A wind of change is blowing through the wine industry. This wind isn’t gusting in from the upper atmosphere, it’s bubbling up from the murky depths of tanks and barrels and amphorae and cauldrons, often down the end of dirt tracks in previously very respectable wine districts.
For anyone interested in the future of wine beyond the next bottle, it’s a significant weather event. Natural wine, it’s called, and a lot of it is biodynamic, or at least organic, but that’s only part of the story. The defining characteristic of this new kid in the cellar involves that aforementioned wind again, and the throwing of caution to it.
In the past, risk was rarely welcome in winemaking and in recent decades hardly at all. Most of those frisky biochemical hordes causing havoc when a grape is squeezed have been brought sharply into line by science. Better a few white coats among the whites, than red faces at the tasting table. And science has done a great job. If I can introduce a personal note, in a lifetime of imbibing I’ve turned my back on just-opened bottles countless times and not once has the wine crawled out, slimed down the table leg and eaten my dog. Just saying.
But now, revolution. Young winemakers around the world, often with deep knowledge of and experience in high-tech winemaking, are reaching back through the eons to the way wine was made when human society was in its infancy and sauvignon blanc hadn’t even been invented.
It’s a brave, messy, risky, unpredictable, glorious adventure. Sacrilege in some eyes, gritty in others if a bottle explodes, but always interesting. And one of its highlights each year was Sydney’s Rootstock Festival, a two-day celebration of passion, optimism, ratbaggery and just a bit of volatility (in a nice way). Let’s pay it a visit.
Just because natural wine appears to involve a lot of random spontaneous behaviour, by the wine molecules if not the winemakers, that’s no reason in my view to approach this weekend like a randomly-colliding pinot proton.
We need a plan. The danger of trying to encapsulate 300 wines in 1,500 words is it can get boring. You only have five words per wine, and once you’ve written, This wine is very, you’re down to one word.
So I’ve made the executive decision to write about a single wine in each category, making sure each one is indicative of the entire natural wine ethos and marketing/pricing/sediment philosophy. Phew, disaster averted.
The following notes, however, aren’t quite as structured as I’d hoped. For all their phenomenal achievement in bringing together 60 or so wild-eyed winemaking iconoclasts from Australia, New Zealand, France and Italy, complete with significant quantities of tasting samples, the Rootstock organisers did make one decision that was in itself a teeny bit iconoclastic.
Granted, the placement of the spit buckets at an event like this is a tricky decision. Do you put them on the floor to give extra distance for the show-offs who practice all year by spitting toothpaste into the bathroom sink from their bed? Or do you put the buckets on the tasting tables for the rest of us who need to pick them up and stick our heads into them and hide our dribbly shame?
The previous year they were on the tables, and I remember feeling sorry for the winemakers standing there for sixteen hours, watching the fruits of their labours dribbling down thousands of chins. This time the buckets are much bigger, more like plastic barrels, but placed about 10 metres from the tables. An impossible distance to spit across, even for people with big bedrooms. Which means we have to carry each tasting sample from the table to the barrel, either in our glass or our mouth, or our hanky if we really hate it.
Rootstock takes place at Carriageworks, in a vast historic space where railway commuter rolling stock used to be made. An inspired choice, because each time we get lazy and sneak in a swallow, the ghosts of workers past will gently remind us to catch public transport home.
I decide to do whites first. I think this is where the most interesting natural wine action is. All those pristine pure whites of recent decades, chaste and micromanaged, the virgin princes and princesses of the wine fridge, this is where they’re transformed. Few months of skin contact and they’re Bette Midler in a bottle.
I’ve brought a friend along. An enthusiastic amateur taster like me, but with a bit of wine-branding experience. We’re chatting about how different from the norm is most of the label design and branding here today.
“The average punter,” says my friend, “would probably run a mile just from the look of that.”
He points to a row of trendily-shaped clear bottles with cloudy contents. Bearing labels Francis Bacon might have done at kindy. And a brand name that even I, a wine adventurer, have to read twice to believe.
“Yetti and the Kokonut,” I mutter. “How on earth do they sell that wine?”
We see the winemakers looking at us. Driven by a heady mix of curiosity and guilt, we accept their kind offer of a taste. And realise instantly how they sell their wine. Very fast, every bottle they make, to clamouring adoring devotees.
