The Unconventional Winemakers

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock out west of Oodnadatta, you would have picked up on the fact that natural and ethical winemaking are the buzz wine trends of the moment. Grow your grapes organically, biodynamically or at least with minimal inputs, and in an environmentally responsible manner. Then add little or nothing to the juice during winemaking (maybe some sulfur to protect it from gross oxidation), and take nothing away (no fining or filtration).

It’s much more than a fad. It’s here to stay. At the most, it could result in exciting new discoveries in wine character. At the least, it’s good for the soil, the planet and everyone on it.

I’ve had a couple of visits over the last year or two from a quirky group of young winemakers from South Australia. Anton Von Klopper’s wines are labelled – with hand-made paper – Lucy Margaux (tastings). He has several Adelaide Hills pinot noirs which are expensive and rare but full of interest. His cheaper second label is Domaine Lucci. James Erskine consults to Bowe Lees (Adelaide Hills) (tastings) whose wines I’ve liked, and is starting his own Barossa-based brand, Jauma Wines. And Tom Shobbrook has a small winery on his parents’ vineyard in the Barossa’s Seppeltsfield area, where he fashions his Shobbrook wines (tastings), which are seriously good – his shiraz, riesling, nebbiolo and Tommy Ruff Shiraz Mourvedre are all smart wines.

Von Klopper is a real talker, the spokesman, a highly intelligent young man who questions everything and by all reports made his lecturers’ lives hell while he was at university.

These three recently staged a very different kind of weekend tasting promotion at Vaucluse Cellars. They went fishing, diving and hunting before the event and presented rabbit rillettes, fresh fish, abalone and crayfish which they barbecued in the street and served free to the public, along with tastes of their wines. They even served salt they’d harvested from the sea. People told me it was the best wine event they’d ever been to. I don’t doubt them.

Von Klopper, Erskine and Shobbrook got friendly with Sam Hughes, who works at Vaucluse Cellars, and put him up to making some wine in Sydney using some way-out hands-off techniques. Hughes took a room in Stone Villa, an artists’ community in Sydenham, and turned it temporarily into a micro-winery. He picked some semillon grapes in the Lower Hunter Valley’s 2010 vintage and divided the crop into nine batches. He got a potter in Byron Bay (where else?) to make nine egg-shaped porcelain fermenting vessels. In theory, the egg is an ideal shape for a fermenter on account of the currents it sets up. Hughes housed each of the 44-litre ‘eggs’, as he refers to them, in an outer container and packed soil between the two layers. Three eggs were packed in white sand, three more in red clay and the final three in shellgrit – in lieu of limestone. The inspiration was three types of well-known Hunter Valley soil. Each of the three eggs in each soil group had a different skin to juice ratio. One was just juice, no skins. One was 30% skins, the other was 100% skins. So there were nine separate trials on the same grapes.

Hughes put proper gas traps in the eggs to stop air and vinegar flies getting in, and let them rip without further ado. Oh, except that he played music to them. If you can call a single guitar note music. Played on a loop, it must have risked the sanity of the artists in the villa. Although it probably beats the roar of low-flying aircraft, as the house is close to the end of the runway at Mascot.

Nine natural fermentations, without any cooling or additions of acid, sulfur or whatever. And no-one, but no-one, ferments semillon on skins. Who knows how tannic and coarse it might get.

This could get really ugly.

So, how did they turn out?

Remarkably well, is the answer.

I was impressed at how palatable they tasted, and how balanced. Although several were stinky at first pour, they cleaned up remarkably quickly in the glass, and tasted surprisingly fresh – without acid addition, remember. And they were soft and pleasant on the tongue, without human embellishment such as fining or filtration.

If anything, the skins-fermented wines tasted richer and more structured than the no-skins wines, which seemed a little thin in comparison. More surprisingly, as they should all have the same acidity, was my perception that the no-skins wines were lower in acidity than the skins wines – especially the sand ferments. Perhaps there was some acid extraction from the skins during the ferment, or more likely, the phenolics and other materials from the skins had augmented the acidity to give a better all-round palate effect. It’s interesting to speculate.

The sand wines were the most successful; the clay wines the least. Who knows why? Hughes speculates that the clay was the least interesting and the sand the most, in keeping with what you might expect from semillon grown on these soil types in the Hunter. Was this merely the cart leading the horse: his knowledge that sand and limestone soils produce better semillon grapes than clay, influencing his opinion?

Hughes is going to make three blends: the sand wines will be put together, as will the clay wines and the shellgrit wines. He will bottle them in small egg-shaped pottery vessels, to sell in 3-packs containing one of each blend. Very cute. They will be released in October through Vaucluse Cellars, who will be, if they aren’t already, specialists in rare and unusual wines!

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 1 June 2010.

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