South Australian writer, Paul Murrell, points a Golf 7.5 110TDI Highline towards wine country to spy the region’s latest, and arguably most impressive, spectacle.
Most wine districts in the world are a little out of the way, although wine is always a good reason to take a detour; often it’s sufficiently beguiling to justify a trip all on its own. But one of the great appeals of South Australia’s McLaren Vale is that it showcases some of the best of Australian wines, in a comparatively compact area, and only a 40-minute drive from the Adelaide CBD.
It’s a journey worth making often. It starts with the usual grind of suburban traffic but quickly becomes more relaxing as you ease into the Southern Expressway (no longer the butt of jokes about it being the world’s only one-way freeway – additional lanes were opened in 2014). But today, wine is not the primary reason for our visit, although we are aiming for d’Arenberg winery, the largest in the region.
After negotiating the main road through McLaren Vale, and a few kilometres along Oliver’s Road, the distinctive and familiar red stripe on a roadside sign announces we have reached out destination. And there, ahead of us, visible above the gum trees, is what we have come to see: the d’Arenberg Cube. It’s the kind of anomaly that invites comment, but like I M Pei’s pyramid in the Louvre, it transcends its surroundings and the criticism it inevitably attracted when first proposed.
The d’Arenberg Cube is the product of the fertile mind of fourth generation wine maker, Chester Osborn, who admits, “Originally, I was planning to build a colonial style building like the ones we already have.” But Chester is a man of greater substance than his untamed hair and loud shirts would indicate. Fourteen years ago, inspired by the Rubik’s Cube puzzle, he made a model of an innovative and, to be honest, utterly outrageous building. When he presented it to the Board, they not unexpectedly thought it was “absolutely crazy”.
And like most “absolutely crazy” ideas, its gestation was prolonged and difficult. Chester recalls “My father said, ‘I don’t think you’ll be able to build it’, so I said, ‘Why don’t I try’. Then the builder said, ‘You’ll never get it past Council’, so I said, ‘Why don’t I try’.” And try he did. After financial setbacks (“debt was going up, wine profitability was going down”), searching for engineers and designers with the skills to attempt something totally untried and even objections from a local heritage group, McLaren Vale has a new icon, one sure to become a symbol of the region.
The remarkable building appears to float above the vines, thanks to mirrored panels around its base. It stands starkly, with the two upper floors askew, just like a Rubik’s Cube in mid-solution. On the ground floor, entered through the “wine fog room” to raise sensual awareness and prepare you for the welter of sensations about to envelope you, there are eight rooms. As you pass through the theatrically opening front door, you wonder if you’ll be wound in by the under-floor augur screwing grapes into the crusher and become part of the next vintage.
Many of the installations use projectors and screens for a constantly changing presentation. There’s a 360-degree video room and as Chester describes, “The exhibition is always changing, unlike a static display of paintings,” although one of the rooms holds his personal collection of artworks. In another room, you feel as if you have physically become one with the wine, surrounded by screens representing grapes. Above you, an inverted winemaker’s blending table (Chester’s own) has wine glasses attached to the dozens of genuine wine rings left by the glasses Chester blends every single day. Yet another room tempts you to squeeze horn bulbs on pushbikes to understand the aromas and scents of red and white wines whilst surrounded by fruit and flowers and taking in images projected across the floor. It truly is sensory overload. And there are still three more floors to come!
Up the high-gloss stainless steel stairwells, the first floor is home to a large kitchen and dining area that can easily cope with cooking classes, dining whilst overlooking the kitchen or, if you must, meetings. Here, too, are the toilets; a whimsical fantasy of corrugated iron pods completely covered in realistic foliage. The second floor, thanks to the protruding cubes, is the largest area and here d’Arenberg conducts its highly-regarded tutored tastings, single vineyard and vertical tastings and blending classes. There are also two private function rooms for VIP dinners or tastings.
The focal point of the d’Arenberg Cube for gourmets is the third floor where Brendan Wessels and wife Lindsay Durr, both Michelin-star trained chefs, will create a totally different dining experience. With the already highly-acclaimed d’Arry’s Verandah continuing its 12-year run next door, the new restaurant aims to be an even higher level of dining. “We intend to compete with (recently named Gourmet Traveller Best Restaurant of the Year) Orana in Adelaide, Melbourne’s Vue de monde and Peter Gilmore’s Quay Restaurant in Sydney. It will change your whole perception of how you dine,” claims Chester. The restaurant is initially open for lunch only, four days a week, but will eventually be open seven days a week and Friday and Saturday nights for dinner.
And so to the top floor, a glass-encased pavilion with both private and public tasting bars complete with 115 television screens underneath glass decorated with translucent caricatures. Shading it all are 16 umbrellas (15 black and one red), hydraulically operated to produce a choreographed display. It is a creative solution to a problem that could have been solved by a boring sliding blind, and typical of Chester’s determination to do things differently.
Entry to the d’Arenberg Cube costs $10 per person and includes wine tasting (all the way up to some of d’Arenberg’s most iconic wines). Allow half an hour to an hour for the tour, and another half an hour for wine tasting. Entry is complimentary for patrons attending the blending experience or dining at the restaurant.
Following a successful career in advertising which surprised everyone (not least himself), Paul escaped to the Adelaide Hills where he has indulged himself ever since by enjoying and writing about cars (old and new), travel and wine. He lives and travels with his wife and designated driver, Sandra.