The Wild West

–by Christina Pickard

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This feature first appeared in Gourmet Traveller Wine‘s April/May 2014 issue. Read it here in its full form:

You’ll find them down dirt roads beneath the tin roofs of ramshackle sheds. Amidst second hand tanks and creaky basket presses, Western Australia’s newest generation of winemakers are pushing the boundaries of what it means to make wine in this isolated state. Thanks to WA’s burgeoning restaurant and bar scene, where knowledgeable sommeliers create adventurous lists for increasingly well-travelled and open-minded wine drinkers, the call for wines made in an experimental and playful spirit has never been louder. And this new wave of winemakers is responding. They’re throwing out the rulebook book and doing things their own way.

In the scorching heat of the Swan Valley lurks one of WA’s biggest surprises. Alon and Jodi Arbel at Bella Ridge are making textured, oxidative, and long-lived wines from organically grown old vines and with a very hands-off philosophy.

“This is everything you learn not to do as an Aussie winemaker,” says a cheeky-grinned Alon, waving his cloudy unsulphured Rosé in the air.

Israeli born Alon Arbel arrived on Western Australia’s shores in the early 1990s as a keen windsurfer. He met his wife Jodi shortly after arriving and promptly decided to stay. In his final year as an engineering student, Jodi talked a disillusioned Alon into pursuing his real passion, winemaking. After completing his degree at Curtin University, Alon and Jodi purchased their 25 acre property in WA’s oldest wine region, the Swan Valley. Originally intent on selling their grapes, plans rapidly changed, and they found themselves producing small quantities of wine under their own label.

Today Jodi takes care of the admin side of things while Alon, with his assistant winemaker Justin Stobie, is busy producing a wide range of wines including Chenin Blanc, Semillon, Viognier, Tempranillo, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Kyoho (a Japanese grape used to make a semi-sweet style of wine which was planted by the property’s former Japanese owner–the Arbels couldn’t bear to rip it out!).

Bella Ridge lies on a bowl-shaped strip of gravely loam soil at the base of the Darling Ranges. The 65-year-old vines are almost entirely non-irrigated–not easy in the hot and dry Swan Valley! Yields are kept very low, and grapes are hand-picked. Much of Bella Ridge’s fruit is estate grown but Alon buys in small quantities of grapes like Trebbiano from his 90-year-old Italian neighbour who brought the cuttings over on a boat from Calabria.

Once in the winery, Alon uses all native yeasts and no additives except a sprinkling of sulphur before bottling. He employs lengthy ageing in tanks and older barrels and does not fine. The resulting wines, purposely oxidative, are incredibly textured, complex, and ageworthy, comparable in style to those from ultra-traditional producers like Lopez de Heredia in Rioja or Chateau Musar in Lebanon.

“I’m very influenced by European wines,” says Alon. “I don’t worry about the technicalities, I feel the wine. I’ll try our GSM for ages and say stuff it and throw it out. Or I’ll taste it once and decide it’s ready. There’s a lot more intuition than anything else.”

Like the producers Alon is most influenced by, his wines come alive with food. “Sommeliers love them,” affirms Alon. Bella Ridge wines are listed in some of the country’s top restaurants.

In WA’s most famed and traditional region, Margaret River, a growing number of small-scale producers are breaking the mould and marching to their own beat.

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“At first, no one understood what we were doing,” says Ben Gould, who bought his small vineyard in the Wilyabrup sub region in 2005 with his wife Naomi, after make wine for years locally and then travelling around Europe’s wine regions in a van. Inspired by the winemaking philosophies they learned abroad, Ben and Naomi, spent two years converting their vineyards to biodynamics. In the winery, they were determined to try and make wines without additives, utilising foot stomping, an old basket press, and a concrete egg.

“When we first started, we had no money to buy fancy yeasts and tannins so we used what we had, which was time,” says Ben. “But also, the only way we could make something no one could copy was to let the vineyards speak for themselves. If [all Margaret River producers] use the same oak, tannins and temperature control, we’re all making the same wine.”

