In truth, all winemaking is blending. Parcels of fruit from various plots of vines are brought together by winemakers striving to find harmony in a delicious drink. Many consumers don’t adopt this view, arguing instead that they are steadfast devotees of Shiraz or Sauvignon Blanc or Champagne. But nothing is quite so straightforward; more varieties and vintages are added to bottled wines than most people suspect – and Nic Bourke, winemaker at Hugh Hamilton Wines in McLaren Vale, likes to push the blending concept quite a bit further than most.
Bourke delights in taking unexpected turns through a series of radical blends called the Dark Arts collection, featuring red and white grapes blended together in startling red wines, mixing cultures and traditions in confronting ways that still taste right and achieve harmony that you don’t expect.
“This is a generation that truly values blending,” says Bourke, enthusing about a shift in ideology among many young winemakers. “They are not seeing blends as second-tier wines. They are viewing blends through a different lens, and taking them seriously.”
Edgy wine-blending experiments are nothing new to Bourke. Having spent his formative years at huge wineries making wines by contract for a raft of labels, he burst onto centre stage a decade ago with Some Young Punks, making cutting edge small batch wines in collaboration with Adelina Wines’ Colin McBryde and Jen Gardner. These wines made it clear he wasn’t keen to stick with convention, and, when he joined Hugh Hamilton Wines in late 2016, he was delighted to find both sympathy and encouragement for his more radical winemaking ideas.
“Working as a contract winemaker for so many years, I saw lots of possibilities that I could never act on,” Bourke says. “I’m led by flavour. I see an opportunity and I want to go with it, and now my ideas get backed by my employer.”
He points to company founder Hugh Hamilton having a long history of working against the grain of convention to explore original winemaking ideas. Bourke is delighted that Hamilton encourages him to experiment with the very best fruit to give the blends the very best opportunity to succeed.
“Dark Arts blends have the backing of serious fruit,” Bourke says. “With cheap, inferior fruit, you just wouldn’t be able to pull off something like this and we’re not doing hand bottling trials. We’re making these wines in commercial quantities. This is a breeding ground for ideas that I think will have far-reaching consequences.”
Hugh Hamilton Wines’ esoteric excursion into unconventional blending began with the release in 2018 of Stunt Double, a combination of Cabernet Sauvignon (a fleshy, tannic red grape) with a liberal splash of barrel fermented Sauvignon Blanc (its white-skinned cousin). Even though the pedigrees of these grapes align, they are never usually blended – both seen as too idiosyncratic to lie comfortably in the same bed. Bourke sees things differently, finding that the wild yeast and strong acid line of Sauvignon Blanc amplifies floral aromas and clean, sharp flavours in the rich red wine.
“Sure, it’s polarising, but we’re not trying to play safe here,” Bourke says. “I want these wines to be compelling, to draw people back to the glass and to consider them for longer.”
Another bold red and white blend is 2018 Agent Provocateur, featuring Grenache picked early to retain maximum juiciness and acidity, then given further aromatic lift, spice notes and luscious texture with the addition of five per cent Gewürztraminer and two per cent Viognier. For the 2017 vintage, there were also small portions of Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc added.
“This is an idea that will always require different pieces to get the right fit with each passing vintage,” says Bourke. “This is not a blend made according to a recipe. It’s about knowing and feeling when the combination is just right.”
Black Ops 2017 pushes Hugh Hamilton Wines’ focus on the rich,
tannic red grape Saperavi in another direction, blending 66 per cent premium Shiraz into the mix, for a deep, inky meld of flavour layers and textural sensations, from a silky mid-palate to a strident tannic grip in closing.
The 2017 Three-Card Monty takes the great Australian blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with Shiraz another step further, looking to Italy for a lick of savoury bite by adding 15 per cent Montepulciano grapes.
A new tangle of white aromas identifies the latest addition to the Dark Arts suite: 2018 Aroma Pagoda is mostly Sauvignon Blanc (69 per cent) with crisp citrus aromas from Clare Riesling (20 per cent), Viognier (seven per cent) and the sweet fragrant lift of Frontignac (four per cent). And while the lively, textural roll of the flavours is distinctively different, Bourke insists there’s nothing mercurial about the result.
“There’s not a whole lot in the wine industry that hasn’t been done before, so let’s not get too excited here,” offers Bourke with a wide, self-effacing grin. “There’s a long history of people who have pushed boundaries – and that encourages me to push further, beyond what I already know and accept.
“With this project, we are not trying to force things, nor just making crazy blends for the sake of it. It all becomes clear on the tasting bench, with the finished wines being so much more than the sum of the parts.”
Brave and incisive blending also defines the most interesting wines made by Pete Schell and his wife Magali Gely of Spinifex Wines in the Barossa. By carefully sourcing parcels of unusual grape varieties from a suite of grape growers, the couple are always looking for something unique – either in white wines (2017 Spinifex Lola features Semillon, Vermentino and Clairette), red wines (2015 Miette featuring Grenache, Cinsault and Mataro) or two sumptuous types of Rosé (blends Grenache, Mataro and Cinsault or Shiraz, Mataro and Ugni Blanc).
“Everything is useful in the vineyard,” Schell says. “You recognise the strengths of the different grapes, you understand the weaknesses and you find ways for everything to work together. It’s like nose-to-tail cooking. Nothing should go to waste.”
Schell believes that cleverly blended wines even serve as a more accurate expression of vintage character, contrary to what many other winemakers believe. “It’s not a story of consistency. It’s about capturing wines that show their own personality rather than being generic, and a great blend achieves that in different ways with every vintage.”
Jaysen Collins of Massena Wines (which recently started hosting booked private tastings at its tiny Greenock winery shed, having previously been part of the Artisans of Barossa collective for seven years) also views blending as a means of viewing Barossa grapes through a different prism.
Massena achieves this through a mix of field blends (combining all the varieties grown on eclectic single vineyard sites) or such complex blends as 2017 Caviste (85 per cent Shiraz, five per cent Primitivo, five per cent Petite Syrah and five per cent Tannat) and The Moonlight Run, with pungent Mataro leading the blend with Grenache and Shiraz.
“I’m chasing a better wine, so I’ll blend a tannic variety with a fruity grape to arrive at a natural harmony,” Collins says. “I could do this with a bag of additives, but instead I do blending of varieties to make a wine as natural as possible.
“I’m honest about my blending because that’s the true story of winemaking. I’m in it for the excitement of interesting wine production, not marketing, although ironically people are now more open to unfamiliar blends. They’re more relaxed with something a bit unusual, and great blends give them a story – and a flavour – that’s compelling.”
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