I was in Burgundy for work a couple of weeks ago. When I explained to two French colleagues that I needed to be back in time for a tasting one evening, they kindly obliged. Luckily it was only after the flights had been booked that they found out it was a tasting of British pét-nat and alternative sparkling, a concept to which they felt significantly less kind.
The tasting was organised by Tim Wildman MW, a man who has dedicated himself entirely to the world of pét-nat (first in Australia, and now here in England). I’d followed his antics on Instagram for years, and finally encountered him for the first time earlier this year, dropping in during a panicked period of revision to taste his latest releases from Down Under. Somehow he perfectly embodies the style of wine he produces; vibrant, fun and just a little off-beat, but also clearly a technically savvy and pensive winemaker.
He’d worked for Les Caves de Pyrene before moving to Australia, and therefore already encountered the original pét-nat – méthode ancéstrale wines from around France. Making one himself was happy circumstance – a bet with a friend, and a guess that it might be the safest type of wine to attempt as a novice, especially given the flexibility of the style and its novelty in Australia. “In the land of the blind. the one-eyed man makes pét-nat,” he jests. But there was another element to.
“Back in 2014, there was a lot of cynicism in Australia about the whole idea of ‘natural wine’, not least in South Australia, the State dominated by the big brand corporates. I’d even heard leading industry figures say that it was ‘impossible’ to make wine without using sulphur,” Wildman explains. “So I guess I just wanted to prove a point. I knew that pét-nat is, theoretically at least, the least risky style of wine to make without the safety net of sulphur dioxide, as once the ferment starts the wine is always protected by carbon dioxide.”
Eight years later, it’s safe to say that his point has been proven. Pét-nat is being produced by hundreds of producers in Australia. Wildman now makes 35,000 bottles a year that are shipped off to 15 export markets. It’s hard to call anything so very slightly impractical mainstream, but it’s become a firm favourite in the natural wine scene, and a wine that broaches the lines between craft beer, kombucha and cocktails.
By Wildman’s own admission, it took him three vintages to get to the point where he was crafting zero-sulphur wine that was “fruity, fault-free and delicious”. Despite its easy style, it’s technically challenging to produce.
There are two main options for production methods. The classic approach is to bottle the wine in the middle of its primary fermentation, or by “interruption”. But many producers also inoculate a base wine, often with fresh must or sometimes sugar (“intermission”). And while once most wines would have been undisgorged, now many are. Don’t think this means you should expect crystal-clear wines, however, as many will still have the reassuring haze of natural wine.
L.A.S. Vino winemaker Nic Peterkin first made a pét-nat in 2018 (something I witnessed first-hand, while working at Pierro). ”It’s actually f*ing hard to make well for the price people want it at,” he says. The risk of getting the wrong level of lees and it not exploding on opening is all quite high. He’s adapted his method and now uses “intermission” – adding some Cabernet juice to settled white wine after racking. For him it means he can manage sugar, reduce the volume of lees and, logistically, it can be tackled at the end of vintage rather than in the heart of harvest chaos.
I went into this tasting far from convinced about pét-nat. I’d had mixed experiences with bottles I’d tried, but can’t claim to have dedicated a massive amount of time to the category. The tasting encompassed 37 wines, with many pét-nats, but also some that were “col fondo” style – really slightly alternative traditional method wines, designed for earlier drinking.
You can head over to Club Oenologique to read more of my thoughts on the wines, and some more background on the cateogry, but the long and short of it was that I was surprised. Only a small handful were faulty, and those that were I feared would be appreciated by many consumers. It was interesting that the wines that fizzed most uncontrollably on opening, the Vesuvii of pét-nats, were all made by the interruption method and undisgorged.
Wildman’s new UK project, Lost in a Field – and for which he’s just picked his second vintage – is clearly popular. Volumes might be small but the first release sold out rapidly. It’s capturing a moment, perhaps, a sea-change in English wine.
“It still feels like a category in its infancy, with all the best wines still ahead of it, which is how I felt about the Australian natural wine scene back in the 2000s when I was a buyer. And as a wine drinker, and wine lover, that’s the most exciting thing for me, to know that the best is yet to come.”
Between studying for the MW and work, it’s been a busy year. The last few weeks have seen stops in Tuscany, Bordeaux, Rioja and Burgundy – and there’s much to report on. For now, here’s an update on jottings that you might have missed.
Bordeaux 2021: With primeurs week back with a bang this year, I spent an enlightening and exhausting 10 days exploring the 2021 vintage and Bordelais hospitality. It was a fascinating year to explore and there was a surprising openness from producers when it came to the challenges of this tricky season. From my first thoughts to a full report and guide by commune, I wrote extensively about it. Maligned by some of the critics, I think it’s a remarkable result given what they faced. These may not be the most age-worthy wines, but I think there’s a lot of pleasure to be had if you know where to look.
