Ruggabellus – hiding in plain sight

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

Abel Gibson in the vineyard

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.

The quartz that runs through Ruggabellus’s home vineyard and Gibson feels is key to their terroir

“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).

Abel and Emma Gibson’s scraggly vineyard post-harvest, dry-farmed plots of Shiraz, Riesling and Semillon planted in the 1930s

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 low-tech approach to winemaking

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.


Brit Nat: embracing the alt-side of English sparkling wine

The line-up of wines at the Brit-Nat tasting, held at The Sourcing Table

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.”

Read my write-up of the event for Club Oenologique, with my favourite wines from the tasting, here.

The magic of miscellanea

The view down over Clos Saint-Denis

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.

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.

Meet the maker: Charlotte Dalton & Cooke Brothers


“I’ve got a little bit of a thing for Semillon,” Charlotte Hardy smiles at me across her kitchen table, pouring her Love Me Love You Semillon. I’ve been bundled into the reassuringly normal chaos of family life – the day-to-day clutter of a baby and two wine brands lining the family’s kitchen surfaces, her partner Ben Cooke (of Cooke Brothers) feeding their gurgling daughter, Ada Grace. Charlotte’s dad – visiting from New Zealand – is even quietly settled in a corner. “I just love…” Charlotte continues, “It’s kind of the underdog variety, so I guess that’s why I like it.”

I touched down in Adelaide the day before, taking some time to explore the city before heading up to the Adelaide Hills – my first taste of South Australia. It’s an unconventional place to start, up here where a handful of producers – including the likes of Taras Ochota, BK Wines, Gentle Folk, Jauma and Lucy Margaux – have created a haven for natural wine, a cult that centres around the town of Basket Range. It’s a bucolic escape from the perceived industrial, conventional wine hubs of the Barossa and McLaren, village-like in both look and feel, with a real community of winemakers and wine drinkers.

Kiwi Charlotte Hardy started her brand, Charlotte Dalton, in 2015, after two decades making wine – both in New Zealand and Australia, as well as Europe, in particular a stint at Ch. Giscours for the “magical” 2005 vintage. “I’d be lying if I said that’s where I really decided I loved Semillon. I think I just decided to make it because it’s on the vineyard where I get my Shiraz. I made a tiny amount and just loved it. I’m thinking about doing different regions maybe, or different subregions… That might be the next thing, we’ll see.” She babbles excitedly, her brain fast-tracking on past now to what’s ahead. There’s a struggle, however, with Semillon – a variety that in her view still has a “really terrible reputation, like Merlot”. Even the block she gets fruit from currently is getting smaller and smaller, as patches are replaced with other more modish varieties.

Charlotte’s aim is to make Semillon that – unlike the lean and mean Hunter style – is pretty and, most importantly, approachable now. While some producers are starting to champion this underdog of a grape with skin contact iterations, “It’s not my bag,” Charlotte says – particularly with the thick-skinned Madeira clone she works with. “I like it just sort of clean and pure, I think if you leave it on skins for ages, you lose the Semillon-ness.”


Charlotte first came to the Hills as winemaker at The Lane, but left to set up a mobile wine lab after she realised no one was offering people a local service; a project and business which turned out to be an excellent way to build a network in South Australia (“I met a lot of winemakers and got to see a lot of wines and a lot of vineyards”, she tells me). It’s an important background, a scientific know-how that certainly influences her wine style; with strictly fault-free but minimal intervention winemaking – an approach that sometimes sits at odds with her trendy Basket Range locale.

“It’s an interesting movement,” Charlotte muses. “Being someone that’s not a natural winemaker that lives in Basket Range, I often get stuck in the debate and get quite heated about it. I dunno, there’s good arguments on both sides, I guess, why people head that way.”

For her part, she focuses on working with all wild ferments, minimal additions, only adding sulphur where she feels it’s necessary – for example, normally her Eliza Pinot Noir doesn’t get sulphured, but the fruit from the ’17 vintage wasn’t quite sound enough to warrant such a hands-off approach. “I like to look at the chemistry before I make a call like that. So if my pHs are fine, then I’ll go less sulphur – though not a huge amount of sulphur,” she explains. Both she and Ben focus on being microbially stable with as few additives as possible, but that is entirely dependent on the quality of fruit. The emphasis here is working in the vineyard, not only for quality, but to reduce work that would otherwise be necessary in the winery, for example, aiming to pick with super high acid, a natural preservative that will help reduce the need for additions further down the line.

