Innovative winemaking was much in evidence at last week’s Off the Vine tasting, which showcased many of the new and upcoming wineries that are making a sea-change in Australian winemaking. One of these producers is Ministry of Clouds that influential critic James Halliday rated as one of the most exciting new wineries when they started garnering critical acclaim in 2015. Chris Wilson met up with co-owners Bernice Ong and Julian Forwood to hear their remarkable story and to find out why it is acidity that is so key to their winemaking style.
One advantage Ministry of Clouds has found by setting up a winery without vineyards is that they can source fruit from any Australian region they feel passionately about
The McLaren Vale partnership of Bernice Ong and Julian Forwood is Ministry of Clouds. This duo (a pair of corporate refugees who couldn’t resist the cries of the winery) began making wine in 2012 and, over the past six years, have built up a collection of small-batch red and white wines made primarily from sourced fruit from McLaren Vale, Clare Valley and Tasmania.
A clear line runs through all their wines, they operate with a lightness of touch, and only work with top quality fruit which they hand source and allow to speak for itself with as little intervention as possible. The wines are testament to this process – they are clean and precise, all sharing a laser-focussed acidity and upfront fruit profile.
Bernice and Julian are pretty upfront too and full of brilliant stories about their winemaking adventures and previous lives on the other side of the wine curtain working in hospitality. They shared these stories as well as their wines at a recent lunch and tasting in London, here’s what they had to say.
How did Ministry of Clouds first come about?
Julian Forwood: “We both came to wine in a circuitous and non-traditional route, neither of us are trained winemakers, neither of us have come from a family of historical vineyard or winery ownership, so we have ended up here because we fell in love with wine some years ago. We’ve shared more than 35 years between us working for other producers in Australia and before that, for me in particular, working with hospitality and wine. Bernice and I are a partnership in every sense of the word, we have a shared responsibility for all the things we do in our business, we are partners in other ways too – we are married – this is a shared voice.”
What’s the Ministry of Clouds winemaking philosophy?
JF: “We like to make wines without huge human input and we definitely don’t like using any form of chemicals in the vineyard and in the winery.”
Bernice Ong: “We are acid freaks, we love Chardonnay and Riesling. They are two varieties that really appeal to us I suppose from a food perspective too. We stick with these varieties because we’ve drunk a lot of them and we know the styles we want to achieve with these grapes. For us Riesling is Clare Valley – this is the best region for Riesling in Australia. We love the interplay between acid, lime and an intensity of flavour.”
JF: “With all our wines we want there to be a pristineness and clarity about them and we want them to be able to offer evolution over time too. The magical thing about Riesling, and one of the things that we really love, is that there is absolutely nowhere to hide, you either have great quality fruit and you carefully shepherd it through the winery to bottle or you don’t, and then you are constantly chasing your tail. It’s so different to Chardonnay, for example, which is so much more of a blank canvas and is more about ego and design from a winemaker’s perspective. If a Riesling is not a window into the place where it’s grown then it really doesn’t make much sense.”
Do you own any vineyards?
JF: “We started without any vineyards we now have 11 hectares in McLaren Vale in high altitude, very steep difficult-to-work, impossible-to-yield-a-commercial-yield site that makes (for us) some of the great Syrah. Part of the disadvantage of starting our winery without owning vineyards is that everything we do viticulturally we do either with growers we trust or we purchase vineyards as we can afford. The great advantage of starting with a completely clean slate is that we can choose anywhere in Australia to source the varieties that we love.”
Can you give us an example?
JF: “The most obvious example of this is with our Chardonnay from Tasmania. Tassie is a much older wine-growing region than most people assume and it is a tiny, tiny part of the entire machine of Australian wine. There are essentially no affordable wines out of Tasmania, full stop.”
“As the world gets warmer and as Australia feels the effects of climate change then Tasmania for us is the obvious place to grow really high quality, legitimately cool climate Chardonnay. One of the reasons we chose to go to Tassie is that because it’s so far south you don’t have to pick at 10 baume to retain acidity, you can benefit from legitimately long daytime hours that exist because you are so far south and also retain truckloads of acid. So you get power and intensity and weight but also great acidity.”
How do you decide which growers to work with?
JF: “We fell in love with wine first, and particular wines, then traced their heritage back to where they were grown and that’s really how we identified the kind of vineyards we wanted to work with fruit from. In many ways you are actually courting – the relationship between us as a négociant-producer, where we take fruit from vineyards we love, is a lot like a marriage in that you have to dance around a little bit to get to know each other at first.”
“Over time you build trust and we’ve never lost a grower, and what we’ve probably gained through these fantastic sites that we identified is that a grower will talk to his neighbour and they might contact us offering us fruit as they know how we work and like our attitude. The network has grown and our capacity to take more fruit has grown.”
BO: “We only started our own thing in 2012 and it looks like we started at just the right time because now it would be so hard to get into some of the vineyards. This is why we look at these relationships with growers as partnerships, we treat them with respect, pay them on time and we hope that they continue to work with us. It’s a two-way thing.”
And so onto the wines themselves….
Hand-picked Clare Valley fruit spends 10-12 days on the gross lees pre-ferment which ‘adds texture’ according to Bernice. The wine is clean with a waxy mouthfeel and chalky bite. There’s an abundance of lime and lemon acidity and some delicate floral and tropical notes.
Made in Tasmania from fruit from two different sites and a number of different parcels. Each separate parcel is fermented ‘wild’ with some lees stirring, then blended to fit the profile of the wine Julian and Bernice want to make each year. There’s incredible clarity and power here, a delicious lick of buttered popcorn which rubs up against the tree fruit and keen acidity nicely.
One of Bernice’s favourite quotes about Grenache is that “Grenache delivers what Pinot promises.” A bold claim, which is fully backed-up by this barnstorming wine. There’s grip and tannin but it’s restrained and well-engineered. There’s an abundance of fresh, ripe plum and strawberry fruit which is sumptuous, punchy and full. Aussie Grenache at its very best.
Fruit from a 70-year-old McLaren Vale vineyard goes into this. “It’s the wine which we want to be the voice of the variety from our region,” says Julian. It’s easy on the oak and the (relative) ABV, coming in at less than 14%. The fruit is upfront and striking with a mix of red and blue characters and a spicy lift at the end. Impressively smooth.
“There’s no point trying to polish Mataro because you end up with something that approximates Shiraz,” says Julian, who is his own largest customer of this wine. “We make Mataro because we cook with pork belly and lamb and we need something that can cope with fat,” he adds, justifying his decision to buy and consume the lion’s share of this wine! It’s chewy and full with iron filing tannins, crisp, acidic raspberry characters and softer developed plum notes. Bring on the animal fat!
A single vineyard expression of Shiraz from Blewitt Springs in McLaren Vale. This is dense and lengthy with blackcurrant fruit (fresh from the hedgerow) but has remarkable lightness too, like an overweight ballet dancer. A striking, delicious wine that’s fleet of foot and very approachable but ultimately has substance and significant bulk.
The Ministry of Clouds wines are distributed in the UK through The Knotted Vine.