Daniel Payne’s Dirt Candy is about as un-Hunter as it gets, with a suite of wines that stand in stark contrast to the traditional styles that characterise the region. But the Hunter is arguably the cradle of Australian wine, and it is the historic home to some of the great Australian wine innovators. Payne is continuing that tradition, using alternative varieties and experimental methods to make wines that are built for food and fun times.
“My wines are designed to be drunk with great food and great friends,” he says. “I have no rules or boundaries in terms of the wine I make. As long as I think it’ll taste good, I’ll give it a go. My wines tend to stand out in the Hunter Valley as I am different to most producers in the area, but here is an emerging group of winemakers in the area though who are pushing the boundaries, too, and I’m excited to be a part of that.”
Although Payne dabbled in the wine industry in the early 2000s, while studying to be a primary school teacher in Newcastle, it took until 2017 for him to launch his own label. That initial experience was in the Hunter Valley, with Payne growing up just outside the region. A love for wine was well and truly enshrined then, but a career as a teacher stood in the way for several years, before the lure became too great, and Daniel enrolled at Charles Sturt University to study winemaking.
That degree took six years, and with several more vintages and three children under his belt, Payne and his wife, Jenni, produced four wines under their Dirt Candy brand in 2017. The following vintage saw a few more wines added, with sparkling, white, rosé and red wines made. And given Payne’s love for experimenting, there are ever-unfurling tentacles for Dirt Candy going forward. While it is essentially a Hunter brand, the Paynes also source fruit from Orange.
Payne has a deep appreciation for tradition, but he doesn’t see this as any reason to be boxed in. “Traditional winemaking methods have stood the test of time and we want to combine them with other methods: minimal intervention, alternative varieties, wild ferments… Creatively, I have always looked up to winemakers who have dared to be different and try new and exciting things, such as Taras Ochota and the guys at Payten & Jones. When people say, ‘you are fucking crazy’, and then to see it work itself out to be a delicious wine is a great feeling.”
Working with classic Hunter varieties, as well as less familiar ones, Payne makes straight varietal bottlings, as well as fashioning some quite idiosyncratic vinous mosaics. “‘The Little Circus’ best defines what I am about,” he says. “It is a field blend of cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, merlot, tempranillo, touriga and a handful of traminer skins. The blend was hand-picked, hand-crushed, co-fermented and great fun to make. I’m really interested in pushing the boundaries with my winemaking, while trying to craft the best wines I can from the best gapes I can get my hands on that still are fun and easy to drink.”
And Payne’s managed to push the boundaries in convincing manner – his 2018 Dirty Candy ‘The Little Circus’ took out the Danger Zone at the 2019 YGOW Awards. Nick Stock said of the wine: “The threading together of no less than six different red grapes and glazing them with the skins of the white traminer grape is brave, evocative and just the right kind of crazy. And to do all this in the Hunter Valley, Australian wine’s poster child of conservative, stoic and traditional winemaking is straight up nuts. Then again, the wine is so fucking delicious the back label probably won’t even get a look. So they won’t notice – genius!”
Today, Payne has added to the line-up, with it now comprising a chardonnay and a rosé pét-nat, varietal bottlings of vermentino, fiano, chardonnay, shiraz and gewürztraminer, a shiraz rosé, another made from merlot at a vintage pop-up event, a sparkling semillon and a liqueur muscat – joining ‘The Little Circus’.
And while Payne is constantly pushing the boundaries in different directions, there have been some general trends that have characterised his wines of late, and they’re ones that he credits with enhancing them across the board. “I have moved away from filtering my wines,” he says, “as I feel it strips some character from the final wines. I am reducing my additions to the wines also and am looking at highlighting the vineyard and fruit in the final wines.”