Natural Wines on a roll

If you’ve been out and about in wine bars recently you might have noticed a large clear container of red wine perched on the counter. It has a steel tube coming out of the top with a tap and a lump of cherry-wood for a handle. Scrawled on the demijohn is its name: Voice Of The People. You’ll see it in Balmain’s Riverview Hotel, Danks Street Depot, Firefly, Delicado, Fratelli Paradiso, Glebe Point Diner, Fix St James, and several other establishments.

Voice Of The People is a natural wine. It’s created by a group of young men who are at the forefront of the natural wine trend. The initial blend is a medium to full-bodied red designed for winter, called Winter Twenty 10. It’s seasonal and intended for immediate quaffing, is bottled fresh from the barrel in Sydney, as the restaurants order it, and the wine in the 23-litre demijohn is topped by a layer of olive oil. Just as the ancient Romans and Greeks did, this is designed to protect the wine from oxidation as the tide gradually goes out.

I paid $7.50 for a glass at the Riverview: the range is $6.50 to $10 a glass.

The guys behind it are Sam Hughes, Tom Shobbrook, Anton Von Klopper and James Erskine. Hughes and Shobbrook brought a demijohn to my house the other day and spiked it on the spot, so I could taste it fresh. It’s surprisingly good. I say surprisingly, because I’ve had a few less than overwhelming experiences with so-called natural wines. I’m a born sceptic, and I don’t see any reason to throw out the window all the advances mankind has made in winemaking since the ancients. On the other hand, a lot of winemakers, especially younger people, are today attempting to make good wine with minimal intervention – as few additions as possible – and that definitely appeals to me.

As the guys set up the bottle on my bench I asked what grape varieties were in it, and received a non-committal response. You see, it’s not about the grape varieties. Same as when I reached for the stemware and was asked for tumblers instead. Humble vessels to serve a peasant wine.

As Hughes says: “In a nutshell, it’s affordable natural wine that changes in its blend with the changing of the seasons. The winter blend has a handful of blacker grapes thrown in for tannin to suit the fare eaten at this time of year. Varietal is irrelevant – it’s what’s in the glass that counts.” The wine has no added sulfur or acid or tannin, no added yeast or enzymes, and is neither fined nor filtered. Being 2010 vintage it’s very new, but tastes smooth and fully formed. No rough edges. If you keep asking, you find there’s touriga, mataro, shiraz, cabernet and merlot in it. There’s probably some Barossa in it, as Shobbrook is based there, but it’s not about the region either. The wine is deep purple-red and full of spicy, earthy and meaty dark-fruit flavours, soft tannins, ample weight and richness.

The demijohn should be emptied within three weeks, otherwise the wine starts to pick up olive oil taste and perhaps lose freshness. The oil is high-quality too, and can be used for cooking or dipping afterwards. There are more seasonal wines to come: possibly a light red for spring and maybe a rose for summer.

After we tried Winter Twenty 10, with slices of Tom’s home-made salami, he poured a taste of cloudy, yellowish coloured fluid. This was the Shobbrook Didi Giallo 2010 sauvignon blanc that I’d seen fermenting on its skins (yes, on its skins!) in his winery earlier this year. It tasted like no other sauvignon blanc: honeyed, floral, spicy and rich, full and smooth, dry and balanced. The only thing that’s been added to the raw grapes is a token 20 parts per million of sulfur dioxide, just so that it’s protected during transportation. Price is $40-$45.

It challenges your idea of what sauvignon blanc can be. “We’re trying to take wine back, to what wine used to be like, and challenge people’s perceptions about what is good,” says Shobbrook. It’s named after Didier Dagueneau, the iconoclastic Loire Valley sauvignon blanc producer with whom Shobbrook once worked. “People follow fads. If they just looked at what’s in front of them, they might be surprised. Didier thought that sauvignon blanc didn’t need to taste the way people thought it should taste.”

He showed what else is possible with the grape of his region, and inspired a lot of people. “It speaks a different language to, say, Marlborough sauvignon blanc,” adds Hughes.

Later, Shobbrook pours a glass of red and lets me taste without telling me anything. It’s a lighter-coloured, medium-bodied, savoury red, quite complex especially when you learn it’s very young – another 2010. He calls it Pinolo – a blend of nebbiolo and pinot noir. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard of such a blend, but why not? People are always talking about the similarities between these two classic grapes. And it’s a good wine: lightly structured, savoury and smooth. It’s $50 at retail. Shobbrook explains that he had a small quantity of pinot noir and needed to fill up the barrel, and the nebbiolo was all he had on hand at the time. Serendipity.

The idea of blending the noble grape of Piedmont with its opposite number from Burgundy might offend some people. The point is that we are all conditioned about what is good and bad, about what is acceptable in wine and what’s not. “We’re trying to beat that conditioning – not beat it out of people, but massage it out of them,” laughs Hughes.

There is a crunch with all this natural wine caper. I often have the suspicion that some people will love a natural wine even if it tastes terrible and is grossly faulty. Shobbrook seems like a quality man: he’s worked in quality wineries like Riecine in Tuscany (for five years, no less) and isn’t interested in faulty wine. That said, most of what he makes is destined to be drunk within a few months, so it won’t have much time to develop off-characters. He indicates the Pinolo: “That’s got a pH of about 3.7 (not excessively high) and 20 ppm of sulfur dioxide. I’d be happy to put that in front of anybody and be confident it’s good.”

* Retail stockists include Best Cellars, Vaucluse Cellars and Delicado.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 17 August 2010.

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