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September 19, 2011

What’s your wine hook?

19 September 2011 | by Andrea Frost

Perhaps it was the relaxation that came from spending a day in the country, in a cottage filled with books that was set amongst paddocks of horses, that got my friends reflecting on wine, how they bought it and when they drank it.

One declared herself a champagne girl. ‘Only French. It tastes better and doesn’t give me a hangover’ she said, a sudden spritz of energy running through her. The other announced that she proudly buys her wine according to the label because she finds it all a bit confusing. ‘Besides,’ she said, waving her hand like she was shooing a fly, ‘it doesn’t really matter.’

I was thinking how refreshing such definite and uncomplicated views on wine were when they said it: ‘But I don’t really know that much about wine so I’ve probably got no idea…’

And there it was: the curtsey and concession to the gargantuan beast that is wine knowledge.

It seems to happen a lot. It is both the appeal and the burden of wine that, in order to enjoy it, we believe we need to know something about it. Too often it feels as though we’re not able to profess our love for a drink quite as breezily as we do a bunch of flowers, a pair of boots or our new favourite song. We can’t just love it and tell others that this is so.

When it comes to wine, we feel compelled to know something about the wine in order to pass as a worthy wine drinker. Maybe it’s a line from the winery’s boilerplate (old tobacco farmers who came out after the war), something specific about the varieties (alternative to Australia, from Sicily originally), facts about the place it’s grown (from soils older than God) or, most reassuring of all, a big award from overseas.

When it comes to wine, we feel we need a hook to be able to enjoy it. As if to prove how little we know, there is a tome of literature, updated every single year, documenting just how much there is to know.

No other gastronomical pursuit places so much weight on a prerequisite of information. Food certainly doesn’t: in fact, most people are very comfortable talking about the seven-course degustation they had at a three-hat restaurant. But retelling a high-quality wine experience often elicits a more cautious response. ‘I don’t know much about wine…’ or ‘I’m probably wrong …’ or, worse, ‘Is this OK?’

The idea that to have a hook means you will enjoy your wine more is one of the problems of wine. The other problem, of course, is that there is some truth to this.

Because there is something miraculous about a wine that has lain sleeping for decades, performing again after a yawn and a stretch as it leaves the bottle for its next incarnation. There is admiration for a wine that comes from land planted to vine for 2,000 years; nostalgia in knowing that only a certain grape, planted on a certain plot, will taste like that. It is captivating to think that the best sites for vineyards might yet be discovered. Maybe even lying under the hooves of grazing animals, I thought, as I watched the horses meandering through the paddocks.

When I pushed a little further, I learned that my friend loves good champagne because it reminds her of ‘youth and liberty’. One of her favourite champagne stories is when she was travelling through the French Alps with her family as part of a longer trip around the world. While there, she received news that her business had sold for a happy sum. She spent the night with friends, drinking bottle after bottle of vintage Dom Perignon, celebrating her extended liberty amongst the Alps before stumbling home, allegedly making enough noise to wake the glaciers from slumber.

My other friend, who buys wine based on the labels, divides them into two categories: ‘a bit posh’ and ‘a little bit more posh’. It doesn’t make much difference because some of her best wines were drunk amongst a landscape as ancient and large as time itself. Some years earlier, she had driven off in a 4WD, with her family of four, for a twelve-month adventure around Australia. One year turned into three. They lived remotely; camping, home schooling and drinking the best wines of her life by an open fire in the middle of the outback, ‘learning to be a family again’.

So sure, it is true that wine can be more enjoyable if you know something about it, but it is important to remember that the special hook that makes it more enjoyable can be your very own.

Wirra Wirra – The Absconder 2010

Wirra Wirra is a winery with an entrenched culture of hooks and stories. A mix of lore and legend swirls around every wine name they have. There’s the ‘Angelus’ Cabernet Sauvignon, named after the Angelus bell dangling over the stone winery that was ‘procured’ from a local church in the 60s and the ‘Hiding Champion’ Sauvignon Blanc named after the late Greg Trott’s elusiveness (he was once late for a meeting at the McLaren Vale winery and was found in London). Now there’s the ‘Absconder’, Wirra’s first single-varietal Grenache, a beautifully savoury, medium-bodied wine. The Absconder is so named after the founder Robert Strangeway Wigley, a colourful character with a chequered police record who got into strife after an incident with a pie cart that wasn’t his and a joy ride that was. Instead of absconding to the wilderness he set up in McLaren Vale and built a reputation for his wines, many of them based on Grenache. Well, that’s their story, and they’re sticking to it.