Based in McLaren Vale, Somos is the label of Ben Caldwell and Mauricio Ruiz Cantú. The pair work primarily with less-known Italian and Spanish varieties, and they make them in entirely unconventional ways, with a lo-fi and sustainable ethos.
“The winemaking is minimal intervention,” says Caldwell. “We employ many and varied winemaking techniques, and all wines are hand made by Mauricio and me in our winery in McLaren Vale. Most of all, we have fun making the wines, selling the wines and drinking them – the wines are fun as a result.”
Caldwell and Ruiz Cantú met at the University of Adelaide while studying oenology. “We became great friends and lived together for a few years during the degree. Drank a lot of good wine, ate a lot of good food and had some great times. In 2012, as the degree came to an end, during a particularly heavy celebratory wine night, we registered a company and decided to make some wine and send it to Mexico,” says Caldwell.
That was the launch of their first venture, Juguette, which is based on making Australian wine for the Mexican palate and to match the cuisine – soft, varietal, approachable. Not a project just anyone could take on. And given that it was hatched during a night of heavy drinking, one that might have been shelved in the morning. Not so for this pair, and given that Ruiz Cantú is from Mexico, not quite as random as it first sounds.
That brand, which began with 1,200 litres of 2013 vintage shiraz, has become a raging success and grown exponentially. In Mexico, that is. Here, the pair founded their second brand, Somos, which stands in stark contrast to their first.
“Somos, meaning ‘we are’ in Spanish, is the opposite of Juguette. We focus on using alternative and obscure varieties from sustainably farmed vineyards, and making them in a natural/minimal interventionist way. Native ferments, no additions except minimal sulphur and incorporating techniques that produce more interesting styles, such as early pressing reds, whole bunch fermentation, skin contact and extended maceration whites and playing around with co-ferments and field blends from time to time,” says Caldwell.
Caldwell originally studied Computer Programming in Games Technology at CSU, before moving to a Bachelor of Science (Chemistry) at Melbourne University. That didn’t really capture Caldwell’s imagination either, and his job in fine dining in Melbourne eventually led to a little work experience at Wild Duck Creek, which saw Caldwell apply to study oenology in Adelaide, move and start his degree all in a two-week period. He has worked at d’Arenberg, Hardys Tintara, in Oregon at Bergström Wines and at Akarua, Central Otago.
Ruiz Cantú was similarly diverted. He was studying systems engineering when a vintage stint at Casa Madero in Coahuila, Mexico, encouraged him to study oenology. Ruiz Cantú has worked as a winemaker at Richmond Grove, and also vintages in Spain with Campo Viejo, in Rioja. He has been based in Mexico of late, making the small Somos project in Baja California, building the Juguette brand and planting a vineyard with his family in Ojos Negros, in Baja.
For Somos, the pair work with a tapestry of growers, regions, varieties and techniques, crafting wines of surprising diversity and breadth. “The driving philosophy is to make delicious, approachable wines from varieties that are less familiar to many people, that we want drink, making them naturally, but in a clean and consistent way to allow everyone to enjoy them,” says Caldwell.
“We try and experiment every vintage with different and new varieties, sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t work as well as a single varietal wine. We have played with so far aglianico, cortese, vermentino, garganega, verdelho, touriga nacional, tinta cão, trincadeira, parraleta, carignan, cinsault, nero d’avola, mencia, pinot meunier, cabernet franc and more… And who knows what is in store for 2021…”
Caldwell notes that they are relatively spoilt for choice with alternative varieties both in the Vale and nearby, with the climate suited to so many Mediterranean grapes that are appropriate for a warming climate. But he also notes that drilling down on matching grape to site is critical.
“Our source of vermentino shares many similarities to the climate of Sardinia, the home of vermentino. Similarly, Macclesfield, where our mencia is grown, is perfect for the grape, as it matches in many ways the cooler, higher elevation vineyards of Ribeira Sacra in Galicia, Spain.”
The pair currently make a dozen different wines under the Somos label, including one from Mexico, called ‘The Nebbicholo’. “This comes from the vineyards Mauricio planted in Ojos Negros and is a co-ferment of nebbiolo, malbec and syrah,” says Caldwell. “The wine is very unique and very aromatic with heaps of wild thyme and smoky almost mezcal notes.”
Aside from varietal bottlings of vermentino, cortese, barbera (as a rosé), mencia, a pair of aglianicos, cabernet franc, an orange wine from verdelho and a pét-nat, there are the two “Little Wines”, which are eccentric red and white blends that utilise a patchwork of sites stitched together with a broad range of techniques, with the varietal composition and techniques always changing with the vintage.
“The greatest challenge is presenting alternative varieties to a wine drinking public that may be unfamiliar with them,” says Caldwell. “Similarly, wine styles such as extended skin-contact orange wines, pét-nats and carbonic maceration light reds are not the norm in the broader wine market. We approach each wine as if it will be drunk not just by people in the know, but people exploring the styles and varieties for the first time. Each winemaking decision is taken to enhance the wine, not the talking points. If a red wine doesn’t need whole bunches, it doesn’t get whole bunches. If a white is meant to be fresh and crisp, we don’t use barrels, or skin contact, for example. Each technique is considered, and if it will make the wine more stylistically appropriate, we will do it. If it won’t, we won’t do it.”