Saturday, May 26, 2007

If, like me you have bestowed upon you the title, Sir William of No Mates, then joining a tour group is something to be avoided. Those in family groups or, even worse, canoodling couples, tend to view you with a suspicion normally kept in reserve for convicted child molesters. There is usually pointing involved and often a few suppressed giggles.

Still, when I decided to leave Sydney for a day and head up to sample the delights of The Hunter Valley, I had precious little choice, given that the wineries of the area are some distance apart and the police of New South Wales take a strangely dim view of bald men swerving around the country roads on scooters slugging wine out of opened bottles of Shiraz.

So it was I found myself climbing aboard a small coach outside The Sydney Marriott Hotel at 7.30am to join a tour of The Hunter Valley. Me and 15 others.

True to form, I was the only single person on board as I joined a handful of young couples and a group of Filipinos who spoke hardly any English but seemed to have decided to go on a wine tour purely on the basis that one of them had watched “ Sideways” on the plane over. Prospects of a good time and some communal bonding were bleak and I prepared myself to hide my blushes in the pages of a hard boiled crime novel.

Fortunately, the driver of the bus, Steve, turned out to be a very amiable and amusing man from New Zealand and, recognising my plight, cleared the seat next to him so we could chat on the two hour journey to The Hunter Valley.

The Australians take their wine very seriously and I have lost count of how many people told me that the reason all Australian wine in the UK is vile is that they keep all the good stuff for themselves. Well, I can’t speak for all of Australia, but they certainly don’t keep it in The Hunter Valley. But, more of that later.

The area has a poor reputation with its more urban Sydney counterparts who refer to it as The C**ter Valley and have renamed Cessnock, its main town as Cesspit because of the preponderance of crime and drug abuse. Lovely eh? And, I didn’t find this out until I was on the bus and having it all explained to me in gory detail by Steve.

The tour consisted of visits to two boutique wineries which bookmarked an extended visit to a winery resort, a new(ish) concept of building a small themed area within walking distance of a number of wineries so you can have lunch, buy wine related gifts, try tastings at all the cellar doors and even stay over night if your heart so desires.

It is all harmless fun. A decent lunch came thrown in and there were enough free tastings to give even my jaundiced liver a bit of a buzz. But in truth the wines I sampled did not impress me at all and, by 4pm, I had tasted enough over oaky Chardonnay, fruit bomb Verdelho and figgy Semillon to last any number of lifetimes and was ready to give the last winery a miss and stay on the bus with my book.

Fortunately, Steve came to the rescue. During the drive up there, I had been complaining loudly about the paucity of decent beer in Australia. God it’s dreadful. Tasteless and full of gas (there is a joke in there somewhere, but I plan to go back to Australia someday, so I am not going to make it) brews like VB, Carlton, Toohey’s etc are an abomination and being forced to drink them could be considered cruel and unusual punishment. Steve agreed with me and mentioned that, near to our final official stop was a small micro brewery called, with a huge imaginative leap, The Hunter Brewing Co.

Fortunately, the beer showed a lot more imagination than the name and, after Steve had dropped the handholding couples and camera clicking gaggle of Paul Giamatti fans off to taste yet more of the same, we high tailed it to the brew pub.

He, of course, was far to sensible to drink on duty, but sat patiently watching me work my way through a paddle tasting of four very decent beers in about ten minutes before we had to rush off to collect the throng of pointers and gigglers who waiting patiently outside the final winery for the trip back to Sydney.

Another two hour journey during which most of my, by now, close companions snored loudly as they slept off the freebies they had hoovered down during the day.

Me? I just sat happily burping to myself, quietly pleased that I had finally found some decent beer in Australia even if I didn't like the wine.

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