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Kind of blue

Eucalyptus, two ways

by Thor Iverson

Ain’t no cure for the Blues

We’re in a car, driving into the hills, with people we’ve never met. I’ve seen this horror plot at the cinema, and it never ends well for the passengers. It’s true that our hosts don’t seem particularly threatening…but I’m sure that’s just what they want us to think.

The suburbs roll away, replaced by misty forested hills. There’s just enough habitation that we never quite feel we’ve entered the bush, as such, but the vistas are inspired nonetheless. Soon, we’re in the aptly-named Blue Mountains, a eucalyptus-tinted haze layered atop an carpet of trees broken only by striated pillars of rusted rock. I’ve never seen this combination of hues before; it’s as if the Green Mountains of Vermont were planted in the valleys and gorges of the Grand Canyon, and then sprayed with a wash of blue fog.

It’s beautiful.

[three sisters][forest]
[blue mountains][blue mountains]

At a touristy overlook facing the eroded pillars known as the Three Sisters, we discuss our options. Graeme and Judith, our gracious hosts and guides (or are they?), think a hike might be the way to experience a little bit of natural Australia, since we’ll be enveloped by Sydney’s lively urbanity for the rest of our visit. Fortified by our New Zealand explorations, we’re game.

Of course, they neglect to tell us we’ll be risking vertiginous death. I suppose it’s all part of the plot.

We hike – really, it’s more of a sloped stroll – in the direction of the Sisters, until Judith announces her hunger. And in fact, it is time for lunch. I just hope it’s not us that are on the menu.

So it’s back to the car, and on to an isolated promontory rather grandly named Sublime Point. Is it? Well, yes…the views are extraordinary…but, more importantly for our purposes, it’s fitted with picnic tables, though the latter are protected from both the winds and the full majesty of the view. Graeme & Judith spread out some food – whew! it’s not us! – and some wine (the identity of which, somewhat surprisingly, I fail to note), and we further winnow our afternoon’s options. There seems to be some controversy about the length of the planned walk, but knowing nothing of the details, we keep silent. Are we sealing our doom?

Finally, an agreement is reached, and we’re back in the car for a short jaunt to a central trailhead. Arrows point in all directions, and the minor lunchtime tiff over which to follow threatens to begin again; the signs indicate a four-hour loop for our chosen walk (named “National Pass”), which appears to be a greater duration than our hosts intend. Nonetheless, it seems our best option; the others are either too short, too long, or too difficult. And so, off we go…into what really is a wild blue yonder.

[national pass][long way down]

Kinetic cling

The walk starts with a somewhat brutal descent around – yes, around – a cliff face. Stairs have been hewn into the rock, and there are railings at the worst points, but there’s no escaping the fact that we’re on a narrow path slashed into places where even mountain goats couldn’t have visited, and that the valley floor is far, far below us. As difficult as this stage of the hike is, we can’t help but think that such a steep descent means that, eventually, there will be an equally rapid ascent. How will our legs fare?

From time to time, I have to stop to catch my breath. Not from fatigue, though at certain points that does threaten, but from the exposed emptiness before and below me. The views are breathtaking, in every sense of the word, but to enjoy them I have to take my eyes from the uneven path under my feet. One unexpected stumble and desperate clutch at a tree limb is all it takes for me to stop combining the activities. Plus, all the sightseeing does slow us down a bit.

For a while, the path flattens, a sine-wave undulation all the difficulty it offers, as we pass over bare rock and across the spattered multi-stage downspout of Wentworth Falls. And then, finally, there’s the sweaty climb. Up, up, up, on stairs built for people with longer legs than ours, back into the forest and periodically drenched by the waterfall’s spray. At long last, rock turns to topsoil, we’re surrounded by trees, and our hike is over. In the end, it only takes us two and a half hours, and while we can feel the aftereffects, to be sure, we’re exhilarated in equal measure. At the beginning of this trip, we’d never have attempted this afternoon’s exertions. Now? They’re just a pleasant afternoon’s work

Judith demands a detour to a trailside cabin serving several varieties of ice cream flavored by bush flora. I taste one from lillipilli (sharp, like peppered cherries) and another infused with quandong (like sweet peach, with its own measure of light sharpness but less aggression). It’s a perfect end to our hike, replacing every last calorie we’ve burned, and then some.

