Tom Daniel’s Chouette is a tribute to the Swan Valley – past, present and future. Working primarily with grenache and chenin blanc – the local heroes – he is seeking to preserve the heritage and the precious resource of old vines, while making styles that are distinctly modern. Bright and light to mid-weight, and with no additions, excepting a little sulphur, Daniel is busily sketching out a new future for the Swan with wines that are more suited to drinking in the hot local climate, and which are being eagerly taken up by Perth wine bars and restaurants that have historically shunned the region’s wines.
Tom Daniel is a second-generation winemaker who was taught by his father, John. “I grew up on our vineyard, Susannah Brook Wines in the Swan Valley. Dad learnt to make wine in late 70s to early 80s from Jack and Corin Mann, John Kosovich and others. My dad is my biggest mentor; his guidance has helped me make stable wines while allowing me to break all the rules to make more edgy and modern styles.”
“The Swan Valley is hot and old school, and I reckon a lot of the wines made here are hot and old school. Chouette is all about pushing back against this and making wine with a lighter touch that's super drinkable in Perth’s hot climate, made with a light touch to be edgy, energetic, fun and serious.”
Daniel spent 15 years in Melbourne and overseas, working in bars mainly. “I Started my own wine bar and eatery in Melbourne called Cure in 2010. Come 2016, I had sold the bar and moved back to Perth to start a small project with the family winery. That project has now become quite big.”
The first release under his own banner came from the 2018 vintage. “Chouette is about rejuvenating and continuing the family operation, but under a modern and edgy label and style,” says Daniel. “The Swan Valley is hot and old school, and I reckon a lot of the wines made here are hot and old school. Chouette is all about pushing back against this and making wine with a lighter touch that’s super drinkable in Perth’s hot climate, made with a light touch to be edgy, energetic, fun and serious.”
Before Daniel’s homecoming, his father was winding down the winemaking operations at the age of 69. “The winery, albeit primitive in processes, was perfect in the everything-old-is-new mould, and I wanted to revive the family operation using the old gear as a base. It’s been hard work using all the old stuff, but I reckon the lo-fi approach has made some diamonds so far.”
Shortly after Daniel returned to the Swan, he was pruning the vineyard with his father when their neighbour began uprooting his grenache vineyard, which was home to 50-year-old vines. With some negotiation, Daniel secured a reprieve for the untouched vines with the promise that he would buy all the fruit.
“We were too late for a lot of it, but the remaining fruit from the retained vines was the first vintage of Chouette – that fruit is now a vital big part of the grenache program. To me, a lot of things were aligning, retaining old vines and reviving an old winery, so it became a story that I wanted to tell though a wine project.”
Grenache has become the centrepiece variety, along with chenin blanc, though Daniel also works with verdelho, semillon, chardonnay, tempranillo, malbec and sangiovese in making both still wine, rosé and a trio of pét-nats, along with a chenin and sangiovese blend, ‘Spezzato’, and an orange wine made from chenin.
“Making lighter and dynamic reds is a big challenge, and that’s what I’m aiming for using old-vine grenache fruit. Chenin is the hero white, and the approach is about building layers of texture and flavour, again with some old vine beauties around to work from.”
Those two varieties are the cornerstones of the old Swan Valley, and they are becoming the talismans of the current revolution, a movement that Daniel is helping to lead. “I want to be a part of a modern Swan Valley direction that respects and champions this little slice of beautiful old vineyards on the edge of Perth. Historically, if you go to a Perth wine bar, you will see little to no Swan Valley wines on the lists. This is utter madness. There are quite a few forces going on here, including cultural cringe and the modern dominance of Margaret River, but I’m committed to convincing local venues to pour many cups of its local wine.”
It’s a movement that Daniel sees as having dual significance, both to promote the region’s potential and to preserve its history. “The heritage old vines and the history of the growers is a story I want to tell through my wines. It’s about keeping what’s left, and what the next chapter will be. Old vines are being pulled out and the Swan is tiny, with housing pressure pushing its boundaries. The old growers are getting on and the next generation have not generally been interested. The Swan has been undervalued for too long. For me it all is manifesting a connection of old and new, and being a part of a new story.”
“The heritage old vines and the history of the growers is a story I want to tell through my wines. It’s about keeping what’s left, and what the next chapter will be. Old vines are being pulled out and the Swan is tiny, with housing pressure pushing its boundaries. The old growers are getting on and the next generation have not generally been interested. The Swan has been undervalued for too long. For me it all is manifesting a connection of old and new, and being a part of a new story.”
That new story is one that is not always easily communicated with Daniel’s growers, with his lo-fi, no-additions approach at odds with traditional practices. “A lot of the growers don’t understand me not adjusting my wines, so often don’t understand my urgency for picking early. I’ve had situations where a grower wouldn’t pick the fruit when I wanted because he said it wasn’t ready and I could just add acid and he had a spare bag of tartaric if I needed some – I picked it myself.”
For Daniel, picking decisions are simple. “Pick early!” he declares. “In the Swan, grapes ripen at warp speed once they come into the ripe zone, so picking times are crucial and I do not acid adjust. In the winery, picking early means greenness can be an issue, so I mitigate this by using high levels of whole berry in ferments to bring out roundness and mouthfeel, while also dialling back abv. Harvesting fruit across the flow of vintage to create many different ferments creates blending options to balance the wines. Early picking is crucial, but you can’t have too much skinny fruit, so like anything balance is key. Blending parcels of the same fruit picked over different periods is crucial to my style.”
Daniel singles out his ‘Revival’ Grenache as a good example of his style. “It’s a dynamic light-bodied red from a hot climate without it being ‘skinny’. I use multiple different parcels of Swan grenache, staggering the picking times over a period of time, with the individual parcels all treated differently in the winery and matured in different ways – a combination of old wood, newer wood, stainless, no-wood. I try to create as many layers as I can with the sum of all the parts.”