Firm set shoulders, a furrowed brow and an overall intensity greet me on a sunny autumn day towards the end of the 2022 harvest and I immediately get the impression that Ben Haines is not one to do things by halves. Before we settle in to talk, Haines performs a bit of an interview of me (he likes to do his homework) and three hours later, the two of us hug goodbye with a genuine warmth and the promise of sharing a bottle of marsanne sometime soon. Haines, like his wines, isn’t interested in first impressions, he’s interested in making a lasting one.
He first made his name on the Victorian wine scene at Mitchelton, where he cut his teeth with the distinctive textural whites and Rhône blends of winemaker Don Lewis. At the end of 2014, Haines took the helm at Mount Langi Ghiran and as head winemaker, received critical acclaim for the particularly renowned 2015 vintage. Combine these two winemaking stints with a viticultural degree from Roseworthy, two vintages at the biodynamic estate Chêne Bleu in the south of France, and his latest pursuit as a student of the Master of Wine program and there’s not much Haines hasn’t tried to cram into a 20-year winemaking career.
Throughout most of this period, his eponymous side hustle remained a passion project, until a combination of renewed focus and time on his hands during two years of lockdowns saw the business rebranded to become what it is today.
“I’d been thinking about this for quite some time,” he says. “It was very much driven by this desire to develop something that reflected me more. I wanted something that was just oozing this sort of freedom and creativity and colour.”
Haines produces three categories of wines under his label. The Everyday Series provides stylistically consistent expressions of varietal and regional blends each year, consisting of a white, amber and red release. His classic single-site varietal expressions form the Colour Block Series, currently consisting of chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah from sites in the Yarra Valley and Grampians regions. The top tier of the portfolio, the Design Series, is where Haines flexes his winemaking muscles, producing “very personal, very singular wines that reflect very specific places and very much reflect me as a winemaker, too”.
These wines are where his free-flowing approach to marsanne, nebbiolo and syrah – among others – is particularly evident. In a way that is significantly different to most producers of his size, Haines’ approach to the sporadic nature of fruit availability – a problem for many winemakers in a region as sought-after as the Yarra Valley – has been to develop a brand entirely unrestrained by what he calls a “home region”.
“I had worked in lots of regions, had access to lots of vineyards, I didn’t have a home or a winery. I [had to] rely on different vineyards. Because it wasn’t always secure, I embraced that and I said, ‘Okay, what is it that excites me about winemaking?’”
Haines did his first vintage in Nagambie using local fruit. His second was in France and the third in the Yarra Valley using fruit from the region and from satellite vineyards in the Pyrenees, Beechworth and the Grampians. The common theme is his fastidious attention to detail in choosing sites that have something interesting to say – and sites that use organic farming practices.
“Every year you’re doing something exciting and new,” Haines tells me. “Every year I give my interpretation of that place and the next year, it will be different. It’s an exploration of Victorian vineyards.”
We pop next door to look at the ferments still ticking over and find a couple of vats of Yarra Valley syrah humming away. “I think syrah can be so many things and I think that’s the beauty of it,” says Haines. “This year I’ve harvested syrah from one block to see it as two things: a sparkling base and also as a whole-berry, slightly carbonic fermented syrah. I think the essence of shiraz is what you make of it and that’s sort of what I’m saying. You’re only limited by what you think you should do and what others are doing and – especially in the Old World – what you have to do. But just because you don’t have any limitations or boundaries doesn’t mean that you’re doing everything right on the edge. It just allows you to fully expand your ideas.”
We walk over to a marsanne fermenting on skins, expressing surprising caraway and almost cumin-like aromas. Skin-contact winemaking is a relatively new area of exploration for Haines, but one that seems to suit his open-minded approach, as does the use of oxidation – most clearly evident in the release of his 2011 Flowers Marsanne in 2021. Ten years ago, Haines allocated two barrels’ worth of marsanne to flor yeast-affected barrels. The wine underwent flor-ageing for 18 months, a process regularly used in the vin jaune styles of the Jura, as well as fortified winemaking styles in Jerez (Sherry), followed by a period of just under a decade under ullage.
