Avoca is on the edge of Victoria's Wimmera district and is sheep and wine country. It wasn't always like this though, what attracted the early settlers was the discovery of gold throughout the entire region, though the fields here weren't as substantial as the Bendigo and Ballarat deposits and were quickly exhausted, though in nearby areas, gold nuggets can still be found to this day and one does sometimes see gold prospectors scouring the forest floor with their gold detectors. Walking through the ironbark forests, one can still see remnants of the gold workings, with many small digs and the occasional gold ore crushing circles, that were powered by horse or oxen, still visible. In some areas, the prudent don't rush through the forest for the sake of mine shafts that were never filled in or covered over.
Nowadays, the new gold is wine. A farmer and miner, Yorkshireman Edwin Makereth, first planted vines in Avoca in 1887. Many wineries have since sprung up, including the Blue Pyrenees Estate, originally established in 1963 as Chateau Remy by the great champagne houses of Krug and Charles Heidsieck, and Taltarni in nearby Moonambel, another winery that also had a strong French influence, which may perhaps be explained by the local blue hued Pyrenees ranges that are said to be similar to the same mountain range that straddles the border between France and Spain. Some of Australia's best and most consistent wines, particularly shiraz, come from this district.
Have you ever wondered why some wines are fairly cheap and yet others command prices of hundreds of dollars? One factor that affects the price happens in the vineyard itself and is a result of how the grape vines are pruned. In the picture below, you can see what is a fairly old vine that has been pruned to promote just two lateral canes (the bits with leaves) that are trained to the wire.
Taltarni Vineyard, Moonambel
Taltarni Vineyard, Moonambel
This is a vine of similar age, but can you notice that it has four lateral canes? It's a bit tricky because of the other vines close by, but what the vigneron is doing is to double the output of this vine. So why shouldn't all vines carry more lateral canes, even more than four? The answer is wine quality. The less grapes that a particular vine has to support, the more energy it can put into those grapes, which leads to greater concentration and power in the finished wine, or put another way, the more grapes on the vine, the more dilute or less full bodied the finished wine. It is then a simple equation, less grapes of higher quality means higher prices, more grapes of lesser quality means cheaper prices. It just depends on what market the winemaker is aiming for.
Have you ever come up with a new dish, serve it up to faint praise and never think of it again? Yeah, me too. On a previous outing with the same friends that came to Avoca this last weekend, I produced a Spanish themed salad, which no one said anything about, not a squeak, so I gave it no more thought - until we were menu planning for our barbeque and my mate's wife asked for it. To my horror I discovered I'd forgotten exactly what went into it! Well, I did manage to reprise it, this time to more acclaim. It seemed exactly in its right place, being served in sight of the Pyrenees, with a glass of the local wine.
A Spanish Salad
4 ripe tomatoes
2 green capsicums, roasted and skinned
50g black olives
100g blanched almonds or pine nuts
juice of half a lemon
4 tablespoons olive oil
salt and fresh ground pepper
100g Manchego cheese or other semi-hard sheep's milk cheese
Slice the tomatoes into rounds and arrange attractively in overlapping slices on a plate and season with salt and pepper. Slice the green capsicum into thin strips and place on top of the tomatoes and season with salt, leaving the tomato edges exposed. Toast the nuts in a dry frypan until well browned, cool and scatter on top of the capsicum along with the black olives. Make a dressing with the lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper and drizzle over the salad, then thinly pare the cheese with a vegetable peeler over the top. Serve.
Note: I made this originally with anchovies as well, but decided that was gilding the lily, though anchovy stuffed olives might be nice. The almonds and pine nuts are equally as good as each other. The original dressing had Spanish sherry vinegar, which we left behind along with the almonds.