“20 years ago when I came to the Yarra, everyone made the same shit.” So says Yarra Valley winemaker Timo Mayer. “Now, there are small quantities of experimental stuff all over the place.”
Recent years have seen an explosion of creativity on the Australian wine scene, as alternative styles emerge from winemakers turning their backs on modern practice and transforming the old into the new. As New York filmmaker Kirby Ferguson put it in his look at creativity and innovation, Everything is a Remix.
One such reinvention is the practice of whole bunch fermentation with red wines – where “whole bunches” of red grapes are kept on their stalks through fermentation. It’s a technique most often associated with Beajolais. Mayer is renowned for his use of whole bunches, as seen with his Dr Mayer (100% whole bunch) Pinot Noir.
“I love the stalky, savoury character,” he says. “Some don’t like the herbal ‘Campari’ edge it gives. It polarizes people.”
To Mayer’s knowledge, he was the first in the Yarra to employ whole bunch ferments. Now, it’s hard to come across cool climate winemakers in Australia that aren’t doing it with Pinot Noir or Shiraz/Syrah to some extent.
The aim of most red wine producers is to extract colour and other elements from the skins – however, whole bunch ferments can make lighter reds. With whites, the conventional goal is to have no skin contact and make the wine as clean as possible.
But some makers are pushing these ideas, adopting red wine concepts with white wines.
Patrick Sullivan makes a number of whites with skin contact in various shades through to orange. “It made no sense to me that red wine was extracted, and white wine was not. I try and find a happy medium with both red and white grapes.”
Gareth Belton (Gentle Folk) is the newest addition to a cult-like mob of winemakers in the Basket Range of the Adelaide Hills. Just going on one year in, he has released eight experimental wines from his first vintage (2014), which is a big number on a small scale. His whites have various degrees of skin contact. “I don’t like straight white wines. I can’t drink the stuff,” he says.
That all eight of his experimental bottlings thus far, which Belton says are inspired by France’s wines of the Loire and Beajolais, have sold out, demonstrate the thirst for these new styles.
Hand in hand with these techniques is the older winery equipment being used. When Brad Hickey (Brash Higgins) got the idea to use amphorae – ancient Roman vessels used through fermentation and storage – he had them made by a local potter. Hickey notes that compared to oak, “Wines from amphora feel softer and warmer. There’s no wood tannin. The wines are purer.” In a modern remix on the amphora, Tom Shobbrook has a clay egg, handmade in Byron Bay, and Gilles Lapalus (Sutton Grange) has a concrete egg made in France.
Remixing isn’t just about transforming the old into the new. Lapalus got an idea to turn a household water tank on its side and manufacture a new large opening on top of the flat side. This new plastic vessel has affectionately been dubbed the “submarine”, and he now has a fleet of these in his winery. Lapalus says he designed this to, “Encourage greater lees (sediment) contact, allowing wine to express less varietal character and more of its terroir,” as well as to, “give a barrel effect without oak character.”
Ferments can even continue in bottle, to make bubbles. Sullivan collaborates with Bill Downie to make a Lambrusco they’ve called “Pab” with a label that copies an American sugar free cola. Downie says their idea was, “To make a bubbly, pet-nat [“pétillant naturel” – a bottle fermented sparkling] wine that was like drinking soft drink. The label was just a bit of fun.”
There’s something of the renegade in all the above lot, evident in the cheek of labels such as Pab as well as Dr Mayer, which is a Rousseau knock-off, to which Mayer says, “It’s the most over-the-top label I’ve ever seen. It’s so bad it’s good.” Another case in point is Downie’s audacious “Stool on Stool” (literal) label artwork by Reg Mombassa for his no SO2 un-oaked Pinot Noir.
Mayer has now made and is about to release a whole bunch Cabernet Sauvignon, “Winemakers have said to me, ‘You can’t do 100% whole bunch Cabernet!’ It’ll be the only one in Australia. We’ll rock the fuckin boat!”