A Virtual Wine Journey Down Under

Tuesday, 14 August, 2018
Graham Howe
In the last of his series on South Australia, Graham Howe explores the history of the vine, wine closures, labels, glasses and styles on an interactive tour of the National Wine Centre in Adelaide.

I dropped by the National Wine Centre of Australia in Adelaide to do “an interactive wine discovery journey” before setting off to experience the actual wine routes of South Australia. Set in the green Botanic Gardens on the grand museum and gallery row in downtown Adelaide, the state-of-the-art wood, glass and steel architectural showcase takes visitors through the history of viticulture in the region from the 1830s to the present.  Using interactive hologram screens, wine lovers can even try their hand at virtual winemaking, engage in a virtual dialogue with wine experts, test their wine knowledge and find out if they have won a bronze, silver or gold medal for their virtual efforts.  

I spotted a gnarly old desiccated Shiraz vine from the Barossa Valley – estimated at 150 years old –bathed in soft light and encased in glass under an evocative Latin saying translated as “Wine is sunlight held together by water”. I smelled my way around, spritzing the aroma vials of the sixteen most planted varieties in Australia in a fascinating three-dimensional exhibit on thirty-two grape varieties. The display covers the origin, characteristics and styles of mainstream grape varieties ranging from Semillon and Riesling to Chenin Blanc (spelled phonetically as “Shenin Blonk”) and Ruby Cabernet (“Roobee Karbernay”) – tagged as a cross between Spanish Carignan and Cabernet Sauvignon developed by the University of California Davis in 1948 for use in dry, hot wine regions.

I was fascinated by The Cape connection recorded in the timelines of the history of winemaking in Australia set beneath a wall of American and French oak barrels. Richard Hamilton, the pioneer of viticulture in South Australia imported and planted the first vine cuttings from Cape Town in 1837, six months after the fledgling colony of South Australia was declared. (The Hamilton family is still in the wine business today). The exhibit also pays tribute to James Busby, “the father of the Australian wine industry” who imported over 650 vine varieties in 1833 – and planted the first vineyard in the Hunter Valley. In his treatise on “The Culture of the Vine”, he linked wine to class and argued the new wine industry would convert the merchant and landowning class from drinking ale and spirts.

The exhibits also document the history of diseases like mildew and grapevine pests like Phylloxera – which bypassed South Australia in the second half of the nineteenth century, leaving the region with a legacy of some of the oldest vines in the world. On a learning curve, I looked at the amazing exhibits on the types of corkscrews (invented in England in the late 1600s), closures (the screw cap closure was patented in the UK in 1889 but the early seals failed) and containers. The timelines trace the birth of the modern wine bottle to the 1630s when wine merchants switched from selling young wines out of the cask to ageing wine in the bottle. It benchmarks the “revolution in the way wine was enjoyed” to 1966 when the first bag in the box wine (known as cask wine in Australia) was released, helping to popularise wine in a traditional beer-drinking society, to introduce Australian wine to new markets in Europe, and increase outdoor wine lifestyles and consumption by volume.

The National Wine Centre is full of geeky wine trivia – down to a wall of 750 wine labels which demonstrate the evolution of label integrity, wine styles and branding from the fortified and claret era into the modern era. Did you know that the first wine exported from Australia in the 1800s, winning a gold medal on the London wine show, was a fortified blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier? Or that there are 24 000 names used worldwide to describe some 5000 grape cultivars? DNA analysis is used to identify the vines in old heritage vineyards and to promote label integrity.

Or that wine glasses have reflected the social history and drinking rituals of wine consumers since the eighteenth century. The exhibit on wine glasses shows how Austria’s Claus Josef Riedel, descendent of an old Bohemian glass company, started a revolution in wine glasses. He redesigned the shape of stemware in 1961, developing new cut-rim crystal glasses and bowl shapes to enhance the aroma and flavour of specific varieties – and to deliver wine directly onto the tongue. (The rolled rim of mass-produced wine glasses disrupt the flow of the wine and accentuate acidity.)

