This summer promises to be a social swirl of eating and drinking. Sharpen your wine knowledge in the meantime with these expert online tutorials and tastings.
Imagine the scene. A group of strangers gather with glasses full, cheese platters heaving, faces smiling and banter flowing as a winemaker talks them through a line-up of wine. As the wine tasting progresses, friendships blossom and things get a little rowdy.
This is no ordinary wine tasting. It is the virtual kind. One participant is in his pyjamas, another is sipping over a picnic at their local park, someone has logged in from their living room, while a Sydney sommelier tastes from their backyard.
The way we are drinking is changing. It has to. National lockdowns and border closures challenge forced small bars, wineries and beverage merchants to re-think the way they connect with consumers.
In many cases, that means sending booze straight to homes – with a compelling side dish of education.
Virtual tastings come in many forms; from live-streamed, interactive masterclasses to pre-recorded webinars. They're not all winners, as anyone who has watched a winemaker talk awkwardly at a screen will attest. Poor sound quality, camera angles and preparation are other pitfalls.
But done well, they are wonderful. The best virtual tastings are engaging, as Paul Green from Sydney and Melbourne's Le Pont Wine Store knows all too well.
"We had to cancel an on-site chablis tasting for 16 people when Melbourne's fourth lockdown hit," he says. "We decided to do it as a virtual masterclass via Zoom instead. We sold 50 tickets in less than 24 hours. There was a need and a demand for it."
Green was a teacher before hospitality stole his heart 30 years ago. "You can't educate without entertaining and empowering people," he says. "We made a conscious decision to put a stop to the kind of Zoom format where people are simply being 'talked to'."
The result? "People seem more enthused about wine and respect the product more. I think virtual tastings are here to stay – especially in the corporate world. It seems like a great way for businesses to connect staff, no matter where they're based."
A well-executed virtual tasting has the potential to make you a better, more informed drinker. Give these a swirl.
Le Pont Wine Store
Le Pont hosts weekly virtual fine wine tastings delivered to homes within a 10-kilometre radius of its Sydney and Melbourne stores. It's a hands-on affair. The team delivers 50ml vials before the Wednesday evening tasting. Pick-up is also an option.
When a customer opened the door and said, 'You are literally the highlight of my life right now!' Green knew he was onto something.
Connection and education are part of the package. Le Pont's tasting themes have included the Villages of Burgundy Pinot Noir masterclass (featuring eight red Burgundies from the Côte-d'Or), a Communes of Barolo Masterclass with wine guru and importer David Ridge, and a spotlight on the wines of Saumur with producer Arnaud Lambert.
"We try to bring some razzle-dazzle to the tastings," Green says. "The chat section is open to participants [many of whom make comments as they taste] so it is generally an explosion of wine descriptors.
"We don't make a lot of money from the tastings. We are happy if we break even. It's about engaging with and supporting our customers. Seeing how much it means to them makes it worth the effort."
From $49 a masterclass, including wine delivery. lepontwinestore.com
Nicole Burfitt-Williams hosts Lebanese wine tastings complete with food pairings and belly dancing performances. Photo: Edwina Pickles
Wines of Lebanon
Sydney-based Nicole Burfitt-Williams discovered Lebanese wine on a trip to her father's homeland in July 2019. At 25, she quit her job in corporate finance and dedicated her career to sharing Vins Du Liban (Wines of Lebanon) with Australia.
Initially, most of her imported wine went to restaurants and bars. "When lockdown hit, I lost 83 per cent of my turnover overnight," she says. "I needed to be creative and innovative so I decided to try virtual tastings via Zoom and spread the word through social media. I was instantly inundated with requests to buy tickets."
Burfitt-Williams often teams up with Sydney's Middle Eastern restaurants Tayim, Kepos Street Kitchen (pictured, right), Barzaari and Clove Lane to create dishes to match the wines.
"More recently we partnered with Mike Bennie and P&V Merchants to create a virtual wine tasting event showcasing our new natural wines."
