website
Websites vary, but many convey a great sense of place and provide wonderful detail on the complex pieces that make up that delicious glass in your hand. It’s a story of passion, people, place and often decades and generations of endeavour.

Visit regional websites
Wine region websites vary in quality and the detail they give. But it’s always worth a Google.

Google and gurgle
With location at the heart of a wine identity it’s not surprising that the world’s biggest selling wine books are wine atlases, including Hugh Johnson’s superb Wine Atlas of the World, first published in 1971, revised and updated several times, and still going strong. A good map tells so much at a glance – especially detailed contour maps of the calibre offered by Johnson. I’ve navigated by them in France.

These days we have an immediate resource at hand in Google Earth. Try, for example, searching ‘Mount Crawford South Australia’ and in a flash you’ll be hovering above the hills on the south-eastern edge of the Barossa, with Domain Day in the cross hairs immediately below. Zoom in for a detailed view of the vineyard, complete with bird netting. Zoom back out and in a few seconds you can take in the whole Barossa zone – the valley floor stretching from Williamstown and Lyndoch in the south and up through Tanunda to Nuriootpa in the north, flanked by the Eden Valley hills to the east, and back to Mount Crawford at the southern end of the hills.

The Google and gurgle method won’t help you buy wine. But it’ll increase your understanding and boost your drinking pleasure. With a glass in hand you can tour Coonawarra, Margaret River, Marlborough – anywhere. And if you have a specific road address for a winery Google can take you right to the spot. Caveat: Google doesn’t have high-resolution shots of every region, but it’s getting better all the time.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009

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