The winemakers who are flying the flag for Australia’s cool wines

Forget the Robert Parker-influenced over-oaked and over-ripe monsters of the 1980s and 1990s, Australia is now producing fresh reds and crisp whites to match its coastal cuisine. Its new breed of winemakers and producers that are appearing in all its major wine producing regions may have finally won wine writer and critic, Peter Ranscombe, over to the so called ‘natural wine’ category following his recent tour of the country’s cooler climates.

Forget the Robert Parker-influenced over-oaked and over-ripe monsters of the 1980s and 1990s, Australia is now producing fresh reds and crisp whites to match its coastal cuisine. Its new breed of winemakers and producers that are appearing in all its major wine producing regions may have finally won wine writer and critic, Peter Ranscombe, over to the so called ‘natural wine’ category following his recent tour of the country’s cooler climates.

By December 12, 2019

New producers and venerable names alike are making Australian wines with freshness and balance, says Peter Ranscombe.

Taras Ochota may have just changed my mind about low-intervention wine. Sitting in the kitchen of his dreamy home deep in the Adelaide Hills, Ochota Barrels’ winemaker brought out bottle after bottle that proved it’s possible to use less sulphur and make minimal interventions, but still produce a liquid that tastes like wine and not avant-garde cider.

Wondering into his garage, Ochota pointed to the fermenters – in effect, simple giant plastic buckets – that he takes outside when it’s time to turn the grape juice into wine and which he covers in old bed sheets. It’s simple, it’s romantic, but it doesn’t skimp on the basics, from the spotless cleanliness of his winery to his focus on using the right barrels for the right varieties.

It’s clear to see why this gentle and unassuming winemaker has attracted a cult following.

Taras Ochota takes his winemaking far more seriously than he might appear. Picture Peter Ranscombe

Earlier in the day, over lunch at Lost In A Forest, a pizza restaurant co-owned by Ochota in a converted church in the nearby village of Uraidla, he shared the limelight with some of his fellow low-intervention winemakers from the area: Gareth Belton from Gentle Folk Wines; Sholto Broderick of Basket Range Wines; and Worlds Apart Wines’ Louis Schofield.

Broderick’s 2019 Magnolia – a red made like a white, with a copper orange colour from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir – is possibly the most interesting wine I’ve tasted this year, with raspberry and blackcurrant flavours combined with red apple skin texture.

Full of character

The Adelaide Hills crew’s story is one repeated across Australia’s cool climate regions; newer winemakers harvesting grapes from special, often older, vineyards that would have once been lost in big-label blends, but which are now producing wines with character and a sense of place.

In the yard between their mural-covered winery and their new cellar door at Healesville in the Yarra Valley, Behn Payten and Troy Jones assembled Hannah Hodges from Mac Forbes, Jayden Ong of One Block and Thousand Candles’ Stuart Proud to show wines alongside their own Peyton & Jones creations.

Quirky labels and odd names flourished at the evening’s barbie, but the liquid in the bottles would still thrill the most conservative wine drinkers.

It’s not just newbies who are flying the flag for modern Aussie winemaking either; two of the most venerable names in Margaret River – Cullen and Vasse Felix – presented wines that demonstrated the vibrancy of cooler climates.

Vanya Cullen’s 2019 Amber Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blend has all the textured tannins and lemon rind flavours it needs to find a home in a hipster bar, while Ginnie Wilcock produced a run of wild-ferment Sauvignon Blanc and fruity Malbec and Syrah single varietals that demonstrated there’s more to Western Australia’s flagship region than Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Wine tasting LAS Vino style. Picture Peter Ranscombe.

The final night of the tour saw Nic Peterkin, a scion of the Cullen clan and maker of LAS Vinos, gather Si Vintners’ Iwo Jakimowicz, Nick James-Martin of Wines of Merritt and Ben Gould from Blind Corner to present their bottles.

Alongside the quality of their wines, their camaraderie also shone through; another hallmark of Australian’s bustling low intervention and cool climate scene.

Six of Peter Ranscombe’s top cooler climate producers

Ochota Barrels 

Distributed in the UK by Indigo Wine, Adelaide Hills producer Taras Ochota may not take himself or the names of his labels too seriously, with punk song titles abound, but he’s extremely serious when it comes to his winemaking, with clean and clear characteristics on show across his range.

Payton & Jones

Troy Jones and Behn Payten are school friends living the dream in the Yarra Valley, creating wines such as their Leuconoe Sangiovese, a multi-vintage blend made in a solera system. Their new cellar door in the town of Healesville celebrates local food and drink. Handled in the UK by ABS and Alexander Wines.

Mac Forbes 

Consistently crowd-pleasing wines from the Yarra Valley, imported to the UK by Clerk Foyster. Look out for the deliciously savoury Wesburn chenin blanc and the delightful EB45 sparkling Pinot Meunier, with its apricot and lemon rind notes. Forget any Italian comparisons for the EB40 Nebbiolo, which instead ploughs its own sweet-scented path.

LAS Vinos

Nic Peterkin comes from a long line of talented winemakers, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that this thirtysomething Margaret River producer is knocking it out of the park with his Cabernet Franc and his Grenache. Also worth exploring are his Albino Pinot and his Chenin Blanc, along with his Pirate Blend calling card, featuring Portuguese varieties. Liberty Wines is his UK importer.

Luke Lambert

The winemaker at Denton also produces his own wines, focusing on his first love – Nebbiolo. Lambert, whose bottles are distributed in the UK by Indigo Wine, has also just bought his first vineyard, located north of the Yarra Valley, and is planting his signature Italian grape variety. Nebbiolo, Sangiovese and other Italian varietals have a growing role to play, not just in Victoria, but also in South Australia’s McLaren Vale.

Ruggabellus

Another Indigo Wine agency, Ruggabellus featured highly in super-somm Emma Farrelly’s masterclass for us at Post restaurant in Perth, as well as on the by-the-glass menu at the excellent Embla wine bar in Melbourne. The Barossa Valley producer’s Fluus blend of Grenache, Mataro, Syrah and Cinsault was almost Pinot-like in its precision, while its Sallio brings together Riesling, Muscat and friends in a skin-contact mix.

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