Tate & Lyle: Inspired by Bordeaux, I took a look at chaptalisation – something that returned to the forefront in Europe in 2021. Suddenly young producers were having to learn how to master this age-old technique to craft wines that had sufficient alcohol (and everything that comes with that – more here). It’s a nerdy read, but fascinating to see the difference of opinion – and taste the results.
A South African interlude: Ahead of the latest release, Klein Constantia arranged a fantastic vertical tasting of their iconic sweet wine at Trivet (my first visit, and the food was exceptional). I’ve always had a soft spot for the wine and it was interesting to taste so many vintages. Perhaps some were a little disappointing, but the trajectory is inspiring, with brighter acidity, precision and balance. Read my spotlight on Vin de Constance on FINE+RARE.
Burgundy 2021: After a whistle-stop three days in the region, here are my initial thoughts on the vintage. So far, it’s hard to offer a firm view. There is so much more to taste and explore and I can’t wait to get out there later in the year to delve into it fully. At the moment I am a little concerned about the varying quality of reds, although there’s promise in the whites. More to follow later this year.
“What’s the alcohol?” I asked. Paul Hobbs looked rankled. He replied with a slight sigh, “14%.”
I was struck by how light the wine in question felt, his 2019 Goldrock Estate Pinot Noir, I’d guessed it was lower. When I expressed my surprise, Hobbs said something interesting – the sort of thing that doesn’t often come out of a group Zoom tasting of the latest releases from X or Y estate. But Hobbs clearly isn’t your average winemaker, with a depth of knowledge that is profound, and a clear desire to dive into the nuances of each wine he makes.
He’d said that there was much more to alcohol than a number. That it was so much more complex. That no one talked about it. Obviously, I wanted to know more.
I ask about alcohols a lot more than I used to, a result of needing to nail them blind in an MW exam, and knowing that they can provide an essential clue for a wine’s identity. Of course we know that it’s easy for alcohol to be masked by other elements in the glass, but Paul offered a fascinating eye into how climate change doesn’t just mean that there’s a little more alcohol in a wine – but is changing the very nature of the alcohol produced.
One of the most joyous things about my job is getting to write (and commission others to write) on such a range of topics. True to form, it’s been a few months since I got round to sharing my latest jottings, and putting them together for one “article dump” highlights the variety.
First up is a personal favourite, delving into the unexpectedly fascinating and murky realm of the world’s most treasured tuber: white truffles. I spoke to Rowan Jacobsen, the author of a new book on the topic – and a tale of his own journey of discovery, as well as a real-life trifulau about the truth behind the white gold shaved over your fresh pasta. Read the feature here; Jacobsen’s book, Truffle Hound, is out now – and worth every penny.
Just before my nose led me down the truffle trail, I managed to make it (post-Delta, pre-Omicron) to Burgundy to taste the 2020s. My first overseas excursion since my trip to taste the 2019s, it was unsurprisingly brilliant to be somewhere else, let alone tasting such an extraordinary vintage. As with last year, I was heavily involved in the FINE+RARE coverage of the vintage – all of which you can find here, including our overview and a breakdown of the year by producer.
Last but not least is a piece about a producer I first came across visiting Australia in 2018, the fabled Bass Phillip – an estate that made some of the best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, I was told. I trawled shops seeking out a bottle I could afford to taste, but no such luck. Last year, I got to try the wines for the first time, just as the estate changed hands, with the legendary Jean-Marie Fourrier taking the reins from Bass Phillip’s founder, Phillip Jones. I sat down with the Burgundian to talk about the project, one that has been made far from easy by Australia’s stringent border controls in the face of Covid. Read the full feature on FINE+RARE Editorial.
Here’s to an ever more eclectic selection of stories in 2022.
With Bordeaux en primeur, life has been busy to say the least. Alongside my initial thoughts and growing season report, I’ve tasted as much as I could of the vintage and penned an overview of Bordeaux 2020, based on the wines and many conversations with the region’s vignerons. It’s a fascintating vintage to dig into, and one that I think has produced some excellent wines that fit neatly with my palate (a little more restrained, elegant and fresh than some other top-rated years).
In amongst it all, and just before his Vinous report on Bordeaux 2020 was due to be published, I sat down (via Zoom, of course) with Neal Martin. Despite my best efforts, I got no early titbits on his view on Bordeaux 2020; I did however get to dig into his back-story, how he approaches writing, why his passion for music matters, and the tricky business of access in the world of fine wine. You can read the full feature here.
