Better late than never. I’ve had this draft lurking in my files for an embarrassing amount of time – but I love the Ruggabellus wines so much, I was desperate to talk about what I think is one of Australia’s most exciting wineries. Here’s a long overdue tribute to a visit made back in 2018 to this Eden Valley address
Dogs bark fiercely from within the house. A bleary-eyed woman in pyjamas eventually emerges and blinks sleepily at me. We’d been hammering on the door repeatedly – unaware that we were at the wrong address. She was clearly fresh off a night shift, roused from her hard-earned slumber by a pair of wine geeks trying to find the home of Ruggabellus. With remarkable good nature for someone who had just been disturbed, she explained we were at Abel’s old address and pointed us in the right direction.
Of all the Australian wine regions I had planned to visit, I was least excited by the Barossa. Those big, bold, brash bottles that seemed so appealing to a certain sort of wine drinker had never tempted me. The Barossa seemed commercial, soulless, too “well-known” – the establishment that I – so foolishly – thought wouldn’t offer the intrigue and elegance I craved in wine. Visiting Abel Gibson proved me so utterly wrong.
In amongst his vines – which in mid-April looked almost frail, their wiry, sprawling frames picked bare and starting to shed their golden leaves – Abel Gibson looks absolutely content. He and his partner Emma farm a small property in the hills of Flaxman Valley – a corner of the Eden Valley – and it is hard not to feel like this is where he was meant to be.
Their house has a huge glass front, opening out onto their rather special vineyards. “It’s beautiful to sit here in winter and watch the weather patterns come in. The shadows and the colour tones on those hills are amazing,” Abel smiles, slightly lost for a moment in the place.
He and Emma released their first wines under the Ruggabellus label in 2011, but only purchased the property in 2013, having bought fruit from the site for a couple of years. Eventually, all their wines will be made with fruit from the one plot.
When he first found the site, it was nothing but a grassy paddock, but – hidden in the depths of its overgrown grass and weeds, were some sprawling vines. The vines – it turned out – date back to at least the 1930s, quite likely earlier – which makes it incredibly old, particularly for the “new world”. “It’s been a long, slow process bringing it back to life,” Abel explains. Their hope is to be able to make 1,800 litres each of Semillon, Riesling and Shiraz – “when we get it back in balance, but we’re doing it organically, and there’s no irrigation… so you rely on what you get from Mother Nature, which is very cool – but very tough.”
Striding out amongst the vines, he takes us to a specific point. “I always bring everyone here, so they can see what’s under the ground. That’s a massive lump of quartz, but there’s a vein of it that runs through [the entire vineyard]. I get really excited when I see this.” Abel feels that it’s this quartz that brings a particularly fine structure and heightened aromatics to the wines.
“It’s the worst time of year to see the vineyard – but it’s done its job,” Gibson says apologetically. He points at the scraggly vines in front of us, “So, 80-year-old Semillon (well, 80-plus), then there’s eight rows of old Shiraz in there as well, then 10 rows of 20-year-old Shiraz, then 80-year-old Riesling…” There are a mix of clones here, and he buys in some 80-year-old Riesling from a neighbour’s vineyard that is within sight.
The whites Abel and Emma produce are textural and powerful orange wines, inspired by those made on the border of Italy and Slovenia. They’re released only after two and a half years, spending two of those years in barrel – something that he feels is absolutely key to making orange wines, with far too many released young, cloudy and before the tannins have had a chance to resolve. He uses smaller barrels to help tame the acid and tannin of Riesling, accelerating the élevage. Gibson feels the wine really needs another six months or a year in bottle before the wines really hit their stride – and that’s confirmed by the way orders accelerate after release; he would love to keep the wines back longer, like Gravner, but he can’t – not yet, at least.
It’s been a journey getting to this point. The couple made their first skin contact wine in 2012, a pure Riesling that spent five days on both skins and stems. Abel went to the first Rootstock – Sydney’s natural wine festival – and met several legends of the orange wine scene, including Stanko Radikon and Dario Prinčič. They both de-stemmed their fruit and left it on skins for around three weeks. Finding his 2012 experiment overly tannic, he followed in their footsteps, realising that the stems added too much structure.
Ruggabellus whites combine Semillon, Riesling and Muscat – three varieties that Gibson thinks work together particularly well. Semillon brings a cashew nuttiness, dried grass and lemon oil character as well as texture; with Riesling adding acidity, length and lime oil; then Muscat, Gibson feels, creates space on the palate when aged oxidatively, while also lightening the aromatics with its high tones.
Solumodo is Semillon-dominant, made with their neighbours’ 50 to 60-year-old vines, while the Quomodo is Riesling-focused – and the longest-ageing, having so much structure and acidity. Sallio is a more entry-level, “drink now” offering, although Gibson still feels it will age 20 years (versus 40 or so for the other two). It spends less time on skins and goes into larger barrels to soften the structure.
