My knowledge of wine, or lack thereof, is embarrassing. I enthusiastically enjoy it, but when ordering at a bar my requests are rarely more specific than red or white, followed by a blind stab at the wine list.
But the annual Wine Harvest Festival is just around the corner, and it seems the perfect time to discover the fabulous cool-climate wineries on Canberra's doorstep. And let's face it, being assigned the task of previewing some of the festival events is a not-half-bad way to spend a work day. Cursed by friends for having the world's best job, I head off into the countryside.
Unfortunately, we couldn't have picked a worse day for this adventure - it's pouring, but nothing can dampen my spirits at being out in the fresh air as I turn off the Barton Highway towards Gallagher Wines, about halfway between the northwest outskirts of Canberra and Murrumbateman.
Gallagher Wines is owned by Greg and Libby Gallagher, who established their vineyard in 1995. Greg Gallagher taught winemaking at Charles Sturt University for five years, and acts as a consultant for several wineries in the area, as well as producing his own. Strangely enough, however, I am here primarily to talk not about wine, but cheese.
While Greg Gallagher was working at the university nine years ago, Libby Gallagher discovered that the winery on campus sat right next to a cheesemaking facility and she saw an opportunity to pursue her long-held interest in cheese. She spent a week at Charles Sturt learning the basics, then continued experimenting on her own. It has now gone from hobby to successful small business, and the Gallaghers sell the cheese from their cellar door. She is a little media shy, so I'm talking to her husband about the cheese she makes.
''She thinks there's good cheese and bad cheese, and that's it,'' Greg Gallagher says. And I have to admit I'm inclined to agree with her, although for me, all cheese is good cheese. Tasty cheese toasties, stinky blue, creamy Greek feta or melted mozzarella, I can't get enough of the curdled milk solids. Still, I respect that others are a little more discerning, and I'm always keen to learn more.
Libby Gallagher's first attempts were at a yoghurt-based labne cheese, and she's since branched out to camembert, a couple of hard cheeses and a very mild blue cheese she calls a washed blue.
She works in a small kitchen that adjoins the cellar door, which they have rather cutely labelled the ''Fromagerie''. Gallagher sees parallels between cheese and winemaking, because to do either successfully, you need a thorough understanding of the science, along with a sense of artistry to get the flavours just right. While Libby Gallagher has pursued her interest in cheesemaking independent of the goings on in the vineyard around her, her soft cheeses in particular pair well with some of the wines her husband produces.
''We generally recommend trying a little bit of camembert with our sparkling duet, a labne cheese we think goes particularly well with a chardonnay, and I'm quite partial to some of the washed blue cheese with a merlot,'' he says.
I try all three. The labne is delicious, it's rich and creamy and covered with mostly native Australian spices. I could eat a jarful. Her washed blue is indeed especially mild. There is no trace of blue colour as I cut through the rind and there is just a hint of that ''biteyness'' most people would expect from blue cheeses. It's pleasant and tangy and seems to achieve what it sets out to do. The camembert is more runny than I expected, but it tastes delicate and milky and is very nice indeed.
Over the harvest festival this weekend, the Gallaghers will offer their cheese for tasting, along with other food, matched with Gallagher wines and served under a covered picnic area. Through the rain, I can see this would be quite lovely, and, honestly, the labne alone is worth a drive. But unfortunately I cannot linger, as my next stop is about half an hour north at Yarrh Wines. My little car struggles with mud and potholes as we trundle down country roads, slightly lost, but as I finally approach Yarrh, I can see it's in a fantastic spot. Perched on a hilltop, the cellar and winemaking facilities overlook rolling vineyards. A couple of friendly dogs greet me as I get out of my car.
Winemaker Fiona Wholohan shows me around her cellar door, with polished floorboards, a cafe-style set-up and a view. We also wander through the adjoining production area, and check out the barrels of wine in rows. All my knowledge of how wine is made centres on cliched olden-timey images of bare-footed people in aprons stomping grapes in barrels, but thankfully the calm and quietly spoken Wholohan takes this on the chin, and shows me how after the grapes are handpicked, they are crushed and pressed by machine, then set aside to ferment in large tubs.
Winemakers use yeast to aid the fermentation, where the sugar in the grapes turns to alcohol. As skins from red grapes float to the surface they are pushed back into the ferment. This weekend, visitors to Yarrh will be able to taste red wine at the different stages of creation, and I get to give them all a try.
