It has been said that what people eat and drink reflects their culture and is emblematic of their country. “Throw another prawn on the barbie” in many ways reflects the easy-going Australian, nature but what we drink has undergone many changes over the years.
Our Hunter pioneers, Busby and Lindeman, advocated wine as the way forward substituting it for rum and other hard spirits. Earnest Hemingway noted, “Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world” echoing the thoughts of the early Hunter producers.
We are now both a beer drinking and wine loving country, far removed from the early days of rum or even sherry. Lately, the development of small brewhouses and boutique beer makers has become fashionable…we even have two brewhouses on Hermitage Road! I note many winemakers will turn to a cooling ale at the end of a hard, hot day with much relief gained from both the taste and volume that comes with it.
At the end of the day however it is wine that offers most interest, offering a range of enjoyment related not only to its taste but also the stories behind it –the variety, the blend, the terroir, the clones, the choice of barrel, the influence of the season, the ageing etc. After all, with beer, beyond taste what can you say…the tap water is interesting or the hops were sound? As they say “In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is freedom, in water there is bacteria”
Another saying of Hemingway which reflects the social import of wine “I drink to make other people more interesting” only hints at some of the benefits. Many of our friends have found the relaxation of inhibitions have helped in making social occasions more enjoyable and the discussions enhanced with a glass or two. Some might never have married without a little help!
In the past, dinner parties at home were the principal vehicle for enjoying food and wine and engaging in conversation, but not so much today. Wine consumption has moved into restaurants, bars, and trendy pubs. I heard Leo Scofield talking about the loss of value in formal dining tables due mainly to disuse and the lack of space in modern apartments.
We still have ours (third generation Australian cedar), it can seat 10 people comfortably when fully extended, but we only use it a few of times a year.
Non-the less at lunches, , and backyard gatherings, both wine and beer have become the drinks of choice – at least among the middle to older generations. Not that many years ago in the seventies, I was working in the UK and at that time a dinner party would start with whiskey for the men and sherry for the women (not to waste good whiskey as it were!).
There was a keen interest in Australian wines as they were good value and refreshingly different-‘Sunshine in the bottle”. Those really interested in French wines tended to buy directly from the producers as the quality in the bottle shops was variable. This is where Australian wines really shone as they were consistently good.
Of course, I was interested in acquiring a good knowledge of French wines and can still remember my disappointment when being invited around to a friend’s place who had a great wine cellar, to find it was an Australian wine night and they expected me to provide background knowledge to go with the wines. I did this with some pride as he had selected some rather good Aussie wines. He avoided the BillaBlanc and KangaRouge!
Today in Australia we have a strong wine and food culture supported by a multitude of television cooking shows some classy magazines and enthusiastic chefs. We have several wine and food groups here in the Hunter which, about once a month, meet over a meal and enjoy the wines presented…often masked to heighten the interest. The Diners Club 64 when it started always served sherry on arrival, now its Bubbly…’wine is fashion’ as they say, and ever evolving.
The discussions typically ask… where does it come from, what techniques were used in making it, what is the story, who remembers other vintages of it, how did it travel, is it at its peak, or past its peak or as Colin Peterson says –‘ should be consumed quickly’-particularly if you have several bottles!
In preparing for these meals we are spoilt with good restaurants in the Pokolbin area and sometimes beyond. A discussion with the chef to match the food and wines is important and they by and large are very helpful. Duck, pheasant, deer, rabbit, oh it’s a game night, oh Pinot’s are on tasting, oh Semillon and Seafood of course!
Our culture is also reflected in the history of our First People and how we are dealing with that. It is also bound up with our land and the hardships and challenges, our parliamentary democracy, the ANZAC’s and our military traditions, our sporting achievements, our education system and many other aspects of Australian life. It sometimes takes a good red to come to grips with all that.
This April, Ian Napier’s Legends lunch group have an ANZAC commemorative lunch. As we are heading for Victory in 1918 on the Western Front, the wines of Champagne, Burgundy will feature alongside those of Australia, New Zealand, and the USA, reflecting the territory and the allies involved in winning the first world war. It is always interesting to see what wine our members choose to bring along. There is excitement and pleasure to be had in discussing the wines and the food match. I always come away with some new insights and am amazed at the complexity and memories a bottle of wine can bring.
So, while this lunch may seem a hedonistic adventure, most of us have at some time traveled to the graveyards of the Western Front and remember the somber and desolate feelings we experienced.
We can be grateful that today we can raise a glass of good Burgundy or crisp champagne or good old Aussie and NZ wine and reflect on the price our ancestors paid for our freedom.
Australia has inherited the food and wine culture of Europe and in the last 70 years, it has blossomed, no more so than here in the Hunter…Australia’s oldest wine and food region.