While the whites are all about texture, the reds are about lightness, spice and aromatics. “We work really hard to try and keep things light, it’s so easy for a red wine to become very big here in the Barossa,” Abel explains. Being gentle with the ferments is key to avoiding any coarse, green or hard tannin, while of course using only the most neutral oak possible. There are three reds – Timaeus (Grenache-dominant), Efferus (Mourvedre-dominant) and Archaeus (Syrah-dominant), as well as Sallio’s red sibling, Fluus (Mourvedre, Grenache and Cinsault, with a tiny bit of Syrah).
He’s insistent on only using old French oak, looking for a place for the wine “to expand and contract” with the moon’s cycle. “When it’s a tank, it’s fixed and there’s nowhere for it to go, and you can taste it in the wine. It sort of condenses back into itself, it’s just a little bit awkward. But if you put it into a barrel, it’s amazing how much it resolves itself, particularly if you’re patient and can wait,” Gibson tells me.
It’s unsurprising that Beaujolais is one of their key influences – Lapierre and Thivin – but as are the likes of Hervé Souhaut, Chave and Tempier. While I’ve sadly had faulty Lapierre, the others – like my experience of the Ruggabellus wines – have always been clean, falling on the right side of the natural spectrum for my tastes.
While the philosophy is firmly hands off, Gibson is a technically knowledgeably winemaker, and one that isn’t prepared to let standards slip in the name of dogma. “I was working towards trying to be sulphur free,” Gibson tells me, “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.”
This classicism clicks with his background, having grown up running around Penfolds, where his dad worked. “I’m one of the weird natural winemakers that actually likes tradition.” It’s the Penfolds bottles from the ‘60s that inspired the design for the Ruggabellus bottles – short “Claret” bottles with white capsules, although he has chosen to use screwcap. “We want it to be more about the wine inside the bottle, but also that bottle’s really light, y’know – less carbon to make, less carbon to transport around the world.”
The cuvée names are Latin – but they had hoped to use indigenous names originally. Their farm is on the border of two tribes: Peramangk and Ngadjuri. They met the elders with a view to using some of their language, however that was eight years ago – before Australia had officially apologised for the stolen generation – and it wasn’t meant to be.
“Wine’s this beautiful, mystical, creative thing, so I started reading about alchemy,” Gibson explains – and this was how he came up with the wines. Timaeus means “honour” and is a paper by Plato. Efferus means “untamed” or “wild”, which is the Mataro. Archaeus is “the soul of a place” – and makes sense for their single-vineyard Shiraz. Quomodo is a question, “which way” – considering the wine a challenge to the traditional way in which Riesling is made in the Eden Valley. Solumodo means the solo or lonely way, highlighting the incredibly old-vine Semillon in the Barossa that is rarely spoken of, and being ripped up in many places.
The most important thing about these wines is that they need air. They only release the wines if they stay open solidly for seven days on a bench. They recommend decanting the wine the night before you’re drinking it, or double decant the night before, pop the screwcap back on, and drink it over a week – although he knows that many people don’t have the time to do that. “That’s the minefield of wine,” Gibson says.
And that ability to take air is reflective of their ageability. But despite the quality being bottled, Emma and Abel are keen to make sure the wines stay reasonably priced. “I worked at Rockford, and I love drinking Wendouree when I can get one – it’s just a classic old introverted wine company which is beautiful, it suits us,” Gibson explains. “We enjoy living up here away from the masses, just chipping away trying to keep making wine better.”
That evolution is what excites Abel. “We’ve made leaps and bounds in understanding in the last four or five years,” he says. There’s no wish to mix up the range, just a need to continue making these special wines even better.
They’d been making Archaeus for a few years, blending fruit from vineyards around the Eden Valley, but in 2016 they had a single puncheon from their own vineyard – having a very different quality thanks to its pink quartz, and decided it would exclusively come from that site moving forward – with production less than 700 bottles. “I love the finesse that the Syrah has up here,” Gibson says. The idea is that they’ll eventually do the same with Solumodo.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few experiments – such as a traditional method sparkling Riesling with some skin contact. Having gradually built up a mother wine with 300 litres from each vintage, they’ve used juice from the vineyards to inoculate the base wine – å la Selosse. No matter how the experiment goes (the first wine wasn’t quite dry when I visited), they’ll only release something worthy of the Ruggabellus name.
“Salt of the earth” might be a cliché, but it sums Abel and Emma up. I’ve been lucky to taste the wines several times since this initial visit, and each time have been blown away. These are wines of brightness and lift, aromatically complex reds, while the orange wines are intriguing and textured, evolving in a way that many orange wines don’t. Ruggabellus makes extraordinary wines that should be some of Australia’s most sought-after. The only good thing, perhaps, is that – for now – I can still afford them.