Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Once-sleepy Tasmania comes alive for winter

It is only a few years ago that Tasmanians tended to hibernate during winter. 

A glass of red wine, a wood fire, and nothing could budge them from their homes. 

Over the last couple of years, however, thanks to events like Dark Mofo and the Huon Valley Mid-Winter Fest, islanders have started to embrace the cold and celebrate their point of difference. 

Visitors to Tasmania this winter might be surprised by the number of events and festivals that are scheduled with 250 musicians and artists involved in Dark Mofo, the world's most recognised visual artist Marina Abramović opening at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) and cider-fuelled dress-ups circa the 1500s at the Huon Valley Mid-Winter Fest. 

The winter festivities kicked off with the free 'Party in the Lane' in a little-known laneway in Hobart, Collins Court, on 1 May with a pop-up bar, live street art, music and a special menu curated by MONA's executive sous chef Vince Trim featuring a slow-cooked whole pig and lamb. 

Dark Mofo 2015

Dark Mofo, MONA's winter festival, celebrates ancient and contemporary mythology around the darkest night of the year. The festival opens on June 12 at Dark Park, the new festival HQ at Hobart's harbourside Macquarie Point, with large public artworks like the high-octane Fire Organ by German chemo-acoustic engineer Bastiaan Maris with producer Duckpond. Then there's the epic Wild At Heart road trip - a two-night, ballot only immersive art experience sleepover within Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park (June 15-17), and finishing with the Nude Solstice Swim on June 22 at the crack  of dawn. Program information and tickets at www.darkmofo.net.au
Festival of Voices 
One of winter's hotly anticipated festivals, the Festival of Voices, returns for an 11th year, with an even hotter line-up of international and Australian voices. Held in Hobart from July 3-12, and for the first time in Launceston from July 14-16, the festival allows visitors to enjoy hands-on workshops with world-class conductors, be part of major choir recitals and explore the spoken word, a capella, gospel and cabaret across an eclectic range of venues. This year's festival will kick off with the ever-popular Bonfire & Big Sing at Hobart's Salamanca Place. Tickets available at www.festivalofvoices.com
Marina Abramović Exhibition
It has taken performance artist Marina Abramović 17 years to return to Australia. Coinciding with the opening of Dark Mofo, from June 13 to October 5, MONA hosts a major exhibition of showing her early work with Ulay (a German artist Frank Uwe Laysiepen, her lover and collaborative partner from 1976 to 1988), as well as solo works exploring physical and mental limits, and more recent work where the public become the subject. www.mona.net.au.
Huon Valley Mid-Winter Fest


What is wassailing? The pagan tradition of awakening the apple trees by banging pots and singing to them by firelight is alive and well during the Huon Valley Mid-Winter Fest at The Apple Shed. To really get into the action and be in the running for prizes, why not dress up in your best sixteenth-century 'Welsh Morris'-style costume? But if paganism isn't your thing, Friday night has been reserved for feasting - with the best local food, craft ciders, wine and fireside music. From July 17-19. Tickets available at www.huonvalleymidwinterfest.com.au.
Devonport Jazz Festival 
From July 23-26 there will be jazz in halls, churches, pubs, clubs, cafes, vineyards, even jazz in a chocolate factory! Now in its 13th year, the Devonport Jazz Festival program features artists from Tasmania and interstate playing everything from gospel to blues.  Tickets from www.devonportjazz.com.  
Tasmanian Pinot Noir Showcase 
A good pinot noir is notoriously hard for winemakers to produce and even harder sometimes for enthusiasts to find. The marriage between Tasmanian terroir and pinot noir grapes is made in heaven, with ideal growing conditions for the moody little fruit. Tasmania's best pinot noir producers join forces for the eighth annual Tasmanian Pinot Noir Showcase, held at Launceston's Pinot Shop on July 25. Bookings at www.pinotshop.com. 
Latrobe Chocolate Winterfest
Latrobe on Tasmania's north-west coast hosts chocaholics on August 9 with tastings, a Community Lantern Parade and lots of hot chocolate. www.chocolatewinterfest.com.au

