Sunday, June 15, 2008

Hunter Valley

We've explored a decent portion of Sydney and its fantastic beaches. We've also spent a weekend in the Blue Mountains and plan to return next month. Only one not-to-miss New South Wales destination remained on our list and after this weekend we crossed off the Hunter Valley (wine country). Australia celebrates the Queen's Birthday (even though the current Queen's birthday was back in April) with a long weekend and we were thrilled that not everyone in Sydney decided to spend it wine tasting. The roads were mostly clear, we were able to find great accommodations and we got plenty of the sommeliers' attention in the cellar doors (tasting rooms).

We quickly learned that our gracious travel buddies Jess and Chris, who patiently drove us around all weekend in their car, have much more refined palates than we do. They can taste and smell the difference between Chardonnays aged in French oak barrels and Semillons fermented in stainless steel. When I taste wine, I always yearn for a better vocabulary to describe my experience.

I swirl the liquid around the sides of the glass and then take a thoughtful whiff because this is what I've seen others do. Smelling the wine summons words like rich, light or fruity, but never do I sense 'black cherry, herbs' or 'hints of licorice.' When attempting to describe the taste or texture of wine as I slowly swallow a small sip is when I really grasp for more sophisticated adjectives. 'Rich' is the word I use when I taste a wine with comparatively stronger flavor. It drives me crazy when I identify a wine with rich, heavy flavor and the winery's description of the same bottle includes phrases like 'earthy, leather notes.' I'm still sipping wine; has everyone else gone off licking the barnyard?

Still, I'm learning and can proudly taste the difference between a young Semillon with lots of acidity and an older one that had mellowed with age. I knew I was really making progress when I actually understood why the vintner mentioned leather, horses and saddles when he poured us glasses of the viognier. The aspect of wine tasting that still baffles me is 'the finish.' I read phrases like 'finishes long and strong' and wonder what a short finish would feel like. I can work on my mastery of appreciating the finish next time.

Because there definitely will be a next time. We enjoyed our stay at Pindari House, a small B&B in Lochinvar, so much that we're already planning our next visit. However, when we first arrived I didn't think I'd be so in love with the place. The owner Monika greeted us warmly at the door with her big, friendly dog. Because I detest dogs, the friendly ones are just as bad as the mean ones; they run around sniffing and licking everyone. I quickly told Monika that I was allergic and she looked at me like I had just landed from another planet. "What happens to you?" she asked. "Um... I start sneezing," I said defensively. I felt my pet dander allergy confused her just as much as would a condition in which bubbles come out of the ears when in the presense of cheese. Still, she banished the dog from our sleeping, eating and living areas and I became more comfortable.

And comfortable is certainly the best word to describe Pindari House. As is typical with B&Bs, I found the decor on the tackier side of charming, but it was a clean and pleasant place to relax. I can confidently claim that Monika is the best hostess in New South Wales. A former personal flight attendant for an Australian billionaire, Monika's travelled all over the world on private jets. Her walls are covered with pictures of the rich, famous and even royal folks she's met over the course of her career. Not only does she have a talent for entertaining, she also loves it, so it makes sense that running a B&B is Monika's retirement plan.

From the moment we arrived, Monika attended to our every need. She served us tea, coffee and cookies when we arrived and then champagne and hors d'ouvers before dinner. When she whipped out flaky sausage rolls straight from the oven, we cancelled our dinner reservation, slipped into our pajamas and terrycloth Pindari House robes and played Squatter (an Australian, sheep farming Monopoly-esque board game). The next morning, Monika pulled out all the stops with fresh baked chocolate muffins in addition to the full cooked English breakfast.

Though the meal was tasty, the highlight of my breakfast was (nerd alert) bird watching in the garden. I can understand why bird watching in North America is only a hobby for the truly dedicated. You have to get up extremely early in order to catch only glimpses of boring, mostly brown, white and gray birds with ordinary, cheerful calls. Here in Australia, though, you get the impression that the zoo's most exotic birds escaped their aviaries and populated this continent with the strangest and most colorful feathered creatures imaginable. I was completely entranced by the whitish gray birds with bright pink undersides, the red headed parrots, the fairy finches and of course, the rainbow lorikeets. All I need now is a field guide and some good binoculars and then I can add 'bird watching' to my list of Australian hobbies, right under 'lawn bowling' and 'bogan bingo.'*

Later that day, we spotted more notable native Australian animals bouncing around the vineyard: a family of kangaroos! What a treat it was to see these guys in the wild. However, as I cross these experiences of visiting the Hunter Valley and photographing a wild kangaroo off my list, I'm inspired to add more to dos such as: identify more wines and more birds.

*Bogan bingo is an Australian car game deserving of its own post.

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