Haines’ face suddenly brightens upon describing the process. “The journey that it went through is just incredible,” he recalls. “It went through these really beautiful, nutty oxidative stages and then it went through some really scary types of VA [volatile acidity] stages like the whole range. I stuck at it because I had this idea that if you go long, long, long, long-term, amazing things are going to happen. Each year it looked better and better.”
The wine sold at a record pace upon release, receiving praise from critics and wine-lovers alike. What those people didn’t know, was that for a decade, Haines had been relying entirely on faith that this project would turn out positively, slowly incorporating wines from previous vintages into a new-found solera- including roussanne and a single puncheon of chardonnay all transforming through flor and oxidative ageing processes.
“This was like the holy grail of reaching that level of oxidation,” he says. “The complexity of the rancio character in it is like tasting nuts and coffee for days. The aromas are just so wild. I believe in this idea and what can be revealed through that level of oxidisation with the right varieties and the right circumstances and the right treatment – and patience.”
While the solera approach is quite deliberate, the set-up at the vineyard has its limits in a way that is distinctly lo-fi. No temperature control, a healthy existing yeast load and very little winemaking equipment means Haines uses gravity to transfer wine from one vessel to another, sunlight to heat up ferments, and the cooler morning temperatures to determine the best picking times.
Nothing is filtered, just racked off solids and eye-balled to determine what is a good level of texture. Minuscule sulphur is added upon bottling.
“I am walking a fine line of risk and there is a bit of [living] on the edge with that,” he admits. “But that’s where you get expressive wines, that’s where it becomes creative because you have to react and you’re really in it.
“I rely entirely on connection with the natural environment. It all comes down to picking and timing, because I’m bringing [the fruit] in here for that transformation with very little ability to intervene. The [wines] sort of pop out the end of it being what they are. So you’re leaving it a bit to chance,” he says.
“I’m obsessive about cleaning but there’s nothing added and nothing’s taken away.”
For those inclined to label this approach ‘natural winemaking’, you won’t find Haines disagreeing. However, he would probably suggest that natural winemaking does tend to mean that people put him in a box and that’s something he shies away from.
“Call it what you want, but at the end of the day, we’re organic mostly and increasingly, some biodynamic practices and regenerative, definitely,” he sums up. “The farming is really important to my beginnings in viticulture and in the winery. There’s been various regional or stylistic movements or natural wine movements. I’ve never consciously bought into any of that. I’m just doing my thing and it is what it is.”
Later that night, I pour a glass of his 2019 Miner’s Ridge Syrah. The wine is slow to reveal itself, and I am reminded of the way his face crinkled when describing his daughter’s desire to be a part of the design process for her dad’s label (her cartoon figures grace the top of each of his corks). A few minutes later and the dense black-fruited palate suddenly relaxes; a lilting mulberry note is joined by a hint of violet and a freshness that is uncannily cool and familiar. It tastes both of the grapes fresh out of the press and the smell of the damp cellar. It’s a remarkably honest picture. It turns out Ben Haines’ wines taste like how he comes across: a little raw, brimming with tension, and unapologetically ambitious. I can’t help but admire him for that.
2021 Ben Haines Colour Block Blanc de Now, Yarra Valley, A$40
An undisgorged traditional method sparkling, 100% pinot noir from Steels Creek. The wine has notes of underripe strawberry and crunchy red apple sitting in tandem with toasted sesame, cereal and slightly hay-like yeast notes from time left on lees.
2021 Ben Haines Colour Block Chardonnay, Yarra Valley, A$40
Sourced from two sites in Gruyere, classic Yarra Valley notes of white gardenia, ripe peach and chewy, nougatine overtones. Medium-bodied with mouth-watering saline and papaya elements, refreshing acidity and an overall expressiveness that is quite impressive for its youth.
2021 Ben Haines Colour Block Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley, A$40
Steels Creek pinot noir from the winery site, wild raspberry and redcurrant with crunchy acidity. Bright red cherry finishes on the palate with very dusky layers of chalky tannin. Quite a vivacious style with a youthful restraint.
2019 Ben Haines Firelights Syrah, Grampians, A$70
Vineyard. A densely packed, black-fruited palate is constrained by earthy, slightly brambly tones of black olive and pepper spice. Patience rewards the drinker with notes of wild fennel seed, violet and black mulberry. A refreshing and deeply complex wine.