For a full and up-to-date listing of Tasmanian events, and information on travelling to Tasmania, visit the Discover Tasmania website www.discovertasmania.com.au.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Hey, hey Aussie Wine Month is here again

May is just around the corner, bringing with it the fourth annual Aussie Wine Month, promoted as "the country's biggest celebration of Australian wine".
In my experience Australians are pretty parochial when it comes to wine. We are are happy to sip on the occasional Chablis, sample a German riesling or an Argentine malbec, but we largely drink domestically. 
That said, we are not as nationalistic about our wine as the French, where until recently it was hard to find many imports, even in Paris, or Argentina, where imported wines are as scarce as intelligent politicians in Canberra.  
Aussie Wine Month, an initiative of Wine Australia, encourages wine drinkers to discover the diversity, quality and regionality of local wines and share their discoveries by including #AussieWineMonth in their social media posts.

Aussie Wine Month events will take place around the country, making it a great time to plan a wine weekend getaway, try a new wine style or explore the wines of some of Australia's lesser known wine regions. With 65 Australian wine regions to choose from, there's plenty for the wine lover to discover right on their doorstep.

There'll be wineries and regions hosting tastings, dinners, winery walks, festivals and pop-up cellar doors while a range of pubs, bars and restaurants will have an all-Australian wine-by-the-glass list for the month of May.

Wine lovers are urged to share their enthusiasm for Aussie wine on social media using the #AussieWineMonth hashtag and could win a dozen bottles of Australian wine valued at more than $400. Visit the Aussie Wine Month site for more details.
A full list of Aussie Wine Month events can be found at www.aussiewinemonth.com.
Wine drinkers can share their wine experiences with friends overseas by including #AussieWineMonth on their social media posts.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

How Newcastle reinvented itself as a gourmet destination

It is not so long ago that Newcastle was derided as a dull industrial city that most people skirted around as they headed to the beaches of northern New South Wales.

But the former steel and coal city just a two-hour drive north of Sydney has reinvented itself as a destination for lovers of fine food, wine and craft beers; as well as culture, city beaches and outdoor action.


As a city of heavy industry, Newcastle was badly hit by recessions – and an earthquake - in the early 80s and early 90s, but is today a vibrant and resurgent city with a lively café culture. It is the seventh-largest metropolitan area in Australia.

The CBD is shifting to the west, towards the major waterfront urban renewal area known as Honeysuckle and the West End, which was a wasteland of deserted buildings just a few years ago but is now home to trendy restaurants and speakeasy-style bars.

Leading the way are two outstanding eateries – in contrasting styles – run by talented local chefs.

First stop for any gourmet looking for dinner should be Subo, a contemporary bistro on the western edge of the main street, Hunter Street.

Talented chef Beau Vincent (above), who has worked at Tetsuya's and Bistro Guillaume, serves up five-course set menus in a buzzy, relaxed atmosphere and has earned two hats in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide. His wife Suzie runs front of house.

Everything here is top-notch, from the inventive food (think dishes like steam snapper fillet with mushroom dashi, konbu, rye and daikon; and roasted Galston spatchcock with braised onions & bread sauce) to the affable but knowledgeable service.

The menu changes every six weeks or so but make certain to advise of dietary issues when booking. There's a cleverly concise wine list with just a couple of dozen wines, with most of them are available by the glass.

Very different in style, but also run by an outstanding young chef, is Restaurant Mason at the other end of Hunter Street, run by chef/patron Chris Thornton, who has worked at London’s two Michelin-starred The Ledbury.


The dining here (above) is more traditional, with a plethora of choices, but there are plenty of surprises; try dishes like miso-glazed kingfish with kimchi, togarichi spice and prawn cracker; goat cheese tortelini with locally grown vegetables, almond gazpacho, toasted grains and herb butter, or maybe caramelised pork cheek with pickled red fruits.

The food here is acutely judged, but don't miss the crispy chicken wings with paté, bean sprouts, pumpkin seeds, buckwheat and jamon cream, which is also available on a five-course tasting menu.

The wine list covers Hunter Valley favourites like Scarborough and Andrew Thomas through to imports from New Zealand, France and Spain.

Other good options include The Edwards in upwardly mobile West End, part-owned by Chris Joannou from Silverchair; a bar, restaurant and performance space with a post-industrial vibe, and former working class pub now gentrified, Carrington Place.

