We asked Max Allen, one of this country’s finest wine scribes and a champion of the organic and the un-messed with, to write a piece with a one-word inspiration. That word was dogma. Take any angle, we said. Make it short, or make it long. Rant if you like. Just have at it. This is what he wrote.
Nothing added, nothing taken away. Just grapes. It’s a beautiful ideal. Noble, even. Worth fighting for. But at what cost? When does sticking to the ideal detract from deliciousness?
I’m sitting at a table at the Summertown Aristologist restaurant and bar in the Adelaide Hills with winemaker Anton van Klopper. He’s showing me his wines, all made with no additions, in keeping with the policy – the rules, the ‘natural’ manifesto – at the Aristologist: all the wines stocked in the cellar and sold on the list here must have been made with nothing taken away, no fining, no filtration, and nothing added, except a little sulphur.
“And even then,” says Anton, “the producer must have a dream of adding none.”
A decade ago, when I first met him, Anton inspired me with this hardcore approach to natural winemaking. I’ve made a bit of wine myself since then, and cider – not much, just a demijohn here, a demijohn there, at home, for my own consumption – and have followed the same no-adds approach, with mixed results: some have been downright delicious and some have tasted like hogwash.
At our first meeting a decade ago Anton said that, for him, no-adds was an ongoing intellectual and aesthetic exercise. “If you don’t add anything during the winemaking process,” he said, “what do you do to make sure the wine is as good as it can be?”
The trouble is, when I taste Anton’s wines these days, I’m not sure they’re always as good as they could be. Although some are scintillating, lively, delicious, some are just too funky, too feral, too flawed. But Anton insists he’s happy with them that way.
“I like the dirty wines,” he says. “I like their rusticity. And I find it sad that some people can’t enjoy that. They can enjoy it in cheese, but in wine they see it as a problem.”
In other words, the fault is not in the wine. The fault is in you, the drinker.
It’s an arrogant, polarising view. His wines, after all, are not just a few litres of dodgy backyard home-brew given away to mates: they’re out there in the marketplace, being sold to real people for real money. But Anton’s sticking to it.
He opens another bottle and pours me a glass. It smells good: fresh, grapey, spicy, enticing. But when I take a sip and roll the wine around on my tongue, a distinctive unpleasant flavour emerges at the back of my throat: a stale-biscuit, rodent-cage character.
This is mousiness, a microbial taint that can be easily avoided by the addition of a small amount of sulphur dioxide. I’m tolerant of a lot of things in wine that other people see as flaws – the acetic twang of too much volatile acidity, the horse-blanket flavour of Brettanomyces yeast – but mousiness makes me want to retch.
Anton can see me wincing as I spit the wine out.
“Anton, it’s mousy,” I say.
“But the mousiness isn’t detracting, is it?”
“Yes! Once I’ve tasted it, it’s hard to taste anything else.”
“You can’t see it as a positive feature in the wine?”
“God, no. That would take too much … recalibration.”
“It’s too far for you?”
“It’s too far for me.”
Anton smiles, and tells me a story.
When he started selling his wines a decade ago, he would visit retailers in Sydney. For the first couple of years, they’d taste everything and buy nothing. Then, one year, they tasted everything and bought one wine. This year, when he went to see them, they bought everything – except one wine. What’s wrong with that one, he asked. That’s just too wild, they said. Too far. And he said: Just remember, in the seven years I’ve been dealing with you now only one wine is too far for you. Your palate’s changing. One day that wine won’t be too far for you.
“But is that what wine is meant to be?” I say. “Are we meant to have to constantly adjust our own standards depending on the wine?”
“Ah, humans like to make rules, don’t they?” he says. “It’s just meant to be a drink, isn’t it?”
“Sure. But isn’t ‘no rules’ just another rule?”
“Only if it’s thought about,” he says.
“Only if it’s a policy,” I say.
“Exactly. It’s just a drink, made out of grapes.”
“Yes, but isn’t it meant to be a drink that gives pleasure?”
“Hopefully. If you’re not drinking it for pleasure then it makes no sense, does it?”
“No,” I say. “So, if I don’t find mousiness pleasant, then it’s not giving me pleasure.”
“Yeah, but you know, you might not like broccoli as a kid, either,” says Anton. He’s sticking to his guns, doubling down on his view that I’m the problem, not the wine.
“I’ve learned from being strong minded about things how it divides the world quite quickly,” he says. “It’s a long, emotional conversation when you draw the line.”