Savour Australia’s Revolution
Wine Australia – The Fire of Revolution:
by Bradley Royale
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” ― R. Buckminster Fuller
The Australian wine market needed to light a fire, a purposeful one, a big one. A fire that would reach wide and far and fertilize the future via its destruction. A fire that would destroy recent memory and bring fresh growth, consume the dead foliage, and make way for fresh saplings. In preparation for the fire, they needed to take only a few items with them before setting everything ablaze. Memories filed in framed pictures of Barossa shiraz, newspaper clippings of Hunter Valley semillon, a favourite McLaren Vale grenache ball cap, a Rutherglen Sticky t-shirt that was a go-to on the weekends and a few post cards reminiscing of Yarra Valley pinot noir and Margaret River chardonnay… plus a few other odds and ends packed neatly into a couple of suitcases is all that was needed. Empty the jerry can, light the match, step away and gawk as the flames scorch the moon and melt everything around you. This is the only way to clean the image and force the infestation of animals back into the woodlands, where they belong.
Fire brings with it fuel for the future, the ashes providing nutrients for the earth. This reawakening of the Australian soil is much needed. The coma-like conditions of the Australian wine market in the last decade are ripe for a coup d’état and that is exactly what’s happening. For the first time since Max Schubert destroyed the notion of Shiraz, we are seeing wines like no one has ever seen before. The wines that are emerging from the Australian landscape are not only new to Australia, but are new to the entire known universe.
Brad Hickey. He moved from New York to McLaren Vale for a single harvest and ended up not only falling in love with McLaren Vale, but also his future wife, Nicole Thorpe. Together Brad and Nicole started the Brash Higgins winery, a winery title taken from Brad’s Australian nickname. Hickey spent a spell in NYC as a sommelier at Bouley and Danube and always had a taste for wines that intrigued, but paired well with food. His passion for Italian grapes led him to zibibbo, sourced from Riverland, and grafting over shiraz vines to nero d’avola (a first for McLaren Vale). He ferments both in locally-made McLaren Vale clay amphora (if this doesn’t blow your mind, you should check your pulse) and leaves both wines for extended post fermentation maceration ― like 6 months long. The resulting wines are lithe, bouncy, crisp and precise. His zibibbo is perhaps the finest example of yellow grapefruit aromatics to date in the wine world, while the nero d’avola sings of camphor, purple licorice strings and crunchy blackberries straight from the fridge. Hickey’s chenin blanc, farmed in Blewitt Springs from the Willamba vineyard, is picked in January, capturing a shy 10.3% alcohol. While the area is best known for intensely structured grenache (Clarendon Hills grenache is capable of an easy couple of decades of cellaring), this chenin blanc maintains balance with inherent acidic structure acting as a skeleton and fruit draped like healthy nubile flesh.
For Hickey the Australian wine market was a place where anything could happen and would happen as far as he was concerned. “I didn’t move to McLaren Vale to make friends” he notes. “I moved there to be with a woman I love and to make bold wines, stuff that reflected how radical it was to turn my whole life upside down.” Hickey found his true wine maker in a region that not only allowed him to do so, but celebrated him for his visionary outlook. Jim Morrison once stated, “The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are”. Try moving to Bordeaux to be free spirited and good luck with that. (BrashHiggins.com)
Mac Forbes. The best winemaker in Australia? Perhaps. Dr. Jamie Goode made that prediction half a decade ago and while it’s hard to gauge given the mind blowing talent that roams the continent, I do know for certain one thing; I want to be just like him when I grow up. Forbes’s talent for precision winemaking is evident with his single vineyard renderings of Coldstream and Woori Yallock, with the Coldstream showing a precocious open knit structure and charming fruit, characteristic of the lower Yarra. The Woori Yallock, from the cooler upper Yarra, is more obtuse and shy to come to the door; it’s not exactly agoraphobic in youth, but will certainly require the therapy of a cellar. His precision when required for terroir’s sake is notable.
While we certainly could have included the above wines in John Szabo’s article ‘A Lesson on Evolution’, for the general consumer these wines represent something completely new. To see wines with such fine lines, such poise and elegance is rare from anywhere on planet Earth. I pour Mac Forbes Yarra Chardonnay by the glass in our restaurants in Calgary. The initial response to Australian Chardonnay is, “No thanks, I don’t like oak.” We pour it for them anyway, forcing them to taste it. You can see the lines in their faces relax and smiles bloom as the lemon-scented river bed of flavor flows across their tongue. “Well, that’s lovely…you can leave the bottle.” Yes, of course.