Wine lovers are well catered for by Reserve Wine Bar (below); operated by former wine writer Patrick Haddock and some like-minded partners.


In this beautifully transformed bank you'll find an excellent, and global, wine list wine flights and very appealing food. The staff are very knowledgeable and you can ask to take a peek at the former bank vault, now the cellars.

Not far away, at The Grain Store, there are usually close to 40 craft beers and ciders from around Australia on tap each week. Match sweet pork belly with a Stone & Wood Pacific Ale, or choose a paddle of ales with finger food.

The Hop Factory, The Blind Monk and Craft & Co also cater for beer lovers, along with a new Peroni Bar in the Star Hotel (made infamous by the Cold Chisel song).

“There has been a massive change of mood in Newcastle over the past few years,” says Luke Tilse, owner of the bustling Happy Wombat bar and restaurant and of the local Apple Truck cider company. “There are several great wining and dining precincts, each with their own vibe.”

For views with your food head to the spectacular Merewether Surfhouse, or join the locals queueing at the window to take away fish and chips from local institution Scottie's (you can also now sit down following a recent renovation).

There are plenty of other eclectic choices, ranging from Peruvian cuisine at Chan Chan Cucina, paella at Bocados, Japanese at Nagusa or modern Australian at laid-back Silo Restaurant and Bar in the glitzy Honeysuckle complex overlooking the working harbour. The quirky Italian Una Volta also has many local fans.


There's plenty of good coffee to be found (along with terrific breakfasts) at Frankie's Place (above) in inner city Cook's Hill (think Newcastle's Newtown), Good Brother and Black Welsh. Head further out to dine at the Fortunate Son at Hamilton, the nearby Chinese Sinofood, or the much-vaunted County Dining at Morpeth – there really are dozens of choices.

Wine lovers should try to get along to Inner City Winemakers, which is part winery, part art gallery, part wine bar.

Late at night, try the cocktails at dark and moody Coal and Cedar, or try recently opened speakeasy Koutetsu, which means steel in Japanese. Casa de Loco is known for its Mexican food and wide range of tequilas and mezcals. The Burwood Inn, Cazador and Bar Petite are other local hangouts.

But Newcastle isn't all about eating and drinking. The Newcastle Art Gallery is one of the best small galleries in the country (check out the Brett Whiteley sculpture by the entrance), while Cooks Hill Galleries specialises in the works of local artists and the Newcastle Museum has a range of interactive exhibits. Newcastle is also noteworthy for some spectacular street art.

Nobby's Beach is one of Australia's iconic surf beaches and a great spot for an early morning walk, as are Merewether Beach and the Newcastle Ocean Baths.

Stroll around Darby Street (one of Newcastle's Eat Streets) and Darby Lane to check out some of the graffiti and browse in clothes shops and galleries. A coffee at Golding's or the Three Monkeys is de rigueur.


THE FACTS

Newcastle is a two-hour drive north of Sydney depending on the traffic flow, and a 40-minute drive to the Hunter Valley.

Quest Apartments, 575 Hunter Street, Newcastle, (02) 4928 8000, www.questapartments.com.au, offers 62 self-contained 4.5 star one, two and three-bedroom serviced apartments that include all kitchen and laundry facilities, separate lounge and dining area, private balcony and work station. There is on-site parking, an indoor heated pool, spa and gym, as well as computer terminals for the use of guests. Prices start from around $199 per night.

# The writer travelled as a guest of www.visitnewcastle.com.au and drove a Peugeot RCZ 1.6 Turbo 147 courtesy of Sime Darby Motors Group (Australia) Pty Ltd, Heritage Building A, Campus Business Park, 350 Parramatta Road, Homebush. www.sdmg.com.au.  




Thursday, 23 April 2015

A rustic getaway on beautiful Bruny Island

Bruny Island, the island off the island state, has built a formidable reputation as a gourmet getaway destination. There is so much to see (and eat) that Bruny is well worth a day or two of leisurely exploration.
If you are looking for affordable accommodation that is clean, comfortable and well-situated then All Angels Church House, a former church converted into a comfy cottage that boasts a log fire for winter warmth. 

