Welcome to The Love of Wine Part Two. These stories draw on some of the more unlikely experiences that I’ve enjoyed during my working life in wine. Hopefully you’ll find this next piece both entertaining and informative in equal measure!
The bottle and I sigh with relief as the cork slides out intact. After twenty years, it’s certainly performed well. I admire the now open bottle in my hand – it’s a 1998 Hunter Valley Semillon – a wine I picked up through an auction house some ten years earlier. Given I can really only vouch for the quality of cellaring for half of the wine’s life, I am more than a little hesitant to get too excited.
As I make that first tentative pour, I’m studying the condition of the wine intently. Plenty of colour, but that’s to be expected after so many years. Once tilted in the glass though, the wine reveals a remarkably bright yellow hue. This is a good thing.
I release my breath and then resist drawing another until the glass is under my nose. Here, I let the wine truly reveal itself to me. Brioche, toast, honey, lanolin, and a fleeting note of citrus. As I breathe in, I close my eyes to fully absorb the impossibly complex array of aromas; each of which have been slowly evolving over the twenty years prior to this very moment. An involuntary smile draws across my face. This is a truly stunning Semillon – even better than I had hoped.
After a few moments, I open my eyes to finally taste this miraculous beauty. But when I do, I realise that I’m no longer in my dining room. Instead, I find myself on the deck of my parent’s home.
Under the dappled shade of the old Illawarra Flame Tree, a much younger version of my family are moving around me, busily laying out platters of food on the large outdoor table. Seafood, and lots of it! King prawns, grilled baby octopus, and rock oysters. A bowl of leafy greens and mum’s famous potato salad. I glimpse the old man. With a gardening glove and shucking knife, he’s levering the tops off the last few molluscs on the verandah. The air is warm and humid, and as mum proudly delivers the baked leg of ham to the table, I’m left in no doubt as to when this is.
My brother and sister take seats alongside me, opposite our two grandmothers, who are still in their aprons and smiling like this is all they’ve ever wanted. Dad pulls up a chair and I hear a muffled voice drift toward me, ‘So how is it?’ The voice sounds strange, like I’m being spoken to from a faraway place. A moment later, I hear it again, but this time more clearly. ‘The wine, how is it?’ I realise that it’s Dad talking to me, and he’s gesturing with his eyes toward my hand. I look down to discover that I’m holding a freshly uncorked bottle of Semillon.
And with a start I’m jolted back to the present, standing at my dining table, about to taste the wine I had just opened.
It’s not only the aroma of a special bottle of wine that can evoke such vivid memories for me. A whiff of marine oil and I’m taken back to my pop’s boat shed on Little Manly beach – a place full of motor parts, fishing gear and tools – an endless source of wonder in my younger years. The fleeting whisper of perfume left in the wake of a passing stranger (Davidoff Cool Water), and suddenly I’m holding hands with my first love as we head out on a Friday night. Talcum powder, and I’m standing over a change table wrestling a nappy around the kicking legs of my wildly cackling baby girl, Scarlett.
However, not all the conjured memories and feelings are always happy ones. After the Black Summer fires, the unmissable scent of bushfire smoke brings back images of those 50-metre-high flames and the immense destruction that lay in their wake. Such memories also come with a visceral response of fear and stress for many of us.
In its ability to bring about vivid recollections and intense emotions, there is no denying the unique and profound power of our sense of smell.
Key to the survival of our early ancestors, this particular sense has evolved to hold special priority when it comes to our brain’s ability to process external stimulus. Unlike our other senses, smell signals arrive unfiltered via a direct route to the olfactory bulb, which is part of our brain’s limbic system. Amongst other structures, the limbic system contains the Hippocampus and Amygdala which are associated with emotion and memory function.
The fast and unfettered signals delivered to these parts of our brain allow for, at times, intense and moving connections to the smells we encounter. Nothing else that we see, hear or touch can deliver a mental response quite like smell can.
So, given it is a drink of such unrivalled aromatic variety, vibrancy, and complexity, perhaps it should be no surprise that we are so drawn to wine. It’s not just the volume or intensity of the aromas found in a glass of wine, it’s also that these smells are so aesthetically pleasing. Time and again, our mind encourages us to pause, even for a fleeting moment, before we take a sip. It wants us to linger while it rapidly connects one or more of the hundreds (or thousands) of nuanced aromas with our library of emotions and memories.
More often than not, the connections are so subtle we aren’t even aware it’s happening. However, there are times when they are powerful to a point that we simply can’t escape a physiological response. Some years ago, a visitor to our Hunter cellar door wept tears of joy when tasting the Rare Game Shiraz. He simply couldn’t explain why, other than it generated a feeling of profound happiness. He couldn’t help but respond the way he did. I recall how amazed we were that a wine could do this!
For me, our sense of smell is a true gift. Obviously, it’s critical to my job as a winemaker, but beyond that I believe it offers us an unparalleled way to connect with the world around us. As I get older, I find increasing pleasure in taking the time to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of life. I try to give my mind the space to process this stimulus, and it thanks me with often unexpected memories, feelings, and ideas.
And so in closing I ask, when you next pour a glass of wine (preferably Gundog of course), why not linger a moment or two longer before taking that first sip?
P.S. If this story lands with you or sparks any memories of your own unlikely wine experiences, please feel free to send me an email – I’d love to hear from you!