Forbes’s mainstay line up for most is revolutionary, but it is his EB (Experimental Batch) range that takes things completely into the jungle. His 2013 whole cluster riesling shook my world. The wine spent 14 days in a sealed vessel, was then foot stomped, and sent to barrel for about a year. Who else does this to riesling? No one, ever. The resulting wine is a glorious array of burnt orange peel, water-rinsed clove, cumin, walnut shell and white pepper. It was drunk by the case at chez Royale with whole roasted trout all last summer. The 2014 Chardonnay ‘The Beast’ was left on skins for 9 months in older barrels. The wine is ferociously tannic for white or red standards and will need patience in the cellar. Forbes states on his label, “…this Chardonnay is still a beast at the time of bottling. We really have no idea if we will like this but we can only hope.” There are few wineries in the world who release wines they admittedly may not even like, but for revolution sake, this must be done. There are no shy warriors when it comes to storming the palace. (MacForbes.com)
Taras Ochota. I met this man in the hills of Adelaide. His house is perched in a valley on a soft hillside surrounded by forest. There are electrical lines nearby that house white Australian cockatoos, a part of the parrot family. There is a reason that flocks of parrots are called a Pandemonium because they wreak havoc from above (Death From Above 1979 comes to mind). The Pandemonium that lives above Taras and Amber Ochota’s house sounds exactly like a bus filled with screaming old men; the only difference is that these old men have wings and fly above your head. They are merciless.
The surrounding noise gives entrance to Taras Ochota’s background. Originally a travelling winemaker, he spent time in Central and Southern Italy and various points in California, all the while touring with a punk band named Kranktus. Taras worked for a few massive wineries after oenology school, giving him a technical skill set, a skill set he has mostly tried to forget. I asked him about his view of winemaking. “If I hadn’t melted so many brain cells since studying oenology all those years ago, I would probably remember what I learnt at university and my wines would be more 101 conventional. Hence, my wife’s nickname for me, ‘Colonial Goldfish’. I just try to fit in with Mother Nature in the vineyard. She helps me shape our wines. And she knows if no one else will drink them then I will…with absolute pleasure, so I try to push the envelope to fill my personal cellar.” This practice shines in his 2015 Syrah ‘I am the Owl’ (the name taken from a Dead Kennedy’s song). The wine is made with 100% whole bunch from one ton of fruit sourced from the loamy vineyard site Mount Barker. I am amazed at the purity of this Syrah. Bouquets of violets float around your head like a hot air balloon while streams of bacon scented stratus saunter through your nostrils. It is perfect wine, and a style of Syrah that did not exist 10 years ago in Australia. Want to buy the wines? Of course you do. The Ochota Barrels website shopping area looks like an apocalyptical drug store. It’s been ravaged: everything is gone with nothing for sale. I can’t ever remember looking at that page and not seeing sold out beside everything. The Dead Kennedy’s sang, “Went to a party, I danced all night, I drank 16 beers, and I started a fight.” Taras started a fight with everything “normal” in the Australian wine industry…in the most gentle, prettiest way possible. (OchotaBarrels.com)
Gil Scott-Heron famously wrote ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, and this Australian revolution will also not be televised (mostly due to current laws regarding TV advertising). But it will present itself to you in the form of wine on shelves and in restaurants. Look for these wines and names like BK Wines, Alpha Box and Dice, Lucy Margaux, Spinifex and Battle of Bosworth. When you show up to restaurants, demand to taste revolutionary wines, and show no mercy in your relentless pursuit of “newness”. Leap from the trees and take down the sommelier, ordering her to bring you deep jungle wine from Australia, then light everything on fire (just your evening, nothing physical of course). The hills and valleys and forests are all rich in amphorae bubbling over with skin fermented whites with ocean air purity (BK Wines Savagnin will make you eat raw fish even if you don’t want to) and stainless steel tanks mothering carbonic syrah, dolcetto and nero d’avola. The revolutionaries are attacking; they have climbed the gates and they will seize the palace. They’re so close you can taste it.
The History, Evolution & Revolution of Australian Wine
This article is one of a three-part series taking a look at the history, evolution and revolution of Australian wine on the page and in the glass. Please link to the other two articles below:
Where have all the critters gone? by Anthony Gismondi
A Lesson in Evolution, by John Szabo, MS