Belly dancers are a highlight. "People get up and dance in their lounge rooms (with the comfort of being able to turn their video off)."
Expect wines from the likes of Ixsir, whose Grande Reserve Rosé 2018 won the 2021 Best Rosé Wine in the World competition.
Each live tasting event also includes Lebanon-based winemakers who call in from vineyards or seaside locations.
Together, they delve into Lebanese wine history dating back 7000 years.
"Lebanon has an incredibly rich winemaking history," says Burfitt-Williams. "The Temple of Bacchus (the ancient Roman wine god) is located in Lebanon and history says the Phoenicians cultivated grapes and made wines while trading between Europe and Asia."
Vin Du Liban Wine and Dine events continue through October. From $185 per couple for a three-course meal and three bottles of wine (delivered to your door in Sydney only). There are tasting events for Melbourne. vinsduliban.com.au
The Story Wines
As the name suggests, The Story Wines founder and winemaker Rory Lane loves a good wine yarn. Lane, who makes wines in Melbourne's suburbs using fruit from the Grampians and other Victorian regions, teamed up with marketer Beth Bicknell to host a virtual tasting in May 2020.
"Since then, it's gone wild," Bicknell says. "We've been inundated by groups wanting to do tastings. Sometimes we do two in a night."
Tastings are pre-booked for a minimum of three households or groups per session. Three wines are sent out in full bottle format.
Tastings last for one to two hours and are held at the date, time and theme agreed on by participants. Themes range from an introduction to wine to tastings dedicated to reds, shiraz or pinot noir.
It's all live and via Zoom (unless an alternative format is preferred). Expect lots of information about the variety, winemaking approach, and the stories behind the wines. Questions are encouraged.
"Interaction, pace and having lots of tools at your disposal is very important," Bicknell says. "Like photos, videos, and an interactive map. Depending on the theme, we have a line-up of sommeliers and winemakers who may join us."
Above all, it's about having fun. Pre-tasting drinks are encouraged and the party often continues long after the tasting officially wraps up. "We like it to be relaxed, like people are there with us in person. We throw music into the mix too. UB40's Red Red Wine is always a hit."
From $99 a household. thestory.com.au
Different Drop co-founders Tom Collings and Brett Ketelbey. Photo: Supplied
Artisanal fine wine slinger Different Drop is well-loved for its national online wine sales and often stocks small batch wines long after producers sell out. The Sydney-based team added virtual wine tastings to its arsenal this month.
Co-founder Tom Hollings and his peers call their weekly InstaLive chats DD Live and have chewed the online fat with the likes of Murdoch Hill winemaker Michael Downer and Dr Edge's Peter Dredge. "To be honest, we didn't know if Dredgy would have clothes on or not," Hollings says. Such is the laid-back vibe.
"Every Thursday night we have an entertaining chat about all things wine, play a couple of games, and taste through two to three wines."
The beauty of InstaLive is there's no need to book tickets or wine (though there's a link to pre-purchase relevant wines on the DD Live event section on the website).
"We are growing but we can't afford to fly a fancy camera crew to a winery. It's low budget, authentic, and raw – that suits us."
Expect entertaining wine characters. Upcoming sessions include Ravensworth's Bryan Martin (September 30), Unico Zelo (October 7), Crawford River's Belinda Thomson (October 14), Dormilona's Josephine Perry (Margaret River), Yarra Valley's Mac Forbes and Nick Spencer (NSW high country).
Virtual Cellar Doors
Dave Ornig and Trent Davis came up with Virtual Cellar Doors over a glass of wine. Why not take people to cellar doors – without anyone actually leaving home?
"Wineries and cellar doors are doing it tough so we wanted to help," Davis says.
Virtual Cellar Doors launched in August 2021. "It's been flying ever since."
The duo partner with wineries such as Megalong Valley's Dryridge Estate (NSW), Yarra Valley's Dominique Portet Winery (Vic), Barossa Valley's Ballycroft Vineyard and Greenock Creek Wines, and False Cape Wines (Kangaroo Island, SA).