Tucked away off the main road at Lunawanna, South Bruny, overlooking Daniels Bay, All Angels is a lovely base from which to explore. 

Built in 1912, this former church boasts a rear extension which sleeps up to five people, making it ideal for families or two couples. 

Features include original cathedral ceilings, a claw foot bath and that cosy fire, which is needed as Bruny gets chilly during the winter months.

Guests will find an HD TV, CD player/radio, DVD player, electric heating, washing machine (washer/dryer), hair dryer, miicrowave and electric blankets.

Bruny Island is the same size as Singapore, but while around 4.5 million people populate the Asian city state, less than a 1000 live permanently on Tasmania’s fourth-largest island, which lies just a 30-minute drive and 15-minute ferry ride south of Hobart. 

It’s the perfect escape from big-city blues with limited mobile phone reception, wildlife, beautiful (and deserted) beaches and dramatic scenery. 

There are several cafes on what are effectively two islands joined by a narrow isthmus and several excellent self-catering accommodation offerings. 

Gourmets will be in their element here with smoked fish and yummy dips from the Bruny Island Smoke House, a selection of fabulous cheeses from Bruny Island Cheese, fresh oysters from Get Shucked and even wine tastings at Bruny Island Premium Wines, Australia’s southernmost vineyard. 


There is good food to be found at the Hotel Bruny, too, and the local Bruny Island cider is worth sampling. 

Bruny Island Cruises offers award-winning coastal voyages while there are several excellent walking trails. 

All Angels Church House, 4561 Bruny Island Main Road, Lunawanna, Bruny Island. Book through Bruny Island Escapes: (03) 6293 1271. www.brunyisland.com.

One of Tasmania's best gourmet events hits a milestone

Peppers Cradle Mountain Lodge, one of Australia's most beautiful wilderness retreats, will mark a significant milestone when it hosts the 21st edition of the popular Tastings at the Top weekend from May 15-17.



The two-day gourmet festival ranks among the country's best food and wine experiences in one of the most idyllic settings and will be hosted by Sydney wine expert Peter Bourne and executive chef Joshua Hamilton (previously from Freycinet Lodge and Sails in the Desert at Ayers Rock).

The program includes wine matching events, degustation dinners and tasting with wineries including Native Point, Spring Vale, Clarence House and Heemskerk and food suppliers Barilla Bay oysters, Spring Bay scallops and Cape Grim beef.


Peppers Cradle Mountain Lodge general manager Leigh Reid, said it was testament to the event's appeal that it was celebrating 21 years of showcasing the best of Tasmania's food and wine excellence.

“In the ever-changing food and wine scene Tastings at the Top has obviously remained both relevant and enjoyable for our guests and our industry partners,” Reid said. “It is a winning formula that we look forward to showcasing for many years to come.”


I've attended several Tastings at the Top and can highly recommend the event, which is always relaxed and fun, but also informative - and held in stunning surrounds. 

The two-night Tastings at the Top package includes accommodation, breakfasts, Saturday lunch, two dinners , welcome drinks, matched wines and entertainment, with prices starting from $1598 per couple. Visit 
 www.cradlemountainlodge.com.au/food-wine/tastings-at-the-top/ 
for further information or phone 1300 806 192.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

One of the worst airline meals ever

Meet what has to be the worst airline meal I have had this year. Or last year, for that matter.
Pasta for dinner anyone? 
 
It was a dish served on flight LA 801 between Santiago in Chile and Auckland. 


This culinary gem was enticingly described as "pasta" and was offered as an option to "salmon". 

No-frills LAN, the national carrier of Chile, has dispensed with such fripperies as warm/cold towels, menus and amenity kits. And, apparently, decent food.

This congealed mess, strangely burnt in places, was apparently designed to be meat raviolis in a cheese sauce. 

Which might have been fine if it were not both under-cooked and served to me somewhere between lukewarm and stone cold.

I could only manage one mouthful, I'm afraid, although had I been truly hungry there was also a "salad" - six or seven pieces of tired-looking lettuce. No tomato, no onion, just sad, lonely lettuce.
 
