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Down Under adventures, Part 1

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It's 9:15 on a Tuesday night here in Australia's Yarra Valley as I write this, which is around 6:15 on Tuesday morning back in Winnipeg. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the time difference, and have had a tough time adjusting to being fifteen hours out of my normal routine (as well as being away from my family, sleeping in strange beds, etc). I'm hoping tonight I'll get more than four hours of sleep, which would be a first for this trip that started on Friday night in Winnipeg.

Let's just skip Saturday, because I spent the whole time in the air — I left Vancouver on Friday just before midnight and arrived in Sydney on Sunday morning. So yeah, Saturday didn't really exist for me. Anyway, I had the rest of the day off, and spent it wandering around downtown Sydney. I went and checked out the Sydney Opera House, which is a beauty in pictures but is truly stunning in real life. After some pub grub and a pint for dinner, I was back at the hotel and crashing in short order.

On Monday morning I was picked up by a driver and we were quickly on our way north to Hunter Valley. our first stop was Brokenwood, which makes some killer Semillon that's racy and focused, as well as some savoury, austere Shiraz that doesn't bring big alcohol and oak like some of its counterparts (last I checked, Banville & Jones had some of this winery's products). The subsequent visit to McWilliam's Mount Pleasant was just as, well, pleasant, and the wines again were led by Semillon and Shiraz. It was great to try the same wine from different vintages against each other, as you really get a feel for vintage variation vs. the consistent characteristics in the wines.

Next up was Tempus Two, a modern facility that really jumps out of the Hunter Valley landscape. Unlike the previous two stops, Tempus Two makes wines with grapes from all over Australia, including Barossa Shiraz and Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon. As a result, the styles of wines were quite diverse.

After a quick stop at the area hotel in which I was staying, I popped out to dinner with Scott from Tyrrell's, which was a great chance to try just a couple more Semillon and Shiraz before leaving. I love the balance of acidity and crisp fruit on the Semillons — it reminds me of the best dry Rieslings I've tried — intensity and elegance in a bottle. Meanwhile, the area's Shiraz that I tried were austere, earthy, brambly and restrained in both weight and alcohol content. Great stuff.

After a fitful sleep (let's just say I was up at 3:30 a.m. watching women's lawn bowling), it was off to the Sydney to catch a flight over to Melbourne (about an hour in the air), and from there it was to the Yarra Valley by car. The first stop was at the Innocent Bystander/Giant Steps winery. Rather than building the winery among the vines, it was constructed in town and includes an incredible bakery, coffee kiosk, and more. While the Giant Steps wines are focused on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (and with good reason — they're stunning), Innocent Bystander is a bit more innovative, making wines beyond those two grapes in a variety of styles. Their pink, semi-sweet, effervescent even comes in a pink plastic keg for those looking to pour a lot without paying bottle prices. Again, for Innocent Bystander/Giant Steps, check at Banville & Jones.

Then it was over to De Bortoli, where Winemaker Sarah Fagan led me through an amazing tasting of some 2011 Pinot Noir and Syrah barrel samples as well as some off-dry and dry Riesling they're making in small quantities and selling from the cellar door (a.k.a. tasting room). We then blasted through some stuff already in the bottle before a quick break to freshen up and dinner at Hargreaves Hill brewery/bistro in Yarra Glen. I had some killer gnocchi with wild mushrooms that worked very well with a couple De Bortoli Pinot Noirs.

So yeah, that's a quick synopsis of what I've been doing — I've gotten into more technical talk with a couple of the winemakers but I just don't have the energy to hash through it all now. I'm back on De Bortoli's property, staying in a little apartment-style suite on the premises. Tomorrow morning consists of a couple more Yarra Valley stops before making our way to Mornington Peninsula, where more maritime-influenced Pinot Noir and Chardonnay will be the order of the day. But for now, it's almost 10 p.m. and this wuss has to sleep. In the meantime, check out some of the pictures I've uploaded to Flickr.

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About Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson

When he wasn't bashing on a drum kit in local punk rock bands, Ben spent the mid '90s hucking cases of wine around to pay for two English degrees. Now he's the Winnipeg Free Press wine columnist and blogger.

The extent of Ben's wine experience in the mid-90s was memories of accidentally leaving a bottle of White Zinfandel in the freezer overnight, and the ensuing mess he was left with. Between 1996 and 2005 Ben absorbed all he could about wine while working at wine shops to pay for school. Meanwhile, he was churning out papers for his BA and MA in English (from the Universities of Winnipeg and Manitoba, respectively).

Ben became the Winnipeg Free Press' weekly wine columnist in 2005, and two years later joined Wine Access magazine as a contributor, a member of their national tasting panel and a judge at the Canadian Wine Awards and International Value Wine Awards until the magazine closed up shop in 2013.

In 2013 Ben joined the Winnipeg Free Press as a copy/web editor.

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