“The market’s very forgiving at the moment, though, I think a lot of faulty wines are getting a lot of love,” Charlotte suggests. It’s certainly the case in the UK where wines with a certain kind of marketing appeal to wine drinkers – fanatics, most often – who are happy to guzzle fault-filled bottles, simply because they fit a certain profile. “Aldehyde,” Charlotte says – “Or mousiness,” Ben adds – “doesn’t have a location, does it? It’s not terroir.

Both she and Ben hope to see their wines age, which is one of the main reasons they steer clear of a totally natural approach. “My wines are gonna be hard to sell if they’re two years old and they’re stuffed,” Ben says. Having studied both winemaking and viticulture, Ben has split his time so far between the two (including many years at Shaw + Smith, and three vintages at William Selyem in California) – but at the moment his “day job” is managing vineyards across South Australia. His brand, Cooke Brothers is a joint venture between Ben and his two older (non-winemaking) brothers: “They sort of tell me what they want to drink, and I try and make it,” Ben jokes. “The youngest brother wants a Cabernet, oldest brother wants a chardonnay, I’ll get a Pinot out eventually!”

While many producers up in the Hills are championing skin-contact and pét-nat (and in many cases a fair dose of faults), it’s refreshing to encounter new faces like Charlotte and Ben. Trendy enough to fit into the region’s cool crowd, their wines – however – are enjoyably different, dedicated as they are to producing clean expressions of place, occupying the rare middle ground, sitting happily on the spectrum between natural and industrial, and producing utterly delicious wines.

The wines



2017 Love Me Love You Semillon

The “Love Me Love You” duo is the “entry point” to Charlotte’s range. Her Semillon (Madeira clone) comes from Balhannah, machine-picked green at around 11.5 potential alcohol – machine-harvested because she wants more lees than whole-bunch can offer, and wants to reduce the skin maceration by cutting down on the time the fruit spends clunking through different pieces of equipment (using sophisticated machine harvesters means the fruit is picked, sorted and de-stemmed in one fell swoop, going straight into a fermenter in the winery). The fruit is left on full lees, transferred to old oak after fermentation, stirred and bottled in the August after vintage.

In her words, it’s “an acid bomb”, but the time on lees rounds it out, adding weight to the palate. With pure, tart, green gooseberry fruit, there’s a herbal edge and citrus freshness balanced by the creaminess on the palate.

2017 Ærkeengel

Ærkeengel started out as an experiment, pushing – in Charlotte’s words – “the lees contact boundary”. When she bottles her Love Me Love You Semillon, she takes all the solids and puts them in a few remaining barrels, bottling it after a further six months on “double” lees (spending a total year in oak). She loved it so much that she carried on making it.

The nose is full of crisp lime sherbet, crunchy Granny Smiths, pear-skin and grapefruit pith. The palate has an intense, raw power and incredible texture thanks to all that time on lees. It’s unlike any other Semillon I’ve tasted – offering both laser focus and breadth on the palate, both bright and rich, it’s brilliant wine.

2017 Grace Chardonnay

Named after their daughter, Ada Pixie Grace. This is hand-picked and whole-bunch pressed, then fermented in 100 percent new oak. Nonchalantly walks the line between New and Old World, with deliciously generous fruit, a touch of toast and a taut line of acidity holding it all together. Superb.

2017 Eliza Pinot Noir

This comes from one of only two Pinot Noir vineyards in Basket Range, planted by Phil Broderick. Charlotte doesn’t punch down or pump over the fruit, simply – as she describes it – “flinging it down”, all whole-bunch in a fermenter under dry ice and then presses it after 10 days, to new oak. She avoids punching down or pumping over as she doesn’t want to extract greenness from the stems, as they tend not to get much lignification.

This juicy Pinot has an intense herbal edge to it. Wild strawberries and basil, with anise – almost a medicinal edge (in a good way). A tightrope line of acidity balances the intense and mouth-watering fruit.

2016 Love Me Love You Shiraz

From the same vineyard as her Semillon, this Shiraz is Wendouree clone, planted in the ‘80s (making it one of the oldest vineyards in the area). Thirty percent is fermented whole-bunch and it goes into 30% new oak. Bottled in August as a fruit-forward style in comparison to her Beyond the Horizon bottling (see below).

This is a deliciously perfumed un-Shiraz Shiraz: pure cherry and wild strawberry (almost gummy-bear-ish) is balanced by a medicinal edge, with layers of smoke and toast. All sweetness and spice, the palate is intense with more bright fruit. There’s serious structure hidden in the depths of the fruit and juicy freshness, suggestive of a long future.

2016 Beyond the Horizon Shiraz

In a similar way to Ærkeengel, Charlotte holds back a portion of her Shiraz to push the structure further: it spends another 12 months in oak, 75 percent new. Originally another experiment, it has earned a permanent place in her range.