Today, the couple live and work amongst their vineyards. Their second tier label, Two Brothers, uses fruit from other organically farmed vineyards around the southwest. The range includes a tar-and-cola Touriga Nacional, a wonderfully slippery slurpable Semillon Sauvignon Blanc, and a rich and raisiny air-dried Cabernet made like an Italian Amarone

Ben and Naomi’s most experimental wines fall under their Blind Corner label, all estate grown from their diverse soil (grit over granite morphing into gravelly loam and clay). In the mix, there’s a wonderfully appley biscuity Crémant and a partially air-dried Sauvignon Blanc wild fermented in old oak barrels.

Another couple paving their own path are Sarah Morris and Iwo Jakimowicz, who, together, form Si Vintners.

Combined Sarah and Iwo have worked over 40 vintages around the world, from Switzerland to Italy, Portugal to France, and all over Australia and New Zealand. They spent 8 years in northern Spain, near Zaragoza, working at a large co-operative. However, Sarah and Iwo credit the region’s local farmers, who made wine for themselves and their families, as being their biggest influences. Unlike the connect-the-dots co-op approach to making wine, the farmers’ ultra-traditional, back-to-basics winemaking struck a chord with the pair.

In 2010, on a look-see visit to Margaret River, Sarah and Iwo stumbled across a winery in Rosa Glen, southern Margaret River with 20 acres of some of the oldest (planted in 1978) and highest (at 100 metres) vineyards in the region. They quickly snapped it up and spent three years converting the vineyards to biodynamics. The couple still retain their own Spanish label, Paco & Co, made from ancient Grenache vines, but Si Vintners is now their primary focus.

Iwo and Sarah make wild and wonderful small batch wines unlike any others in Margaret River. Wines like their ‘Sophie’ Rosé (wild fermented in a concrete egg from old Pinot Noir vines), ‘Chincheclé’ (also aged in concrete egg under a layer of flor yeast like a dry sherry), and their newly released ‘Lello’ (a skin contact ‘orange’ chardonnay). Their ‘Cachorro’ Cabernet Sauvignon is left 160 days on skins and aged in mainly old oak barrels, while ‘Halcyon’, their upper tier wines (a Chardonnay and a Cabernet) are more austere and less experimental.

“To begin with we were going, ‘geez we hope we’re doing the right thing,’” says Iwo. “But you’ve got to stick to your guns and believe in what you’re doing.”

Sarah and Iwo only released their first commercial wines in early 2013, yet their rapid rise to success seems unstoppable. Their production may be small, but nevertheless they found themselves completely sold out of every bottle they made by the end of their first year. Not a bad start.

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However, at a total production of less than 5000 bottles, Cloudburst could well be a contender for the smallest producer in Margaret River.

Owner and vigneron Will Berliner is like very few winemakers you’ll meet. One time owner of a macrobiotic restaurant in New England turned documentary filmmaker with a science degree from Yale, native New Yorker Will and his Aussie wife were living in New Hampshire, USA in the early 2000s, travelling frequently to Australia in search of a plot of land to call their own. They fell in love with the Margaret River region and in 2004 purchased 250 acres of bush land on Caves Road in Wilyabrup, intending to eventually live full time in the property’s farmhouse. Will never had plans to grow grapes. He had no experience in wine growing and barely even drank wine.

“What’s wine? Do I drink wine?” Exclaims Will animatedly in a broad New York accent. “Never. It wasn’t a big part of my culture.”

Will really just wanted something to block the busy Caves Road. He thought about planting avocado trees but when he learned that the diverse soil (lateritic granite over clay) in his tiny one acre plot was perfect for vines, he hired viticulturist Anthony Quinlan to build up the health of the soil with biodynamic preparations. Without any irrigation, the vines were planted 1 metre by 1 metre apart like those in Burgundy (and are still dry grown today).

