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Natural Winemakers are Disrupting Australian Wine with Unfiltered Passion

A decade ago, the Australian wine industry was in trouble. A perfect storm was taking place; it included fire, drought and massive oversupply. As organic food swept the country, criticism grew within the wine industry around poor farming and overly technical vinification.

Australian wine needed a wake-up call.

As if on cue, four passionate and quirky outliers exploded onto the scene. They brought wild, cloudy and ultradrinkable wines the likes of which most Aussie consumers hadn’t seen.

Natural wine had arrived like a jolt of lightning, sending shockwaves throughout the wine world, disrupting the status quo and ruffling feathers in its wake.

The motley crew, which became known as much for its theatrics as for its wines, was called Natural Selection Theory and comprised Adelaide Hills-based James Erskine of Jauma Wine, Anton van Klopper of Lucy Margaux Wines, Barossa Winegrower Tom Shobbrook of Shobbrook Wines and Sydney artist Sam Hughes.

Members hid amphorae behind velvet drapes and played music to them; leapt onto tables during trade tastings; performed interpretive dance and launched a “hot pants tour” conducting events wearing only, you guessed it, hot pants.

Thanks to the foundation laid in large part by the Natural Selection Theory, few corners of the wine world have been more profoundly affected by the natural wine movement than Australia.

In the Beginning

Today, natural wine, the “nothing added, nothing taken away” approach, is an integral part of the wine landscape that questions the use of chemicals in winemaking and has attracted a new generation.

Ten years ago, vin naturel was on the rise in places like Beaujolais and the Loire Valley, both spiritual homes of the movement. Yet, it was little more than a whisper in the New World.

Australia already had a number of small-scale producers that practiced their own versions of traditional, low-tech winemaking. But they weren’t as disruptive or ideological as the Natural Selection Theory.

“We’d travel the country in Anton’s Land Rover, shooting and fishing our way between capital cities so we could cook these foods for our events,” says Erskine.

“We sold hundreds of 23-liter demijohns topped with grapeseed oil [called the] ‘Voice of the People,’ with a stainless-steel siphon and cherrywood tap. These were refillable at ‘terroir cell’ stations in Sydney and Melbourne, where we’d drop off 500-liter barrels of wine for that purpose.”

The purpose was to energize the public and offer an alternative to what the group deemed overindustrialized wines.

“We were just bored by and uninterested in homogenous, manufactured wines,” Erskine says. By contrast, the wines that they made were singular.

The grapes were farmed organically and biodynamically, and the wines were made without manipulations or additives; often, the widely used preservative sulfur dioxide was omitted.

These stripped-back methods gained adoration from some and criticism by others. The latter group took issue both with the term “natural” and with the wines themselves, which could be extreme to the point of faulty.

Nevertheless, the Natural Selection Theory, with its wild wines and even wilder behavior, had made its mark. And it wasn’t alone. There were others working in this vein, albeit more quietly, many of whom launched labels around the same time.

“The emergence of natty wine in Oz in the late 2000s, early 2010s pretty much coincides with the country’s wine community as a whole being on the bones of its arse,” says Max Allen, an Australian wine writer. “The energy and disruption of natural wine was a huge breath of fresh, reviving air.”

Image of Basket Ridge 2018 Deja-Vu, Good Intentions 2018 Relatively White and Brash Higgins 2017 NDV Amphora Project
L to R: Basket Ridge 2018 Deja-Vu Pinot Noir, Good Intentions 2018 Relatively White and Brash Higgins 2017 NDV Amphora Project Nero d’Avola/Photo by Tom Arena

The Middle Phase

In the far western corner of Australia, Ben Gould and his wife, Naomi, purchased a small plot of vineyards at the edge of Margaret River’s main highway. He couldn’t bear to spray chemicals on the same land where his young family were being raised, so he began to convert the farm to organics and biodynamics.

Fresh from travels in Europe, where he was introduced to natural wine, he released Blind Corner’s first minimal intervention wines in 2010.

“In the winery, it was all experimentation, calculated risk and blind faith,” says Gould of his early natural winemaking attempts. “There was not a lot, if any, knowledge on this style of winemaking in the region at the time. I made a lot of mistakes, made a lot of shit wine trying to make clean, expressive wines with no packet fixes.”

