Friday, January 4, 2008

Tight Budgets

After the holidays, gloomy winter days can make Minnesotans stir crazy with “cabin fever”. There are warm destination vacations, but what if you don’t have the money to spare? Consider taking a trip to the southern hemisphere via a bottle of wine. In Australia it is 79 degrees. Just thinking about that makes me feel warmer.

In 1822 Australian wine was first imported. By 1830 vineyards were established in the Hunter Valley. Then a Shiraz from Victoria competed in the 1878 Paris Exhibition where the French judges noted similarities to the famed Château Margaux. That was all before the destructive effects on the industry of the phylloxera epidemic.

In the late 1980s, governments sponsored growers to pull out their vines to overcome a glut of wine grapes. Low grape prices in 2005 and 2006 have led to calls for another sponsored vine pull. Major grape varieties are Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, and Riesling. The country has no native grapes.

The largest volume of wine is produced from grapes grown in the warm climate Murray-Darling Basin zones of Lower Murray, North Western Victoria and Big Rivers. In general, the higher-value premium wines are made from smaller and cooler-climate regions. Global warming has impacted wine production as Australia is experiencing world-record droughts. Expect to see changes in varietal characteristics in future vintages.

Australia's most famous wine is Penfolds Grange. The 1998 vintage was rated 99 points out of a possible 100 by Wine Spectator magazine. Other red wines to garner international attention include Henschke Hill of Grace, Clarendon Hills Astralis, D’Arenberg Dead Arm, Torbreck Run Rig and other high-end Penfolds wines such as St Henri Shiraz.

So what type of food would you eat on this vacation? Grub, a.k.a. tucker, is an integral part of Oz. Australia has little common native foods. Due to Australia's youthful history, all "Aussie" foods have traceable links to other countries, mainly England. Things like roast beef, meat pies and Yorkshire pudding are originally English, as are scones. There are a small minority of wholly Australian foods, such as damper (a traditional bread once baked over open coals) and Vegemite (very salty yeast and Vitamin B spread), which the rest of the world detests.

How about having a shepherd’s pie made with ground lamb and a fruit-topped pavlova, an egg white dessert invented in 1935 by a chef in Perth to celebrate a visit from the Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova.

In the last two hundred years these eating habits have gradually changed. In 1851, adventurers and speculators came from all over the world, among them thousands of Chinese who began successful market gardens, shops and restaurants, thus introducing new tastes. Chefs now use the plentiful seafood, fresh produce and herbs and even kangaroo for their dishes.

Enjoy your mini-vacation this weekend.