The view from the Hills

Finding the balance in Australia’s coolest region, the Adelaide Hills

The view from Mount Lofty in the Adelaide Hills

Snaking your way up to 500 metres above sea-level, carefully navigating winding roads and sharp cliff-faces, the Adelaide Hills seems utterly quaint. In an area that was better known for orchard fruit – cherries, strawberries, apples and figs – small villages are nestled in rolling hills, lined with vineyards, fruit orchards and plenty of forest. Away from these small almost hobbit-friendly hamlets, the landscape becomes more dramatic, with steeply-raked slopes, towering red-barked trees that remind me of California’s redwoods, and a chilling mist that draws in over the hills.

But it’s here, in this cutesy-seeming spot, that Australia’s latest revolution is taking place. The Adelaide Hills – and particularly the town of Basket Range – is home to the trendiest winemakers Down Under, those who are making people forget about traditional Aussie Shiraz and Chardonnay with their natural bottlings. Orange, pét nat, cloudy, low-or-no-sulphur, skin contact, foot-stomped, whole-bunch, hand-picked: these are just a few of the rituals necessary to access this new and exclusive cult.

While we might condescendingly refer to Australia as the “New World” (when by contrast they have some of the wine world’s oldest vines) – up here in the Hills, viticulture really is relatively new. Brian Croser of Petaluma was a pioneer of the region, identifying it in 1969 as a potential cool-climate site for the production of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, for both still and sparkling. Ignoring the locals’ views that it was too wet and cold, he eventually had the chance to prove his theory – planting his first vineyard in the region 10 years later. He led the way, and the 100 or so producers operating there today followed.

Ironically, Croser was the absolute antithesis of the new-gen Hills producers. Inspired by time spent at UC Davis, Croser set up a new, state-of-the-art, technically focused wine science course at Wagga Wagga in 1976. Just two years later, he, with his partner Tony Jordan, founded Oenotec, a wine consultancy business. He was a figurehead for “squeaky clean” winemaking – a man who preached that anaerobic winemaking was best, inoculation wisest, decent doses of sulphur safest, and filtration essential.

This is the style of winemaking that made Australia’s name, clean-cut winemaking that offered pure varietal-driven styles of wine. But it’s also the style of winemaking that many would argue made Australian wine bland and unexciting. It’s a far cry from the natty crowd representing the region today.

In the cellar at Gentle Folk

“The Hills was really boring until a year ago,” Gareth Belton, winemaker and founder of Gentle Folk, tells me. He left behind life as a marine biologist to make wine in Basket Range. He tries to intervene as little as possible, using wild yeast, with no fining or filtering. When I ask what prompted him to take this low-intervention route, he says, “We all swim in the rivers; I don’t want to swim in that shit,” talking about the chemicals more traditional winemakers might employ.

Gareth is one of a number of producers here – along with Anton Van Klopper of Lucy Margaux – who doggedly believe in making wine with no additives, sitting at the more extreme end of the movement. Alex Schulkin is another – although with one difference. He perfectly embodies a juxtaposition of scientific know-how and a desire for minimal intervention. By day he works at the Australian Wine Research Institute, and – as of 2012 – moonlights making wine with his wife Galit Shachaf under their label, The Other Right.

“We call it natural wine; but a hundred years ago it was just wine,” he tells me, as we taste in the near-darkness of his new winery – a converted mechanic’s workshop, perched at the top of a precipitous lane. Rain pummels the tin roof, as Alex – a solidly built, wild-haired man – talks about their wines. “We don’t make serious wine on purpose, ‘cause we’re not serious people, really. But sometimes they just turn out like that…” he chuckles – a guttural, hearty, melodic laugh that seems to shake his whole body.

“Not avoiding risks, managing them” is how he explains his winemaking philosophy, with oxygen his “greatest enemy”. The Other Right is a tiny operation, best known for their sought-after (and almost always sold-out) Pét Nats. They describe their wines not as “natural” but “untamed”; although most would class their approach as boundary-pushing. As of the 2016 vintage, they don’t use any additives – not even sulphur at bottling. Amazingly he seems to mostly succeed in creating delicious, vibrant and – most importantly – clean wines with this approach, perhaps thanks to his uniquely scientific background.