First up is freshly squeezed grape juice. Wine grapes are sweeter than the supermarket varieties, so it tastes great, fresh and fruity and delicious.
Next I try wine in the first stage of fermentation. It has still got bits of skin and grape floating in it, and a slight fizziness that comes from the yeast working its magic. The taste is still very pleasant. It has got the sweetness of the grapes and just a hint of the alcohol. So far so good, and I reach for glass three, second-stage fermentation. It smells appalling, pungent and meaty, and only tastes a bit better. Luckily, at the Harvest Festival, there will be plenty of Yarrh's product at the final stage, fully fledged wine that has been in barrel for nine months, to wash away the aftertaste.
Wholohan is keen to show punters what winemakers do, so she will also be demonstrating the device that winemakers use to measure the sugar content of grapes. ''You don't pick on sugar, you pick on flavour,'' she says, but ideally the fruit is 23 to 24 per cent sugar at the time of harvest. This ensures the right level of alcohol.
And for those like me who love a bit of novelty, she will indeed be setting up a barrel of grapes for stomping. Wholohan will then bottle the wine under the label Walk the Plonk, and those who helped out on the day will be invited back next year to collect the fruit of their labours.
What is it about winemakers? I muse as I head to my last port of call. Are they all such patient, salt of the earth types, who brim with enthusiasm about their products, and wine in general? Already I feel less of a wine moron that I did when I woke up this morning. Happily, the crew at highly acclaimed Clonakilla, owned by the Kirk family for more than 40 years, does nothing to diminish my rose-coloured view of those who work with grapes.
Clonakilla is considered one of Australia's top wineries, and this year is releasing to coincide with the festival a new, probably one-off wine the makers expect to cause a stir.
The past year has been a tough one for all growers in the area. Lots of rainy days left crops susceptible to botrytis, a fungus that attacks the grapes, draining them of moisture and leaving them brown and shrivelled on the vines, with mould growing on top. Chief winemaker Tim Kirk describes 2011 as ''one of the most challenging''.
Winemaker Bryan Martin takes me out to show me an example of botrytis on the vine, and it does look pretty awful, like sultanas topped with brown and grey fur. A disappointing turn of events for everyone, and an expensive loss, but for Clonakilla at least, not necessarily a complete write off. Botrytis takes two forms, grey rot, which renders the grapes useless, and noble rot, which has potential. Grapes with noble rot are used to make sweet dessert wines, and although the folks at Clonakilla have not attempted it in more than 20 years, they decided to give it a go with grapes from the 2011 vintage.
It was a difficult process, Martin says. Grapes with botrytis have only about 10 per cent of the juice of healthy grapes, so it takes a good deal of pressing to get much out of them at all, two or three days when it would normally take just an hour. Plus the sugar is so concentrated, at about 40 per cent, the fermentation process becomes difficult. Yeast can live quite happily when sugar levels are at 20 or 25 per cent, but at 40 per cent it really struggles, Martin says. So he had to take a small batch to ferment with the yeast, adding more and more of the super-concentrated juice as the yeast gets used to the sugar levels. It took weeks, far longer than their other wines, and at several points Martin thought it wouldn't work, but eventually the wine reached 10 per cent alcohol.
Next the wine needs to be stabilised, and thoroughly filtered, to remove any lingering yeast or bacteria. Again, in the case of the 2011 auslese riesling - auslese is a fancy word for late-picked - this was a time consuming process, as the high sugar content meant it was thicker than usual, but the result seemed like something special.
''When we finally got it stabilised, and filtered, and ready for bottle, we just thought it was gorgeous. Something that had looked so horrible had just turned out as this amazing, pure, concentrated riesling,'' Martin says.
The colour is not quite the colour most people might expect from dessert wines, and that is very much how it should be, Martin insists. ''It's pristine green. That golden brown colour everyone expects is oxidised hack winemaking,'' he says decisively.
Clonakilla has bottled its auslese riesling in fewer than 1000 half bottles, and will only make it available for tasting this weekend. At any other time, those looking to buy will have to take their word for how good it tastes. But, lucky me, I get a sneak preview.
Not being a wine writer, I lack to words to satisfy connoisseurs, but of the Clonakilla Auslese Riesling I'll say this: it is sweet, but not eye wateringly so. It tastes warm and whole and really, really, lovely.
The Wine Harvest Festival is on this weekend, event details at www.canberrawines.com.au
Larissa Nicholson is a staff reporter.