Competition – Natasha Hughes

Natasha Hughes is a Master of Wine. She’s worked in the wine business for nearly 20 years, developing what her husband refers to as a ‘portfolio career’, which combines writing, consultancy, events and education with judging at wine competitions. She still can’t believe that she gets paid to do the kind of stuff that most people list as their hobbies. Her unedited entry in our seminal wine competition appears below.

When I hear friends and colleagues talking about the wines that changed their lives, that turned their heads and moved their worlds, I have to admit to feeling a frisson of envy. You see, I’ve never really felt like that about any particular cuvée, even though I’ve written about wine for nearly 20 years and have been lucky enough to taste some extraordinary bottlings.

I feel sure that my father (a committed claret buff) opened superb wines on special occasions throughout my adolescence and early twenties. But they slipped down my throat and slid right on past my ability to appreciate them. The truth is that I wasn’t much of a wine drinker in those days.

It wasn’t until I moved to Sydney in the early 90s that I began to gain a little expertise. Even then it was more a matter of recognising styles I didn’t like rather than being inspired by wines that I enjoyed. I knew I didn’t think much of rich, ripe Chardonnays that ran heavy on the oak and light on freshness. I wasn’t much taken, either, by the simple boiled sweet flavours of big-brand, entry-level reds. (Clearly, wine snobbery was a latent personality trait, even if I couldn’t name a bottle that made my heart beat faster.)

But although I can’t single out the cuvée that changed my life, I can absolutely, without question, pinpoint the moment that my attitude towards wine shifted: Christmas day, 1994. Along with a group of like-minded greedy friends, I’d invested $100 in what we later came to call ‘the ultimate Christmas feast’. As the most experienced cook of the group (I ran a catering company part-time while at university), I was entrusted with $800 to go out and source both raw ingredients and wines.

The food element was relatively straightforward. I drew up a menu that kicked off with blinis, sour cream and salmon caviar as well as a generous platter of oysters. Christmas in Sydney can be road-meltingly hot, so I kept things as light as possible, and the succeeding courses featured an abundance of seafood, salads and summer fruits. There was a lightly seared fillet of beef, crusted with spices and served in thin cold slices, as well as a selection of cheeses and a Christmas pudding that we were far too full to eat when the time came.

The week before the feast, I wandered into my local wine shop. I knew nothing about wine, I admitted. Could they help me find some nice Aussie wines to accompany the meal I’d planned? It turns out they could.

Over the course of the intervening years, time has fogged my memory for the precise details of what we drank that day. I do remember a prim, rectilinear Riesling that resonated harmoniously with the sweetly saline shellfish. There was an opulent Viognier that wrapped our tastebuds in a comforting blanket of creamy stone fruit and a firm Cabernet Sauvignon whose hints of mint and sage offset the ferrous twang of the beef. I was sceptical about the sparkling Shiraz – newly fashionable at the time – but it was a cracking match for our cheeseboard.

In some ways I regret not remembering exactly what those wines were, but in many respects their precise identity is not the point. What sticks in my mind is way conversation and laughter swirled round the dining room like a tidal eddy. I remember how much the wines and the food seemed to enhance each other, luring us on to take yet another mouthful, well beyond the point of satiety. And I can recall the deep blue of the sky outside and the lavishly decorated table with its crisp linen cloth and its wreaths of spiky banksias and fur-petalled proteas interwoven with festive holly. It seemed to me that the wines brought an added dimension of sensual pleasure to a day of conviviality and joy, helping to create a memory that still has a crystalline gleam all these years later.

So maybe I shouldn’t feel jealous at all. While it’s unlikely that I will ever enjoy a truly revelatory glass of wine, I can comfort myself with the knowledge that such moments are (by definition) rare. My epiphany – that wine is a key element in a significantly bigger picture, in which congenial company, delicious food and great bottles add up to far, far more than the sum of their parts – is one that I get to relive several times a year.

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