And – we note with pleasure – we’re still alive. Of course, the day’s not over.

[before a waterfall][above a waterfall]
[behind a waterfall][under a waterfall]

A Para aces

An hour or so later, we’re at our hosts’ home, dithering over the value of a post-tramp shower but really in the mood for some food and wine. The former comes quickly: steaks (on the grill, natch), potatoes, ’shrooms, salad. The latter, as is our custom, play out more slowly.

In correspondence with our soon-to-be-acquaintances in Australia, I’ve made only one request: convince me that, as is so often claimed by natives, the actual universe of Australian wine is much broader than the overworked thermonuclear fruit, oak, and soy bombs that find so much acclaim in the States. Upon the occasion of this first volley of counterpoints, I’m definitely not disappointed, though it’s true that I’m already familiar with some of the arguments.

Tahbilk 1999 Marsanne (Central Victoria) – Honey, but more verdant than that. Honeysuckle might be more accurate. Rich peach flavors, well-spiced, rest over a foundation of clay. Nice early maturity, though there’s no hurry. Quite appealing.

Peregrine 2004 Rosé (Central Otago) – A non-saignée rosé of pinot noir. Sand and strawberry start light, but develop hints of complexity with air. That said, it neither aspires to nor achieves elevation. Nice enough, but ultimately forgettable.

Henschke 1990 Mount Edelstone (EdenValley) – Rich and mature, showing some of the familiar soy, but this time infused with black pepper and soaking into the wine’s leathery texture. There’s blackberry and a good measure of black dirt as well. Starts sorta triangular, but as it airs it reforms into a more appealing roundness. The finish is long and earthy, with beautiful morel and black trumpet enhancements. And a hint of vanilla, perhaps? Fully developed. Very good, though I don’t think I’d hold it any longer.

AP Birks “Wendouree” 1997 Shiraz (Clare Valley) – Shocking. That’s mostly a comment about the nose, which is a little insane: blackberry dust, volatility, and a huge stonking wallop of eucalyptus. It’s as if someone distilled the air in the Blue Mountains into shiraz form. Once one gets past the eucalypt, however, there’s a lot more to discover: the darkest possible black fruit streaked with anise, a dusty tannin that develops increasing bitterness as the wine lingers (and boy, does it linger), though eventually this bitter streak starts to grate a bit. Striking and incredibly individualistic. Probably not mature, but I have absolutely no baseline for that judgment. I’m not sure I would say it’s a “great” wine, nor would I want to drink it every night, but I absolutely love it. All wines should have this much character.

Seppelt 1939 “Para Liqueur” (South Australia) – One of the first press tastings to which I was ever invited was a Southcorp portfolio event that toured the U.S. Each represented producer was asked to bring something from their library stock. Seppelt brought two. The first was an aged sparkling shiraz, which I didn’t know was possible before that bottle. And the second was a Para Liqueur from the very late 1800s (the date is lost to memory). I still remember that wine: fig syrup, molasses, balsamic vinegar (the real stuff, not a cheap knockoff), and finish that seemed to last for hours. I mean that literally: two hours later, back at my desk, I could still taste the wine.

Thus, there’s extra meaning for me in this bottle, which is incredibly rare and an expression of remarkable generosity on the part of our hosts. It tastes of pure distilled brownness, dusty/particulate and burnished with antiquity, but still alive with remarkable intensity and persistence. There’s brown sugar, molasses, the sharp cling of balsamic something-or-other, to be sure…but also, a lively hint of honeydew melon, and a perfect note of bitterness contrapuntal to all the well-aged sugar. The finish is beyond incredibly long, it’s endless. An absurdly great wine.

At the close of the evening, as we’re packing up to head back into the city, Graeme presses a bottle into my hands. It’s the Seppelt.

“I can’t take this.”

He insists.

“No, I can’t take this. This is insane. You can’t just give me a wine like this.”

He continues to insist. Since he’s driving us back to Sydney, and doesn’t appear inclined to leave until we accept, I finally relent. But the generosity is far, far beyond anything sensible, and I’ll have to find some way to thank him.

Who knew horror flicks could have happy endings?

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Copyright © Thor Iverson.