One of the main reasons (if not the only reason), for us coming to Adelaide was for us to visit the d’Arenberg winery in McLaren Vale.
My love/obsession for d’Arenberg wines started in late 2008 when I co-hosted my first d’Arenberg wine dinner at Malmaison Leeds with a representative from d’Arenberg and Bibendum Wines. I had the pleasure of eating the delicious food that Malmaison is renowned for and drinking a selection of 6 d’Arenberg wines to complement each course whilst learning about their wines and vineyard in the Adelaide hills.
This set up continued for the following 5 years where I would co-host several wine dinners each year with wine growers from all around the world -New Zealand, Australia, Europe and the U.S. D’Arenberg were represented at least 4 or 5 times during that time and they were always the winery that I was most excited to see - especially when I moved to Malmaison Birmingham where we could accommodate larger dinners - I really wanted to spread the word and share the story behind the infamous red stripe.
Why did I love them so much? I like their quirky branding and the fact they still use traditional methods such as open fermenters and foot treading - a much more gentle process which is good for the grape.
Each of their wines has a story behind them which is then translated into a name for their wines and each wine has a quirky illustration E.g. the money spider aptly named because a sea of tiny money spiders covered their first crop of Rousanne therefore, the first release was delayed by several years.
So anyway, we rented a car (this time a rubbish new auto Focus), drove out of the city and did the 40 minute journey out to McLaren Vale. The approach was beautiful - lots of green rolling hills that eventually met the lush blue, green sea that was twinkling away in the sunshine. God I love Australia!
As we turned into the d’Arenberg winery, I suddenly felt really nervous. I had knots in my stomach - you know, the feeling you get when you’re going for a job interview? A wave of emotions came over me all at once; excitement, nerves, and anticipation. To put it bluntly, I had really high expectations and I didn’t want to come away disappointed otherwise, the last 5 years of my life living as a d’Arenberg advocate would have been a waste of time.
I’d really wanted to do the Vintage Tours with d’Arenberg but they had been delayed until the 7th March so we signed up for the next best thing, The Blending Bench. We made our way to the Stables where our private session would take place. The Stables is a big stable conversion with a light and airy feel with all four walls showcasing their wines complete with earlier mentioned illustrations and an introduction and story about each one. Hanging up by the wines were plastic cylinders roughly 3 metres long containing samples of the earth. McLaren Vale is a very hilly region and so any one plantation of grape grows at different altitudes. The samples displayed show the difference in soil, sand and clay at these altitudes which affects the grapes and thus the final taste of the wines. We got to learn all about this at the beginning of our work shop plus, we got to see a foot press and learn about this and the fermentation process. Very informative.
We watched a short video of Chester d’Arenberg, the wine maker, which saw him sat at a desk with at least 40 samples of red wine all lined up in front of him like a static conveyor belt. Chester samples all of the wines and mixes them to form his perfect blend to then bottle up and sell. What a job!
We were then invited to sit down at a table with a very daunting set up. We each had an A3 sheet of paper with a table of wine calculations (percentages to ml) and a section for us to make our own tasting notes. Set around the sheet of paper were 6 small colour coded wine glasses, 1 large wine glass, 3 bottles of different shiraz labelled A to C and various equipment such as a measuring jug, a funnel, a pipet, and a measuring cylinder. All a bit too science like for me.
We took our seats and were poured a generous glass of Dead Arm Shiraz 2011 - their best seller. We gave the glasses a good swirl and stuck our noses right into the glass and were asked ‘what can you smell’ - bugger. A question I was hoping to avoid because my sense of smell is naff and I prefer to just say if I like how something smells or not. As I was sat opposite Tom, who has literally zero sense of smell, all eyes were on me so with no place to hide I attempted a few hesitant guesses “Hmmm, blackberries?” “Eerrrm, liquorice…. maybe”. After an “exactly” from our ‘tutor’ (gold star woop) I felt a little more confident and happily engaged myself in the rest of the session. After tasting the Dead Arm Shiraz, we made our own tasting notes on the wines and as each persons palette is different, we then compared them with one another.
We then tried 3 more 2011 Shiraz blends A. Wilcadene from McLaren Sand Hills vineyard, B. Dam Block from their Beautiful View vineyard C. Mustard Block also from Beautiful View and continued with the same format. “What can you smell, taste, how does it sit in your mouth, how does it compare to the other wines, what is your favourite?”. Then came the exciting part - we were told to blend our own wine using the 3 wines (A to C) that we had tasted to create our own perfect blend. This is the part where we played scientist and mathematician for a while as we had to work out the percentage and millilitres ratios whilst blending the wines using the apparatus provided. Thankfully there were no Bunsen burners or goggles needed!
As I preferred wines A and C, I decided to go for 65% C to keep the full body and oaky tastes but mixed it with 35% of A as I wanted to introduce some floral tones but lift the tannins a little. What a disaster! The wine suddenly became too acidic and didn’t sit well on the nose or pallet at all. Who knew you could ruin a wine so easily! Needless to say, my 2nd blend was equally as bad when I tried to introduce some of wine B too. Hands down to Chester for doing what he does, this is hard work!
My third and final blend was an even mix of A and B to 25% C and it was much more palletable but not perfect. I really wanted to have a few more tries but I had used all 3 attempts so had to settle with blend C. I glanced across at Tom who was stood with one hand in his pocket, glass of wine in the other, his chest puffed out and he said “This is really difficult. I really like two of my blends and don’t know what more I can do to refine it”. If only I had the same problem.
We were then given some dry ice and invited to make 800 ml of our chosen blend to pour over the dry ice ( which acts as a barrier, preventing more oxygen getting into the wine) then bottle up for us to take home. The chemical reaction was fantastic - a thick, clean, smokey mist seeped out and over the measuring jug and across the table. A real Heston Blumenthal moment.
Our wines were bottled up with boxes on stand by so all that was left to do was for us to name our wine and label them up. Tom went for ‘The Riddings Red’ (names after Riddings Farm, the family farm) and I went for ‘The Sand Dancing Shiraz’ (us geordies who are born in South Shields are locally known as sand dancers).
They’re yet to be opened but as soon as we try them, we’ll report back!
The Blending Bench was a fantastic experience, we had so much fun and both came away a lot more clued up about our wines and the whole wine making process. At $60 each, it was great value as not only did we had a private tutorial/workshop, we also brought away a bottle of wine each that we created ourselves (with the help of d’Arenberg). Priceless.
As a reward for completing our hike, we drove the 45 kilometres or so into Albany and went to a local fish n chip shop - the Ozzies know how to do fish n chips. We each had a fish basket made up of shark (for Tom), red snapper (for Zara), crab sticks, squid rings, scallops, king prawns (all battered), and chips for just $15 each. AND after much persuasion, the girl in the chippy made me some batter bits and added them to my fish basket. Usually they send their battered bits to the farmer down the road who feeds them to his pigs “because it’s really good for them because there is no cholesterol in the oil” that they fry their food in. If it’s good enough for ozzie pigs then it’s good enough for this English pig.