I heard it through the grapevine- travel contributions of the vinous kind
Well as some of us gather our winter woolies while others bask in the joy of shedding layers, we return to cover another travel-related tangent of high interest and debatable urgency. This week the GTG has elected to ponder the added value that wine has bestowed upon my own personal travel experience.
The term ‘wine by association’ comes to mind when thinking of the specific moments that have become synonymous with the chronicles of my travel history. In a similar vein, wine (or the absence of wine for that matter) alongside food, music, language and dance has become part of unique cultural identities worldwide.
For those educated palates, or anyone with highly specific taste, a little flexibility of perception may be required to fully enjoy the way in which wine can facilitate any great travel experience. The first (regular) encounter with wine I can recall on foreign shores would have to be the fabled Umeshu (Japanese plum wine, phonetically oo-may-shoo) whilst teaching English in Fujisawa Japan (1 hr south of Tokyo). As with all wines, the taste is as distinctive as the setting in which it is most commonly enjoyed. I was introduced to Umeshu on one of my first visits to an Izakaya (Japanese tavern) by a mixed group of Japanese and foreign teachers. An Izakaya is instantly recognizable by it’s traditional décor, individual booths for groups, large full-colour picture menus, sliding rice paper doors, and call buzzer to request service. Over time, I came to experiment with the different ways in which Umeshu can be served. These include;
- Umesu by itself
- Umeshu on the rocks (with ice for those under-aged readers)
- Umeshu soda
- Umeshu sour
special (and honourable) mention goes to the Ume boshi (pickled/fermented plum) that can often be found at the bottom of the glass. Umeshu is a golden-green-coloured, plum liquor made from steeping ume fruits (while still unripe and green) in alcohol (焼酎, shōchū?) and sugar. Being a lover of all things carbonated, Umeshu soda stands as a personal favourite as the minerals of the soda water balance out the ultra sweetness of the original liquor. Umeshu proceeded to become part of a tradition where each new teacher at the English conversation school where I taught was ‘ume-initiated’ on their first night in town, a tradition I strongly hope continues to this day. This tradition came to symbolize on a larger scale the welcoming of foreign culture and encouragement of cross-cultural interest in a universally accommodating environment.
My round two with wine on the move occurred on a three-month camping trip around Spain and Portugal where the concoction of Calimocho was added to my growing wine-awareness spectrum. Before any panic attacks occur, I should reassure wine lovers that this drink has been developed within the context of a long standing culture of wine appreciation and in the name of a good time. Calimocho, put simply, is red wine and coke mixed together in varying measures. It is often a combination of the cheapest boxed wine combined with the cheapest brand of cola and commonly served in plastic cups. Having the basic supplies for calimocho is a sure way to draw new friends to your social gathering and won’t leave you substantially out of pocket. Calimocho is particularly popular during the summer months in Spain when the whole country virtually seems to relocate outdoors. Some ice cubes are always a welcome addition and will improve the quality of your party potion immensely. From a wine-lovers perspective, the heat in summer and amount of time spent outdoors (where all good calimocho is consumed) would drastically affect the proprties of a decent wine and the party season given its lengthy duration would put a huge dent in many already low Spanish bank accounts, enter calimocho. With a lowered alcohol content, calimocho can fuel a Spaniard (or honorary Spaniard) for weeks of fiesta without landing them in liver trouble land. The final criteria of calimocho is that all supply containers be disposable (recyclable for you responsible globetrotters) to allow for smooth transition to the dance floor where any good night in Spain always ends.
For those of you with enough sense to enjoy a greater degree of comfort, Spain’s bodegas (vineyards) would be a fantastic place to sample a regional Rioja or a Tempranillo (also grown in Australia) amongst many of Spain’s other higher calibre offerings. Fortunately, wine can be found at more than reasonable prices around the country as well. When visiting in Summer time, it’s hard to go past a nice jug of everyone’s favourite fruit juice, Sangria. Classes can even be taken to learn the art of making a nice mix yourself. Sangria has been a missing link between many points of my travel, from Spain itself, through Edinburgh with friends, to the rocks in Sydney with some family on return to Australia.
Upon entering Basque country and San Sebastian (still kind of in Spain) the vinous discovery was Txakoli (Cha- ko- lee), which is a Basque style of sparkling, dry white wine. Txacoli is lightly carbonated and is poured from a height, seemingly to allow for a softer, more natural aeration as in the cider of Asturias (to be discussed in the upcoming cider post). Txakoli is usually served in small glasses and makes a perfect partner for the mouth-watering pinxos (what Tapas is called in the North) which encompass a wide variety of delicious seafood.
The other flashbacks from a good drop include the people you enjoyed it with. I have timeless memories of enjoying a bottle of blue nun with my Aunt in her London flat (old favourites die hard) and two-pound bottles of rose from LIDL with my fabulous Edinburgh flat posse, or with my best friend and her Edinburgh crew (or in many a place for that matter). The night before I left the country indefinitely, hanging with my best friend and sister has also left it’s impression, if only they had been fellow wine drinkers at the time….
Crossing into Portugal from Spain took us to the lovely (O)Porto, giver of life to the fabulous Port wine. I fell in love with the city itself but my most wine-related memory would have to be our visit to Croft Port house, on the Vila Nova De Gaia side of the Douro river. We arrived at Croft, surrounded by it’s fellow port houses elegantly presiding over each side of the river in the middle of a summer afternoon to be told that tours were running but the last English tour had finished for the day. Having alternative plans for the following few days we decided to inquire about what other options were available. Then given the choice of a tour in Spanish or French, having recently crossed from Spain we decided to try our luck at a tour in Spanish. Well I suppose you could say I managed to retain a similar amount of specific detail to any other tour I’ve been on, incidentally I hesitate to vouch for the accuracy of that information, in its minimal existence. On completion of the tour when asked by the guide (En Español) if we had understood, I managed to reply with a poorly confident ‘mas o menos’ (more or less) so I must have learned something.
Years later In Edinburgh, I came face to face with Calimocho’s twin brother Tinto De Verano. In the case of Tinto de verano, the combination changes to Fanta orange (La Fanta for you Latino lovers) and red wine. Many of the same ideas apply, great for offering a drink around a larger group etc and for those daredevils among you, it is always possible to branch out to try them both in the same night!
Closer to home, the fondness I hold for the Hunter valley wine country has grown exponentially over time and as I travel more. Whether it be a vineyard tour with work on the back of a weekend of no sleep (not advisable although I could have ended the day in a far worse condition), spending the day at Jazz in the Vines with a good friend, St Patrick’s day at Harragon’s Irish pub, or seeing some great acts like Ash Grunwald at Bimbadgen blues with my mother, there really are a million and one reasons to head out there.
In the spirit of keeping the glass half full, we’ve seen now how wine can loosen your inhibitions, make you new friends and enhance your travel experience simultaneously. I’m sure Christopher Colombus had a tale or two of wine to tell.. When enjoyed responsibly, wine can be the doorway to a new culture, furthermore the sharing of wine appreciation within the family context seems to be an effective way of minimizing binge drinking and reducing incidence of alcohol-related health issues, what’s not to like? So till next week, know your limits and cheers!