Their gewürztraminer is a revelation. I’ve rarely experienced such utter decadent deliciousness. This is gewürz played by a jazz great. Seducing us with the original melody, but at the same time taking us far away to somewhere even more interesting. Is that coconut I can taste? And possibly yeti?
And their savagnin. I’m a big fan of this variety in the vin jaune of Jura, but remove the flor process and transplant it to Australia and it’s never really worked for me. Until today. I don’t want to spit this out. I want to keep it in my mouth until bedtime. Next Thursday’s bedtime.
I’ll be honest, I’m not a big rosé fan. I lived in Provence for a while and could never get used to the sight of it coming out of a petrol bowser at the local co-op. But this Travis Tausend Mataro Rosé from Clare Valley is healing the trauma. Long and complex, yet still fresh and fragrant, I think this could be the way forward for the Aussie rosé sector. In case any rosé makers are interested, Travis said I could share his recipe:
1. Go to Clare.
2. Buy some mataro.
3. Jump up and down on it.
4. Put it in your car.
5. Break down on the way home.
6. Swear a lot while it has roadside skin contact for five and a half hours.
Very delicious. With a bit of luck next vintage the tow truck’ll take even longer to arrive.
As the day progresses, two things are becoming evident. A lot of people have completely given up spitting. Many of them have also given up all other activities apart from delivering long slurred monologues to the winemakers, some of whom are looking tempted to use more skin contact than they ever have before.
I on the other hand have made 100s of trips to the plastic barrels, usually alone. My feet are killing me. My health app tells me I’ve done my 10,000 steps today and it’s not even lunchtime.
The other thing you can’t help but notice is that the fledgling world of natural wine already has its rock stars. All the tasting tables are busy, but there are large groupie-clumps around certain winemakers. It’s like Liverpool in the 60s, but with better pinot.
Compared to the whites, roses, pét-nats and co-ferments, the reds here today are a little more conventional. But often with just enough rule-breaking to beguile and delight. Which is the case with my pick, the Manon cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir blend from the Adelaide Hills called Farm Rosato. Lots of the Rootstock reds combine lightness with heavyweight complexity, and this one is a beauty.
As is the Blind Corner Shiraz from Margaret River. Oops, discipline breach. But this is just too good to leave out. Carbonic maceration, what would we do without you? If it was an alternative to burial or cremation, I’d put it in my will.
Pétillant-naturel: natural fizz to the uninitiated. Which was me until today. After a run in with an irritable bottle shop owner in Lyon, I always thought pét-nat stood for Petulance Naturel.
This 2017 pét-nat pinot noir rosé blend called Bright Young Thing from The Other Right is jaw-dropping. And I’m not talking about the weird name because after today I don’t even notice such things any more. I’m talking about a wine that fills the nostrils, seduces the palate and dazzles the mind, all with an alcohol content of 8.8%. I know. It’s not a misprint. Think about it. 8.8%. Only twice the strength of beer. With 18 times the flavour. How do they do it, officer?
I can’t choose just one of them, I can’t do it. It’s partly exhaustion from walking the equivalent of here to Mudgee and back, and partly because my mind is completely boggled with the taste of the new. And now this. Pinot noir and riesling, fermented together? And pinot noir, syrah and pinot gris? Can anything be more amazing than that?
Well actually it can. There’s another reason I’ve chaffed my feet so relentlessly on the spit trail today. Mike Bennie, beloved to readers of this magazine, co-founder of Rootstock, tireless champion of all things natural, fundraising genius for many a worthy cause, had an idea at the 2016 Rootstock. He arranged to save the contents of all the spit buckets, a heady mix of 200 wines and 2,000 salivas. He and his comrades then had this unique liquid distilled into a kind of … well I guess with the wine content it’s a sort of grappa. They put it in 200ml bottles and called it Kiss From A Stranger. Though strictly speaking it’s healthier than that because distilling does a better job on mouth germs than even expertly spat toothpaste.
Then they sold it for charity. Which just about sums up this whole crazy creative irrepressible in-your-face recycled-but-with-a-new-twist approach to drinking pleasure.
I’m hoping they’ll do it again this year. But they’ll have to call it Kiss From A Columnist because half the saliva in those plastic barrels will be mine.
Rootstock unfortunately will not go ahead this year. Mike Bennie, Giorgio de Maria and James Hird thank patrons for their support.