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Mixing cocktails, mud pies and wine

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Whitey demystifies the elusive art of blending, a favourite game he encourages everyone to play.

Bacchus knows it’s too long since this bibulous hack rested his bows against the rubbing strakes of the original Harry’s New York Bar at “Sank Rue da Noe” in the 2nd arrondissement, but it’s still a smart place to start a yarn about blending.

Last time I caressed the battered piano on which Gershwin spent a winter writing American in Paris they had about half a dozen brilliant champagnes on the rack, but anybody who asked for a glass of it got a scornful snort from the lab-coated barman. The fizz was there for the composition of cocktails only.

The number of classical cocktails – Bloody Mary; White Lady; Sidecar – invented in the joint’s century of imbibition is anybody’s business and always the trigger of terrible arguments about the provenance of the claim, but unless you’re drinking beer or malt whisky it’s made very clear that in the spirit of the prohibition that drove the publican with no first name, Sloane, to pack up his New York bar and ship it for reassemblage in Paris, the cocktail is de rigeur.

The presumption being the mixmasters of Harry’s are there to improve on whatever very famous ingredients stand on the shelf. Harry MacElhone was Sloane’s first mixologist: he finally bought the joint and set it a-sail.

Your correspondent may lack the Gallic confidence of the Harry’s crew, but he’s an inveterate experimenter on the mixing deck.

Once you’ve spent a day or a vintage watching great blenders play their music, listening to them, your attitude to even your favourite bottle of wine can change forever.

John Glaetzer and Wolf Blass, Henri and Remi Krug, Max Schubert … these are some of the great flavour musicians I’ve watched compose symphonies from components simple or mighty and all points in between.

After Max’s retirement, when Penfolds afforded him a tiny office in the brandy still house, he was in charge of stocking the Governor’s cellar, which had been let run down to a terrible degree. Like who’d expect the butler of her majesty’s Adelaide rep to pour visiting dignitaries a 20-year-old Tollana rosé?

Whoever’d been in charge of it before Max, that’s who. That’s the sort of stuff that was down there rotting in the gubernatorial stash.

In order to get their wines on the big list, hopeful wineries all over Australia sent Max wine to appraise. Of course he made a very good job of it. But this constant supply of ingredients gave him the opportunity to play as he did when he ran the Grange winery. From very ordinary commercial wines, it was astonishing what he could produce in his blending beaker. A little of this, a schloosh of that, a dash of something precious: bingo! A drink that was always superior to the sum of its parts. Upon making a new discovery, he’d call me excitedly to get my junior arse up to Magill and learn.

It’s a telling reflection of the folks who run the thousands of wine bars in Australia: how many of their operatives have ever considered making a mixture of the famous or common wines they stock?

Have they ever had a bit of a play? Is it verboten?

One of my favourite games is to use the act of blending to better study aspects of the components that go into a successful assemblage.

Many regard the very notion as a sacrilegious travesty.

But you know what? I love it when a winemaker sends a full suite of their products for review. Once I’ve made my notes of the individual tinctures, I take an equal measure of each, and simply tip them into a jug together. Give it a swirl, let it sit for an hour, and imbibe. This is a foolproof way of learning the style of the house: you get to begin to understand where the winery’s going, whether it knows or not.

Mixing red and white is best kept until you as conductor of the orchestra gets some confidence happening, but what the hell? Give it a try. With whatever’s on your table.

Funny thing. Michael and Annabelle Waugh send me their full suite of Greenock Creek reds every year so I can make some notes. Since 1984, they’ve gradually built a suite of little vineyards around the Greenock Creek/Marananga/Seppeltsfield/Roennfeldt’s Road precinct on the Barossa’s western slopes. These each have their own unique geology and aspect. They now release two Cabernets, one Grenache and five Shiraz wines. Few producers so small can lay claim to such disparate progeny: regardless of the vintage no two wines are alike. They have built a reputation on diversity and rustic honesty, straight after the method of very much more famous and expensive houses like Domaine de la Romanée Conti in Burgundy.

It’s a wicked pleasure to blend all these in equal proportion. Three vintages, three varieties, six sites.

Guess what happens in most years? The blend, which depends utterly on the disparate nature of those components, looks like an extremely expensive smoothie from the likes of Blass or maybe even Penfolds.

In some ways, the result is an average of the ingredients: a mindless composition with all its characterful edges knocked off. This however, is to abuse the meaning of average. The average of things is rarely their central point. To understand average, sit for a while until you realise what I mean by suggesting, truthfully, that most people have more than the average number of legs.

Usually that one remaining intact leg has more value than it had before the other one went west.

In the mindless blending recipe I’ve suggested, one or two of those unique ingredients often outweigh the input of the rest. This can be so confounding as to drive the junior experimeter off , but it’s better to use it as a lesson in the nature and importance of those component wines. Take one out; see what happens to the rest of the blend.

Point a diligent winemaker at a cellar full of barrels which have been made to build a deliberate proprietorial blend and the first thing they’ll do is bung everything in together in measures proportionate to their contributing vineyard, oak and style. I call this the Accountant’s Blend: the ideal; no waste.

But if you then consult your notes of all the individual ingredients, and compare them to your appraisal of the blend, you can remove the components that detract from its quality, one by one.

Don’t like that raw tomato leaf in your Cabernet assemblage? Find the ingredients that smell like that and make another blend without them. Work your way through the whole business, backwards like this, and you’ll end up with something that suggests perfection but is never likely to make the accountant happy. Too small a result; too many rejected barrels or tanks.

In the end, most blends are a compromise: in the accountant’s eyes, close to middle. In the organoleptic senses of the gastronmically intelligent, however, the best blend will often be closer to that one significant leg.

The winemaker can fine-tune and polish. Genius noses like those of the Krugs and Max Schubert do this in the manner of great parfumiers, making their wine to a design. Most of the commercial stuff Australia drinks, however, is unfortunately a lot closer to that bloody average accountant’s blend.

Don’t be scared. Get some mates to bring a couple of bottles each. Make mud pies. You can’t help learning more than the powers that be really want you to know.

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