Ahead of next week’s The Artisans of Australian Wine tasting taking place in London, The Buyer asked wine consultant, Tim Wildman MW, founder of James Busby Travel, who is now making his own wine in Australia, to pick out his most disruptive trends affecting Australian wines. Read the first three here, and the second part early next week.
You don’t have to travel to Australia to know its whole industry is being shaken up by a new generation of winemakers, producers and writers who are turning the country on its head. Tim Wildman MW gives his on the ground view of what is really happening Down Under with the help of some of those leading edge influencers.
When you fly into Australia you’re given a health check card with the title “Been Away, Feel OK?” Outside the airport road signs advise you to “Arrive Alive”, there’s even been a recent road safety campaign with bill boards telling you “SPEED AND YOU’RE A….” followed by a picture of a large cockerel, a door knob, or my personal favourite, the capital letter W and an anchor.
It’s hard to imagine the British being so playful in our public notices, but this streak of cheeky irreverence is one of the aspects of the Australian national character that made the world fall in love with its winemakers and wines back in the day. The Australian wine community is entering a new cycle of innovation right now that promises to be just as exciting and disruptive as the 1980s.
Or as the American architect, inventor, designer and author, R Buckminster Fuller succinctly put it:
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Having spent the last three years living in Australia here is my personal list of what I believe to be the six most innovative and disruptive activities going on Down Under right now. These are the people and trends that are tearing up the rule book of Australian wine and writing a new chapter. (Ed. Parts one to three are published today, four to six will be published early next week).
Ashley and Holly Ratcliff have vineyards in South Australia’s Riverland where they’ve planted varieties such as Vermentino, Fiano, Nero d’Avola and Zibibbo. With smart viticulture and the use of techniques such as mulching, they’re growing grapes that are heat resistant, drought tolerant, climate appropriate and truly sustainable. Their business is called Ricca Terra Farms and their motto is “Viticulture with Vision”. I asked Ashley to explain how it all began;
“When we purchased a 20 acre vineyard in Barmera, Riverland, South Australia, the vineyard was a mirror image of all the vineyards in what is the largest wine grape producing region in Australia, meaning everything was machine picked and harvested and the varieties grown were restricted to Chardonnay, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
“Our plan was to change this, so we investigated grape varieties that were better suited to the Mediterranean climate of the Riverland and made high quality wines. We spent time travelling overseas and learning about grape varieties that were growing with success in some of the warmer and dryer parts of the world. Our decision to plant grape varieties such as Nero d’Avola, Vermentino, Fiano, Montepulciano and other southern Italian varieties was the best decision we could have made for the long term future of our farm. We created a point of difference and hope!
“The other strategy we employed was to be positive. Everything we did and do today leads to a positive outcome for our farm, our family, the Riverland and the entire Australian wine industry.”
To put this in perspective, the vast majority of Australia’s volume wines come out of the warm, inland, irrigated wine regions that lie along the Murray River; in New South Wales it’s called Riverina (home of Yellowtail) and in South Australia it’s called the Riverland (home to Accolade’s Berri winery, the largest in the southern hemisphere).
It’s a little known fact that these mega-wineries are supplied by a highly fragmented base of thousands of family smallholders, many of whom were granted their land as Soldier Settlements following the First and Second World Wars.
The annual vintage report for 2015 issued by the Wine Federation of Australia bleakly states that 92% of production in these warm inland areas is unprofitable. With growers being paid as little as $200 a tonne for Chardonnay, and with the large wineries holding the whip hand over contracts, many growers are simply clinging on and hoping that better times will come.
In the face of these market forces the future appears bleak for many, hence Ashley’s emphasis on not only growing grapes but planting seeds of hope.
Sustainability is not just viticultural but also economic, which comes down to selling your grapes, and the wine they turn into, at a sustainable price point. Rather than attempting to make their own wine under their own label, the Ratcliffs have developed a network of high quality winemakers right across Australia who they sell their fruit to.
