Dropping into the Danger Zone

6 December 2019. Words by Sally Wilson.

In the Young Gun of Wine Awards, our Danger Zone trophy goes to the most adventurous wine. It’s an accolade that rewards deliciousness and the spirit of a maker not afraid to colour outside the lines. It’s somewhat fitting then that First Drop Wines have sponsored the award from the start, since 2017. First Drop’s Matt Gant was crowned the inaugural Young Gun, in 2007, with a paradigm-shifting montepulciano that set the scene for the boundless vinous creativity that has fuelled Young Gun of Wine.

Two things KO’d the judging panel in Young Gun of Wine’s inaugural year. The first was an unusual grape variety and the second was a winemaker, working at the helm of a new winery, with the insight and roguishness to turn that grape into a confident, blistering drop.

Matt Gant of First Drop Wines took out the YGOW award back in 2007, catching the judges off-guard with his ‘Minchia’ Montepulciano from the Adelaide Hills. At the time, there were just a scattering of plantings of the Italian red in Australia. First Drop were amongst the early ones to recognise its potential.

They were brave, giddy days for First Drop. Gant, with co-founder and friend John Retsas, started the winery in the Barossa in 2004 – sourcing traditional and alternative fruits from grower vineyards in the Adelaide Hills, McLaren Vale and the Barossa Valley to produce a sweeping, adventurous and near-encyclopaedic roster of wines.

“First Drop offered the opportunity to take my experiences from working around the world (Italy, Spain, Portugal, California, New Zealand and the Barossa included) to make an eclectic and what we hoped would be an exciting line-up. That vision remains to this day,” says Gant.

The winery’s first release was an Adelaide Hills arneis. Then came the fabled montepulciano. Somewhat by accident, Gant found mature plantings of the variety in the northern area of the Adelaide Hills while on the hunt for nebbiolo grapes.

The first crop became available in 2005. “I jumped at the chance to take the fruit, and the block has proved to be one of our most consistent performing vineyards,” explains Gant.

As far as grapes go, montepulciano has future-proof qualities in the Australian context. Its plantings cover much wine country in central and southern Italy, where it ripens late. Here that translates as robustness and drought tolerance.

Ten or so years on from First Drop’s initial montepulciano release, the variety has infiltrated vineyards across South Australia with around 50 local winemakers bottling the grape. It is showing potential in other warm, dry regions including Heathcote.

“Montepulciano can be picked early to make a ‘pizza wine’ style, but the toughness of our site and resulting low yield allow for a denser, more structured expression,” says Gant. “It’s a standard bearer for our approach with alternatives. We’re not trying to replicate the ‘Mother Country’, rather find our own expression whilst showing the lineage of the variety. Our montepulciano has a rich, earthy density that speaks of the Adelaide Hills, with savoury drying tannins that show its Italian roots.”

This mindful nod towards tradition and adventure, or the freedom to innovate, characterises Gant as a winemaker and First Drop as a winery. They do top-shelf classics like ‘The Cream’ Barossa Shiraz; push forward alternative varieties (arneis and barbera included); and elevate unconventional blends, everything from the ‘JR Gantos’ Cabernet Sauvignon Touriga Nacional to the multi-variety ‘Full Fat’ whites and reds.

From day one, bravery (and a sense of fun) has imbued all aspects of First Drop’s approach to the business of wine. It’s splashed over the wine labels, which differ wildly one to the next, in contrast to the homogenous livery that many other brands apply by default.

And the feeling dominates the winery facilities and cellar door, which are enclosed in an old still house built in 1930s Nuriootpa, now emblazoned on one side with the motto and mantra “Home of the Brave”.

First Drop’s cellar door, ‘Home of the Brave’, in Nuriootpa.

How has the passage of time influenced practices at First Drop? “Our winemaking philosophy can be summarised by the idea that ‘everything old is new again’,” ventures Gant. “Wild fermentation, minimal racking, sur lie maturation of whites and reds are traditional techniques that were seen as innovative when we began, and we’ve continued to embrace other traditional/innovative techniques over the journey. I believe that an appreciation for tradition and a love of experimentation is vital to any winemaker.”

The belief in experimentation has spilled over, more recently, into a collaboration with YGOW. In 2017, the First Drop Danger Zone award was added to the YGOW trophy cabinet, recognising the most adventurous wine of the competition. Whereas other YGOW accolades go to winemakers, and wineslingers, this trophy is dedicated to a single, daring wine.

Gant hopes that the First Drop Danger Zone award “encourages producers to continue to take risks, push the boundaries, and challenge convention in the pursuit of making delicious wines.”

Brave New Wine were the inaugural winners in 2017 with their ‘Dreamland’ Riesling infused with native botanicals. The following year, Lark Hill won with an unprecedented, Canberra District biodynamic grüner veltliner. Dirt Candy’s crazed ‘Little Circus’ Hunter Valley blend of six red varieties, with a handful of traminer skins thrown in, took out the latest prize in 2019.

Josephine Perry of Dormilona (the 2016 Young Gun of Wine) with Yoko Luscher-Mostert of Brave New Wine at the 2017 Young Gun of Wine Awards.

“No other wine show in Australia would enable us to successfully exhibit our style of wines, which are a bit risky in winemaking approach and unconventional in style,” said Yoko Luscher-Mostert from Brave New Wine on the impact of the award.

Interestingly, Gant has seen the expression of risk in his own wines change over time. These days it often means playing a lighter hand as a winemaker.

“As the years have passed, I find myself doing less and less, only intervening at key moments, and trusting in the quality of our grapes.”

For the past six years, Gant has spent some of his spare time in the Douro in Portugal where he consults during harvest. Rolling up the sleeves and doing wine work in the old world has influenced the direction of things back home. “It’s not only inspired our long-term fortified program at First Drop, but led to our adoption of a number of traditional techniques such as foot treading.”

There is something emblematic, even visionary, in Gant’s approach to wine. His sixth sense for the potential in alternative varieties, what he calls ‘the new classics’. His tendency to push and enquire at the boundaries of tradition, to experiment, but not obliterate what is valuable. His feverish pursuit of making wines of interest and drinkability.

“For vintage 2020, I’m looking forward to further experimentation with Eden Valley shiraz and McLaren Vale touriga nacional, plus the chance to add stocks to our fortified program,” says Gant.

This year, the winery turns 15. Clearly, the adventure is kicking on

First Drop has been a partner of the Young Gun of Wine Awards since 2017.

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