"We cover things like how to decant, wine hacks, cover a bit of history, some information on flavour profiles and people can ask questions," says Davis.
Packs containing five or 10 little (100ml) bottles are sent out by Express Post ahead of the scheduled Zoom events. On the day of the virtual tasting, a link to the livestream is sent.
Previously, Ornig and Davis were sales managers. "We're not winemaking or viticultural graduates so we like to keep things fun and informative. We include live Q&As with winemakers from the wineries."
Private tastings can also be arranged for a minimum of five attendees. The tastings last for 60 to 90 minutes and serving sizes are enough for two people.
Tasting packs fom $65. virtualcellardoors.com.au
Jono Hersey samples chablis off the back of a ute. Photo: Sam Pearce
The French Wine Centre
Jono Hersey is obsessed with French wine. In 2018 he bought online wine store The French Wine Centre and shares his French finds Australia-wide.
His Lockoffs video and home delivery series take things one step further. Six-packs of wine are sent to homes across the nation and Hersey makes a video to accompany each pack. Recipients watch it online and taste at their leisure.
The short and sweet videos (five minutes max) cover information about the French producer region, vineyard, soil types, and off-the-cuff wine tasting notes.
Refreshingly, it's as laid-back and Aussie as it gets. The videos include Hersey drinking 2017 Domaine Robert-Denogent Pouilly-Fuisse La Croix in a hay shed, 2019 Domaine Agnes et Didier Dauvissat Chablis AC off the back of a ute and 2019 Domaine Merlin Cherrier Sancerre Blanc on a beach.
Each pack comes with a cheese pairing recommendation (which can be bought online too).
"I translate fine wine and make it approachable," he says. "I want to make everyone realise it's just a drink. At the end of the day, it's really good booze."
Tasting packs from $350. frenchwinecentre.com
Wines of Tasmania offers a cuated selection from the Apple Isle. Photo: Supplied
Wines of Tasmania
Wines of Tasmania founder Katrina Myburgh is on a mission to connect rare, small-batch Tassie wine producers with people on the mainland. That's what prompted her to set up her little Launceston-based business in 2020.
"When we started Wines of Tasmania, it was imperative that we tell the genuine stories of the people behind the brands," Myburgh says.
Her chosen format is subscription boxes, which contain a curated selection of Tasmanian wines (the rare variety) and range from three to six wines (red, white, sparkling or a mix).
She puts together a new collection every month but two-monthly, three-monthly or six-monthly subscriptions are also available, and people can cancel at any time.
The wines chosen are blind-tasted by a panel of wine industry experts before they make the cut.
Expect the likes of Delamere, Holm Oak, Sinapius, Moores Hill, Dr. Edge, Bellebonne, Freycinet Vineyards, Derwent Estate, Mewstone, Marion's Vineyard and Two Tonne Tasmania.
Each bottle is decked out with a bespoke neck tag that includes tasting notes and a short write-up about the winery. "The neck tag can stay on the bottle for as long as it is cellared," she says.
The Wines of Tasmania website is also home to the Cellar Door Conversations video series, which delve a little deeper. "I do the interviews with each of the owners and winemakers," Myrburgh says. "It's a friendly chat, just like you'd have at a cellar door."
From $145 for a gift box of three wines (price includes delivery to anywhere in Australia). winesoftasmania.com.au
More into spirits than vino? South Australia's Never Never Distilling Co. is hosting the online Seek More Flavour Festival on October 16 (noon-6pm). The aim is to celebrate (and drink) gin from the comfort of your couch or kitchen benchtop. An afternoon of masterclasses includes cocktail-making with guest distillers and mixologists. Tickets are $150 (including a box of gin and ingredients). neverneverdistilling.com.au
Online wine retailer Naked Wines hosts online Octaster masterclasses throughout October. Guest winemakers (sometimes up to nine per session) will discuss everything from sustainability to lesser-known grape varieties. Sessions are limited to 500 guests and pre-ordered tasting packs start at $90. nakedwines.com.au