There are times in a wine professional’s life when excitement simply gets the better of you, and for me the Artisans of Australian Wine was one of those occasions. After nearly three decades of tastings it is inevitable that one becomes, if not cynical, then jaded by the promise of something new and extraordinary and it takes something that is genuinely extraordinary to shake you out of that malaise. Well, this week's Artisans tasting rocked me to my very core and I'm not just referring to Taras Ochota's magnificent Black Flag t-shirt. The Artisans of Australian Wine event was a revelation. The wines were as brilliant and bold as the personalities who created them, the honesty with which they were presented utterly refreshing - no side, no marketing spin, simply a 'this is what I do, what I believe in and the wines I like to drink'. It was a no-holds barred presentation of wines of often arresting brilliance by winemakers who are concerned with wine, not brand.
The Artisans of Australian Wine, NOT your usual tasting
In the unusual, to say the least, setting of the Cargo Club, an audience that included everyone from Masters of Wine, internationally acclaimed critics such as Steven Spurrier, Charles Metcalfe and Oz Clarke to leading sommeliers like Stephen Nisbet and Giovanni Giannini, tasted the future of Australian wine and were left with a very pleasing impression of that future.
‘It's the most important tasting you've done in 20 years’
The atmosphere was informal and engaged and felt more like a gathering of enthusiasts rather than trade professionals, and with every wine that was tasted it seemed that the 'concept' of the Artisans took deeper root. Snatches of overheard praise and grinned whispers of appreciation were everywhere. It was a joyous, almost celebratory atmosphere that seemed driven by the central premise that what had been promised - no ordinary tasting and no ordinary wines - had been delivered.
The wines were not the only stars...
The wines on show were as exuberant as they were diverse. With over 220 on show presented by winemakers Wine Australia grouped as 'The Minimalists', 'The Naturals', 'The Alternatives', 'The Terroir Hunters' and 'The Cool’, there was obviously much to get excited about. That said the reaction to the wines was exceptionally impressive, take BK Wines which were presented by the passionate, yet serious, Brendan and Kirstyn Keys. Their flight of wines ran from the playful Petillant Naturel, a juicy, ripe fizz with plenty of character by way of a striking Savagnin which exuded yeasty complexity to the mighty Mazi Syrah, an unctuous, fleshy wine whose balance of concentration and freshness typified many of the wines on show. In the case of Ochota Barrels it's hard for me to say whether the wine or the winemaker was the star. After all it's not often (ever) in my experience that a winemaker appears sporting a Black Flag t-shirt and offering you a glass of his 'Fugazi', hero status was immediately conferred. His wines, however, were as thrilling as anything that messrs Rollins or MacKaye could conjure. The 'Weird Berries in the Woods' presented a stripped-down style of Gewürztraminer - no oily rose petals here - that was dry, piercing and intense, while his 'impeccable Disorder Pinot Noir' was just a glass of the most incredibly pure, visceral red berry fruits. The wine that really excited Taras was his '186 Grenache' which boasted a freshness and depth that fully lived up to Australian Grenache's growing reputation for sublime quality.
From the sensational to the seminal - Artisans of Australian Wine
Lethbridge Wines provided yet another revelation. These were far more seminal wines - unsurprising perhaps given that winemaker Ray Nadeson used to be a neuroscientist. Coming on the back of the immediacy of Ochota Barrels they were wines that took a few moments to come to terms with, but once one began to explore, under the expert guidance of Ray, their beauty and harmony came together perfectly. I use the word harmony advisedly as Ray sees his wines as compositions; arrangements that use vines as diverse as Pinot Noir, Negroamaro and Pinot Meunière to craft a range of wines that are symphonic in their complexity, yet populist in their accessibility. The depth to these wines was astonishing – an oft-repeated term in my notes – from his Riesling, which blended Alsatian steel with Mosel ripeness, to his Shiraz, these were wines that invited contemplation. Jaysen Collins' Massena wines were, for me at least, a highlight of the Artisans. Jaysen is an extremely likeable guy whose passion is as evident as his self-effacement. ‘These are wines I like to drink, and I like the physical act of making them.’ His wines carry signatures of classic Barossa ripeness and depth but by using grapes as innovative as Saperavi, Tannat and Primitivo he is crafting something new. His approach is to use vines as building blocks, as ingredients that will create a liquid dish that is far greater than the sum of its parts. On the evidence of this encounter, he’s succeeding with aplomb.
The Artisans of Australian Wine leave a lasting impression
I was not alone in finding these wines revelatory. Other seasoned tasters were taken aback by the quality and sheer innovation on show. It reminded me of my earliest encounters with Australian wine when audible gasps and excited chatter were common reactions. It’s been years since I was so blown away by any tasting and I couldn’t agree more with Jamie Goode’s assessment that Australian Wine has got its mojo back. Reflecting on the Artisans I feel myself privileged to have been able to attend. As I get older so I become lazier when it comes to tastings; I travelled over 250 miles to attend the Artisans and not only would I do it again, I’d happily walk there to do it. What we witnessed at the Artisans was the emergence of something special. A new chapter in the Australian wine story, a story I will be closely following…
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