Mixing wines to create a new taste is satisfying but even with great samples Stephanie Clifford-Smith struggles to make the perfect glass.
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 a 90-minute Make Your Own Blend experience at Penfolds Winery in the Barossa Valley, I've become just as focused about wine.
Penfolds runs the activity daily, hosted by an in-house wine expert. The purpose-built lab can accommodate up to 40 people. Today, by chance, it's just me and my host, Naomi Duggan.
The lab is a 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 adds richness and weight and the mourvedre adds 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.
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 375-millilitre bottle 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 for a five-course degustation dinner that night.
The rare roast breast of pigeon, which is normally served with green-pea puree and juniper currant glaze, is adjusted to suit my win 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 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 30-38 Tanuda Road, Nuriootpa. $65 a person. Phone: (08) 8568 8408
The writer was a guest of the South Australian Tourism Commission.