To be fair, when I complained the purser did offer something alternative. I was not game to try it.


That's because on the Buenos Aires-Santiago leg, LAN's idea of a snack was the world's worst ham and cheese roll. A doughy, tasteless creation that almost defies description.

In fact on five of seven legs with LAN over the past 12 days, five menus featured some form of ham and cheese sandwich or croissant.
  
All this is strange, because the LAN in-flight entertainment system describes the airline's culinary offerings as "dishes that evoke the simple, homemade flavors of our region's most traditional dishes".


Obviously ham and cheese sandwiches hold a special place in Chilean culture. 

The other atrocity on the same flight was this "omelette" - just a super-rubbery omelette (no mushroom or tomato, not even any ham or cheese), served with a handful of diced pieces of potato, some of which were close to raw (far left), others burnt to a cinder (sixth piece from left, top). 
Omelette for breakfast  

LAN also ran out of water when we were still 90 minutes out of Auckland. 

When I pointed out to the chief purser that hydration was essential on long flights and that this is potentially dangerous, she demanded my passport number and said if I did not provide it then she could not log a complaint. 

So LAN, and One World, consider this as a complaint. Not good enough from a low-cost carrier, let alone a major regional flag bearer.

And while LAN is not good at gastronomy or providing water, it also fails when it comes to looking after frequent flyers from One World partner airlines.
As a Qantas frequent flyer (and Qantas Club member) I had booked forward aisle seats as per my preferences, which were shown as "confirmed" on my booking. 

When I checked in at Buenos Aires for my Qantas codeshare flights I had been mysteriously moved to seats just two rows from the rear. And as both flights were full the "new" seat assignments could not be changed. 

This is despite the LAN in-flight magazine boasting that my One World levels have access to "preferred or pre-reserved seating". Only when it suits the airline, apparently.

 
To be fair, some of the LAN staff are charming and there is an impressive selection of entertainment options but on a long leg like Santiago-Sydney I would in future opt for Qantas reliability every time. 


# Or a new alternative: Air New Zealand has just announced that from December 15 it will be flying to Buenos Aires three times a week via Auckland. 

Saturday, 18 April 2015

So you really want to get away from it all in Tasmania?

For almost two decades Australian tourism entrepreneur Simon Currant had a vision of converting a unique but derelict piece of architecture in Tasmania into a boutique hotel.
An aerial view of Pumphouse Point

In January, after many travails, Currant's dream became reality with the opening of Pumphouse Point, a striking 18-room property in the dramatically beautiful and remote wilds of Australia's island state.

A three-hour drive north-west of the Tasmanian capital of Hobart in the Cradle Mountain Lake St Clair National Park, Pumphouse Point is a quirky wilderness retreat with a difference; a complete re-imagining of two brutalist 1940s buildings into a juxtaposition of the old and the new.

People arrive at the property and say: “Is that it?” admits marketing man Tom Wootton, who has also been known to fill in as a waiter during busy periods. “Then they check out the views, and the rooms, and go: “Wow!”

Pumphouse Point comprises 12 rooms and two lounges located in an old hydro-electric pumphouse at the end of a 250-metre flume perched over Australia’s deepest lake, and a smaller art deco-style shorehouse, with six rooms and lounge/dining area, overlooking the water.
Hydro Tasmania built the pumphouse in 1940 to pump water from Lake St Clair to the nearby Tarraleah power station. It was only used a handful of times and was decommissioned in the early 1990s, falling into disrepair. It was back then that Currant, who also developed Cradle Mountain Lodge, first identified it as an outstanding tourism site.

The new resort maintains the old exteriors with completely re-built interiors. Each room has satellite TV, a modern bathroom, and its own tablet computer with information about the history of the property, local wildlife, walking tracks and available activities. Powered by the property's free wi-fi they also have VOIP access and music via Spotify.

Sitting in the pumphouse, in front of the roaring fire; it is disturbingly easy to believe you are at sea, and hours pass quickly as the light constantly changes on the mountains, Myrtle forests, native pines, gum trees and rippling waters.
The boutique wilderness retreat inside a World Heritage-listed area is surrounded by snow-capped mountains in winter. There is access to the famous Overland Track walk from the property and suggested treks range from a 45-minute stroll around the property to an 18-kilometre, seven-hour climb to the peak of Mount Ida.

