Forget what you think you know about Australian wine—there's a new generation of Australian winemakers you need to meet. And they're throwing out the playbook.
In the Basket Range in the Adelaide Hills, a natural wine revolution is taking place. Chalk it up to the soil. Not just the land, whose cool, crumpled hills prevent excess development, but also to the cultural atmosphere. Local winemakers are open to experimentation, eager to help each other out and ready to play with their grapes.
Natural wine is made with minimal chemicals and limited technological manipulation. This means organic grapes, little to no sulfites and certainly no added sugars or yeasts. Unlike mass producers who are concerned with ensuring their sauvignon blanc tastes like their customers expect it to year in and year out, natural winemakers embrace the inherent funkiness of fermentation. The wine is cloudy, barnyard-y and tends to turn people into zealots.
Alex Schulkin of wine company The Other Right is one of these zealots. He moved to the region after accepting a position as a wine researcher at The Australian Wine Research Institute and was soon inspired by the area’s natural winemakers to become a vintner himself. "That for me is the challenge: can I really make wine without all the additives and still make it taste reasonable? Or is it only [certain gifted people] who can do that?"
Given the fact that The Other Right's production increased from 10 to 18 tons of grapes in the past year, it seems safe to say so far the answer is yes. Next year they're planning to process 25 tons of grapes, which is equal to roughly 1,500 cases of wine.
"Before natural winemaking became a thing, Adelaide's Basket Range was...the closest thing you could get to a Chateau in Australia," comments Schulkin. These new wineries are stealing attention from Australia’s old-school vineyards. "[Before] it was about Claire Valley riesling and Barossa Valley shiraz. The natural wine movement didn't just revolutionize natural wine in Australia, but also the way people in Adelaide treat varietals and regions."
Many trace the start of this movement to Anton van Klopper, founder of Lucy Margaux Vineyards. Back in 2002, van Klopper purchased a 16 acre former cherry orchard in the Adelaide Hills and began to experiment. He got grapes from local vineyards, which he transformed into a variety of single vineyard and mixed wines.
Exchange is common in the Basket Range. Schulkin borrows space from a fellow vintner's shed to produce his wines. To source his grapes, he fosters relationships with farmers based on a common belief in the importance of organic practices.
There's still plenty to battle against before these wines reach an international market—if they reach one. While the winemakers are proud of the burgeoning customer base, older, experienced wine drinkers looking for a bargain are more likely to embrace these off-beat bottles.
Younger people and wine newbies continue to opt for pricey, processed bottles of like Penfold's Grange. The current vintage of this old-school wine might cost an impressive $800, but what goes into it is a shady mystery. Adelaide's wine community is convinced you'll be happier with their less expensive wines than Penfold's prestige label.
Slowly but surely people are catching on. Although Adelaide itself only counts for about 5% of the market for these wines, Australia comprises up to 80%. The rest is shipped internationally to Denmark, Japan and Sweden. "It's awesome to have people around the world experiencing your wine," says Schulkin, "I'd like to have my wine in the States because my Dad and sister live there."
For right now, however, getting these natural wine into restaurants is a matter of personal partnerships and networks. And overcoming the guilt that comes with racking up food miles on heavy boxes of glass bottles. "We shouldn't be doing it at all because there's not enough for Australia... The reason we started exporting was because I got drunk with an exporter from Japan one night and he asked if we could export some wine and I was like 'for you man, yeah. Whatever you want.'"