Nina Caplan: now, more than ever, wine is our conduit to the world

Our columnist was meant to be in Australia this winter, reconnecting with her childhood. Instead, she’s dreaming of its riches through a Burgundian lens

Words by Nina Caplan

Mchenry Hohnen vineyard
McHenry Hohnen was on Caplan's abortive Margaret River itinerary © Russell Ord Photography

Unless you’re a rock star, the only way from Perth to Margaret River is a four-hour drive. The likes of Diana Ross or Sting, both of whom have headlined the annual concert at Leeuwin Estate, are apparently helicoptered down, which is their loss, in my opinion. I love that drive. You can’t see the Indian Ocean as you follow the coastline south, but you can smell it – or at least imagine that you do – while the horizon unfurls, so broad and beautiful that it’s as if you’ve removed blinkers you had no idea you were wearing. The earth is rust red, the sky usually bright blue, and if your car grew wings and soared towards that azure expanse you couldn’t feel more free.

Margaret River's rust red soils, as seen at Leeuwin Estate
© Francis Andrijich

Why am I fantasising about a long drive on the other side of the world? Because I’ve just donned a mask to board the Eurostar to France, and I would much rather be bowling across Western Australia than tunnelling under the Channel. This rail journey, which we take every fortnight to spend time with my stepchildren, is more familiar to me than my own nose. Eurostar to Gare du Nord, across Paris on the RER suburban train, third train to Montbard, 35-minute drive. It’s time-consuming but relatively comfortable, except for the RER, which I’m convinced is the vision of hell that Hieronymus Bosch would be painting if he were alive today. And after all, my destination is Burgundy, which is a little short on Australian wine (but does have a cuvée or two of its own).

Margaret River wine region
The Western Australian coastline heading towards Margaret River provides a visual feast
© Margaret River Wine Association
Margaret River Ocean
© Frances Andrijich / Wine Australia

I look out the window, as flat southern England flicks into flat northern France. I generally prefer train travel – you can write, dream and drink – but there’s no denying that a car offers freedom, especially in an enormous country that’s rather short on train tracks. As a child on our annual trips to Australia, where my parents had grown up, we would drive an hour south from Melbourne to the shadow-dappled beauty of the Mornington Peninsula, which I loved even more than the city. Several relatives had houses there; one or two even made wine (my cousins George and Jacky Kefford, of Merricks Estate, still do).

If I write frequently about wine’s capacity to carry us, on perfumed wings, to its place of origin, it’s partly because I was raised in a house full of Australian bottles that were there for precisely that reason. To drink good Aussie wine in 1980s London required an effort that only homesickness could sustain. I had wheeled bags stuffed with bottles through Nothing to Declare long before I was old enough to consume the contents. We didn’t often get caught, because who’s going to suspect a curly-haired kid in specs of being a booze mule?

Vasse Felix vineyard
Vasse Felix was the first winery to be established in Margaret River
©Wine Australia

The last bottle I drank before beginning my train odyssey was a Vasse Felix Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc as freshly citrussy as a squeeze of lemon with an exotic underlay of lemongrass: a wonderful match for sautéed prawns. This wine, from Margaret River’s first ever winery, was made in this trialsome Year of Our Lord 2020, just as I was supposed to be trekking the 120-mile Cape to Cape walk via this and other vineyards in the area: Cullen, Leeuwin, Fraser Gallop, McHenry Hohnen, plus, with luck, some I don’t yet know (because who travels only to reacquaint themselves with old friends)?

Vasse Felix is named for French explorer Thomas Timothèe Vasse, swept overboard in 1801. Nobody knows what happened to him, but I like to imagine him dreaming wistfully of the French wines he would never again taste, blissfully unaware that one day there would be vines planted here in this red dust, and named for him.

All wine is a love-letter from the past

All wine is a love-letter from the past, recent or otherwise, but the best Australian wines will always bring me a bittersweet message that’s entirely personal. Reaching Burgundy at last, we drive home past softly wooded hills above grassed slopes that carry the memory of vines destroyed, over a century ago, by phylloxera. With a garlicky leg of roast lamb steaming in its juices on the table, I open a 2016 Lodestone Pinot Noir from Hurley Vineyard on the Mornington Peninsula, brought back on my last trip. (Yes, I’m a chip off the old block.) It is glorious – far more forceful than the expressions from this, the most revered Pinot terroir on the planet, though it, too, tasted earthy. But such different earth, planted not by medieval monks but by the 20th-century sons or daughters of displaced Europeans – new denizens of the New World, looking to put down roots. I tasted berries darker and richer than their northern cousins and thought about lodestones: magnets, inexorably attractive to the insufficiently anchored.

After two years far from my lodestone, there remains in my Burgundian cellar just one good Aussie bottle: another Peninsula Pinot, L’Ami Sage 2015 from Paradigm Hill, owned by George and Ruth Mihaly, who love Burgundy as I do Australia. We are all drawn, by magic or memory, to particular places; if we are lucky, those places nurture vines, so that when we are reluctantly tethered far away, we can at least open bottles that transport us to where we long to be.