Gentle Folk was started by Gareth Belton from the 2013 vintage, with three barrels of wine made from Basket Range. Since then, a move to the Adelaide Hills initiated a steep educational curve to get to grips with biodynamic and organic farming and making wines in a dilapidated shed with no running water or electricity. With four sites now, Belton makes an eclectic range of natural wines that buck convention, while also now drilling down on variety and site. Belton was a Young Gun finalist in 2014.
Continuing the tradition of winemakers having degrees and experience totally unrelated to wine, Belton has a PhD in Marine Science from the University of Adelaide. It was during the slog to complete his doctorate in phycology – the study of seaweed and algae – that he become obsessed with wine to the point where that hard-won degree eventually had to take a backseat.
While still completing his doctorate, Belton found particular inspiration in the wines being made by natural pioneers Anton van Klopper (Lucy Margaux), James Erskine (Jauma) and Tom Shobbrook (Shobbrook). In his downtime, Belton would frequent East End Cellars, being a regular at the Friday night tastings, which is where he struck up friendships with that well-known trio as well as the then up-and-coming Alex Schulkin (The Other Right).
Those relationships saw Belton spending a lot of time in Basket Range, helping out and asking plenty of questions. In 2012, he worked vintage with Erskine, who encouraged him to make a barrel or two of his own wine. Belton’s first commercial wines came from the 2013 vintage, a barrel each of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc from three vineyards in Basket Range.
“The current obsession with winemaking techniques…sulphur, filtration etc. gives me the shits.”
Belton and his partner Rainbo, who was also a phycology doctoral candidate at the time, started to make wine with a little more serious intent, with the routine of university life shedding some of its lustre. They used a corner of Erskine’s shed for the first couple of years, with fruit originally sourced from the Broderick family of Basket Range Wines.
With their path permanently redirected, they bought some land in the Hills with a somewhat rustic shed and not much else – no running water, and no power. But it was next to the Broderick’s property, just down the road from Van Klopper’s and a short drive to many other peers. And with undergraduate studies in botany and microbiology under their belts, and a rich community surrounding, further study was off the to-do list.
“The Adelaide Hills are ridiculously beautiful, and we are blessed with ideal conditions to grow a range of grape varieties,” says Belton, “from shiraz in the warmer sections to the east, all the way through to excellent pinot noir and chardonnay in the cooler parts of the Piccadilly Valley. We have a close knit and generous community so there’s always time for a beer or a barrel taste and an exchange of ideas in the vineyards and cellars. It has been a huge help in my education and growth as a winemaker and farmer.”
In those early days, sourcing organically grown fruit wasn’t easy, and they wanted to work as naturally as possible. Almost at the point of despair, the opportunity came to lease the Scary Gully vineyard in Forest Range, which had been planted in 1984. Ready to pull it out, the owners were happy to toss them the keys and walk away. That Belton had never run a vineyard before was a slight speed hump, but help from Mark Whisson (Whisson Lake) and star viticulturist Dylan Grigg put that right. Today, they farm three other properties, too, in Basket Range, Norton Summit, Summertown and Ashton, with a focus on organic and biodynamic principles.
“I hope we see a shift to more conversations about farming, organics/biodynamics and the health of the land here in Australia,” says Belton. “The current obsession with winemaking techniques…sulphur, filtration etc. gives me the shits.”
The Gentle Folk label very much resides in the sphere of natural winemaking, with the only addition employed being sulphur and not always. Additionally, no conventional framework has ever been applied to the wines, with red and white grapes often blended together, sometimes lengthy skin contact on whites and plenty of whole bunch with reds. Perhaps their ‘Rainbow Juice’ best exemplifies this, with up to 21 varieties combined. As they say: “Is it rosé, is it an orange wine? Who cares.”
But it would be a mistake to pigeonhole the Gentle Folk wines as belonging to a notion of style associated with natural wines. Rather it’s the principles of farming and making that truly matter, with Belton more recently focusing on making pinot noir and chardonnay that express the single sites they farm. This exploration of site coupled with a natural approach from ground to bottle is key.
“Going forward, we are trying to acquire more sites around the cooler and steeper parts of the Adelaide Hills, so expect a load of single vineyard, even single barrel, wines going forward. I am also excited about syrah and sangiovese in the Hills at the moment. We are hoping to plant out a super steep vineyard of syrah in the next few years. And when I say steep, I mean real steep.”