Gould was joined by a like-minded couple, Sarah Morris and Iwo Jakimowicz, who launched their Si Vintners label in 2011. The wines were made from vineyards in the southern part of Margaret River that they’d converted to biodynamics.

Clutching bottles of their flor-covered Sémillon, Chincheclé, Morris and Jakimowicz flew with Gould across the country and introduced their wines to the world at Australia’s inaugural natural wine fair, Rootstock Sydney, in 2013.

Throngs packed the event’s small venue, jockeying for face time with Aussie natural winemakers, plus some star international producers.

The following four Rootstock events, housed in a significantly bigger venue than the first, overflowed with both natural wine fans and a growing cohort of producers. Each year’s success helped cement the movement’s influence Down Under.

As their colorful labels popped up all around the country, so did bars, shops and restaurants that specialized in natural wines. The Basket Range, a tiny subregion of the Adelaide Hills, became the hotbed of the movement.

“We went through the phase of experimentation, implementing the bedrocks of natural wine in Australia, and it was very theatrical and colorful,” says journalist and presenter Mike Bennie, who cofounded and codirected Rootstock. “Then what happened was the next stage: People were excited by [natural wine] and wanted to be part of it all.

“It drew people like Gareth Belton [of Gentle Folk Wines], a botanist by training, into James Erskine’s winery.

It drew in the very important young Broderick brothers [of Basket Range Wine], whose father planted the first vineyards in the Basket Range, down to Anton van Klopper’s house, which was next door,” says Bennie.

“We went through the phase of experimentation, implementing the bedrocks of natural wine in Australia, and it was very theatrical and colorful… People were excited by [natural wine] and wanted to be part of it all.” –Mike Bennie, cofounder, Rootstock

He refers to this period as the “middle phase” of natural wine, which attracted intellectuals and second-generation winemakers.

Belton and the Brodericks both fit firmly within the confines of natural wine. They farmed their vineyards without chemicals and made wines with minimal intervention. But the criteria for who was in the fold varied. It was often determined as much by those who sold the wine as those that made it. Social media fanned the flames.

“So you had this genesis from the Natural Selection Theory into this very broad interpretation of ‘natural,’ [with fruit] frequently not sourced from organic/biodynamic grapes, which is the foundation stone of what natural wine is,” says Bennie.

“But what I think has happened now—and this is sort of the third phase—is that a lot of people who have been drawn into the middle phase have been found out for what they are. [Their wines] can be still celebrated and enjoyed, but what it’s also done is focused people back to [the] vineyard.”

Photo of Harkham 2017 Aziza’s Shiraz, Sam Vinciullo 2018 Cowaramup Sauvignon Blanc and Yetti and the Kokonut 2018 Mt Savagnin
L to R: Harkham 2017 Aziza’s Shiraz, Sam Vinciullo 2018 Cowaramup Sauvignon Blanc and Yetti and the Kokonut 2018 Mt Savagnin/Photo by Tom Arena

Natural Wine Today

True to the name of the original gang, Australia’s natural wine movement is performing its own kind of natural selection. And the wines are better because of it.

“Australia often moves quite quickly on these things,” says Bennie. “The 10- to 15-year period this has all occurred in is quite remarkable to see. There is now very high-quality wine coming out of this idiom.”

Gould’s Blind Corner label has enjoyed exponential growth. In 2014, he purchased a nearly 50-acre property, five times the size of his original one, and converted it to biodynamics. His wines are the expressive beauties he dreamt of a decade ago.

Morris and Jakimowicz have also been learning. Today, Si Vintners focuses on pristine, ageworthy Chardonnays reflective of their unique site.

“The number of producers who today identify as natural or are a bit natural-ish or tick a lot of the natural boxes is uncountable.” –Max Allen, wine writer

Margaret River has come a long way, too.

“Now you have fresh energy coming in from new producers, and established wineries and vineyards moving this direction as well,” says Gould.

“Our oldest winery and vineyard, Vasse Felix, recently started converting their entire [800 acres or so] across to certified organic. That is a huge message to the rest of the industry. More wineries are not acidifying and using wild yeast in the winery, skin ferments, concrete tanks, qvevri, etc. Some older established places are even making pét-nat. It is a very exciting time to be in Margaret River.”