The pleasures here are simple ones; fishing for brown or rainbow trout, hiking, rowing in drift boats, kayaking and mountain biking, or maybe a game of boules, but guests are also encouraged to experience the pumphouse and its remarkable views; to sit down and wind down with a glass of wine.

Dining options are, deliberately, limited to a table d'hote menu, with guests invited to imagine they are attending a chic dinner party. They mingle in the lounge over complimentary drinks and appetisers before sitting at communal tables to sample dishes like lemon and thyme chicken on quinoa with fresh roasted vegetables, or honey and orange-glazed ham with broccoli salad.

Desserts include chocolate and beetroot brownies served with fresh raspberries and berry ice cream. Gluten-free and vegetarian options are available.

For those who wish to dine separately in their room or one of the cosy lounges; each room contains a maxi bar that is more like a larder with a range of soups, local cheeses, charcuterie meats and smoked salmon, all from artisanal local producers, that can serve as a picnic lunch or light dinner.

There is also a local pub within driving distance at Derwent Bridge for those looking for a rustic and very different style of Australian social experience.

There is a selection of very good – and reasonably priced – Tasmanian wines, beers and ciders available in rooms, or the lounges at Pumphouse Point, using an honour system by which guests simply fill in a form to show what they have consumed.

One of the things we try to aim for is 4½ star accommodation but with six-star service,” says co-general manager Josh Bradshaw, “but we also make sure guests have time on their own to explore the wilderness and a haven to return to.”

Wildlife lovers will enjoy spotting wallabies, echidnas, quolls, possums, wombats and Tasmanian devils, which were scared away during construction but are now flocking back to the areas surrounding the retreat.

For the elderly, or less mobile, converted golf carts, known as flume buggies, are available to provide transport or help move luggage to and from rooms to the accommodation.

The style here is casual and relaxed,” says founder Currant. “Whether guests are exploring the outdoors or watching the weather from their lounge, we encourage them to do their own thing at their own pace. We want it to be a place to relax and reflect.”

Early indications are that visitors will be a mixture of Tasmanians and overseas visitors, most staying two nights. Children under 12 years old are not permitted. Weekend bookings need to be made well in advance but midweek (when the country roads are quieter anyway) is easier.

Pumphouse Point: 1 Lake St Clair Road, Lake St Clair, Tasmania 7140, Australia. +61 428 090 436. www.pumphousepoint.com.au. The 18 rooms range in price from $240 to $480 a night, including bed, breakfast and a range of outdoor activities. Guests can arrive via road or sea plane and additional activities on offer include white water rafting, abseiling and scenic flights. 

# A version of this story originally appeared in American Express Centurion Magazine. 


Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Wine fashions: all change in 2015

It is impossible to predict wine fashions but I've looked deep into my crystal ball to see what styles will be pushing our buttons over the next 12 months. 

Sustainable” wines

Sustainability is the latest wine buzzword with savvy producers making sure their vineyards are treated with the utmost respect so they will continue to produce great fruit for future generations.
Steve and Monique Lubiana in their vineyards
While the virtues of wines produced using biodynamic or organic methods are becoming more and more recognised, even more mainstream winemakers are aiming to make their vineyard practices sustainable.

Geographical and weather patterns in certain regions make it unrealistic for some wine producers to commit to organic or biodynamic certification, but a growing number are following those principles whenever possible.
In the cool-climate regions of Tasmania, for instance, many vineyards need to be sprayed with chemicals to avoid infestations of diseases such as downy and powdery mildew but even here there are a brave handful pushing the boundaries.
Despite advice to the contrary, Stefano Lubiana in the Derwent Valley has full biodynamic certification, saying he is convinced careful vineyard management will negate any need for chemical spraying.
In McLaren Vale, South Australia, home to some of Australia’s best reds and the region with some of the highest vineyard prices in Australia, almost one-third of all vineyards are now committed to voluntary sustainable agriculture in line with the McLaren Vale Sustainable Winegrowing Australia Program.
The program looks at soil health, biodiversity, pest and disease management, water management, waste management and social relations and is seen as a signpost to environmentally friendly wine production.
And, of course, leading biodynamic producers like Henschke, Cullen, Krinklewood, Castagna, Kalleske and others offer wines that are both sustainable and easy to find.