Brendan and Laura Carter at Unico Zelo in the Adelaide Hills are making textural Fiano that retails at just $20, Sue Bell of Bellwether Wines in Coonawarra makes a pale, Provencal style rosé from Nero d’Avola ($25) and ex New York sommelier turned winemaker, Brad Hickey (Brash Higgins wines) in McLaren Vale takes Zibibbo, ferments it on it’s skins in amphora to produce an aromatic, orange wine.
Sommeliers and retailers across Australia are selling these wines in fashionable restaurants and wine shops where wines from the Riverland could never dream of reaching. I have to declare an interest here as the grapes I buy for the pétillant naturel which I make in the Barossa Valley, called Pet Nat, actually come from Ashely and Holly (Vermentino, Nero and Zibibbo).
I recently shipped a pallet of this wine to the UK where it’s retailing in smart indies such as Philglas & Swiggot for £20 and sitting on lists such as Sager + Wilde and Noble Rot for close to £50. Again, an unheard of position and price point for a wine from the Riverland.
Holly and Ashley are acting as connectors and enablers, cleverly supplying their carefully grown Riverland fruit to high quality winemakers who not only turn it into something contemporary and on-trend, but crucially also have distribution networks across Australia and overseas that a husband and wife viticulturist team from the Riverland could never dream of accessing.
Ricca Terra Farms have discovered a part of the Australian wine industry “venn diagram” that is woefully under-explored. That of growing fruit in the warm, irrigated inland regions but supplying it to winemakers in the premium, high quality regions.
Ashley has recently been involved in the launch of a new project, 100th Monkey Vignerons, a collaboration between family owned, Riverland growers looking to follow the same innovative path to growing, selling and sustainability. It’s no exaggeration to say that Ashley and Holly Ratcliff could be pioneering a path to save that 92% of the Australian wine industry that is unprofitable.
The word visionary, like disruptive, is often overused to the point of becoming meaningless but Ricca Terra Farms really are doing something visionary. By re-imagining how one of the world’s largest grape producing regions functions structurally, from changing the grapes being grown through to creating new routes to market, with value added at every stage, they are the very definition of disruptive, because if they succeed the old model may become obsolete.
If disruptive behaviour could take a human form I reckon I know what it would look like; it would wear high top sneakers, tracksuit pants, a trucker baseball cap and live in Sydney’s Newtown, and it’s name would be Mike Bennie.
I first met Mike when I was judging at the Royal Melbourne show in 2012. I’d just flown in and headed straight to a judges party taking place at Gerald’s Wine Bar in the northern suburb of Carlton. I arrived late and deposited the bottle I’d brought with me into the communal ice bucket and started to mingle.
A few minutes later Mike held my bottle aloft and demanded to know from the room who’d brought the Ganevat Chardonnay (which at the time wasn’t available in Australia). That’s how I first met Mike, a larger than life character and then some. As well as being one of Australia’s most in-demand journalists, Mike is also one of the founders of Sydney’s Rootstock natural wine fair.
But here’s the thing, he works as hard as he plays. Mike can be the life and soul of a party, then discreetly slip away at midnight to go back to his hotel room to file copy for a deadline. In terms of UK journalists he has the personality of Wadsack, the work ethic of Jancis and the prose skills of Jefford. Quite a combination. In preparing this article I asked Mike where it all comes from, and this is what he told me;
“I see the world of wine through a different lens, I feel, where younger and emerging generations are consuming media in a different way, revering authority less and seeking storytelling, amusement, curiosity over sophist-style wine reporting. I feel compelled to speak to a generation that wants to learn differently, consume wine and wine writing in a more visceral, experience-based way rather than entirely relying on authoritarian ‘critics’.
“Wine is one of the most complicated languages on earth, and I am trying to shift the culture and wine-speak into a more comfortable, accessible, digestible, pleasurable framework, and attempting to move away from the shopping-cart-pushed-through-fruit-and-vegetable-aisle of supermarket descriptor style of reviewing, hoping that I can produce wine reviews that tell compelling stories that relate to culture and drinking over subjective descriptors.