My recycling has really gotten out of hand. I’m commandeering not just one, but three neighbours’ bins. I’m also now on first name terms with my DHL delivery driver, and getting there with the good people of DPD, UPS et al. Over the past months, the odd sample delivery has become normal – but the current wave, nay, tsunami, of Bordeaux 2020 samples has really seen things escalate.
On the upside, most of the samples arrive almost entirely in recyclable packaging (with black marks for those that don’t). On the downside, my neighbours seem to have little sympathy – and their patience for my excess cardboard and glass is starting to wear thin (although they’ve all had quite the upgrade on their stocks of cooking wine, benefiting from the dregs). Those on my street who are only within earshot of the clank of bottles toppling into bin after bin definitely think I have a serious habit.
A first world problem? Of course. But tasting Bordeaux en primeur samples isn’t necessarily a joy. Even from the very best châteaux and vintages, these are wines in their infancy. Mere six-month-olds, their acidity can feel raw, the tannins biting. It can – and depending on how many samples you’re tasting in one sitting, will – literally hurt your teeth. (Dentists do good business with wine merchants, unfortunately.)
It’s not a mere matter of supping away, though. The challenge is to taste the nascent liquid and read its future as best we can. But this isn’t us playing Mystic Meg. We judge the concentration, complexity and balance of a wine, exploring how each element stands up alone and how they interplay, and will integrate with more time in cask and then bottle. Does the oak stand out? Is there enough acidity to off-set the concentration? Is the alcohol in check? How will it evolve?
It’s easy to be cynical when it comes to Bordeaux en primeur. Considering the wines will spend another six to 12 months in barrel, many ask whether it’s worthwhile looking into our vinous crystal ball at all? Why bother? In many ways, this elaborate unveiling of the new vintage is mad.
Can you imagine if any other agricultural product did the same thing? If we anticipated the debut of 2020 wheat, carrot or celery? Like many other farmers, vignerons have just one chance a year to get it right – but their success or failure will haunt them far beyond the following season. An infinite number of decisions are made first in the field, then in the winery – and every single one has an impact on the liquid that ends up in our glass. Yes, wine is farming in many ways – but it is a craft like no other, and that’s why we’re all so hooked. The chance to be part of it, to get in on the action right at the start… well, somehow it’s a buzz. I love peering into my list of stocks and impatiently eyeing the little I’ve bought en primeur. My bottles are modest, but I can’t wait to uncork them when the time comes.
But what of the 2020s? It’s only the beginning and I’m still forming a complete picture as we taste more. So far, however, I’m excited about the wines. Talking to the region’s winemakers, there’s a palpable delight and amazement at the wines. It was not an easy season for vignerons, a rollercoaster of a year in many ways, yet somehow – despite all the challenges it posed – it produced wines that are, so far, impressive. The dry, warm summer might make you think the 2020s are destined to be super-ripe, tannic and over-blown; it’s not so.
These are surprisingly elegant, fresh wines, with quite moderate alcohols. The fruit is ripe and concentrated, but there’s a crunchiness too – a vibrancy and saline acidity that makes them moreish. There’s no shortage of structure, but the tannins are beautifully ripe – making them relatively approachable as en primeur samples go. The best wines offer the richness of a warm vintage, yet with an added level of freshness. I say the best wines, because this is not a totally homogenous vintage. Because of the challenging growing season, those who didn’t or couldn’t put the requisite work in in the vineyard didn’t necessarily excel. With the dry summer, soils were of particular importance – with water-holding clay a boon. Yields are down, in general more on the Left Bank than the Right, with mildew being more of an issue in the Médoc, while the dry conditions over the summer in general led to smaller berries. Gentle handling in the winery was essential given the smaller berries and thicker skins, and some have suggested that the pips didn’t fully ripen – meaning it was even more important.
All this aside, however, the very best wines are outstanding – comfortably sitting alongside or above the ‘18s and ‘19s, ‘15s and ‘16s. There’s a classicism and elegance about the wines, with an aromatic delicacy and expressiveness, that makes them enchanting. More to follow – this is, after all, just the starting line. And the anticipation is everything.