Picking grapes at Henschke 
Rare grape varieties

What once were fringe varieties like pinot gris/grigio, merlot and vermentino have become accepted as mainstream and any time we walk into a bottle shop nowadays there is a whole new wave of alternative varieties vying for our attention.

Overall, Australian winemakers are using well over 150 different grape varieties, constantly looking for the “next big thing” as well as grapes that are resistant to heat as global warming becomes an increasing threat in our warmer viticultural regions.

Perhaps the Spanish red grape mencia will be all the rage, or the little-known bonvedro, rare even in Portugal, Spain and northern Italy and which until recently was mis-identified as carignan from France?

Or perhaps the German variety schönburger, or maybe Saint-Macaire, a French grape that thrives in the warm climes of the Riverina?

Other contenders include Greek varieties assyrtiko and mavrodaphne, both of which are on the radar of wineries like Jim Barry and Brown Brothers, the Spanish red grape graciano, which is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, or maybe the Austrian grapes zweigelt and blaufrankisch.

Orange” or natural wines
There has been a huge rise in the popularity of “natural” wines – skin contact-produced wines that often have an orange or amber hue – and these styles are extremely popular with sommeliers.
While there is no official definition, "natural" wine is generally understood to contain no added acid or yeast and less sulphur dioxide than more conventionally made wine, and it is often unclarified. The wines are often whites made using the techniques more often used for red wine making.

Followers of this approach are also described as minimal intervention winemakers and include Anton Von Klopper (Lucy Margaux), James Erskine (Jauma) and Tom Shobbrook (Shobbrook), among others, including many practitioners in Friuli, Italy, and the Swartland region of South Africa.
Natural wines, usually made in tiny quantities by committed artisan producers, can by their very nature sometimes be volatile, or taste oxidised when they are older, but their fans say they have greater texture and their pronounced tannin and phenolic profiles make them extremely food friendly.


Monday, 13 April 2015

A sad and strange place to be stranded in on a Sunday afternoon

I'm sure I have found myself in stranger places than Chilecito, a small, tired-looking cactus-dotted town in the dusty Argentine desert country of La Rioja. But I simply can't recall one.
I just spent an hour or so on a Sunday afternoon strolling the main square and side streets of Chilecito.
The square was close to deserted apart from a pair of neglected-looking ponies being offered as kids' rides. No takers.
There were a couple of ice creams stalls, one manned by a sad-eyed teenager girl with tattoos and a runny nose, a few cowering dogs and some families emerging after their Sunday siesta. Oh. And a couple of local morons driving around and around with Latino music blaring loudly from their beat-up vehicles.
Chilecito has the look of a film set for a Wild West movie; except for a handful of modern buildings it looks as if it hasn't changed for 50 years.
One of those modern buildings is the M.A.C. Royal Suites Chilecito - a totally out of place modern hotel with its own casino.

Bizarrely, the main door to the Howard Johnson-managed hotel (all mod cons, spa and free wifi) was locked when we arrived. And our group appeared to be the only guests. But perhaps that is no surprise when the asking price for a single room is apparently $US200 a night.
I suspect very few of the locals would earn anywhere near the cost of a room for the night for a month's worth of work.
The only time Chilecito has made the news is when a 12-year-old girl gave birth to twins - and when yet another Dakar Rally competitor ded in an accident outside town. 
So what am I doing here, you may well ask? 
I'm on a famil trip with Wines of Argentina but after a five-hour light plane ride that was hot and bumpy I demurred, rather rudely, I admit, when told the winery that was our evening destination was a three-hour round road trip away.
I hoped a walk through town would ease my headache, but it is still throbbing away. It just seems a depressing place, with signs demanding "justice" for some little girl posted mysteriously on power poles.
My guide book tells me that Chilecito is a town of history, art, culture and historic monuments. There is, apparently, a fascinating museum at an old mine cable car station, and the rocky outcrops overlooking the town are probably perfect for hiking and mountain biking. From my hotel window I can see a giant statue of Jesus Christ. 
I've tried some of the local wines from the La Riojana co-op, too, and they are very good.
Maybe I just hit Chilecito on the wrong day. Maybe I am just immune to its many charms. But either way I can't see myself rushing back.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Exploring the many faces of the Mornington Peninsula

