MAKE YOUR OWN BLEND
There's nothing like a few days among vineyards to turn you into an expert on the subject of wine. Suddenly you're plunging your nose deep into the glass, pondering whether it's black or red fruits you're getting, and if that composting hay smell is coming from the mourvedre or the cattle farm across the road. I'm a frightful food bore at the best of times so with very little encouragement and an 90-minute Make your own Blend experience at Penfolds Winery in the Barossa Valley, I've become just as insufferable about wine.
Penfolds runs this activity every morning at 10.30, hosted by an in-house wine expert. It’s popular with tourists and, as a team bonding exercise, with corporate groups. The purpose built lab can accommodate up to 40 people and corporate groups of up to 100 can do the same exercise elsewhere on site. Today, by chance, it’s just me and my hostess, Naomi Duggan.
Naomi speaks briefly about the winery's history and it seems doctors moving into wine making is a career change that goes back a long way. Dr Christopher Penfold turned his hand to it in 1844 after migrating to the Barossa from England and saw a market for ‘tonic’ wines for anaemic patients. Sensing my eagerness to get cracking Naomi gets me to choose a white coat from a clothes rack and then it's upstairs to the lab.
It's a clean, white space with wood panelled cupboards, fluorescent lights and white Melamine benches. Each work station is set up with three bottles of red - shiraz, grenache and mourvedre - six glasses, two measuring flasks, a funnel and a stainless steel spittoon set into the bench.
The idea is to blend the three wines, the same ones used in Penfold's Bin 138, in whatever proportions suit your palate, do it three different ways then pick your favourite. First I taste the wines individually. The grenache, Naomi explains, gives aromatic spicy lift to a blend, the shiraz richness and weight and the mourvedre complexity.
As a stand alone wine, the shiraz is my pick of the three so the first blend has 50 per cent of that, 40 per cent grenache and 10 per cent of the tanniny mourvedre. Overall it's a pretty good mix and I'm already fancying myself on the payroll as winemaker.
Next I go the softer route, with 60 per cent grenache, 25 per cent shiraz and 15 per cent mourvedre. I'm not mad on this one and reckon the barnyard notes from the mourvedre are a bit strong.
For my final blend I go with my heart and up the shiraz to 60 per cent, cut the grenache to 35 per cent and the mourvedre to 5 per cent. It's also pretty good but by now my palate's confused, my tongue's black, my teeth are purple and everything's tasting a bit astringent. Naomi reminds me that these are young wines, and haven't had time to settle after blending so this is to be expected. I also wonder how effectively I'm mixing them, having poured them directly from the measuring flask into the tasting glass and swirling them around. Apparently a swizzle stick isn't necessary for this particular cocktail.
After more sniffing, swishing and spitting I finally decide my favourite is the first one, full bodied, fruity with enough complexity to keep things interesting. Until now I've resisted finding out what proportions the professionals have used for the 2009 vintage and am surprised the find their mix is almost identical to my least favourite, second blend. They went with 65 per cent grenache, 25 per cent shiraz and 15 per cent mourvedre. This whole exercise has been seriously good fun with an appeal similar to cooking. But there's a second, optional phase, which I take. Having multiplied the proportions of my chosen blend, I mix enough in a huge measuring flask to fill a 375ml bottle which is labelled with my name and title Assistant winemaker. There's a few hundred millilitres left which goes into another bottle and is sent to a nearby restaurant, Appellation, where they design a perfect food match.
That night I go to Appellation, one of the Barossa's best fine diners at The Louise luxury hotel, for a five-course degustation. The rare roast breast of pigeon, normally served with green pea puree and juniper currant glaze is adjusted to suit my wine and braised cherries replace the pea puree.
The dish is great but the wine's disappointing. My three previous courses are matched with stellar wines, then my one comes along and it tastes pretty sad. Not rough, not unpleasant but somehow flat. It's impossible to make a truly bad blend because the wines are all good, eminently drinkable and reasonable bed partners at the outset.
But key among the talents of professional winemakers is the ability to concoct a mix that will work with food and to anticipate how it will taste after settling and cellaring.
At the blending, my overstimulated palate was fatigued by lengthy contact with the wines; swirling, swishing and spitting is not how I usually roll. One gets a very different effect with a small sip, swallowed between mouthfuls of food and this is what my blend failed to predict.
It's a fascinating exercise and with another attempt and, say, a couple of decades of winemaking experience behind me, I'd settle on a different mix. Meanwhile I've picked up plenty of specialist terminology and photos of my lab-coated self with which to bore my friends. I can now build on my decades of wine drinking experience and leave the rest to the professionals.
Penfolds Make Your Own Blend experience is at the winery’s main outlet in the Barossa Valley: 30-38 Tanunda Rd, Nurioopta, SA. It costs $65 per person. Bookings are essential, either through Penfolds on 08 8568 9290 or online through South Australian Tourism Commission www.southaustralia.com
Those staying at The Louise can choose The Most Brilliant Blend package at $215 per person for the tour and matched course. See www.thelouise.com.au for details.
This was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald here