Tom Shobbrook is a young man who thinks outside the square. He’s into biodynamic viticulture and ‘natural’, or low-intervention, winemaking, but he’s also quality orientated. He’s no hippy winemaker, but he has a strong sense of nature and respect for the earth. After a year studying agricultural science he went to Italy, and spent five years with the esteemed Chianti producer Riecine. The Tuscan experience affected him deeply and gave him a different sense of a way of life involving various agricultural pursuits. Upon returning to his Barossa Valley home, he couldn’t find anyone in the valley he wanted to work with. He was interested in biodynamic viticulture and natural winemaking, and those ideas were eccentric to Barossans. So he spent a year working in Rob O’Callaghan’s biodynamic vegetable garden at Rockford, helping grow the produce for the Rockford Stonewallers’ lunches.
Then he set up his own winery in a shed on the family farm at Seppeltsfield (tastings), where the vineyard is managed biodynamically. The family still sells 40% of the fruit off their 9 hectares of shiraz, mourvedre and merlot vines to other wineries, but Tom produces several excellent wines under the Shobbrook (tastings) and Tommy Ruff labels.
While he works closely with other like-minded winemen such as James Erskine, Anton von Klopper and Sam Hughes, Shobbrook doesn’t swim in the Barossa mainstream. Indeed, he chooses to maintain a certain distance between himself and the valley – perhaps in an effort to discover himself. It’s as though by being too close to others, his resolve to tread his own path might be weakened. He feels closer to European ways than Australian. And this is reflected in many of his attitudes, which owe more to European thinking than Australian.
While the vineyard is being run along biodynamic principles, it’s not certified, because Tom isn’t satisfied with the certifying organisations.
He doesn’t believe in adding acid or anything else apart from essential doses of sulfur dioxide. All fermentations rely on environmental yeasts and bacteria. He doesn’t believe in adding copper sulfate or diammonium phosphate to counter hydrogen sulfide, believing that the oxygen introduced by racking is enough, and that biodynamically-grown grapes don’t suffer the lack of nutrients that causes yeasts to produce sulfides in the first place.
Nor does he believe in fining. The approach is to add nothing and take nothing away from what nature gives you.
His riesling is skin-contacted, and he made a small-batch experimental 2010 sauvignon blanc that was fermented on skins like a red wine. He didn’t know how it would turn out (it’s actually very good) but he was curious to find out. He wanted to make sauvignon blanc that didn’t taste like sauvignon blanc.
Shobbrook makes shiraz from the home vineyard in a typical Barossa full-bodied style, but avoiding excessive ripeness or alcohol. His delicate, perfumed Eden Valley riesling is skin-contacted and has no added acid. His rose is a saignee: dry, savoury and more Provencal than Australian in style. Tommy Ruff shiraz mourvedre is the value buy at under $20: it’s a nicely balanced, soft and tasty early-drinking red. His top-priced wine is a Macclesfield nebbiolo ($33) which is light-coloured, savoury and tannic, expressing the grape well.
When I visited the winery early this year, the 2010 ferments included many oddities. The sauvignon blanc was just one risky experiment. Shiraz fermented with riesling – some crushed, some as whole bunches. He wasn’t sure why… just wanted to try it.
He pulls the heads out of barrels, tips them on their ends and ferments in them, just to see what happens. Adelaide Hills vineyard Longview invited him to make its reserve nebbiolo this year: a chance to play with some really interesting fruit.
Shobbrook, his friends and family are into self-sufficiency. They make their own salami. They grew, made or caught most of the food served at his recent wedding to Emma.
With Hughes, von Klopper and Erskine, Tom is part of Natural Wine Theory, who do some way-out stuff, like fermenting white wine on skins in ceramic ‘eggs’. They packed the eggs in various soils – just to see if it made any difference. Their latest project is Voice of the People: a natural red wine with no additives, served from a 23-litre demijohn in some of the smartest wine bars in Sydney and Melbourne. It’s a series of seasonal wines. The first was Winter Twenty 10, which had a layer of protective olive oil on the surface, and sold by the tumbler for $7.50. It was a hearty, unpretentious, tasty red which proved that a technically well-made, natural wine could be served by the glass over the counter on-demand, much as wine was served from the keg in taverns in ancient times. It still works!
* Tom Shobbrook won the Wine Australia Medal 2010 for the young winemaker of the year.
First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine, October – November 2011.