It’s a very exciting time to be in Australia, period. Natural wine may still occupy just a small slice of the wine market, but its influence is widespread.

There are few producers in Oz today who don’t question the use of chemicals like herbicides in the vineyards or don’t experiment with wild ferments and other “natural” techniques.

“The number of producers who today identify as natural or are a bit natural-ish or tick a lot of the natural boxes is uncountable,” says Allen.

As for the Natural Selection Theory, it more or less disbanded at the end of 2012, when Sam Hughes tragically took his own life. While Erskine, van Klopper and Shobbrook continue to craft some of the country’s most boundary-pushing wines, the Natural Selection Theory accomplished what it set out to do.

The groundwork has been laid for a more open-minded, creative, environmentally conscious and irreverent Australian wine culture. Perhaps this reflective, so-called third phase of natural wine, as more producers focus their gaze back onto the vineyards, will more clearly define the boundaries of what it means to be “natural.”

Natural Selections

Charlotte Dalton 2017 Love You Love Me Semillon (Adelaide Hills); $30, 94 points. Don’t let the playful label fool you. This is an expertly crafted wine from an experienced winemaker Charlotte Hardy (Dalton is her middle name). This pale-hued Semillon is delicate yet focused, complex yet approachable. It changes in the glass from wild herbs and flowers, red apple skins and minerals to something more honeyed, flinty and waxy. The palate is textural, unforced and likely to sing alongside food. Wine Dogs Imports LLC. Editors’ Choice.

Commune of Buttons 2018 Clover Chardonnay (Adelaide Hills); $34, 94 points. As the name of this small-batch, natural wine suggests, siblings Jasper and Sophie Button live on a commune, farming the vineyards their mother planted over 20 years ago. This Chardonnay, slightly cloudy in appearance, is raw, expressive and beautiful. Give it time in the glass to reveal gentle aromas of honeyed cashew, beeswax, sea salt, citrus and spice. It’s gorgeously textured, both slick and waxy, with a pure line of acidity, a lemon pith bite and an endless finish. Tess Bryant Selections. Editors’ Choice.

Mac Forbes 2017 EB41 Showdown 3 Pinot Noir-Nebbiolo (Yarra Valley). $38, 94 points. Renowned Yarra producer Mac Forbes’s “EB” bottlings are “experimental batches” of wines that he finds interesting and boundary pushing. This 50-50 blend of Pinot and Nebbiolo may be unusual, but the two work together splendidly. The color of strawberry juice, it’s initially highly mineral, like sunbaked clay steaming after a summer rainstorm. Waves of savory mushroomy aromas wash in next, followed by strawberries and violets. The palate is laser-focused, juicy and savory, Pinot’s acidity and Nebbiolo’s nervous tannins working together beautifully. Drink now and likely until 2029. Hudson Wine Brokers. Editors’ Choice.

Ochota Barrels 2018 Fugazi Grenache (McLaren Vale); $65, 94 points. Former punk rocker Taras Ochota is one of the most renowned artisanal producers in Australia, having carved a reputation from his hilly spot in the Basket Range subregion of the Adelaide Hills for solid, highly characterful wines. Grenache is his calling card, and Fugazi one of his most celebrated wines. This vintage is confident and complex yet approachable. It sings notes of brambly fruit and balsamic vinegar with fistfuls of wildflowers and savory herbs. The grip of skinsy, raspy tannins on the tongue comes as a surprise at first, but then the juicy red fruit rushes in, taunting you to take another sip. Drink now–2027, at least. Vine Street Imports.

Basket Range 2018 Deja-Vu Pinot Noir (Adelaide Hills); $36, 93 points. The Brodericks were the first to plant vines in the Basket Range, a subregion of the Adelaide Hills that’s become the epicenter of Oz’s natural wine scene. Second generation brothers, Sholto and Louis, make this wine in a natural vein from their family’s estate vines. An early harvest yields brambly red fruit, olive, savory spice and a touch of balsamic vinegar along a mineral spine. The palate is wonderfully fresh and tart yet firmly gripped by sappy, skinsy tannins. Tess Bryant Selections. Editors’ Choice.

