A wine drinkers progress

18 Dec, 2002 10:00 PM

"I SAW him fill them from different barrels" my father-in-law said with a puzzled tone of voice, "but I'm afraid I can't tell the difference between any of them," a comment we could but endorse.

The occasion was back in the 1960s when my wife's father had arrived on the farm from Perth, a trip that had been interrupted by a stop at an outer metropolitan winery where he bought four half-gallon flagons of red wine.

There was a claret, a port, a vermouth and one other, perhaps a sherry, a reasonable sample of sought-after types for the time, even if it didn't represent the best quality available on the market.

None of us were really experienced drinkers or competent judges and the wine we usually bought in flagons was very affordable, with a quality that was just marginally superior to our judgement.

We generally drank claret and bought our supplies from a winery in the Swan Valley, chosen partly because of price, but also because we could return the empties and receive a refund of, I think, 2/- each.

By today's standards the wine was very cheap, but by today's standards we were also very poor and the 10 or 12 shillings we paid for half a gallon would have been the price of three or four bottles of beer.

A major breakthrough came when the big wineries started marketing wine in plastic bags inside cardboard casks, a technology that made wine more affordable, with a better quality than the old flagons.

Every house seemed to have a cask of claret in the pantry and one of dry white in the fridge, with visitors arriving for a dinner party increasingly bringing Chateau Cardboard instead of the more usual bottles of beer.

Although it was quite good wine, it did reveal a certain sameness, with each glass or carton being exactly the same as the glass or carton before and the one that came next.

The next step in this wine drinker's progress came about because of the NFF, with one of the friends I had made through that organisation informing me that, in his spare time, he and some others ran a wine buying syndicate.

I discovered that it was possible to buy quite reasonable bottled wine for $3-$4 per bottle, delivered by the carton to my door, a service that continues today with quaffing red or white still only $6-$7 per bottle.

It wasn't always great wine, but it had some flavour or even complexity, with different taste treats coming from different brands or blends, even if very few of us could identify or even count the flavours.

Not for us the hint of melon or strawberry, or even a herbaceous taste on any part of the palate, front or back, but we were soon able to take a knowing sniff from the glass and decide whether it was going to be a swallow or spit job.

My friend's forbears hailed from Scotland and some of the traits of that noble race have persisted, with John believing that the only thing better than a good red is a good, inexpensive, red.

He and his friends have developed the art of sniffing out the quality wineries that are either unknown or who have had a productive season and need to market the surplus in cheaper, unmarked, bottles.

After years of talking about "a cheeky little red" and how I was "amused by its audacity" I decided it was time to undertake a wine appreciation course so I could gain an understanding of what was being said.

I had reached the stage where I could detect different flavours, but I needed to know what to expect when the notes told me that a nice sounding red or white had predominant tannin or oak.

One Sauvignon Blanc had a very pervasive odour - sorry, nose - and our teacher asked us to identify it. One brave soul, putting truth above all, identified it as "cat urine," an answer that gave him a 100pc score.

I had read about and heard of the famous Grange Hermitage, supposedly Australia's best red, so I decided to buy a bottle and let it mature in comfort as I approached the big "six 0."

I had arranged to invite 50 or so friends over for my 60th birthday party, a great idea in itself, but one that left me pondering how I was going to spread one bottle amongst 50 people.

I solved the problem by inviting my sister and her husband - and my non wine-drinking daughter - over for dinner a few nights before the birthday party, so the real drinkers were able to share the Grange.

My brother-in-law turned 70 a few weeks ago, so I invited the pair of them out for a celebratory dinner. It worked out well, because he brought the Grange that he had been saving for his big day.

My sister is only a few years away from her next big birthday. I wonder if she has a bottle of Grange put away for the celebrations?



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