“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.
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.
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.