Built in 2000, the National Wine Centre in Adelaide, a joint state and federal government educational venture, is also home to one of the largest open wine cellars (with space for up to 38 000 bottles). Their Wined Bar is the largest tasting room in Australia, offering visitors 120 different wines from around Australia kept in state-of-the-art Enomatic wine preservation and self-service pouring cabinets. My virtual journey of wine discovery was thirsty work. It was time to taste the real stuff. I enjoyed a flight of alternative “global warming” varieties transplanted from the warm Mediterranean climes of Portugal, Spain, Italy and southern France to dry South Australia – all thriving in a region that proudly calls itself the driest state on the driest continent in the world.

Alternate varieties for tasting ranged from The Next Crop Gruner Veltliner to Jim Barry’s Clare Valley Assyrtiko (made from vines imported from Santorini), Shining Rock Fiano, Howling Dog Tannat and Saperavi (an old Russian cultivar), Montepulciano, Barbera and Nebbiolo – and Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier (MRV) blends. There were also intriguing Portuguese and Italian blends. Tasting pours ranged from A$2.50 to $A47 (Penfolds Grange 2013) per 25ml pour up to 75ml pours).

A few days later, I found myself tasting the acclaimed wines at The Cube at d’Arenberg, a major wine tourism destination in McLaren Vale near Adelaide owned by the same family for over a century. Third-generation winemaker Chester Osborn is famed for his eclectic portfolio of 72 wines bottled under the quirkiest wine labels on the planet. These vary from ancient Grenache and Shiraz (114 year-old vines) to alternate varieties such as Sagrantino (a red grape from Umbria), Mencia (a fragrant red from Spain), Aglianico (an intensely flavoured grape from Campania and Calabria) and Graciano (Rioja).  Building the diversity of the global vineyard, these are the building-blocks of the intriguing blends of d’Arenberg under tongue-twister labels such as the Cenosilicaphobic Cat (named after the fear of an empty glass), the Athazagoraphobic Cat (the fear of being forgotten) and The Old Bloke and the Three Blondes (a Shiraz blend with Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier)!  

My learning curve in wine history in South Australia ended with more fascinating wine trivia. Believe it or not, d’Arenberg The Noble Botryotina Fuckeliana, a noble dessert blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, is named after a real person – Dr Karl Fuckel, a German apothecary of the 1850s whose work on fungi is now celebrated in the name of the plant pathogen which causes grey mould disease. You never know what you’ll find next out about the strange and wonderful world of wine. 

Imagine a national museum of wine in the Cape winelands. A high-tech interactive centre would be a showcase for the South African wine industry and a major tourist attraction. It would tell the story of the early history of wine at the Cape from the first Dutch plantings in Constantia to the French Huguenot settlement in the Franschhoek Wine Valley, from the social history of slavery and the pioneering first families of wine, through phyloxera to the evolution of varieties and wine styles, the role of the unique South African variety of Pinotage and the emergence of modern viticulture from sustainable, bio-diversity to organic and biodynamic wines.  A virtual journey through time and through all the wine routes and appellations that make up brand South Africa today. What about it?

  

 * Graham Howe attended the Australian Tourism Exchange 2018 in Australia as a guest of Tourism Australia (www.australia.com), South Australian Tourism Commission (www.southaustralia.com). Also see National Wine Centre at www.wineaustralia.com – open daily, free entrance, pay tastings. The National Wine Education & Training Centre holds classes here – as well as many functions.

Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is likely the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for a wide variety of print media, online and radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over seventy countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra.

Wine histroy timeline at National Wine Centre
Wine histroy timeline at National Wine Centre

Old 150 year-old Shiraz vine from St hallet's winery in Barossa
Old 150 year-old Shiraz vine from St hallet's winery in Barossa

Corkscrews Galore over the centuries
Corkscrews Galore over the centuries

Foils and closures at National Wine Centre
Foils and closures at National Wine Centre

more news