Sunday, August 21, 2011

Southern Highlands

A while back Sharon pounced on a Daily Deal advertising a day of wine tasting in the Southern Highlands, an area of rolling hills brimming with small wineries about two hours south of Sydney. So a couple weeks ago, along with two friends, Tess and Scott, we availed ourselves of the trip.

We got up early on a rainy, chilly Saturday morning and took a cab to Central Station, the pick-up spot. A jitney bus with a seating configuration like a small airplane -- three seats across broken up by an aisle, with two seats on one side of the aisle and a single line of seats on the other -- pulled up; this was our ride for the day. We made our way to the back of the bus, tried to interpret the trip overview provided by our driver of some mysterious European heritage, and then zoomed off.

Despite the gloom, once we got well out of Sydney we were treated to beautiful countryside. After a couple hours of driving we pulled off the highway and onto a two lane road, stopping in a small town for a tea break. Then we piled back into the bus and drove a few minutes longer before turning onto a narrow road, bouncing along to the first winery. The cellar door was too small for the group of about thirty, so we headed to the warehouse for the wine tasting. The owner provided a thorough tasting of his wines; we must have tried about ten whites and reds.

Australia has various wine regions all over the country. The most famous is the Barossa Valley which began producing wines in the 1850s. The Southern Highlands, by contrast, is one of the more recent areas to develop a wine scene, with the first vintners starting out in the 1980s. This particular winery, Tertini Wines, had only been around for about ten years. The area gets particularly cold winters and they had lost two full years to bad frosts; wine is not a business you get into to make your fortune.

Tess and Scott picked up a couple bottles, then we headed into a nearby town, Bowral, for the lunch included in the tour. I'll only say that the lunch was lasagna, and I use that term loosely, and that I wandered off to go find something else to eat.
We made our way to the second winery, called Joadja Vineyards, which happened to be the first winery in the region. The cellar door was a small cottage with stone floors and an Australian collie laying by a fire: it was the experience you'd expect from a distinguished winery. We tasted a few good wines, Tess and Scott added a few more bottles to their stock, and then we got back on the bus.

Our next stop was a "cheese tasting". This was actually just a country store that sold cheese and happened to have a couple plates with various cheeses by the door. I hadn't been successful finding a superior food option after I walked out on lunch, so I was ready for a snack. I picked up a big loaf of bread, some English cheddar, and some blue cheese. After everyone in the group had completed their purchases, we got back on the bus and chowed down on bread and cheese while we drove to the final winery.

After 45 minutes of zooming over picturesque hills I could tell the GPS wasn't working properly. By now it was 4:30pm, everyone was pretty worn out, and it was getting dark. I was thinking we should just can the last stop. The driver, who must have anticipated these thoughts going around his passengers' minds, piped up over the intercom, saying he was back on track and this last winery was really worth visiting.
We eventually pulled into a private drive and chugged up a hill to a small house. We were ushered into a separate lodge-style room off to the side. A collection of kangaroos peered at us from farther up the hill. The owners, a couple in their 70s, had inherited the vineyard when they bought the property to retire on after spending their lives in England and South Africa.

The house and lodge had commanding views of the surrounding hills -- it wasn't a bad place to sit and relax and enjoy retirement. They decided to name the winery after the street they lived on, Howard's Lane. The old couple was so charming that I decided, even before sampling the wine, that I would buy some, just to support them. It turned out that they had several very good wines, so my decision turned out to be a good one. After the tasting we got back in the bus one final time for the long drive back to Sydney.

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