At the end of last year, I was getting ready to take some time off work and head to Bali to celebrate a close friends 30th, when Mount Agung started to get a little restless, flights got cancelled and I was left with $500 worth of Jetstar credit. For a while I was a little bit at a loss about where to go. Melbourne again? Was it time to venture down to Tasmania? I was still umm-ing and ahh-ing over the decision when, during one lazy Sunday morning in bed, I scrolled past a Jetstar advertisement for $200 return flights to Adelaide and made the snap decision to visit the wine regions of South Australia to celebrate my 30th birthday. Little did I know at the time it was going to lead to one of the most interesting meals of my life, a degustation full of delights at the newly constructed ‘cube’ at D’Arenberg in McLaren Vale.
A family owned winery in the heart of McLaren Vale, D’Arenberg is currently under the creative direction of Chester Osborn, by all accounts a pretty unconventional guy with a penchant for all that is quirky and decadent. The rubix cube inspired cellar door rising up from the rows of vines is testament to how the ‘art of being different’ is not just something dreamt up by a marketing firm but an ethos that is lived and breathed by the Osborns. Although the doors had only been open for a matter of months when we went, the rave reviews had been rolling in so I was pretty excited by the time we arrived on a rainy Thursday morning.
Entering the building, you pay the $10 entry fee (which includes the tasting), unless you’re eating at the restaurant, in which case you’re excused. Following your map into the first room, you encounter walls covered in fruits and flowers with glass jars containing all the things you normally find in the description on a wine bottle. From chocolate to cherry, lime to leather – you just had to squeeze the horn and the corresponding aroma you would expect from a bottle of wine with this description would come floating out of the bell. I squeezed the horn on one jar containing a green capsicum and the small of sauvignon blanc came floating out, and I realised that it’s no wonder I usually don’t enjoy sauvignon blanc when I have always hated green capsicum. There was also 360 degree video room with some psychedelic images playing on loop, a mini art gallery and a number of other fun little things to check out in the Alternative Realities Museum. An experience to be had for sure!
After exploring all the rooms on the first floor, we were whisked up to the top floor a quick wine tasting before starting lunch. We didn’t want to try too many as we had booked in for the ‘Pickwickian Brobdingnagian’, the extra long degustation menu with 14 courses with matched wine, but there is always room for a few warm up wines right? The cellar door staff were very friendly and helpful, making sure we didn’t try any that we were going to have with our meal and teaching us about chewy tannins and the different types of bubbles in sparkling wine. I particularly enjoyed the Stephanie the Gnome Rose, and the Coppermine Road Cabernet Sauvignon.
Once that was done, it was time to head down one level for lunch. We were greeted enthusiastically by the friendly staff and led to the lounge for some snacks and a choice of sparkling. We opted for the French champagne, and settled in for the first course, called ‘the last grape’ in celebration of the end of the annual grape harvest. The grapes actually turned out to be pate covered in port jelly, with some crispy tendrils to scoop it up with. I am usually not a huge fan of pate, but this one was rich and delicious.
After that we were led into the main dining room, resplendent with colourful chairs, decanters of all shapes and sizes and spectacular views of the rolling hills of McLaren Vale from every seat. Once we sat down the food started arriving at a serious pace – first up was chicken skin and Spanish mackerel tacos, beer icypoles, barramundi balls coated in bush coals, and lamb in saltbush. The barramundi balls were a big hit with me – the charred outside was delightfully smoky, and its presentation with the native flora was just stunning. After that we were delighted with some scrolls with an absolutely impossible number of layers and rich, creamy sesame butter.
Then it was time for another one of the highlights of the day – a silky sheet of scallop, shielded by a net of dehydrated scallop and garnished with sea grapes and citrusy sudachi. This was followed by creamy alpaca tartare contrasted with thinly sliced radish and tuna flakes, and then a tasty little eel number.
Then it was time for the wagyu steak – and what better to pair it with than my favourite of all vegetables, the humble mushroom. The beef was served over hot coals, and was thinly sliced and melt-in-your-mouth tender. The smoky aromas curling out from under the hot coals perfectly complemented the lightly smoked mushroom in a treat for the senses.
I should mention at this point that was had chosen the wine pairing ‘D’Arenberg vs. the world’ – two wines with every couple of courses, a local varietal and an international varietal. While they were all fantastic, some of our faves were the Lucky Lizard Chardonnay that was paired with the scallop, and the Solopsistic Snollygoster Shiraz served with the beef. With so many wines coming across the table the laughs were flowing more readily, and little did we know things were about to get a bit sillier. The first dessert course was called ‘nose candy’ – sherbert served with a fake $100 bill (with Chesters face on it) – ready to line up with your credit card and funnel in your…ahem.. mouth.
After all the giggles that accompanied that dish, it was time for a D’Arenberg version of cheesecake, and the visually impressive, 3D printed white chocolate, citrus mousse dessert. With choc-orange truffles and chocolate cigarillos accompanied by a D’Arenberg mud pie (sticky wine), it was pretty safe to say we were well fed and watered.
By the time we had finished, the restaurant was pretty empty and we retired back to our ‘lounge’ to finish our last wine and watch the sunset over McLaren Vale. On our way out, we were lucky enough to meet one half of the husband-wife chef team, Brendan Wessels. He was kind enough to stop and have a chat and a quick photo with us (along with a wax figure of Chester), before we were politely bundled out of the building and into our waiting car. While reasonably expensive, it really was an amazing, memorable experience and one I would thoroughly recommend if you ever find yourself with the time to do so.