“We call it natural wine; but a hundred years ago it was just wine”

Alex Schulkin, The other right

Not everyone is having as much luck, with plenty of ultra-natural and what most would deem faulty wines making their way to market. “The market’s very forgiving at the moment, I think a lot of faulty wines are getting a lot of love,” Kiwi Charlotte Hardy tells me, as we sit in the kitchen with her partner, Ben Cooke, and their baby daughter Ada Pixie Grace. “It’s an interesting movement. There’s so much debate about it and being someone that’s not a natural winemaker that lives in Basket Range, which you know people perceive as being natural… I often get stuck in the debate and get quite heated about it.”

In a similar way to Alex at The Other Right, Charlotte has more scientific leanings – having set up a wine laboratory company when she first moved to South Australia, which she has since sold. Since 2015, she’s been making wines under her Charlotte Dalton brand, while her partner Ben has just started the Cooke Brothers label.

“It’s all wild ferments, and I don’t really make adds. Everything gets sulphur, except for the Eliza Pinot Noir. Last year it did because the fruit wasn’t very sound. I like to look at the chemistry before I make a call like that. I’d like to see the Semillons in 10 years,” she explains. Ben concurs, “Yeah, I want my wines to age, they’re gonna be hard to sell if they’re two years old and they’re stuffed.”

One criticism Charlotte offers is that people calling themselves natural aren’t necessarily taking fruit from “natural” vineyards, which one might think was a prerequisite. Ultimately, it comes down to one fact for both Ben and Charlotte though: “Aldehyde doesn’t have a location, does it? It’s not terroir.”

Brendon Keys, of BK wines, and another Basket Ranger – who found his way to the Hills via a stint in Majestic – offers a similar opinion. “The wines can be natural and funky – but not fucked.”

Brendon Keys’ other passion, skateboarding, dominates one corner of his winery

This push-pull between extreme winemaking approaches isn’t limited to this corner of South Australia. Sam Vinciulo in Margaret River works with no additions – believing “the less input and manipulation the better”. Ravensworth’s Bryan Martin – out in Murrumbateman – is “making wine in a classic way, without the additives,” he tells me. It’s even spread as far as the big boys, with McLaren Vale’s d’Arenberg (who crushed 2,600 tonnes in 2018) in the process of converting to biodynamics, although not committing to anything similar in the winery.

Ruggabellus has caused waves in Australia and beyond, a project dedicated to producing truly natural wines in the traditional heartland of the Barossa. “It’s really important to me that you taste the grape from the place, and no wood – so no chocolate, no bacon, no flesh from wood,” says winemaker Abel Gibson sincerely – his friendly eyes peering out from tousled hair and a weather-beaten face spattered with red-wine juice.

Now ensconced in the Eden Valley, Abel is a Barossan through-and-through, having spent much of his childhood running around the winery at Penfolds where his dad worked. Over the years he has paid his own dues at various iconic wineries in the region – of which Rockford, Charles Melton and Spinifex are just a few. But the first vintage crafted under the Ruggabellus label was 2009.

He’s a rare breed in the natural-wine world – a man who likes the tradition of wines like the legendary Wendouree, with the Ruggabellus bottle and label design inspired by old Penfolds bottlings. He is, in part, inspired by what he sees as the true Barossa: “The wines from the ‘60s and ‘70s from the Barossa were picked early, 12.5 to 13.5% alcohol, and they age for 30-40 years solidly. The wines from the ‘90s, they’re 15% alcohol and they fall over after 10 years.” While these “forefathers” may have spurred him to start Ruggabellus, he is definitely forging his own path, crafting mesmerising orange wines and reds that offer juicy freshness.

One of his two premium orange offerings, Quomodo – a Riesling-dominant blend (with some Muscat and Semillon thrown in) – is the opposite of classic Eden Valley Riesling. “We get skin contact, natural yeast, no temperature control (just hopefully have small ferments so it doesn’t get too hot), age it in barrel for a couple of years,” he explains. He’s inspired by the likes of Italo-Slovenian legends Radikon and Gravner, dreaming of being able to hold his wines back as long as the latter.