Highlights from the tasting table so far
Talbot, Batailley, Clinet, Enclos Tourmaline, Angelus, Domaine de Chevalier, Pape Clement, d’Armailhac and Clerc Milon
Tuscan dreams: I got to spend several hours talking to the impressive Lorenza Sebasti and Marco Pallanti of Castello di Ama. Together this duo has seen the property rise to the top of the Tuscan wine scene, but has also commissioned some of the modern art world’s biggest names (including Anish Kapoor). The resulting installations litter the 18th century estate – a fitting metaphor for the combination of tradition and technology that has led their wines to reach such great heights. Read the full feature here
Changing of the guard at Domaine des Lambrays: late last year I visited Domaine des Lambrays to taste the 2019s, the first vintage to be made fully under Jacques Devauges. It was a remarkable visit, talking to Jacques about the property’s almost-monopole eponymous Grand Cru and how he’s getting to know it
Bordeaux cometh. My first jottings on Bordeaux 2020 and en primeur in the pandemic era are out in the world – expect much more on this front in the coming months. I also had the chance to catch up with Damien Sartorius-Barton, the 10th generation of Bartons to make wine in St Julien. He’s got fingers in many pies – with some exciting side-hustles too. While he’s effortlessly suave and classically Bordelais, he also skateboards, drinks wine from the trendiest producers and feels millennially at odds with the world of Claret. Read the interview here
I’ve been thinking a lot about terroir recently. We are so drilled in the world of fine wine into preaching the power of site – but is it really everything we’ve cracked it up to be? Or are we inadvertently the terroir hype squad?
Port was the prompter for this initial thought. I took a deep-dive intothe firewater used to fortify the Douro’s classic wines – aguardente. It makes up a whopping 20% of every bottle and is intergral to the style, yet it often doesn’t even come from Portugal, being sourced mainly from France or Spain. And getting any further detail beyond that broadstroke nationality isn’t easy. How can we really talk about Port as being terroir driven when a fifth of it comes from so much further afield? Of course we want to look at the Douro Valley’s dramatic slopes and say the wines speak of them… but do they?
Penfolds challenged the concept recently too – with a release that is, as one friend said to me, “peak Penfolds”. Of course Grange – and many of the cult producer’s wines – have consistently been regional blends from across South Australia, although there has been a gradual shift to wines becoming more tied to a specific place. But two of its new Napa wines – retailing for unsurprisingly high prices – are labelled as “Wine of the World”, containing portions of South Australian fruit – shipped over as finished wine and blended in. I haven’t had a chance to taste them, although others have said they are determinedly Penfolds in style.
On the upside, at least there’s transparency in what they’re doing. Any number of bottles can be labelled one thing and contain a fairly decent dose of something else. In the EU, you can have up to 15% of a grape that’s different to the one on the label. In the US, that goes up to 25%, while 15% can come from a different AVA. You can even have 5% from a different vintage.
I’m not going to claim you can’t taste the difference between sites in Burgundy, or for that matter anywhere else. But I do wonder if perhaps we’re so eager for wine to be special, we set it on a pedestal, elevating it and separating it from other drinks or crafts – that we depend on the mystique of terroir to do so. And for the record, Port does taste like it comes from the Douro – but that’s not just because of the region’s terroir. It’s the indigenous varieties, it’s the traditional style, it’s the winemaking, and the terroir. There’s so much more to a good bottle of wine – and while any of the best winemakers will highlight that the secret is to do as little as possible, they’re doing a lot to make sure that they can.
Blogs were built to be badly managed – and so I have lived up to the expectation with a rather embarrassing two-year lull. Here’s a quick(ish) look at almost everything that I’ve penned in that time.
Interviewing might look a little different these days, with a rapport dependent on the strength of the WiFi connection, but nevertheless it hasn’t stopped me being able to speak to some wonderful people in the world of wine.
First up is an accidental mini-series talking to wine writing legends, starting with the one and only Hugh Johnson (discussing everything from turbot to England’s “grand cru”). I also got to speak to Steven Spurrier, the man behind the Judgement of Paris (although, as I discovered, it’s best not to ask him about it) and William Kelley, the Wine Advocate writer at a much earlier stage of his career.
Last but not least, I had a great conversation with Master Blender Richard Paterson – a character that dominates any room – about his new project, Wolfcraig, and why learning about wine only helped him hone his nose: read it here.
Two years’ worth of jottings on a host of brilliant bottles spans the globe:
The 2019 vintage has a remarkably similar story in the Rhône, the dry conditions somehow preserving the acidity in the fruit. I spoke to a handful of producers to write up a report on the year, which sounds like another superb one for the cellar.
I caught up with some of Napa’s finest, just as the nation was voting Trump out, about the 2018 vintage.
The sommelier world has seen rather a lot of scandal since this piece was written, but in 2018 I spend a fascinating few hours watching somms compete for the UK title: here’s my take on the curious event
Remember restaurants? Lovely places where people bring you wonderful plates of food and delicious drinks in exchange for dosh? A very long time ago, I visited some stellar places in the name of “work”: Bright, Levan, and the now-shut Emile were particular highlights (although crossed fingers for a permanent home for the team from the latter in the wake of Covid). Add the former two to your post-lockdown wish-list.
Finding the balance in Australia’s coolest region, 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
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
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.
“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.
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
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.”
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
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.
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.