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Sam Vinciullo (above), part of a cadre of Australian winemakers rejecting conventional thinking, makes wine in the Margaret River area of Western Australia.

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Kindred spirits include Emma Epstein (above) of Ruggabellus Wines in South Australia.

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James Erskine (above) of Jauma Wines, also in South Australia.

'Natural' winemakers showcase rugged beauty of Aussie vintage

Apr 12, 2019 5:50 AM

Basket Range, Australia

BY DAY, Alex Schulkin studies topics in wine chemistry, such as texture, for the Australian Wine Research Institute, which is supported by mainstream grape growers and wine producers.

When he leaves work, Mr Schulkin heads to an unprepossessing warehouse outside this small town in the Adelaide Hills. There, he and his wife, Galit Shachaf, make gentle, lovely wines under the Other Right label that come alive in the glass, free of additives, manipulations and the other trappings of the conventional winemaking he studies.

The Other Right is just one of many producers that are part of a thriving wine counterculture in Australia, clustered here in the Adelaide Hills but extending throughout many of the nation's winemaking regions.

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This counterculture is not a single group of winemakers working towards one goal, but a spectrum encompassing many different degrees of rebellion from the mainstream Australian standards set in the 1990s. What they have in common is the myriad beautiful wines they produce.

On one end are those who embrace extreme interpretations of natural wine, producers lsuch as Anton Van Klopper (of the Lucy Margaux label), James Erskine (Jauma) and Travis Tausend in the Adelaide Hills, Tom Shobbrook in Barossa and Sam Vinciullo of Margaret River.

On another part of the spectrum are producers who are subversive but not single-minded, who reject being called natural winemakers, either because they dislike the term's connotations or they do not live up to their personal definition of the genre. They include La Violetta and Brave New Wine in Denmark in the Great Southern region, Blind Corner and Si Vintners in Margaret River, and Gentle Folk and Ochota Barrels in the Adelaide Hills.

And there are outliers such as Abel Gibson and Emma Epstein of Ruggabellus, in Barossa, who make complex, challenging yet gorgeous wines that show the influence of Radikon and Gravner, masters of ancient-reborn-as-modern styles in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of north-eastern Italy.

These are not producers who dabble in more low-tech styles. They excel at them, showing little tolerance for careless winemakers who accept flaws, or wannabes who value theory over practice.

While no more than a niche in the entire country's wine culture, Australia's natural winemakers, like natural producers around the globe, have assumed an outsize influence that goes far beyond their numbers.

Biodynamic farming

With their emphasis on minimalist winemaking and organic or biodynamic farming, these producers have unintentionally become a sort of conscience to the industry, a voice in the heads of wine drinkers everywhere, asking questions that go beyond taste to issues of health, morality and philosophy, all while making wine that ranges from delicious to profound.

Such issues cannot be raised without causing anger and resentment. Few debates in wine during the past 15 years have been more heated or emotional than the arguments over the meaning and importance of natural wine. From a small, unorganised cadre of producers in France, their numbers have spread through all corners of the wine-producing world.

Even so, "natural wine" remains undefined and subject to dispute, not least among the producers themselves. It is above all an ideal, a desire to farm with respect for nature and centuries-old traditions, and to make wine with as little intervention as possible - with no added yeast or bacteria for fermentations, no acidity or tannins beyond what came with the grapes and nothing to enhance or alter texture, flavours, aromas or colour.

The most contentious issue is whether small amounts of sulfur dioxide, a kind of cure-all antioxidant and preservative, should be employed at all.Sulfur in one form or other has been used in wine for ages.

Some producers choose to use a little sulfur dioxide before bottling to avoid risks, accepting the tapering, narrowing effect on aromas and flavours it might have. Others do not, preferring the increased vibrancy and unmediated aromas and flavours that can come without sulfites.

Instead, they seek stability through meticulous hygiene and winemaking, scrupulous attention to detail and keeping the pH of the wine low enough to discourage unwanted microbiological life.

Mr Schulkin, who began his wine studies in Israel before coming to South Australia, chooses not to use sulfur dioxide, but he is easygoing about it. "We don't mind life in our bottles, but we don't like activity, so we prefer low pH," he said. "It's not about avoiding risks, but about managing them."

Sam Vinciullo, who makes wine in the Margaret River region of Western Australia, is not nearly so laid-back. He is resolutely anti-sulfur, just as he is uncompromising in what he demands of others and of himself.

Unlike Mr Schulkin and some other natural winemakers who buy grapes because they cannot afford their own vineyards, Mr Vinciullo has essentially put everything into leasing an old vineyard and all his winemaking equipment.

He would rather do all the farming himself than allow others a role. Indeed, he says he has at times camped out alongside a vineyard, rather than cede control.

Yet he makes delicious, unconventional wines, such as his 2018 Warner Glen White/Red, 75 per cent sauvignon blanc and 25 per cent shiraz, which is fresh, pure and textured, like biting into fresh fruit. He says winemakers who work naturally must be both meticulous and willing to wait. Too often, seeking return on investment, producers rush wines into bottles and then to market.

Aura of informality

Mr Vinciullo has very little time, however, for others who don't share his militancy. He is sceptical of winemakers who say they work organically but add "just a little sulfur", and he refuses to sell wine to people who he believes do not understand what he is trying to do. He struggles himself with compromises his situation requires him to make.

"Every time I spray sulfur in the vineyard, I die a little inside," he said.

Taras Ochota in the Adelaide Hills has inspired a number of local producers who work naturally, including Basket Range Wine and Commune of Buttons, but he does not want to be called a natural wine producer. "It's a bit annoying, actually," he said. He farms organically, and succeeds in making juicy, crunchy, delicious wines that develop over time. But he likes to use a little sulfur dioxide.

While he loves wine of acidity, that feel alive, he is not a fan of genres that are popular among natural wine producers, such as p├ętillant naturel, or of rigid attitudes. "Snobbiness comes more from the hardcore natural winemakers who think anything with sulfur dioxide is trash," he said. "The old order is a bit more accepting and curious." Younger Australians have been attracted to natural wines more by the aura of informality and unpretentiousness.

Way over in Denmark, in the Great Southern region in far south-western Australia, Andrew Hoadley of La Violetta makes a set of wonderful wines. He avoids the term "natural wine" because he thinks it is divisive and because he chooses to use small amounts of sulfur dioxide.

Still, he embodies its rebellious ideal. He worked in Australia's corporate wineries, and saw first-hand how fruitiness was valued over savoury complexity in red wines, and how whites were made using cautious methods that avoided risk at all costs. NYTIMES