Very few things on Earth can distract from my love of travel, but good wine is a good reason to cheat. And cheat I must do-occasionally-just to keep up with the newest generation of whipper-snappers who, I swear, have been weaned on Chardonnay. In my day, Mad Dog 20/20 was as exotic as Shiraz or Semillon.
“Shiraz or Semillon?” you ask.
If they sound like Greek to you, catching up with today’s kiddy connoisseurs demands a day at the National Wine Centre of Australia. A week is better, but even an hour can get you past the curious, left-eyebrow lift of any restaurant’s sommelier. Even better, this tourist attraction weds wine and travel, a marriage made in Adelaide, South Australia for here, the Wine Centre is a crash course in winemaking, wine tasting and just about everything that comes up grapes.
Now, don’t let the high-tech, slick look of the youthful center intimidate you. Education is the focus and it’s user-friendly. Consider the interactive touch screen that helps you create your own wine. By selecting from the computer prompts, the senior traveler can pick a leading grape variety, then by blending soil, weather and winemaking techniques you may win a wine medal: gold, silver or bronze.
Or, maybe not: I developed an “absolute failure.” It seems knowing what I like and knowing how to make it is the difference between art and science.
Feel Like Kid With Energized Bunnies
Throughout the Wine Centre, the blend of art and science is impressive. Before I even get to make a wine, I sense the magnitude of grapes. For instance, a 130-year old Shiraz grapevine, complete with sprawling roots, dominates one wall of the “wine discovery” hall. Interior ceilings are decorated with woven grape vines. A giant video walks visitors through a vineyard, and 3D maps outline Australia’s wine growing regions or act as guides to the 32 most commonly grown grape varieties.
Low-tech though I am, in this hallowed hall of grapes I feel like a kid with energized bunnies. One interactive display focuses on the art of barrel making, another on diseases and pests. Holograms of some of Australia’s leading winemakers talk about grape picking or how the seasonal changes from year to year affect each harvest. The talking heads even include chefs and wine critics.
In one room, the history of Australian winemaking since 1788 is followed by, well, the sniff test. Here, I smell the fine aromas of some wines by placing my nose to a sterile metallic portal. Then I push a button that lets loose a bouquet of fresh air with hints of chocolate or perhaps roses, depending on the grape. There are even puffs of air that smell like a tainted cork or the acidity that accompanies a spoiled wine.
More fascinating is the blind taste test. After the Wine Centre’s sommelier sets four glasses atop paper coasters, I’m encouraged to swirl, sniff, sip and if I must, use the aroma pads to help identify whether I’m drinking Merlot or Shiraz, Chardonnay or Riesling. I may publicly declare each wine’s grape; the sommelier will verify which is which. Or I can turn the coaster over to confirm what I’m drinking, even if not what I’m thinking. This is painless learning by doing.
With so much to drink and so little capacity for drinking and driving in South Australia (a rigorously enforced legal blood alcohol limit is 0.05 mg/l), visitors may walk-off any buzz-on in the Centre’s wine store, in its own outdoor vineyard or in the neighboring Botanic Garden’s of Adelaide, which also may be viewed from the Wine Centre’s al fresco dining room.
The National Wine Centre of Australia is an attraction whose time has come. It complements the wine-and-dine-out consciousness of Adelaide, a foody city with more than 700 “slow food” establishments. It supports the importance of the winemaking industry by offering private wine tasting and catered dinners for small or large groups. It offers the senior traveler in-depth education with six-week courses, such as “Understanding Wine,” that also may be condensed into a weekend of 14 hours’ lessons for those who have less time to explore Adelaide and the nearby wine valleys, where 70 percent of Australia’s wine is produced.
And whether you’re a seasoned wine enthusiast or a complete novice, you may discover that, though worlds apart, Greece and Australia have some things in common. National Wine Centre of Australia is at the corner of Botanic & Hackney Roads in Adelaide, South Australia: telephone 618 8303 3355.
Thorn Park in Clare Valley’s wine country guarantees guests gourmet dinners with fabulous local wines from its extensive cellar.
Barbara Bowers is a freelance writer and photojournalist.
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