Like many of us, Ravensworth’s Brian Martyn had a pretty crap year in 2020. First the bushfire smoked out his crop and a big slice of income, then COVID did its thing. That’s enough to get anyone down, but the wine (and beer – read on) community’s a resourceful one, and with a little help from his friends, he’s stitched together a dazzlingly silky purse from one hell of a sow’s (y)ear.
Unprecedented. The first time this oft-used adjective came into our life in 2020 was waking up in Byron Bay, describing the high concentration of white people that seem to congregate here. It’s like if you wanted to trap middle-aged white peeps – for some nefarious reason that no doubt involved prods and probes – then Byron Bay at Christmas would be peak saturation time. Sure, there are a couple of baristas that have subcontinental heritage, but otherwise it is as white as white can be – save for a Proud Boy’s “use-you’re-brians-people” Trump rally.
We woke to the shocking images coming back from our area of southern NSW, near the ACT, that had been under a smoke haze for three weeks already from the out-of-control fires on our south coast. So many family and friends were caught up in it, with some losing houses and their livelihoods. We were lucky to have only potentially a lost crop.
The crop was cactus and, as I suggested at the time, with so many producers like Tyrrell’s and Clonakilla calling the season lost, we were fucked as well. I could see on returning later in January that the two new fires, Tumbarumba and Namadgi, didn’t do our chances of securing grapes unaffected by smoke any favours. Up there was one of our favourite growers, the Johansen family, source of our lovely gamay and pinot gris, along with some pretty special chardonnay. The fires there took out most of their vineyard while they were fighting fires nearby. A common story this year.
We’d called it by late January, and I got on the phone with my fellow cyclist, Jo Perry from Dormilona. She was as far from the hell that was our smoke-ravaged land as I could find, and we started talking about the possibility of buying fruit and finding winery space in and around Margaret River. Jo, who was immediately on point about what we needed to do, went out and found some grapes in the Swan Valley. She had started using some old vine grenache for one of her many brilliant regional wines and found they had extra, plus trebbiano as well.
Without thinking much about the logistics of how far away they are, we locked that in, and she passed on Japo Cani’s contact from the McHenry Hohnen Winery as a possible place to ferment the grapes.
We were also offered a few tonnes of chenin in Margaret River. Obviously, we accepted this offer, coz what winemaker wouldn’t?
Once that was locked in, we got a call from Andrew Hoadley of La Violetta who found extra gewürztraminer in Frankland River. We had an hour to make up our mind and find somewhere to ferment it. Guy Lyons at Forest Hill in Denmark was able to squeeze us into his busy production schedule. Followed closely to this was some pinot noir and riesling from Rob Diletti in Porongurup. No idea where this was in relation to anywhere, but we didn’t want to turn down anything, so that fruit was processed at his winery, Castle Rock.
It’s wasn’t near what we would have processed, but it was something and gave us a different narrative to losing the fruit back at home.
Similarly, my good friend, and expert bike thief, Ricky Evans of Two Tonne Tasmania had a new vineyard with pinot noir in the Tamar. We’d already had some thoughts on making a wine together, so this fruit was available, and he had space to ferment it.
While I was able to get to WA just after harvesting the fruit there and meet the winemakers involved, the COVID lockdown stopped any chance of returning to taste and blend, so this was all done remotely with me imagining the blending of Swan Valley trebbiano and Frankland River gewürztraminer.
Getting all this wine back to Murrumbateman was tricky, even without border closures. We wanted to have the wine here to at least be able to say that we had some influence on the production.
We ended up buying a dozen 10-hectolitre IBCs (intermediate bulk containers) and had all the WA wine tankered to Margaret River, where Japo made up the various blends so all the tanks were filled to the brim. Then this was transported to Perth and loaded on a temperature-controlled container for the five-day journey to Sydney.
Once there, we had a local carter bring it to us late one night in early June. Similarly, the pinot from Tasmania was trucked to the docks in Devonport and onto the ferry to Melbourne.
The wine then went into our concrete tanks, ceramic eggs, amphorae and barrels, thus completing their long journey. There was a returning sense of purpose having wine in the cellar. It was an expensive process and certainly a different stress was involved, but it meant the year wasn’t going to be all about losing fruit and the constant wonder about what we missed out on.
There are six wines we’ll be releasing over the next few months, starting with two blends. ‘The Long Way Around’ is the title of the range. Wanting to distinguish these from the wines we grow and make in NSW was important, and we may still head back next year to make them again.
As a backstory to the year, I also found myself telling the same story of crop loss to Topher Boehm of Sydney’s Wildflower brewing over some anchovy toasts at Poly early in the year.
We’d had a few little colabs over the last few years, using grapes and wine components to make some of his amazing fruit beer, and he has become a good friend. I spoke at Wildflower’s Waratah Day the previous year – a day for NSW farmers to talk about how they farm the various cereal and other crops Wildflower use in their beer production.
The talk was all about recovering the land from misuse, restoring it to what it would be like before we fucked it up with pesticides and fertilisers – the dynamic duo in destroying any harmony in the land that had existed for over 50,000 years under the original occupants’ care.
Topher turned the menu over – maybe some more Wapengo Oysters? – and started to sketch out a plan to use our well-smoked fruit to make a range of beers that would express the year so fragrantly.
“You can do that?” was my first thought. Smoke in wine is horrid, think ashtray rather than bacon, but in beer, it’s different. We all know the malty character beer carries and it’s lower in alcohol and doesn’t have the polyphenol matrix that wine does, which includes tannins that so effectively carry the bitterness of smoke.
So okay, we decided to get some more sea urchins, and make a heap of beer.
And that is exactly what we did. We harvested the fruit and made up six tanks based on variety. Flooded with CO2 for a couple of weeks (the trick to making fruit beer, now I kinda know, is you break down the skins first, aka carbonic maceration). Then 8,000 litres of their base Gold beer arrived to flood the macerated fruit and essentially referment on skins for six months in our cold and newly opened brewhouse-machinery-shed.
The beer is off skins and being bottled shortly. Set for release in 2021.
The final cog in the 2020 year is the leftover skins and remnant beer, which we are collecting to distil into a whisky of sorts.
There’ll be no better way to see off 2020 than a dram of ‘Peaty AF’ – a working title – over the years to come.
Bryan Martin’s The Long Way Around wines can be purchased from the Ravensworth website.