The result is darker and broodier – yet with all the perfume and freshness of the Love Me Love You Shiraz. The palate offers seamless tannins that almost disappear with the freshness, offering almost a tap on the shoulder to remind you that this isn’t quite as dainty as it seems. Rich black cherry and bramble fruit, with a slight savoury, spicy twist.



2017 Fox Hill Vineyard Chardonnay

This vineyard was one of the first planted in the Hills, by Tony Jordan and Brian Croser, back in 1984, originally for sparkling wine. Ben picks his fruit at the same time as people picking from the same site for fizz, which gives you an idea of the acid level he’s after. That has been softened by full malo, some in two-year-old barrels, and a lot of lees stirring (over 9 months). Only four barrels were made, it was bottled in December.

Fresh and round with intense citrus, this is much leaner in style compared to the Schoenthal, but with an almost yoghurt-y depth to it. Ladel-fuls of lemon curd and tightly wound power. Needs time.

2017 Schoenthal Vineyard Chardonnay

This feels much more expressive at the moment – with lime blossom, sherbet intensity and pithy edge to it. On the palate, it feels taut with all the bright acidity, intensely vibrant with a zesty richness and citrus power that drives on to a long finish. “Insane” reads my note from a second tasting.

2016 Broderick Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

This is the first wine Ben made under the Cooke Brothers label – pushed by Charlotte to start making wine under his own label. He feels Cabernet can really thrive in the Hills, with similar temperatures to Bordeaux. The fruit – as he name suggests – comes from the Brodericks in Basket Range.

This is one of the prettiest expressions of Cabernet I’ve tasted – delicate cassis fruit and perfume, with an almost – and bear with me here – red apple edge. Bright and fruit-driven there’s nonetheless a smoky tone and a palate that has a fine frame of structure. The finish is spicy and fresh.

Down the rabbit hole: going native

There is no shortage of things that fill me with rage each week (or – if I’m totally honest – day). Most flutter away after a few hours, a G&T or just a bit of distance. But one comment has been going round and round in my mind.

I recently had dinner at a relatively fashionable not-that-new restaurant in London. It’s from an established team, but whose allegiances certainly lie in the natural camp.

I have been fortunate enough to do corkage with a group of four – and so we arrive with four bottles. One – a ‘12 1er Cru Chassagne from Leroux – is corked. A shame, but the way of the (natural cork) world. Then we have a 2011 Pierro Chardonnay (flawless under screwcap), a rare ‘08 Tondonia Rosado, and a phenomenal ‘09 Flaccianello. It’s a delicious, stellar line-up that would leave any sensible wine-lover at their knees.

Early on the sommelier pops over to introduce himself and we – as is good (and expected) etiquette – insist on him tasting the wines and thank him for the opportunity to open them. Tasting the Pierro Chardonnay – a wine about which he confesses to knowing nothing – he nonchalantly, pathetically swirls the glass, looks unimpressed at the bottle. He barely brings his nose to the rim of the glass to deign to sniff it and says, having not yet tasted it: “It’s not my style, it’s a bit inoculated.”

My thoughts were expletive-filled. Yes, I’m biased in many ways having spent time working there, but there are few who could deny the quality Chardonnay produced at this remarkable Margaret River estate.

This sommelier might lay claim to higher knowledge but sniffing out inoculated versus indigenous yeast seems unlikely. He was more likely reacting to the voluptuous oak that wraps the grape in this quiet corner of Australia. It’s struck-match scented but enriched by vanilla and spice, with rich fruit to back it all up. Yes, there is unapologetic new oak – and it’s damn delicious. This carefully hand-picked GinGin clone Chardonnay deserves that lush expense to express itself fully.

Say you don’t like it if you really must, that you prefer your Chardy lean and mean, that reductive is right and oak is bad; but, honestly, if you’re talking to a paying customer who is offering you wine out of courtesy, do you need to express your ignorant opinion?

I’m not in the least bit against natural wine. I’m open to anything made in a sustainable way, carefully farmed and made with respect for the environment – but on a list that I can guarantee includes wines laden with Brett, mouse and VA – how can anyone suggest that something clean and fricking phenomenal is “a bit too inoculated”?

This kind of absolutist view is not ok; yet it is being normalised, at least in certain circles. After Tim Hayward fairly called out Westerns Laundry for their natty list in the FT, the restaurant retaliated with passive aggressive posts on Instagram evangelising their ethos. It’s this sort of vinous extremism that risks leading wine down a faulty rabbit hole, and away from wine that is just straight tasty.