“I am really interested in evocative language, joy, exploration and description in long form writing, but with an increased focus on provenance and process of wine, to explain wine through the prism of where, who and why, over pronunciations from on high.
“Overall, I want my writing to be different, come from a different stand point, not kotow to the existing establishment. Let’s call it graffiti over calligraphy. I hope that it conveys deeper context over just simple, personal reflection on wines.”
He really is that young voice that we all bemoan the UK wine trade needs, but I don’t think we really have. He didn’t wait to be gifted the baton from the older generation, he simply stood up and took it, using his talent, hard work and personality.
For me Mike Bennie is disruptive writ large, because he talks the talk and walks the walk.
Chardonnay? Disruptive? Surely Chardonnay is the least disruptive grape variety on the planet? It’s the girl next door, the vanilla flavoured ice cream, it’s practically beige, isn’t it?
Tell that to the 48 Masters of Wine who visited Australia last year and found the Chardonnay masterclass hosted at Oakridge in the Yarra Valley to be the most controversial event on the whole trip. It was the response to the wines in that tasting that led directly to the Masters of Wine Institute putting on a masterclass this week in London entitled Contemporary Australian Chardonnay, announcing on their website: “The wines have been selected to illuminate a hot topic in Australia; has the search for restraint led to market-unfriendly austerity, or has the reaction against the bold, ripe styles of the 1990’s led to greater complexity, terroir expression and age-ability.”
The Yarra Valley has been a pioneer in this stylistic revolution and the man at the cutting edge for the last decade is Mac Forbes of Mac Forbes Wines. I asked Mac to explain what all the fuss is about;
“For me there has always been a place for restrained fresh Chardonnay but obviously there was some fat clumsy Chardonnays that only showed sunshine. Today we are observing a much bigger trend back towards these more detailed and pure expressions. No longer is sunshine the only thing visible from the vineyard.
“However, like all regions that are willing to find the limits of what can be grown and achieved, we have at times seen wines get too stripped of character, where to understand ripeness we need to understand under-ripe as well. So yes there probably have been some unripe Chardonnays that made it to bottle. But we as a region have a fantastic grasp of what our backyard can do with this grape, where a host of styles are capturing this far distant region a million miles from Europe. It’s exciting.
Mac explains the main directional trends as follows:
• cooler sites upstream and therefore more protected which is better for early ripening varieties now the seasons are so much earlier.
• a range of soil types slowly being better understood with regards to influence.
• better soil and vineyard practices
• less new oak
• more freshness and less additions (why go super ripe when you need to add acid?)
• less MLF for the same reason as above.
• sometimes whole bunch pressed sometime skin contact but still a healthy range of approaches really from this point.
To that list I would add the impact of wild yeast ferments, barrel fermentation, avoidance of sulphuring post-malo which allows the buttery diacetyl to be broken down, the avoidance of bâtonnage to create reductive environments in barrel which encourage development of “good sulphides” to give that smoky, gun flint character.
Chardonnay has the ability to exist at both haute couture and high street prices, unlike say Pinot Noir. The techniques employed to create modern masterpieces such as Oakridge 864, Vasse Felix Heytesbury, Penfolds Bin A and Mac Forbes Woori Yallock, can be replicated with great success at lower price points, giving everyone a chance to experience the contemporary style.
A few years ago Wolf Blass Yellow Label Chardonnay fooled the majority of a room full of MW students into thinking it was smart Burgundy.
From tripping up MW students to bamboozling MW tasters on tour, Australian Chardonnay is showing that it’s possibly the most disruptive grape in Australia right now.
The girl next door has thrown a brick through the window and is burning down the house.
- In part two of Wildman’s visionary take on the six most disruptive wine trends taking place in Australia he looks at the influence of consumer events, artisan winemakers and natural wines. It will be published on The Buyer early next week.
- Tim Wildman runs extensive study tours of Australia to anyone looking to go to the next step of understanding what is taking place in the country through his James Busby Travel business.
- You can experience the changing face of Australia for yourself at next week’s Artisans of Australian wine tasting taking place on September 20 at London’s Cargo nightclub in Shoreditch.