Hints of spice and mystery

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 May, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 May, 1997, 12:00am

Walk into a club and ask for the house wine. Increasingly, the chances are it will come in a bottle with a personalised label, noting it has been produced especially for that institution.

Nonsense, of course. Usually, it's some tired old plonk that someone is very anxious to get rid of at giveaway prices. The lure of a special label is laid out so club members and bar customers think they are getting something special. That's probably right: in many cases it is especially dreadful.

Not so with the commemorative specials now being uncorked at the Hong Kong Cricket Club and Hong Kong Football Club. Under a marketing deal with James Talijancich, of Western Australia's Swan Valley, they are getting nicely packaged wines to mark July 1.

The 96 straight Shiraz is a good gurgling red, but far too young to drink. Buy it, look at it, but for goodness' sake don't open it for at least three years. Drink it on New Year's Eve, 2000, and think back on the handover party.

The winner is a straight verdelho, a grape we see far too seldom in Hong Kong. This makes a balanced, dry white with hints of spice and mystery. It makes a refreshing change from the oceans of chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.

The two wines are being served over the bar and in restaurants in both clubs so, if you know a member, ask him to buy you the package. For $500, you get a half-bottle of potent muscat liqueur thrown in: not bad value.

The same sort of deal is offered by institutions such as the Jockey Club, although they don't bother with the fancy labels.

What is unusual about the sporting club offer is that the wine has some distinction. You are not just paying for a novel label.

The young red, for instance, comes from grapes planted 52 years ago. When shiraz vines grow to such maturity, the fruit is small and crammed with sugar, flavour and power, which is obvious when you get those ripe plum and rich blackcurrant tastes on the palate.

James Talijancich is a fourth-generation Swan River winemaker. In addition to table wines, the company is noted for its quality muscat liqueur. Take the 1961 liqueur, for instance, which was laid down for 31 years in English oak casks already six decades old. What emerged when this was bottled was an outstanding golden liqueur.

The Swan Valley is one of Australia's most intriguing wine regions and one from which we get far too few vintages. It is older than either South Australia or Victoria; Thomas Waters planted grapes at Olive Farm in 1829 and the wine-making tradition of the region has been uninterrupted.

The low rainfall, high summer temperatures, and fertile soil are perfect for grapes, with the 27 major wineries in the Swan consistently producing a vast range of reliable wines.

Verdelho has been a favoured grape in the region for many years, long before it became popular over the other side of the country. It makes a flavoursome but dry wine with a mild hint of honeysuckle, something I love with spicy Chinese dishes.

The two sporting clubs have made wise choices with their special selections for commemorative handover wines. It shows that sometimes those offerings with club labels are worth drinking. But take care: they are not all as good as this lot.