No-one should ever have to experience Melbourne CBD at 7am on a Sunday morning. The city can rarely be described as a ghost town yet this particular time of day felt surreal. Looking around you could sense a change of the guard as revellers crowded 7-Eleven’s to sate their late night munchies leaving only people that HAD to be in town at this ungodly hour, people like me. Despite hitting a few bars last night I had somehow made it into town without public transport to catch the Cafe Bus, (a lengthy morning stroll does wonders for a hangover you know). Should anyone have asked what exactly I was doing walking down Swanston Street sober at this hour I’m convinced that confessing that I was going on a winery tour was going to cause some alarm. “No. I do not have a drinking problem, I’m just off to sample some wine.”
Thankfully I was not alone, hell, I was not even the only Pom on the bus which probably says something about British drinking culture. Joining me in trying to feel human so early on a Sunday morning was a pair of English girls (one hailing from Cambridge, the other from Liverpool), a girl from Munich, a mother and daughter couple from Sydney, an actual couple from Lismore and most bizarrely of all, a lad from Singapore who doesn’t actually drink wine yet if there is a place to start this bus is probably it.
After free caffeine injections from the spluttering coffee machine our guide, Charlie, broke the ice and introduced everyone. Anyone that has been on a day tour will know that your guide can make or break your experience. Not only do they need to know their stuff but know how to entertain and make you feel included. We were in luck as Charlie ticked all the right boxes, slipping in some playfully choice words and regular bouts of hearty laughter gave the impression he’s the sort of guy who could walk into a bar and leave an hour later having made friends for life. All 9 of us were strangers yet with such comparatively small numbers Charlie admitted this was far easier to manage than 30, at least he remembered all of our names.
Another element that can make or break a trip is the weather yet the elements behaved and soon enough we left the CBD, entered onto the highway and within an hour were into the green glens of the Yarra Valley. This felt a lot further from town yet the sight of kangaroos scrapping over females in vineyards aped similarly combustible scenes to that of only a few hours ago on King Street, or Swanston Street or Little Collins Street. What is even more disturbing is that the song playing on the radio just happened to be Kings of Leon – Sex on Fire.
The bus edged up Yarra Glen offering sublime views looking down into the valley with vineyards dotted across the vista while cows, horses and kangaroos lazed in nearby paddocks to complete a view that hasn’t notably changed through decades. Soon enough we were at our first stop which didn’t actually include any wine (hey, it is only 9am). The Yarra Valley Chocolaterie is set on 16 hectares of prime wine-making land and sweeping lawns yet still does not seem out of place. We entered through a gift shop where huge bowls of chocolate drops lured you in. I have gotten into trouble for my criticism of Australian chocolate yet this was divine. There are 150 different varieties of chocolate to choose from and behind a glass pane was where the magic happened as European chocolatiers were handcrafting treats. Due to the temperamental onboard coffee machine Charlies shouted a round and I opted for a hot chocolate which arrived as a pot of melted chocolate and a cup of steamed milk, combine the two with a miniature whisk and there’s liquid chocolate utopia right there.
We came for the wine and at 10am (yes, 10am on a Sunday morning, and I’m telling you, I do not have a drinking problem) we reached our first winery, Coombe Farm Estate Wines. This is one of the oldest in the region and is owned by the descendants of Dame Nellie Melba, the Vestey family. In a bit of trivia that seems to ring true to today’s wine-loving celebrities, Dame Nellie Melba was an operatic soprano and deemed Australia’s first real diva. These days Coombe Farm creates small volumes of ‘classically varietal and regionally expressive’ wines and we were here to sample six of them. Most of our group were wine novices so we were given a brief rundown in wine tasting etiquette aka or ‘How to look like a wine snob in seven easy steps’.
1. Hold the glass by the stem 2. Swirl the wine 3. Sink your nose in for a deep sniff 4. Take a quick swallow *snigger* 5. Remark on tones, flavours and colour, basically anything that pops into your head that sounds remarkably pretentious and profound will suffice 6. Take a mouthful and lightly swish it around your mouth then swallow 7. Note how it now lingers in your throat, behind your teeth and makes you look at the cute German girl standing next to you in a completely different light
If the thought of even more wine before midday is more than a little troubling then don’t fret as the next stop was Yarra Valley Dairy for where there is wine, there is cheese. So much cheese. We were given six samples of soft cheese to sit on our palette and soak up any lingering booze. Alas, due to flying out on Thursday I forgoed actually purchasing any though I was unabashedly tempted.
Now it was time for more booze (I’ll insist, I don’t have a drinking problem) as we headed to Napoleone and Co Cider. Despite, or maybe due to, being surrounded by so many wineries, the Napoleone Family have been orchardists in the Yarra Valley since 1948 using similar techniques to winemaking yet arriving at a product far sooner. Blossoming apple yards stretched into the landscape as far as the eye could see but in 1983 they finally succombed to peer pressure and planted their first vineyards. We happily sampled three of their whites and three of their reds yet none of them seemed to make such an impression as their dry and refreshing ciders. So impressed that I bought a bottle of Cloudy Apple.
By 12.30 it was time to give the drinking a rest and grab some lunch in the town of Healesville or Hicksville as I soon renamed it. Charlie even suggested ordering a beer at the bar and only then I began to worry that he may have alluded to a drinking problem. Without even realising what day it was (I’m blaming the cider for that) it felt and looked like a Sunday afternoon. Families were out for lunch, pensioners were discussing the youth of today and I couldn’t help but slowly amble through town and survey the multitude of op shops that lined the high street.
Payne’s Ridge was next and sure enough there were a few drop outs to sample a few drops. The daughter was clearly drunk, the English pair could not even force down a full sample and I was left to wonder if my experience of taking a bottle of red to house parties was the sole reason I was still able to follow the seven steps. That or the stark refusal to turn down free booze (I DON’T HAVE A DRINKING PROBLEM, OK?). The winery featured a homestead of the area’s first settler and aside from the cellar and shop actually looked like someone’s backyard. An impossibly fluffy cat strolled around accepting affection while the dog outright sought it. With time to spare we were given license to roam but by this point I was due a sit down and a nap.
Our final stop was Killara Estate Winery where a boozy birthday lunch was in full swing. The views across the vineyards were stunning yet any sense of snobbery was soon forgotten by our guide, Lou. As we’d done a countless amount of times already today (no, seriously, how many places have we been too? I’ve had too much and can’t recall where I am. Is it Monday yet? Woah. That German girl is looking GOOD) we adroitedly followed the steps and gulped away. Lou took a moment, stared at each of us then commented that we all looked like ponces which was fair enough. If there was a lesson to be learnt from him it was to forget much of what we’ve been told today – Forget about tones and flavours; if you know what wine you like then stick to it. Forget about matching wine with food, if you’re with a group who are eating different things then it isn’t worth the bother Forget about worrrying about the wine, ensuring you’re with good company should be your main priority. The wine is going to taste sour if you’re sitting next to someone you loathe.
After a delectable antipasti lunch of oil soaked cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted pumpkin, fresh ham and bread it was time to head back onto the bus for the trip home. Having arrived back in town I did a bit of food shopping and inevitably ended up in Liqourland. Glancing around I spotted a box of goon and scowled; how many nights have I wasted drinking that swill?