If anyone was still under the impression that Australian wine was all about homogeneity, technical winemaking and soulless corporates, attending the Rootstock Festival would soon set them straight. This year’s event in Sydney, which celebrates a natural and sustainable approach to wine, was the first I’d attended. And it drove home just how exciting and eclectic Australian wine can be, showcased here alongside some intriguing international counterparts.
Sameness was certainly not something that could be detected in its exhibitors. Amongst the Australian producers alone I sampled unusual assemblages that encompassed a Merlot Semillon to field blends created from multiple red and white varieties. It was teeming with textural skin-contact “whites” in shades from lemon to deep amber. Then there were the fresh and fragrant Syrahs, picked earlier than their historical counterparts, with a brightness and drinkability to lure many a jaded ex-Shiraz drinker back into the fold. Plus there was a profusion of crisp and cloudy “pet nats” delivered at varying stages of effervescence through their continued fermentation unfiltered in bottle.
In contrast to the winemaking wizardry that had come to charcaterise Australian wine, many of those poured at Rootstock were the product of very old winemaking techniques. The field blends harked back to an era before variety was king; when vignerons often had little idea of the different grapes they had planted on a single site and so harvested and fermented them all together. Proponents of this method consider that the resulting wines can be a more complete and truer expression of a single site than if they’d made all the varieties there into individual bottlings. It certainly made for some interesting wines.
“Orange” wines also abounded at the event, which included some benchmarks for comparison from the ancient winemaking country of Georgia. For thousands of years, its winemakers have been fermenting and maturing white grapes along with the skins that are disposed off very early on in most modern white winemaking. These skins impart both their golden to amber hue and a structure akin to a red. In Australia, as in a number of countries, the style has become an underground hit with winemakers and drinkers, and here as elsewhere they can be something of a mixed bag. The best displayed beguilingly intense aromatics and appealing pithy grip. The less successful had astringency that possibly wouldn’t be offset by the food with which this style was made to pair. It was good that visitors could enjoy the style in the way it’s best appreciated, by combining a glass from the Orange Wine Bar in situ with the sustainable food that was also part of the proceedings.
This minimal intervention in winemaking was a character shared by all wineries invited to Rootstock. This means using natural yeasts, no winemaking additions and little or none of the common preservative sulphur. It’s a philosophy which means imperfect fruit has nowhere to hide, but when applied to great grapes from great sites, regularly results in wines with purity and transparency that makes for some of the world’s most thrilling wines. And I certainly experienced some thrills at the fair!
This year, Rootstock’s organisers decided it wasn’t enough to keep the chemicals out of the wine, but away from the vines as well now, permitting only wines produced from organic-farmed vineyards to be shown. It’s a stand that I applaud, as to my mind, sustainable and natural wine must start from that philosophy in the vineyard. If a vigneron wants to truly express the character of their site, which is what gives a great wine its uniqueness, it’s best not to subdue this by dousing it with synthetic pesticides and herbicides. The number of wines that really conveyed their sense of place at Rootstock this year was testament that this really is the way forward.
Provenance and its clear articulation is what elevates wine from being just another drink. And it’s not alone, as the other non-wine producers at the festival illustrated. Two really caught my attention. One was Two Metre Tall Brewery, which unlike most brewers grows the grains, hops and all that goes into its beers made on its Tasmanian farm. Another was Belgrove Distillery, which again sources and makes everything for its rye whisky and other products from its bio-fuelled estate and distillery.
It’s telling that the Rootstock website lists its exhibitors under the heading “artisans” as everyone I encountered, united here by an ultra-natural approach, was a small producer. I don’t think I’ve ever visited a wine festival with a less corporate vibe. On a purely visual level there were tattoos, dreadlocks and crazy colourful labels aplenty. Going deeper, I enjoyed having real conversations with those intimately involved with the wines they were showing, who conveyed a personal passion for the product they were pouring. Not one marketing spiel did I hear across the tasting table.
