It’s 12.45pm on a Wednesday afternoon and I’m sucking wine through a glass pipe. Four full wine glasses are perched in front of me and, at a conservative estimate, 10 half-empty bottles. Admittedly rather a grim picture, but let me explain.
I’m not huddled under a bridge, nor is there a brown paper bag involved. I’m sitting in a low-lit, rustic-chic wine cave and, surrounded by beakers, funnels and pipettes, I feel much more like a mad scientist than a wino.
As part of a small group trying out the new blending bench at d’Arenberg winery in Adelaide’s McLaren Vale, I’m muddling up different wine varietals to create a blend that reflects my tastes exactly. At the end of the 90-minute session I’ll get to bottle, label and take home my creation. All very civilised, you see.
Guiding us through the process is senior winemaker Jack Walton, an affable, smiley bloke who’s been stomping grapes at d’Arenberg for the past decade.
“The blending bench is our version of speed dating,” he quips, before introducing us to three 2010 shiraz varieties, labelled A, B and C. He tells us not to look at each wine as a whole package, but rather to break them down into their acid structure, how they feel in our mouths and what the aromas are.
This isn’t our first vineyard stop of the day, so the finer variances between the wines are a little lost on those of us who’ve dulled our senses by indulging in more swallowing than spitting. Luckily Walton, who’s refreshingly down to earth but passionate about his product, gives us a summary: A is spicy and red-fruit driven, B is earthy and gamey and C is a new oak. “Be a bit careful with that one,” he says.
Next, we’re told to think about which of those characteristics we like in a wine, and come up with a percentage of each that we’d like in our blends, adding up to 100 per cent. Then Walton tells us to “get cracking” on our first blend.
Bottles of wine are flung around the table as we sip, slurp and spill our way towards the perfect drop. The beakers are used to measure the wine, the glass pipette pipes are for smaller, precise measurements (turns out they’re not fancy wine straws), and the large plastic jugs are for mixing our blends.
“I need another bottle of A!”, cries one participant.
“Mine’s pretty funky, but I like a bit of funk,” laughs another.
“Blending wine is such a subjective thing,” Walton says. “But that’s why we love doing it, because it’s all about your senses.”
What you’ve eaten, your mood and the company you’re in can all influence how you respond to a wine, Walton says, which is why he always blends with at least one other winemaker.
I’ve never given much thought to the personality behind a wine, but swilling my way through this process has been a revelation.
And so, when it comes to blending our second shiraz, I decide to go with my gut and splosh in 300 millilitres of the big bad C. The result is earthy, oaky, yet fruity. I grin, all purple teeth, and decide there’s no need for a third blend: this is my wine.
“The enemy of all wine is oxygen,” Walton says as we start the bottling process, handing us small chunks of steaming dry ice to add to our blends to keep the oxygen away. We then push waxy red caps onto our bottles before slapping on the piece de resistance – personalised, hand-written d’Arenberg labels. Our names range from the romantic (Grape Expectations) to the ridiculous (Purple Reign). I’d like to think mine – Petina, a blend of my husband’s name and my name – is somewhere in between.
“In the industry, we talk about the science and the art behind winemaking,” Walton says. “For me, this is the art part – and it’s the most enjoyable part for sure.”
As we nod our agreement, the feeling of pride around the bench is palpable. And it may just be the shiraz talking, but we all agree that we’ve never felt as much respect for winemakers as we do right now.
READ MY STORY ABOUT MCLAREN VALE’S LATEST WINING AND DINING HOT SPOTS HERE
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D’Arenberg Blending Bench Ninety-minute sessions cost $60 a person, which includes a take-home bottle of your personally labelled blend. Private tastings with a minimum of four people are available, as well as corporate packages. Bookings at firstname.lastname@example.org; Osborn Road, McLaren Vale, South Australia. (08) 8329 4888;darenberg.com.au.
Three of McLaren Vale's must-visit vineyards
1 Wirra Wirra Vineyards
The giant catapult on the lawn of this biodynamic vineyard is used to hurl watermelons, which gives you an idea of owners Greg and Roger Trott’s sense of humour. There’s fun by the barrel here, as well as top-quality wines, including their Church Block red, one of Australia’s most loved wines. McMurtrie Road, McLaren Vale. (08) 8323 8414, wirrawirra.com.
This 125-year-old operation is Australia’s ninth-biggest wine exporter, yet it’s managed to remain family-owned and operated. Don’t miss its multi-award-winning grenache shiraz rosé. 117 Chalkhill Road, McLaren Vale. Open daily, 10am-5pm. (08) 8323 6900, angove.com.au.
3 Woodstock Wine Estate
The wines here are delicious, yes, but it’s the eco-experience that really shines. Relax over lunch at the Coterie Restaurant, built in a unique semi-circle to accommodate the towering gum trees surrounding it, then visit the three-hectare wildlife sanctuary that protects kangaroos, wallabies, bettongs and potoroos. 215 Douglas Gully Road, McLaren Flat. Open 10am-5pm. (08) 8383 0437, woodstockwine.com.au.