Mighty fine wine: from sampling Grange to making your own blend

Unique: The make-your-own-wine blending experience at d'Arenberg Wines in McLaren Vale, South Australia.

Unique: The make-your-own-wine blending experience at d'Arenberg Wines in McLaren Vale, South Australia.

I am undoubtedly not a wine connoisseur, although I’m definitely a wine consumer. But this weekend everything changed. I was sent to Adelaide compliments of Tourism South Australia, and my plebian eyes have been opened.

Where do I start?

When I first arrived in Australia in 2010, I quickly became a wine drinker because it was cheaper than the beer and spirits. I’d already discovered living in the US, drinking wine sometimes makes you look sophisticated as long as you don’t go overboard and remember to lick your lips. I like the way it swirls in my glass and I like the way my head swirls along after two glasses.

While I’m obviously still nowhere near an expert, I am flying back to Newcastle feeling quite a bit more informed and excited to drink wine in a new way. My backpack is loaded down with a Penfolds’ Chardonnay and my very own taste-tested blend from d’Arenberg.

Stylish: The award-winning Penfolds Magill Estate, near Adelaide.

Stylish: The award-winning Penfolds Magill Estate, near Adelaide.

Penfolds

A 15-minute-drive from Adelaide lies Penfolds Magill Estate, one of only a handful of urban vineyards in the world.

I dined at their café, the Magill Estate Kitchen, a more affordable option than their restaurant. You can get a decent small meal for $20 and the larger meals range from $35 to $45 all while enjoying sweeping views of the vineyards and the city of Adelaide in the distance. 

I was immediately seduced by the glassware before I even tasted the wine. Each set of glasses is carefully selected to suit each type of wine. I was quite happily enjoying a tasting of the Penfolds exclusive Grange that everyone had been on about and happened to glance at the menu.

My novice jaw dropped as I realised this was probably the most expensive thing that had ever passed through my common lips at $105 per a small, 90 ml glass, which, not to be crude, but I estimate is roughly $20 per swallow. 

I drank a little more slowly after that revelation. 

We were then given a tour and a magnificent tasting session with lovely young Sam who gently guided us through the Estate Heritage Experience, telling us the rich and juicy history of what is now an iconic cellar door. 

The experience is also available in Mandarin and is $20. Longer and more luxurious options are also available daily.

Penfolds started small in 1844 and its history is certainly worth a Google, but what was instilled into me during my visit this past weekend is the necessity of your nose.

To truly enjoy your wine, you need to smell it!  Stick your nose in that glass and sniff like you’re a drug dog at an airport. I’d never deliberately not smelled wine before, but as we went through a range of rare and delicious vintages and varietals, I found that while my tastebuds weren’t always as refined, my nostril could tell a massive difference between each enticing option Sam fed me.

Did you know that different wines make the roof of your mouth feel different after you swallow? From the corks debate to the alcoholic tears that run down the glass after a swirl, so much is involved in the wine appreciation process.

A perfect sunset, a giddy brain and some fortified wine finished off our afternoon at Penfolds, but my wine 101 lesson was not finished.

The Cube: Chester Os'born's amazing new attraction at d'Arenberg Estate.

The Cube: Chester Os'born's amazing new attraction at d'Arenberg Estate.

d’Arenberg

On Sunday, I visited the McLaren Vale, 40 kilometres south of Adelaide. The region is known for its geography and magic dirt that’s great for grape growing. I was headed to the d’Arenberg winery and vinyard, a place known for doing things a little differently.

Unlike his more conservative family members, the zany Chester Osborn of d’Arenberg is the brain behind the five-storey building that sits like a half-finished Rubik’s Cube in the middle of the vine rows.

Visitors have tripled since the Cube opened in December 2017. The Cube is inspired from the complexities that come with making good wine, and Chester has been fermenting the idea for the last 14 years.

The space is very Dionysus meets psychedelic dream. Visitors can check out the alternate realities museum for just $10. It features sound, tangible and visual art of all kinds, which I could have explored more, but, alas, I was busy blending my very own wine.

Now, 10:30 in the morning is rather early to start tasting wine, but you don’t get greatness without a little hard work. The blending experience is $90 per person and participants can experiment scientifically with blends of different barrel samples of the esteemed Dead Arm Shiraz.

We had measuring beakers, pipettes, a teacher and a sheet for taking measurements. The dry ice was added to the mix used as a deoxidiser, making the entire class feel like mildly intoxicated mad scientists. As I dreamed up the label for my very own batch, I felt a Eureka moment that I imagine Chester is all too familiar with.  

My brief time at the d’Arenberg Cube opened my eyes to the artistic, creative individualism that comes with making wine.  

Winemaking, tasting and drinking is no different of an art form than dance, music or poetry. While it can be used as a social lubricant or to display decadence, for many it’s a craft that has taken years to get right and is never quite finished.

Winemakers like Penfolds and d’Arenberg and many more in the South Australia region and our own Hunter Valley are not just into growing grapes. And passionate wine lovers aren’t just putting it on. They really love it, and they have trained their senses to look for the best. Wine is a sensory journey. Wine is a way of life.  

 ​The writer was a guest of the South Australian Tourism Commission.