What makes a wine great – it’s not what you’d think…

It was a bustling Saturday night in one of Melbourne’s hipster suburbs in a raved-about venue. Thick coats, moments before protecting from the crisp chill of late autumn, were discarded on the backs of chairs. People talked and laughed with a casualness recently reclaimed after a year of pandemic trepidation. 

As the wine list hit the table, it was immediately passed across to me. Always my job, to pick the wine. I’ll let you in on a secret – I’m far more interested in learning what other people like to drink. However, I do have a few lapel pins in a drawer somewhere that profess some skill, so I accept the challenge and it becomes a game – what can I find that everyone will like, but perhaps is something new to them?

Wine lists are like story books. A well-written one reveals the ethos of the restaurant; seamlessly incorporating the style of the food with the ambience of the space. Beneath the surface, you can learn a lot about the buyer – where they have travelled, who their friends are, the relationships they have with wineries or distributors. Even the way the list is set out can provide a glimpse into what’s in store for the evening. Are the expensive bottles all listed first? Or are they organised by grape variety? Country? Or more esoteric classifications like body or acidity. 

I may not like making the choice, but I could spend all night delving into the story of a good list.

On this occasion, success! The Jamsheed Roussanne catches my eye. It’s affordable, from a really interesting grape variety that’s not well known; made locally by an artistic winemaker in a hands-off style (natural yeast, minimal additions). The wine arrives and my friends love the full-bodied texture, bright fruit and slight funk. It is perfect with the produce-focussed food. 

One of the staff, a delightful wine student I previously taught, swings by for a chat. She admits surprise at my choice “I would have thought a wine educator would be drinking Burgundy”. I laugh it off, but 2 weeks later as I sit wrapped in my dressing gown at 3pm in the grip of yet-another lockdown, I have time to ponder the meaning of wine and how life fits into that story.

Something happens when you fall in love with wine. It ceases to just be a drink and gains a spiritual gravitas. All the geeky things you learn start expressing themselves in the glasses you drink. The thirst for knowledge overtakes any actual thirst; although it is a pleasure that they go hand in hand.

Budgets creep up. At some point what you consider is a bargain of a wine hits three digits. It wasn’t until I was transported back into a previous career during COVID that this really hit home. Perspective skews. The people you drink with are similarly entranced and there can be an undercurrent of competition when bringing wine to dinner. 

I have been really privileged to taste some very expensive wines, sometimes in incredible locations; mostly through the generosity of the people in the wine industry. Yet often, when reflecting on favourites, it’s the ones with a personal connection that I remember most vividly…

A bottle of Jim Barry Watervale Riesling picked up at the local convenience store just after I started studying wine in 2012. It was one of the first times I willingly shelled out more than $15 for a bottle. The intense aromas of lime and jasmine flowers can still transport me back to my tiny balcony overlooking the rooftops of Fitzroy, about to embark on a new chapter of my life. Similarly, in January this year, a weekend away with a friend in the King Valley staying at an Airbnb that backed directly onto one of Brown Brothers vineyards. We watched the sun set and the stars come out (so many stars!) sipping a bottle of Origin Series Rosé with a platter of local cheese.

A bottle of Sagrantino, an as yet unlabelled, unbranded, fledgling wine by Aphelion, shared with one of my dearest friends (Aphelion co-founder) in our hotel room at a blogging conference in 2015. Relishing the rich fruit and spice as we chattered excitedly about her wedding plans and my impending visit to McLaren Vale.

What makes a wine great? 

It must be delicious. Surely that goes without saying? Or does it? I have tasted a number of prestigious wines that weren’t particularly delicious. Often very premium wines are designed to be cellared for a long time. Drink them at only a couple of years of age and you can tell they are going to be good, but they aren’t there yet. It’s a bit like pulling cookies out of the oven too early – you know there’s potential, but the texture isn’t right and the flavours aren’t fully developed. Are these wines great? It might depend on your perspective. Maybe you are excited to have experienced them at all. Is something affordable, that you thoroughly enjoyed, a great wine? Yes.

Buying wine should make you feel good. It might be about supporting a local producer, or treating a friend to their favourite style, or maybe trying something on your bucket list. Whatever the reason, great wine is whatever triggers those warm fuzzy feelings for you. 

Affordable wine is everything. My affordable might be different to your affordable if you are a student, or looking at buying your 3rd yacht; the point is that wine you can afford tastes better. The expectations and investment required in a bottle that you stretch for can overwhelm the experience. 

A great wine is as much about the context as the liquid. Special moments, time with friends, laughter, scrumptious food, magical surroundings paired with something you really enjoy is all it takes. And so that Jamsheed Roussanne in an enticing restaurant with wonderful friends, a brief carefree snapshot in time before our world changed again, will forever hold a position of greatness in the wine list of my life. 



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