The Naturals are about as far from industrial viticulture as you can get.
Conventional modern farming of all kinds has striven to control nature. Synthetic inputs like chemical fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides have sought to encourage plant growth, prevent disease and discourage pests. The results, certainly in terms of wines, can be like the super-slick big production numbers of Bing Crosby et al in the 40s and 50s: shiny, perfectly formed and without a blemish. For many years there was little producer or consumer resistance to this type of farming, indeed in the consumer-driven world this type of safe uniformity was welcomed and it came to inhabit the worlds as diverse as wine and music. Thank James Brown, Bob Dylan, Rudolph Steiner, Elvis or the Beatles, but the times they are a changing…
The naturals: making wine with nature
In recent years consumers have been thinking more deeply about what goes into what they consume and producers have pondered the quality and character of their finished products. The search for superficial perfection has been replaced by the quest for authenticity, individuality and for an expressions of place. Nowhere is this quest being more passionately pursued than in Australia, which has the largest amount of agricultural land certified organic worldwide. As part of this a growing number of wineries are adapting their vine growing methods in favour of more environmentally-friendly practices such as farming organically or biodynamically. Like pioneering musicians such as John Martyn or Tom Waits who sought to capture the essence and texture of their music, so these guys are searching for the Australian soul in their wines. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you ‘The Naturals’.
The naturals – more and less
The Naturals are about as far from industrial viticulture as you can get. They all punch out extra hours in the vineyard and spend their days disrupting pests’ breeding cycles, introducing beneficial predators, planting constructive weeds and controlling vineyard hazards like powdery mildew with whey and other natural preparations. Their approach is based on maximum human intervention in the vineyard and minimum chemical intervention in the winery to ensure pure fruit flavours that speak of the place from whence they came. Wayne Ahrens of Smallfry is a typical example of the Naturals:
'Certainly I’ve always been somewhat of a ‘tree hugger’ so that fits in… I’m very much about showcasing our estate, our vineyards. I don’t want chemicals in my workplace. I work in the vineyard, so I don’t want to be surrounded by chemicals there. But it really took off when I made my first natural wine in 2002. It didn’t take me long to realise that it’s easier to have a natural ferment with grapes that haven’t been bashed around by chemicals all their lives.'
Wayne Ahrens, Smallfry Wines, Barossa Valley
Sarah and Iwo
Si Vintners is the brainchild of these Sarah and Iwo and they are all about natural farming and pushing the boundaries in a region that is one of the most conservative in Australian wine. Margaret River may be a hippie surfing town, but the vast majority of its wineries are as conventional and modern as a Coldplay download. In 2010 they chanced upon a vineyard for sale, a vineyard with some of the oldest plantings of Pinot Noir in the region. It was the discovery of this unconventional vineyard that helped inspire their unconventional approach. Sarah and Iwo described their philosophy whilst chatting with Australian advocate for authentic taste and environmental sustainability, The Wine Idealist, ‘Our lifestyle has always tended towards more natural approaches to things, and organic vineyard management is just an extension of that,’ explained Sarah, ‘and when we took over the property, organics was just a no-brainer, with biodynamics being something we’re slowly moving into,’ added Iwo.
Lethbridge Wines grew from a friendship and happy afternoons sipping Burgundy were replaced by weekends searching for the perfect vineyard site. No sooner had that search been completed than another began, how to best reflect and express the vineyard’s sense of place. Happily it wasn’t long before they could call off their search as all roads led naturally to biodynamic practices and old school winemaking techniques. Australian wine writer and bon vivant Mike Bennie is a big fan of Ray and his wines, ‘…he’s a straight-shooting kind of guy with a singularity about how he makes his booze. It is what it is. Spade is spade. He kicked things off in 2003 with partner Maree Collis, ditching careers in medicine and science to make the life of vignerons their metier. Stop, drop and roll.’ Lethbridge’s wines are as characterful and joyous as Mike’s prose.
Castagna Wines in Beechworth is headed-up by Julian Castagna, an ex-adman and film director who gave it all up to pursue his passion for wine. A straight talker who doesn’t suffer fools, Julian started making Australian wines in one of our coolest climates when the fashion was for big, bold, O.T.T. reds and whites that were like sucking on an oak stave. It’s no surprise, then, that he’s one of Australian wine’s greatest advocates for biodynamics, though he thinks the spiritual side of the practice is a crock of ****! ‘Biodynamics is an extremely important tool”, Julian told The Wine Idealist, ‘It’s actually what makes the land talk about the land. The spiritual side means nothing to me. Biodynamics is a farming technique that allows me to express this land in my wines.’
Suzi and Wayne own two vineyards, one in Eden Valley and the other in Vine Vale. They farm a variety of emerging varietals most of which are 100yr+ vines. Both vineyards are certified grade A biodynamic. They made their first natural wine in 2002 from Eden Valley Shiraz. After many vintages working in wineries across the Barossa from very large to smaller estates they started their own brand in 2006, the character of the vineyard is the hero sensitively handled in the winery, resonating in the wines.
The naturals: brilliant wines, naturally
The Naturals, along with the rest of the Artisans are indicative of the many emerging faces of Australian wine. As Australian winemakers gain a deeper understanding of their land and consumers demand ever-more complex and premium wines, so the picture that is Australian wine becomes more complex , more compelling and, naturally, even more brilliant. These are exciting times to be an Australian wine lover, of that there is no doubt.
The Artisans Tasting: meet the makers, share the passion
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