If I say “wine tasting”, this is what you see: Men – I bet it’s men – swirling and snorting, scowling and spitting in a space with all the cheer of a dentist’s waiting room. What you don’t see is the swashbuckling sauciness of the Seven Kingdoms.
But armour-clad winemakers and goblet-toting maidens are exactly what you get at Game of Rhones. This event, now in its second year, kicked off in Adelaide on 24th May before heading to Brisbane and then Melbourne on 7th and 14th June respectively. It features 150-odd drops from almost 50 Australian producers, as well as – say it quietly – fun.
The initiative is the brainchild of Melbourne sommelier and wine educator Dan Sims of Bottle Shop Concepts. It’s his act of rebellion against “boring-arse masterclasses” that cater solely for the geekiest 5% of the wine-drinking public. “We’re trying to speak to the other 95% and tell them that it’s possible to come along, enjoy yourself and learn about wine,” he says. “Plus by sticking to Rhône varieties, we’re keeping it simple.”
This last point is important. Beyond the theatricality – and organisers have camped up the Game of Thrones parody to the max – this is a chance to get to know some of Australia’s most enjoyable wines and the people who make them.
So which varieties are we talking about? For a start, reds rule the Rhône. Syrah (Shiraz) reigns supreme in the cooler northern end of the valley, while Grenache leads the way in the south, usually blended with the likes of Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan, Cinsault and others. Playing second fiddle are aromatic whites ranging from hedonistic Viognier to floral Marsanne and fashionable Roussanne.
French wines will be available at Game of Rhones, but homegrown talent takes centre stage. It’s time to banish for good the stereotype of Aussie Shiraz as a generic big, dry red. “Shiraz in Australia is so diverse,” says Sims. “What we want to celebrate is the diversity of style within the variety.” Full-throttle blockbusters are but a detail in a tapestry that includes earthy, medium-bodied Hunter Valley wines, the peppery, black-olive notes of Victoria and evolving elegance from Adelaide Hills and Margaret River.
Meanwhile the Barossa and McLaren Vale are getting Grenache to sing right now. It loves the heat, as does frequent blending partner Mourvèdre (Mataro), and a trend away from hot, jammy numbers in favour of freshness, is allowing them to shine. “We’ve got some of the oldest Grenache vines in the world and the wines offer ridiculous value,” says Sims. “GSM is wonderful, medium bodied and goes great with food.”
Let’s not forget the white varieties of the Rhône, which continue their mouthwatering march. The once isolated success of Yalumba with Viognier or Tahbilk with Marsanne is being built on by others. “Viognier is always going to be a richer style of wine,” says Sims. “Then you have Marsanne and Roussanne and blends. They’re never going to be as popular as Chardonnay but I think they offer a more savoury style, and Australian winemakers are learning to play with them better.”
Game of Rhones: you’ve got to be in it to win it. And the beauty is you can always play along at home.
Dan Sims’s Game of Rhones heroes:
Head Red GSM 2013 Barossa Valley $25
“Alex Head’s wines are going from strength to strength and this is just bloody delicious. Medium-bodied, red-fruited deliciousness.”
Voyager Estate Shiraz 2011 Margaret River $38
“While the west isn’t famed for Shiraz, Voyager is nailing it. Fuller flavour, dark plums with a savoury edge. It begs for roasted meats.”
Tyrrell’s Stevens Single Vineyard Shiraz 2011 Hunter Valley $38
“I really like Hunter Shiraz as it’s classically medium bodied without being too much. Perfumed and elegant now but long lived for sure.”
Oliver’s Taranga Shiraz 2012 McLaren Vale $30
“Superfresh, dark-fruited, slippery and slurpy deliciousness from winemaker Corinna Wright.”
Mitchell Harris Mataro 2012 Pyrenees $29
“Recently did very well in the North East Versus Western Victoria Challenge. Medium bodied, spicy, attractive fruit. Great drink.”
Shaw & Smith Shiraz 2012 Adelaide Hills $50
“Cool climate, spicy fresh Shiraz at its Adelaide best. Super smooth and seductive.”