Brash Higgins 2017 NDV Amphora Project Nero d’Avola (McLaren Vale); $36, 93 points. This vintage of ex-pat American grower-winemaker Brad Hickey’s Nero is on fire. Open and expressive, a heady concoction of cinnamon, flower stalk, potpourri, cocktail bitters, red licorice and stony minerals come wafting out of the glass, alongside red fruit and slightly meaty tones. The medium-bodied palate offers bright acidity that lifts the brambly fruit alongside savory, talc-textured tannins that are supportive but not overly clenching. Drink now–2027. Hudson Wine Brokers. Editors’ Choice.

Good Intentions 2018 Relatively White (Mount Gambier); $30, 93 points. This skin-contact Sauvignon Blanc bursts from the glass in flowers, citrus, ginger, honey and green herbs. The palate takes it up a notch with its waxy texture, juicy and pithy fruit, wonderfully prickly acidity and long gingery finish. This Sauvignon Blanc on steroids is sunshine in a glass. Little Peacock Imports.

Yetti and the Kokonut 2018 Mt Savagnin (McLaren Vale); $35, 93 points. This is a positively fun minimal-intervention wine made from Savagnin, the Jura variety often made into vin jaune. This expression of the variety receives five days of skin contact and large helpings of Aussie sunshine. It’s vibrant buttercup in color, and aromas of pineapple, orange, honeyed nuts, hay and beeswax rush from the glass and then onto the palate, where a viscous texture is lifted by crystalline acidity. Savory and mineral, this would be a top pairing with autumnal dishes like chestnut soup or risotto. That said, it’s totally delicious on its own. Vine Street Imports. Editors’ Choice.

Harkham 2017 Aziza’s Shiraz (Hunter Valley); $48, 92 points. Richie Harkam is one of the only natural wine producers in the Hunter Valley, a notoriously difficult place to farm without chemicals. This wine evokes freshly squeezed blueberries and other just-picked berry fruit alongside licorice and earthy spices. The mouthfeel is juicy and crunchy from soaring, pristine acidity. A tight fist of skinsy, spicy tannins holds it all together. There’s no escaping Shiraz’s power here, but there’s playfulness and purity, too, that’s utterly charming. Vine Street Imports. Editors’ Choice.

Jauma 2017 Like Raindrops… Grenache (McLaren Vale); $30, 92 points. James Erskine is one of Australia’s natural wine pioneers, and he has sourced fruit from the same organic vineyards for a decade. This wine offers bright cherry, sap, baking spice, earth and flower stalks that bounce out of the glass. There’s volatility here, but it mostly lifts rather than detracts. The palate is light to medium in weight, bursting with acidity and juicy fruit. Enjoy slightly chilled. Tess Bryant Selections.

Koerner 2018 La Korse Red (Clare Valley); $30, 92 points. The boundary-pushing Koerner brothers hit yet another home run with this small-batch, characterful red blend (Cab Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Cab Franc and Malbec). A heady combo of wild strawberries, orange rind, cherry preserve, hoisin sauce, tomato leaf and minerals, it’s light and bright, the tangy, silky fruit puckering and crunching, caressed by soft fine tannins and finishing on a red-berry and spice note. Drink slightly chilled as the seasons change. Little Peacock Imports.

Luke Lambert 2017 Syrah (Yarra Valley); $65, 92 points. This is aromatic in a rush of fresh blackberries, florals, cinnamon and a streak of hot stone. The palate is light to medium bodied and brings a stalky, stony crunch to compliment the soft, silky texture and juicy fruit. It finishes savory and tangy, with the lifted acidity urging you to take another sip. Vine Street Imports.

Sam Vinciullo 2018 Cowaramup Sauvignon Blanc (Margaret River); $36, 92 points. Resembling cloudy apple juice in appearance, this skin-contact white shows none of the canned vegetable characters often found in Margaret River Sauvignon Blanc. Instead, the nose weaves an intricate web of wet hay, beeswax, flowers, grapefruit pith, nuts and wet stones. The palate is beautifully waxy in texture and not as viscous as one might suspect, lifted by crystalline acidity. Tess Bryant Selections.