How to find good wines in unfamiliar places

Author: Max Allen

Holidaying in a one-shop town? Max Allen's summer favourites can be found from Woy Woy to Woop Woop.

It's January. Summer holidays. You're in a remote seaside town. And you're thirsty. But, perhaps mercifully, you're miles from the nearest hipster bar or inner-urban indie wine merchant.

The only place to buy wine is the local hotel bottle shop, or licensed general store, or perhaps an outpost of one of the supermarket liquor chains. No limited-release artisan natural wines here, my friend. No bearded blokes selling boutique bottles.

Fear not. There is still plenty of very good - and very good value - drinking to be had; reliable labels from quality producers that you should be able to find on shelves and in fridges no matter where you are.

To be honest, it's a bit of a relief to be out of the wine loop sometimes. As wine correspondent for this magazine, I spend 11 months of the year looking for the next big thing - the most obscure grape, the hottest new winemaker - and I know, as a reader of this magazine, you usually want to hear about what's trendy and obscure and hot. But it's good to take a month off, to spend time in the land of the familiar, to relax and just go with the mainstream wine flow.

I have a soft spot for checking out holiday bottle shops, especially in places I've never been before. I love scanning the floor-stacked cartons and understocked fridges in pub drive-throughs, and browsing the narrow wine aisles in country-town supermarkets.

There's always something there to surprise you - perhaps a current vintage of a slightly posh, well-known cabernet with the same price tag it's had the past five vintages; a sparkling wine that's been quietly "maturing" and improving in the corner of a fridge for the past 18 months; a shiraz with a few years' bottle age that might be buggered, given the less than ideal storage conditions, but might be sensational, and at that low price is definitely worth taking the risk. As I say, there's always something worth drinking.

Australian wine lovers are blessed by the fact that a number of our big companies - many of them still family-owned - produce good, distinctive, regional wines in large enough quantities to ensure competitive prices and wide distribution.

Some of these wines - Pewsey Vale Eden Valley riesling, Mount Pleasant Hunter Valley sémillon and shiraz, Tahbilk Nagambie Lakes marsanne, d'Arenberg McLaren Vale grenache blends - are considered benchmark combinations of variety and region, but they're also available in wine stores and pubs and supermarkets right across Australia, and they're all less than 20 bucks a bottle.

Price is a particularly important consideration when you're on holiday. You'll probably be imbibing a little more than during the normal working week.

A glass of rosé with lunch might not be socially acceptable on a Monday in March, but it's almost de rigueur on a lazy Wednesday afternoon in January.

And you're bound to be entertaining at some point on holiday - inviting the new friends you made at the beach or the pub to an impromptu Friday night barbecue, perhaps. So you'll be thinking about quantity not just quality when you pop down to the drive-through for wine supplies. Hence the imperative to keep the per-bottle price down.

If you've been drinking mostly trendy, small-producer wines recently, this selection could be flashback territory for you. Some of the wines might have some sentimental attachment, might bring back memories.

Brown Brothers does that for me. Some of the first wines I ever drank and paid attention to (as opposed to just drinking without thinking) were from this old north-eastern Victoria winery. I can still remember the luscious first sip of Brown Brothers spatlese lexia in its tall brown bottle with its distinctive yellow label.

And if memory serves, I first tried it when I was on holiday, too.

Illustration: Tom Bingham

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