Will sites prominent Margaret River producers like Vanya Cullen as being influences in the early days while he was improving his palate and knowledge of viticulture and winemaking. Today he lives with his family on the property full time. He tends his tiny plot with the utmost of care, using biodynamic principles, and zero machinery to compact the soil. He’s planted more Cabernet on the gravelly ironstone soil in front of his house and plans to double his land under vine to two acres.

Will currently makes his wine with the team at Woodlands Winery using native yeasts and no additions other than a splash of sulphur before bottling. However, Will is reluctant to be labelled as a ‘natural’ winemaker.

“I’m not making any declarations. I’m aiming to make the best expression of my grapes I can. If it calls for sulphur, I’m going to give it. I’m trying not to wear a badge. I’ve never said I’m making anything except wines with life force. If you can’t taste that, I’ve failed.”

Much to the surprise of everyone, including Will, Cloudburst’s 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon (now completely sold out) snagged the coveted prize for Best Red at the 2013 Margaret River Wine Show.

“I was the butt of jokes up until the night of the show,” says Will.

Cloudburst’s range, which consists of a poised and complex Chardonnay and the broody, slinky aforementioned Cabernet Sauvignon (a Malbec will also be released this year) are just now becoming available in Australia (until recently, he was selling exclusively to top restaurants around the USA). At $200 for the Chardonnay and $250 for the Cab, they’re not cheap, but judging from the response he’s had post-wine show, they’ll be selling as quickly here as they do in America.

Another new kid on the block (although with her CV, calling her new is a gross understatement) is Jo Perry. Like Sarah and Iwo, Jo globetrotted for over a decade. She worked in most of France’s major wine regions, in California, New Zealand, and all over Australia, settling in Galicia, Spain for many years. Upon the birth of her first child, she returned home to Margaret River to set up her own micro-winery, which will be soon be certified biodynamic. Jo contract makes small batches of wine for others, but her focus is on her recently released label, Dormilona (‘lazy bones’ in Spanish). The ever-changing range includes a savoury, mineral Semillon Sauvignon Blanc and a silky and surprisingly light-on-its feet Cabernet Sauvignon. “I treated it like a Pinot,” quips Jo, who fermented whole bunch, food stomped, basket pressed,
and aged her Cab for 18th months in old French barrels. The 2013, she says, will be pushed even further in a Pinot-like direction.

Dormilona’s Cabernet is sourced from a small organic vineyard in Wilyabrup and her SSB is from Marri Wood Park’s biodynamic vineyards (she will soon source her Cabernet from there too). Encouraged by fellow winemakers Gould and Jakimowicz, Jo challenged herself to make Dormilona without the additions of acid, tannins and enzymes, and without fining or filtering.

“I wanted there to be traceability in the wines, to express the sites…I never did any testing, I just used my palate and forgot about numbers.”

The experience was a sometimes nail-biting one for Jo, but her first attempt seems to have paid off in spades.

“There’s a whole new breed of us popping out of the woodwork,” Kate Morgan exclaims at the mention of a ‘new wave’ of WA winemakers. Kate has put time in at wineries around Australia (including Coriole, Coldstream Hills, Tamar Ridge, Stella Bella) and overseas, and has worked as the assistant winemaker at premium Wilyabrup winery Fraser Gallop since 2008. But it’s her own label, Ipso Facto, which allows her to put a more personal stamp on her wines.

Kate makes a very Vouvray-like Chenin Blanc, reflecting her love of the famed Loire region, and a more typically Margaret River-like Cabernet Sauvignon. Kate sources her hand-picked fruit from around Wallcliffe. She ferments on native yeasts using some whole bunch, gravity draining, and ageing in old oak barriques. The Chenin also gets some lees stirring, making it textured and ageworthy. “I want to try the Chenin aged in a concrete egg next,” says Kate with a twinkle in her eye. She feels that the experimental fever creeping into the region is a welcome one.

