I can’t believe that I have made my own blend of wine – and it is a red!” The astonishment was clear to see when Hilary Coutts, prize winner of the Fiendish Wine Quiz trip made her own blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot after some expert advice from winemaker Andrew Duff. We were on a four-day visit to McGuigan in Australia’s Hunter Valley which was Hilary’s prize for scoring 100 per cent in the Fiendish Wine Quiz as well as being lucky enough to be selected at random from the handful of other 100 per cent correct entries.
It was yet another warm, sunny day in New South Wales just a few weeks ago when Hilary, her husband Ian and I were shown around the winery by chief winemaker Peter Hall. The previous day he had given up valuable vintage time to show us the vineyards and now he led us from the crushing area to the tanks via several barrel tastings.
“This winery is just a small part of the McGuigan winemaking capacity and we focus on the top quality wines here,” said Peter as we climbed a metal stairway to peer into a tank of frothy, fermenting Merlot. Still sweet with natural sugar from the grapes it had several days to go before it became wine and its juicy, vibrant aroma filled the air as a sample was poured into our waiting glasses.
This is a newly built winery so there is the standard array of shiny tanks and well-designed equipment but it is the person using this equipment who really makes the wine. Peter is experimenting with some winemaking techniques which bring out the best fruit flavours in the wines, but he swore us to secrecy so I can’t tell you about them. However, the proof is in the tasting and the batch of 2013 Semillon still in tank was packed with vibrant tropical fruit flavours, carefully balanced with lime-zest acidity.
Cask-fermented, old vines Chardonnay; a newly fermented Shiraz and a fabulously perfumed Muscat were all sampled and then Peter was off again between the tanks, drawing off more samples as we compared and contrasted the young wines.
After lunch it was time to see what Hilary had learnt about wine during the visit and we were led to a upturned barrel where winemaker Andrew Duff had prepared some samples. We tasted a 2012 Coonawarra Cabernet, a 2012 Merlot and a 2012 Malbec, each one matured in different oak. Having tasted the individual wines we were all invited to suggest the perfect blend, but it was Hilary who was handed the measuring cylinder and allowed to create her own blend. With 55 per cent Cabernet, 30 per cent Merlot and 15 per cent Malbec, Hilary’s wine was declared a success and it was bottled for her to take home.
We also tasted some of the finished wines both from the McGuigan range and from Tempus Two which is a sister brand. McGuigan is the mainstream name, which starts with entry-level supermarket wines such as the Classic range and climbs in quality and price. Try the Classic Semillon 2011 for your first taste of this terrific grape (Sainsbury £5.32 until April 31). Climb the quality ladder via the Shortlist range where there is an intense, spice-driven GSM and a fabulous, concentrated Coonawarra Cabernet. These wines are occasionally at Majestic at about £15, but they sell out quickly. There are other, more specialist ranges such as Handmade and Farms, which are more likely to crop up on good restaurant wine lists.
More usually found in independent shops is the Tempus Two range which is distinctive for its classy metallic labels. I particularly liked the jammy, spice of the Tempus Two GSM 2011 – Grenache Shiraz Mourvèdre – find it on www.drinkfinder.co.uk at £13.45 and the Tempus Two Shiraz, available on www.amazon.co.uk at £15.99.
Then it was time for dinner with the team, hosted by the man himself, Neil McGuigan who has collected more international winemaking accolades than any other winemaker I can think of. He is steadily raising the profile and the quality of all the wines sold under the McGuigan and Tempus Two labels as well as producing own-label wines for many of the UK’s supermarkets. How does he do it? “Teamwork” was his simplistic answer, but seeing the camaraderie between winemakers, cellar-door staff and everyone gathered around the table, I think he has a point. The clear aim at McGuigan is to get the best possible flavours into the bottle at each of the quality levels. This may be a large company but it still has a hands-on feel with quality to the fore.
With 2009 Bin 9000 Semillon, 2012 McGuigan Wilde Chardonnay, 2010 Tempus Two Tempranillo, 2009 McGuigan Hunter Valley Shiraz, a Personal Reserve Shiraz and a tricky “blind” wine which turned out to be a 1991 Brokenback Shiraz from a neighbouring estate this was quite a dinner. There were scallops, steak and a delicious dessert, but the wines were definitely the stars of the evening.
So, after four days of tasting and blending; eating and drinking, not to mention the fabulous balloon ride over the vineyards, we headed back to Sydney for a lunchtime cruise around the harbour followed by dinner at one of Sydney’s top restaurants, Aqua, overlooking the Harbour Bridge, hosted by the McGuigan marketing manager, Scott Burton.
My thanks go to everyone in the McGuigan team, both in Australia and in the UK who pulled out all the stops to get us there and a particular thank you goes to Neil McGuigan who made the whole visit so very memorable.
The final words are from Hilary: “I feel so very privileged to be here. This trip has been absolutely fabulous. Thank you.”