Charlie O’Brien’s Silent Noise label is over five years old now, with the first wine from 2015 made with the help of his father at the family winery, Kangarilla Road. The younger O’Brien wasn’t yet in his final year of school when those grapes were picked and crushed, but there was no holding him back. Today, with experience gained from near and far, he’s taken the winemaking reins firmly, making wines from McLaren Vale star varieties, as well as alternative Italian grapes grown in the Riverland, with ample experimentation in the winery never getting in the way of pure drinkability.
It’s fair to say that O’Brien was privy to the inside running on the wine game, being the son of Helen and Kevin O’Brien of Kangarilla Road fame. After finishing high school in 2016, Charlie O’Brien has worked on home territory in McLaren Vale for Yangarra, Hither & Yon, Gemtree and, of course, Kangarilla Road, as well as at Pikes in the Clare Valley, Pike & Joyce in the Adelaide Hills, and Moss Wood in Margaret River. O’Brien has also worked for Paul Mas in the Languedoc and at Château Haut-Bailly in Bordeaux. He is currently in his second year of wine science at Charles Sturt University.
It’s a substantial catalogue of work for a young maker, with O’Brien keen to use that experience to inform his practices. “I have tried to take some of the winemaking techniques from the New World and Old World and manipulate them and bend them into my own,” he says, with his first solo wine made in the 2018 vintage, but his winemaking exploits predate that.
“Winemaking was the only thing I have ever wanted to do – apart from being a clown and a truck driver when I was much younger. I was really surprised when my parents wouldn’t let me take the term off school when I was in Year 9 to work the vintage, but I was at the winery before and after school and at the weekends.”
O’Brien’s winemaking interests continued at school, too, with a yeast experiment on shiraz juice for chemistry class, with the results poured for cellar door visitors to survey their preferences. “The 2015 ‘Reserve’ Shiraz was the first wine I made with help from my father and several other wines were made with his help, too. I got my – and his – confidence after working three vintages in Australia at other wineries and two vintages in France.”
So, while O’Brien has made multiple wines under his Silent Noise label – some while still at school – it was a primitivo made in 2018 and a chardonnay in 2019 that effectively marked the end of his apprenticeship, with the range expanding with what he describes as his “drink easy series, designed to create conversation and be enjoyed in the now!”
O’Brien created the new range to have some fun and push the boundaries. “The first wine in the series, ‘FO’ Shiraz has two meanings, the PG rated version is that it is my Grandfather’s initials, Frank O’Brien. The second and more Australian meaning is the ‘F%$# Off’ Shiraz. The second wine in the range is the ‘MF’ Grenache. Again, this has a PG version, which is my Grandmother and Grandfather’s initials, Morine and Frank. But there is a more leftfield meaning…”
O’Brien uses fruit from the family vineyards, while also sourcing more broadly. “I have been working with varieties that are more suited to warmer climates like fiano, nero d’avola and montepulciano, which I have been sourcing from Ashley Ratcliff at Ricca Terra Farms. I also have a small part of my father’s estate vineyard where I have done my own thing, most of which I learned in Bordeaux. This includes a philosophy without using herbicides or pesticides. A friend and I have been doing the under-vine weed removal using hoes, which sounds more romantic than it is. The grapes are hand-picked by me and some mates from school, who I pay with heaps of beer and lunch at Pizzateca and then nightclubbing in Adelaide.”
Describing his Silent Noise wines as being “seriously drinkable and fruit driven without being too serious,” O’Brien notes that he doesn’t want to push the “boundaries of drinkability”. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t experiment or take chances. “In my ‘Cloudy but Fine’ wines, I have a chardonnay that I choose not to protein stabilise, giving the wine a lovely haziness, which also helps to retain all the fruit flavours. In my primitivo in the same range, I ‘borrowed’ some of my father’s wine and put it into barrel and inoculated it with a flor yeast. These barrels are left untouched for 12–15 months, making a red wine with an interesting sherry-like nuttiness. There are very few producers in the world using this process with a red wine.”
And while O’Brien has crammed an awful lot of winegrowing experience into his youthful career, there’s little chance of him tiring of it anytime soon. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I have been surrounded by vines my whole life and I want to continue to do so. This is what fuels my interest in sustainability, I want my children’s children to have the opportunities I have had. I want to make wine in a style I like to drink, and I’d love to be around to see what styles they might come up with.”