Everything done at Ruggabellus is minimal – Abel not even allowing himself to use pumps to transfer wine between vessels, but he does still use small amounts of sulphur. “I was working towards trying to be sulphur free, but I’m not prepared to do it, because I care about our wines ageing. That’s a massive motivation for me, so the wines need to be really well-balanced and have all the right phenolic material to preserve them, but soft enough that it’s drinkable. We’re getting there,” he says.

And he’s not alone – with a few other intrepid winemakers in the Barossa challenging the region’s norm. Dan Standish, whose Standish Wine Co. produces modern, iconic Barossa Shiraz only adds sulphur at bottling. Raised amongst the vines, as the sixth generation of a local grape-growing family, he never officially studied wine and has, he tells me “learnt by pushing boundaries” himself – at Torbreck, among other places. Brett Grocke at Eperosa is equally at home in the vineyard, the fifth generation of his family to work Barossan vines, producing elegant, restrained styles with a hands-off approach, resorting only to a touch of sulphur; while the man behind Sami-Odi, Fraser McKinley, does the same to produce his excellent Syrah.

“The wines can be natural and funky – but not fucked.”

Brendon Keys, BK Wines

It’s clear that the pendulum here has firmly swung from one extreme to the other, with the demise of protectionist, uber-hygienic, science-based winemaking and the rise of an altogether different approach. The “new” natural ways offer such potential excitement – but plenty of risks, too; without the right knowledge and experience, natural winemaking can all too easily become lazy or just plain bad winemaking. It’s inevitable that the limits will be tested, but it’s the winemakers finding a place away from the fringe movements – the Charlotte Hardys and Abel Gibsons, taking the best bits of both art and science – that are really exciting, offering hope for what lies beyond passing fads.

Taking the temperature Down Under: six to try

  • 2017 The Other Right, Sunshine on my Skin, Adelaide Hills: This skin-contact Viognier combines all the exotic aromas of the heady grape of Condrieu – ripe peach, honey and white florals – yet a structure that balances the variety’s low acidity. A tannic grip, rich texture and palate weight leads to a spicy, pithy finish.
  • 2016 Ruggabellus, Quomodo, Eden Valley: A Riesling-dominant skin-contact wine, this will change your mind about orange wine – the time in barrel softening out its angular profile. The nose is herbal with notes of preserved lemon, exotic fruit and candied pineapple, leading onto an intense palate with a tannic structure, high acidity and a savoury, nutty finish.
  • 2017 BK Wines, One Ball Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills: Named according to the anatomy of a particular grower, this Chardonnay sees a touch of new oak (10%). It is zesty, creamy with layers of smoke, struck-match and toast. It is deliciously round and surprisingly buttery in the palate, with citrus concentration, notes of green melon, apple and a long nutty finish.
  • 2015 Eperosa, Totality, Barossa Valley: Almost entirely whole-bunch fermented, this blend of 78% Mataro (Mourvèdre), 15% Shiraz and 7% Grenache offers a pretty, perfumed nose. The palate is deliciously textured with intense bramble and dark cherry fruit, chalky tannins a savoury, meaty edge – yet with real freshness.
  • 2017 Charlotte Dalton, Aerkangel, Adelaide Hills: This intense Semillon is a proportion of Charlotte’s Love You Love Me cuvée held back and aged on lees for an extra six months. The resulting wine offers crisp lime sherbet, Granny Smith apples, pear-skin and grapefruit pith, with real raw and intense power on the palate.
  • 2016 Yarra Yering, Dry Red No.2, Yarra Valley: A classically-made wine with modern know-how, Sarah Crowe is doing great things at Yarra Yering. Almost entirely Shiraz (with a touch of Viognier, Mataro and Roussanne), this is incredible – floral and lifted, the palate chalky, long and intense with unbelievable freshness. Bright, intense red and black fruit are muddled together, while it has a soft, silken mouth-feel.

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