It was a refreshing and stimulating day indeed for both the mind and the senses. If it’s been a while since you ventured into Australian wine, I’d encourage you to take another look. And maybe make a beeline for the Rootstock Festival next year if you want to encounter so much goodness in one place!
There were just too many exciting wines to cover here, so I’ve selected a handful of local examples that particularly impressed and piqued my interest across a spectrum of styles, as well as a few from further afield.
Ochota Barrels “The Fugazi Vineyard” McLaren Vale Grenache 2016
The 2014 vintage of this wine made my last top wines of the year. The latest release, made from 68-year-old vines, looks just as seductive with its ethereally textured raspberry fruit infused with notes of herb and exotic spice. Having admired the wines from afar, it was also great to at last meet their maker, Taras Ochota too!
Ravensworth Riesling Ancestral Murrumbateman 2016
Ravensworth’s “pet nat” epitomises the sheer fun and freshness to be found in the style. It’s cloudy, with a gentle effervescence and is now on the drier side (after being bottled with 12 g/l residual sugar). With its fresh citrusy tang, it’s akin to drinking homemade lemonade and goes down just as easily!
Sam Vinciullo Warner Glen Red/White Margaret River 2016
It was the first time I’d encountered the wines of Sam Viciullo, but then he’s not long been back from a stint making wine on Italy’s Mount Etna with the likes of Frank Cornelissen. Now making his own label with no additions and no oak in Margaret River, his Red/White is an intriguing blend of Merlot and Semillon. It initially came about by chance when he decided to blend the tiny quantity of Semillon he had the previous vintage in with some Merlot. It worked so well he did it again this vintage, and the result is a light coloured wine with soft red berry/cherry fruit, florals notes, hints of marzipan and a bright line of acid.
Tommy Field by Tommy Ruff Barossa Valley Syrah 2015
Having enjoyed many of Tom Shobbrook’s wines in the past, when I finally got to meet him in person at Rootstock I had the uncanny feeling of knowing him already. Such is the power of wine! Tommy Field is the new name for what was Romanee Tuff, and is another senstaionally fresh and lifted Syrah that’s poles apart from the overripe and overoaked Barossa Shirazes that can be hard to so hard drink. It’s picked early – often in mid-February – to retain freshness, which is to the fore in this lifted and complex wine with its bright but deep plum fruit, notes of sweet spice, touch of herb and fine tannins.
Millton Libiamo Gisborne 2015
Of all the orange wines I tried – and there were quite a few – this example from Australasian organic and biodynamic pioneers, Millton was one of New World standouts. Cloudy, peach-coloured and highly perfumed, it fuses intense aromatics of rose florals, Earl Grey tea, rosemary and lemon oil and finishes on an attractive pithy note.
Cacique Maravilla Pipeño Vino Tinto Bio Bio Pais 2016
Pais was once the most widely planted grape in Chile, but fell out of favour and became widely considered fit only for bulk wine. However, in recent years it’s seen something of a revival, and from tasting a range at Rootstock I can see how its light and fresh profile is in tune with current tastes. This example was made from vines that are almost 300 years old, planted by the great-great grandfather of the current owner, Manuel Moraga made in the traditional Pipeño style in open rauli casks. Pink in colour and light in weight and texture, its pretty red cherry fruit in joined by hints of quinine, herb and smoke over a subtle savoury undercurrent.
Phillipe Bornard Pupillin Vin Jaune Arbois, Jura 2008
New York somms may have been the ones who helped place France’s tiny Jura region on the world wine map, but it’s worth looking beyond the hype to explore its paradoxical wines. With a number of Jura producers present, the region was the focus of one of Rootstock’s talks, where Phillipe Bornard presented this Vin Jaune, a unique unfortified style that’s aged oxidatively under a veil of yeast. While many Vins Jaune are aged in drafty attics, this one was matured in a cellar, resulting in a particularly refined style with less of the classic nutty character and more focus on its crisp green apple fruit, notes of mineral and savoury yeasty undercurrent.