There are golf courses galore; cellar doors with world-class restaurants and breathtakingly beautiful countryside. And best of all the Mornington Peninsula is just a one-hour drive south of Melbourne. 
The Green Olive at Red Hill

It is not so long ago that the peninsula was a sleepy hollow where Melbourne professionals had weekenders, or holiday homes. Other than over the busy summer holidays it was a haven of tranquillity.

But the secret hideaway of Melbourne’s movers and shakers is a secret no more. Over the past three decades winemakers and boutique food producers have descended – enticed by both the region's beauty and a cool-maritime climate.

The breezes from Port Phillip Bay and Bass Strait ideal for producing fine wines, growing olives and making artisanal cheeses.

Year round, exploring the peninsula will lead visitors to lively produce markets and roadside stalls selling seasonal produce.

The list of wineries is a roll call of Victoria's finest boutique producers: Hurley Vineyard, Ten Minutes by Tractor, Kooyong/Port Phillip Estate, Eldridge Estate, Foxeys Hangout, Ocean Eight, Paringa Estate, Paradigm Hill, Polperro, Stonier, Crittenden Estate, Garagiste, Main Ridge and Yabby Lake among them.

Lunch at Yabby Lake Vineyard
Today there are over 170 vineyards and more than 50 cellar doors as you wind your way round the confusingly zigzag roads that traverse Red Hill, Merricks, Main Ridge, Balnarring and Moorooduc – and the varieties range from pinot noir and chardonnay to less common varieties including arneis and sangiovese.

Many of the best gourmet producers are members of the new Wine Food Farmgate initiative showcasing the best of the area, which is today the most expensive vineyard land in Australia. 

And the vignerons have helped create an area that now boasts dozens of appealing eateries and a range of great places to stay.

And it is very much a region on the move with something new to discover every time you visit, from cider producers, craft brewers in most unlikely settings as well as hot springs retreats and mazes. 
Apples at Mock Orchards

Yet there are still surprises to be stumbled upon; think hidden truffle groves that can only be explored with the aid of companies like Mornington Peninsula Experience Tours, or craft breweries – with Mornington Peninsula Brewery and Red Hill Brewery leading the charge. 

Visitors can arrange tours of the industrial-style Mornington Peninsula Brewery and learn more about the complex combination of malted barley and hops. This craft brewery is hidden away in an industrial estate but is hugely popular with locals and visitors alike with a constantly changing range of beers. The Brewery Bar is known for its gourmet pizzas and features live music on Sundays.

Also check out Bass and Flinders Distillery. Founded five years ago, this tiny artisan distillery is tucked away behind the Darling Park winery and offers tastings of small-batch gins and vodkas, among a large range of spirits, all made using local products.

# Mock Orchards: A rustic farm gate operation where visitors can arrive by car, horse or bike to sample a range of biodynamic ciders and fruit juices. The Mock family has been growing apples since 1895.

# Polperro: Open just a few months on the estate previously known as Vines of Red Hill, Polperro has a bistro serving refined yet casual food, a tiny wine bar, wine tasting room and four refurbished studio apartments with spa baths and vineyard views. Think dishes like duck cassoulet and mushroom brioche, or delicious smoked fish croquettes and wines under the Polperro and Even Keel labels.
Vineyards at Port Phillip Estate  

# Green Olive: This 27-acre sustainable farm is the closest thing Australia has to an “agriturismo” experience. Guests are offered the chance to sample and eat produce grown or raised on the property; ranging from sheep to olives.

And these relatively new experiences are only scratching the surface of what the peninsula has to offer.

The recently inaugurated Wine Food Farmgate trail is the perfect introduction to the region's many gourmet attractions. 

For more information: Mornington Peninsula Tourism, (03) 5987 3078, www.visitmorningtonpeninsula.org. See www.winefoodfarmgate.com.au

# A version of this story first appeared in Golf Magazine Australia