There was something in the air that night…

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“The quality of a wine can be linked to the place or circumstances where you drank it,” writes wine columnist RICHARD CALVER in an experiment in taste that starts beside a river in the NT and ends in Tathra.

TWO cannibals are eating a clown. One looks over at the other and says: “Does this taste funny to you?” Two clowns are eating a cannibal. One looks over at the other and says: “I think we ruined this joke.”

Richard Calver.

Like jokes that depend on context, the quality of a wine can be linked to the place or circumstances where you drank it.

I recently went kayaking along the Katherine River in the NT with my son. Male bonding extraordinaire. We were led through the turns and rapids of 50 kilometres of this wondrous waterway by Gecko guides. We were spoilt with two guides for a four-person tour.

Three days paddling and two nights camping under the stars were profoundly affecting, lighting up the soul and shuffling off quotidian worries. There had been the offer for us to pack a bottle of wine if we wanted to drink on the tour, but we declined, given that it was a good way to rest the liver and somehow it didn’t mesh with the expectations of adventure in the wild.

Yet there we were, camped on a white stretch of sand, awaiting repast on the second and last night of this superb sojourn. Dinner was tender roast beef done perfectly medium rare in a camp oven, served with roasted vegetables.

The stars were bright in a sky absent from light pollution. The evening was chilly, and a campfire comforted. The Dutch couple on the tour then surprised us by offering to share an Australian wine that had nestled in their dry bag during the journey.

They explained that they drank local wine wherever they went in the world. Oh, we thought, perhaps a Penfolds Bin 389 or even a Koonunga Hill as iconic red wines worthy of the Aussie beef? But no, they proudly proffered a 2018 Jacobs Creek Merlot. It retails in Canberra for around $7-$10 a bottle but was probably twice that in Katherine.

On taste, did we whisper, shrunken in a darkened corner of the camp: “The horror, the horror?”

No, in fact we thought the plummy, fruity flavour that was surprisingly smooth went well with the beef and the wood-smoked air that tended to envelop everything. We both were surprised by the cachet that the wine brought to the occasion and with not even a hint of irony we toasted the nurturing of this wine on the sometimes challenging journey. Three mouthfuls and alas it was gone, another thankful memory from a trip of a lifetime.

I thought to test the taste memory in another place that I hold dear: Tathra in NSW. Last weekend, a friend went fishing while I took on my role as an untalented but enthusiastic gardener at my house in Tathra. The evening saw a meal of rare eye fillet steak and sweet potato chips deliberately served with a 2018 Jacobs Creek Merlot purchased from the local bottle shop at $11.

My friend was aghast until I explained the context of the comparison. We dutifully tasted the wine, first by itself and then with the food. The fruit complexion this time was short in the front of the mouth disappearing to the inoffensive at the back of the palate. There was a hint of plum, but it was as if the fruit were underripe. The wine was better suited to food but remained ordinary and forgettable. It was as if the former tasting had occurred on another planet.

My friend stopped drinking the Jacobs Creek and moved on to the other wine I had supplied, a WA 2010 Capel Vale Cabernet Sauvignon that  was amazing: smooth, full bodied and with just the right balance of fruit and alcohol. I, too, left the Jacobs Creek in case the former memory could somehow be tainted. But in sharing this with you, that is impossible.

“Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.” – Willa Cather

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Richard Calver
Richard Calver walks, talks, thinks, drinks and writes passionately about wine, especially the wines of the Canberra region.

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