I'm channelling the mad scientist from the 1931 movie Frankenstein as I hold aloft a chemistry beaker, filled with a gorgeous red-brown liquid. But I'm not in the business of creating monsters. Instead I've just created my own blend of muscat, the fortified wine long synonymous with the town of Rutherglen in northern Victoria.
To counter the wine's old-school image, 14 of the town's family-owned wineries recently launched the Muscat Mile, a collection of experiences that go beyond the usual tasting session and add a dash of variety to a visit.
On the Mile, I'm taking part in Campbells Wines' "Blend Your Very Own Muscat" session ($80 per person) which takes place in its attractive 150-year-old winery just outside the town.
My instructor, operations manager Ian Diver, takes me through a slimmed-down version of the process that creates a muscat blend. Strolling between the giant timber casks in which the wine is ageing, Diver produces a sample bottle of five muscats at different stages of development.
Sipping each, I'm encouraged to jot down my thoughts on their characteristics, before deciding in what proportions they should meet.
What happens next is great fun – filling a 50 millilitre beaker with my muscat blend using a pipette. When happy with the result, I do the same with a bottle. After sealing the cap with a specialised machine and adding the label by hand, I'm as proud as a new father. This has been the most entertaining chemistry lesson ever.
A TASTE OF HISTORY
Another old Rutherglen stayer is Chambers Rosewood Winery. Stephen Chambers is taking me on his winery's Muscat Mile experience, the "Taste the History Tour" ($25 per person); and he's keen to rebut the criticism that muscat is nothing but sweet.
"That's only part of the story," he says. "There's so much more going on than the sugar. It's all about the other factors – the flavours, the aromatics – that make the wines what they are."
To prove his point, he leads a walking and sipping exercise through his atmospheric winery, talking about the history and production of the wine. Chambers regularly clambers up a ladder onto a massive cask, then drops in a cylinder to draw out a tasting sample. The result is a neat blend of expert knowledge and drinking pleasure – and a bottle of my favourite vintage from the samples to take home.
MUSCAT AND NIBBLES
Two more of my Muscat Mile experiences explore the link between the wine and food. Jones Winery's cellar door is located within a 19th century brick barn with an original stringybark tile roof. Within, I lean on the redgum bar to taste the winery's "Muscat Tribute" ($20 per person): a glass of Jones' Classic Muscat paired with an elegant orange and chocolate parfait, along with a muscat-based spritzer with a portion of carrot cake. I'm encouraged to try each drink by itself and with the sweet accompaniments, to see how the flavours change on the palate and complement each other.
Back in town I continue the food theme with De Bortoli Wines' "Muscat and Cheese Matching" ($10 per person). Seated within its impressive cellar door with a timber ceiling held up by massive beams, I'm surveying a fine plate of cheeses, including an excellent Milawa blue cheese and a creamy French d'Affinois. They're matched with four glasses of the winery's product: a botrytis semillon, two muscats, and the impressively dark Black Noble (a fortified botrytis semillon). The resulting taste sensations as I mix and match are wonderful.
Over the next few days I enjoy another blending session at Stanton & Killeen; and a fascinating tasting at Scion, a winemaker which breaks all the muscat-making rules by creating unconventional beverages such as its early-picked Muscat Nouveau and a muscat gin. There are many more stops along the Muscat Mile, to be saved for my next visit. In the meantime I've learnt a lot – and sipped even more.
Tim Richards was hosted by Winemakers of Rutherglen.
Rex flies to Albury from where Rutherglen is a 30-minute drive. See rex.com.au
De Bortoli Wines has stylish rooms next to its cellar door from $199 a night. See debortoli.com.au
Avino Rutherglen is an attractive holiday home from $230 per night. See booking.com