A Taste of the Aussie Nectar: Vineyards down under

They might miss out on the tasting, but even kids can enjoy a tour of a vineyard. Lindsay Hawdon called in at Tyrrell's in Australia

Water was spilling down the road, collecting eucalyptus leaves and cracked twigs as it went. Sheet lightning flashed across the sky followed by a clap of thunder directly above. I was in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, Australia, driving while leaning over the passenger side because my windscreen wiper was broken, my nose pressed up against my sister's cheek. In the back were Dow, my three-year-old son, and my sister's two children, Liam, seven, and five-year-old Jessica.

Finally I saw a turning and drove up the lane to Tyrrell's Vineyard, passing paddocks with white picket fences as petals of red, pink and yellow roses scattered like confetti. I parked and we ran across the yard towards a barn door, which had the words "Wine Tasting" scrawled across it.

The man behind the long wooden counter was pink skinned, piggy nosed and balding, with a halo of white hair circling his scalp in clown-like tufts. "From out of the wind and rain, they came," he said gruffly, with a strong Edinburgh accent. Dow hid behind my legs. "Try this," he continued, placing two glasses on the counter and pouring out a tipple of red wine. It was dry and smooth. "A pinot noir," he confirmed. We let the kids each have a sip, so they'd know what we were here for. "Yuk," was their unified response. The Scotsman rolled his eyes.

"So where are you from?" he asked, pouring himself a full glass.

"England."

"What d'you want to be from there for?" he asked.

The irony struck me as I recalled that the man who started this huge family enterprise back in 1858, Edward, the original Tyrrell, was an immigrant ... from England.

"We'd love a tour," I said and before I could add anything else he was bulldozing us all out across the windswept yard towards a row of low outhouses. "The name's Murray," he muttered out of the side of his mouth. A woman with red hair crossed the yard in front of us, a basket full of cut roses in her arms. She waved happily. "The wife," Murray said. "She loves this weather. Reminds her of home."

"How long have you been here?" my sister asked, as we headed into a long shed of corrugated tin that had an earth floor and was filled with wooden barrels. The place smelt sweet and yeasty. "Thirty-six years," he replied. Then he tenderly stroked one of the barrels. "One hundred and fifty years old," he said. "They range from brand new to very old, depending on what flavour you want. Same system that began here in 1858. If it's not broke, don't fix it, right?"

Of course Edward Tyrrell did not hit upon the perfect system all at once. The 320-acre plot he was granted, in the lee of the Brokenback mountains, was considered quite poor for cattle. But Tyrrell, a true pioneer, went for grapes and produced his first vintage in 1864.

By the dawn of the 20th century Tyrrell's estate was recognised as one of the best vineyards in the Hunter Valley, producing outstanding wine from shiraz to semillion. It now exports worldwide and has expanded to incorporate several other vineyards.

We moved through a multitude of wood-scented barrels and into a shed that in contrast was full of vast metal vats. "And here's where all the magic happens," Mr Murray declared, his voice full of pride. We stood in the silent dankness. "Is it fudge?" my son's small voice piped up. With its big metal vats it looked like a fudge kitchen we once saw near our home. Murray clanked his hand against each of the vats, the level of the wine inside making different pitches, like discordant kettle drums. The kids thought this was great.

"The wife hated it when we first arrived here," Murray was saying, leading us on past the vats. "It was a one-horse town. On our second day we were exploring and a horse was tied up outside the only pub. We half expected John Wayne to come out."

"Do you get homesick now?" I asked. "Sure, when I want a warm pint," he laughed. "No, of course. Home's home."

The storm had passed by the time Mr Murray's tour was over and as we walked across the forecourt the clouds in the west had cleared to reveal a bright blue sky which lit up the vineyards.

"But then again," Murray muttered. "They don't have vineyards in Scotland. Come on, we're harvesting. I want you all to taste a perfectly ripe grape."

THE COMPACT GUIDE

HOW TO GET THERE

Travelbag (0870 814 6545; travelbag.co.uk) offers seven nights in the Hunter Valley from £842 per person, based on two adults and one child (under 12) sharing. The price includes return flights, room only and car hire.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Tyrrell's (00 61 2 988 94450; tyrrells.com). Australian Tourist Commission (0906 863 3235, calls cost 60p per minute; australia.com).

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