Bryan Martin of Ravensworth Wines.
Clive Dougall shares a love of lo-fi wine.

While 2020 promised clarity and conviction, for many, the year instead brought obscurity and uncertainty. Thanks, in part, to protracted drought conditions of recent years, the year arrived in a blaze of devastating fires that burned across Australia, spewing ash and embers, and choking smoke, which hung in the air for months, like a hazy grey ghoul.

“The smoke just kept on coming,” says winemaker Bryan Martin, of Ravensworth Wines ( ravensworthwines.com.au), in Murrumbateman, NSW. “There were fires burning all around us, and by early January, I realised that the smoke was affecting the vines. It was preventing them from ripening the fruit. Not long after that, I resigned myself to the notion that we might not be able to make wine here this year.”

Nevertheless – as with any good hero’s journey – for those ardent few who were willing to face the chaos, meet Mother Nature head on, and embrace and gladly receive her dreadfully wrapped gifts with clear eyes and full hearts, there was a bright side to be found.

Three hundred kilometres away, Topher Boehm, from Wildflower Brewing & Blending ( wildflowerbeer.com) in Sydney, was already busy salvaging fruit from Tyrrell’s smoke-effected Johnno’s Vineyard, in the Hunter Valley. Boehm has a knack for crossing the boundary between grape and grain, by fermenting, macerating, and blending wine grapes together with certain barrel-aged ales that he makes, such as Wildflower Gold.

“My mum is a really good gardener,” says Boehm. “She used to wear this old green T-shirt while gardening, which said, ‘Compost; because a rind is a terrible thing to waste’, which obviously plays on the old saying ‘a mind is a terrible thing to waste’.

“I guess it must have sunk in,” he continues, “because we do a lot of collaborations with other people and producers, and they’ve always tended to be beers made from by-products of whatever their particular process is.

“We’ve made beer using overbaked bread from (restaurant) Ester, and a couple of times we’ve used the pressed skins from Brash Higgins’ Zibibbo wine, to make a really unique beer. I find the whole process so fascinating.”

Martin picks up the story. “Topher and I met over a late-night snack at Poly, in Sydney,” he recalls. “I remember telling him about my smoke taint results from the Australian Wine Research Institute which were off the charts.”

Boehm chimes in: “To be honest, my immediate thought was, ‘Well, how much beer should we make?’.”

In that moment, a silver lining appeared above the smoky haze of vintage, as the disparate worlds of grape and grain collided. Right then and there, at the aptly named Poly, these two fearless fermenters began calculating and conspiring on how to derive a bright side from this nigh-on wasted vintage.

The result is Bright Side, a series of five fantastic wine-inclined beers made with smoke-tainted viognier, riesling, gamay, sangiovese and shiraz. First, a base beer is brewed by Boehm in Sydney, then sent down to Ravensworth for Martin to rack onto primary fermented, carbonic-macerated wine grapes.

“All the grapes were whole-bunch fermented, using carbonic-maceration, to try and reduce the high levels of smoke, which gets trapped in the skins,” Martin explains.

Boehm muses: “I’m not entirely certain why the smoke that taints the grapes is not as prevalent in beers. I’m always intrigued by that. If you’d just fermented it straight as a wine, it would’ve been noticeably smoky. But a beer? Whether it’s the additional dilution, or maybe it’s just a different meta-biological pathway that changes it, I’m not really sure. It’s fascinating.”

Once primary ferment was finished, these unconventional blends were re-fermented together, bottled, and aged, until their release date, which is due in May 2021.

The release of these very special beers will coincide with a month-long tour around Australia, during which Martin and Boehm will host a series of special events at some of the best bars, restaurants, and bottle shops in the country. The tour kicks off at P&V in Sydney on 7 May, finishing in Hobart on 23 May.

“It’s just been great to know that, with Topher’s help, the 2020 vintage didn’t go to waste,” says Martin. “It’s really been so special working with Topher, and given what we’ve achieved, I’m inclined to say that, actually, 2020 was a good year after all, I guess, because we found the bright side.”