Retro wines

Wine amphorae

Like many of my generation (BB, that is) I’m transfixed by the recent fashion for retro wines. This is my term for wines made in old-fashioned ways, and I’m not talking of Whitehill beater crushers, hand-cranked basket presses, old oak and forked stalks, à la Rockford winery. I’m talking seriously old: clay amphorae and ceramic eggs for fermenters, white grapes fermented on their skins, reds fermented on their stalks, minimal or zero additions (such as yeast, bacteria, acid, tannin, yeast nutrients, sulfites, etc.), and sustainable viticulture – especially organic or biodynamic.

In short, wines made the way they were centuries ago before any modern chemicals, additives or machinery became available.

The trend is big in Europe, especially Italy and France, and is gathering momentum in Australia, encouraged by restaurants and wine-bars which have embraced these wines with enthusiasm.

Cut to Sydney, March 2016, and the world’s best-known wine writer, Englishwoman Jancis Robinson, is here working for a very worthy charity she supports; Room To Read. She asked Wine Australia to organize a tasting of new-wave Aussie wines; wines she would not usually see in the course of her life back in London.

A line-up of more than 80 samples, billed as ‘artisan’ wines, was assembled and yours truly was fortunate to be invited along as a fly on the wall. Many of these wines are rare – made in tiny quantities and not exported, nor widely distributed, but if you frequent back-lane wine bars in Sydney and Melbourne you will encounter many of them.

I found something to like in at least 70% of the wines. Some, it must be said, are fairly conventional in their taste and the way they were made. At the other end of the spectrum are some very feral wines: some murky in appearance, some aldehydic or oxidised, some stinky and offensive to the nose. There are degrees of intervention, and it seems to me that the wines I enjoyed most were wines where some degree of quality control had been exercised by the winemaker.

By quality control, I mean using a little sulfur dioxide before bottling (to prevent browning and oxidation), and refusing to bottle any wine with a serious fault, such as brettanomyces spoilage, out-of-control sulfides, mercaptans or volatile acidity.

Some winemakers manage to espouse all (or most) of the precepts of ‘natural’ winemaking yet come up with lovely clean wines of character and interest. It’s obviously possible. But wine drinkers should reject spoilt and badly-made wine.

One of my top-scoring wines was Joshua Cooper Doug’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, Macedon Ranges 2014 ($50 – tasting). Deep coloured, rich, ripe and concentrated, clean and well-made. The palate is fleshy, sweetly ripe and texturally A1. A superb pinot of serious stature. 95 points.

And another one: Ochota Barrels I Am The Owl Syrah, Adelaide Hills 2015 ($40 – tasting). Smoky, slightly sulfide-tinged bouquet, complex and spicy. Medium-full bodied with a lovely silky, supple mouth-feel. A delicious shiraz with glorious texture and superb flavour. 96 points.

Favourite wines? Search for these names:

BK Wines (tastings), Circe (tastings), Collector Wines (tastings), Glaetzer-Dixon (tastings), Jamsheed (tastings), Jauma (tastings), Joshua Cooper, La Violetta (tastings), Luke Lambert (tastings), Mac Forbes (tastings), Mayer (tastings), Murdoch Hill Artisan (tastings), Ochota Barrels, Ravensworth (tastings), Sami-Odi (tastings), Schmolzer & Brown (tastings), Serrat (tastings), Simão & Co (tastings), Spinifex (tastings), Syrahmi (tastings).

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