“Margaret River is always going to be a traditional region, it’s what our region was built on and should be maintained,” Kate says. “But you need to have that mix of people coming up and doing new things as well so we’re not stagnating. The guys in the Yarra Valley have been doing it for awhile, and now it’s happening here in WA.”

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Down in the expansive Great Southern region, they’re no strangers to trying new things.

“I don’t really like the idea of wines that everybody loves,” says winemaker Andrew Hoadley. “I like wines that divide people.”

From a “family of tee-totalling Presbyterians in rural Queensland”, Andrew arrived late to winemaking, first gaining a degree in history, and then one in wine science after falling in love with wine whilst working a harvest in Burgundy. Andrew has always been interested in cool climate regions, making wine everywhere from Canberra to Tasmania, Piedmont to Washington state. He arrived in Denmark in 2008 where until recently he produced wine for Castelli Estate. But it’s always been his passion project, La Violetta, where he really flexed his winemaking muscles.

La Violetta’s range includes a gutsy barrel-fermented Riesling and a delicate, aromatic orange wine made mostly from Gewürztraminer and left on skins for four weeks then pressed by hand. The Gewürz grapes are sourced from 30-year-old vines near Mt. Barker and grapes for the rest of the range come from around the Great Southern.

It’s Andrew’s smoky, earthy ‘La Ciornia’ Shiraz that has perhaps garnered him the most praise. Andrew says its style has been most influenced by his time working with various winemakers in Barbaresco. “It felt like they were asking different questions about the wines,” he says. They weren’t talking about the fruit characters as much, but the textural and savoury elements. That was mind-opening.”

Andrew feels that now, with WA’s more flexible small bar licensing laws, and a host of increasingly travelled wine drinkers, there is more opportunity for “young sparks” to shine.

“10 years ago people weren’t ready for [my Shiraz]…but now all these producers have popped up and times are changing.”

Andries Mostert, who recently left his winemaking post at Willoughby Park, is also focusing on texture for his very mineral-driven terroirs-reflective wines.

But it took awhile for Andries to arrive at the place he’s at now. He was only the winemaker at Willoughby Park for two years. Before that he did the rounds both on the winemaking and viticulture side at well-known wineries around Australia and New Zealand, including Picardy, Shaw & Smith, Plantagenet, and Brokenwood, plus a stint in Emilia-Romagna, Italy. And before that, Andries was an unsatisfied architect student. He caught the wine bug working in bars and restaurants and got a job picking grapes at Mosswood.

“I realised fairly quickly that I needed to head off and get qualified if I didn’t want to dig holes for other people the rest of my life,” says Andries. And the rest is history.

Amongst Andries’s broad selection of wines for Willoughby Park, it’s his top tier, ‘Kalgan Ironrock’, that really soar. All hand-picked from the single Kalgan River Vineyard, in the Albany sub-region between the Porongorups ranges and the coast, the Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz sing the song of the land, embodying with eloquence and intensity the ironstone and gravels soils of the unique vineyard, only 14 years old and yet marvellously expressive.

Andries’s winemaking philosophy is to “keep chemical inputs as low as possible to let the vineyard tell its story as clearly as possible”. He ferments mainly with native yeasts, plays with open top fermenters, and employs “lots of hand plunging, foot stomping and some occasional full body pigeage!”

Andries is also launching his own label of very experimental, almost zero-addition wines called Brave New Wines. Keep an eye out for them, in particular the ultra-smashable pink pet nat made from 100% Pinot Noir.

“I feel the need to constantly be trying new things, hopefully things which are fun and freaky. I may not deliver wines that are exactly the same year after year, but hopefully they are consistently exciting and drinkable.”

This try it and see approach, adopted by a growing number of WA’s newest wave of winemakers, is challenging what it means to make wine in Western Australia, and in the meantime gracing our tables with thoughtful, expressive, and highly gluggable wines.

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