‘We’re making a lot of noise’: The loud movement disrupting Australian wine

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Is natural wine having an outsized influence in disrupting our wine culture — or just another temporary plaything for a privileged class of trend-chasing millennials?

You can see it in the countless bars, restaurants and wine shops popping up around the country that cater to and capitalise on the now years-long trend.

It’s there on Instagram and targeted Facebook ads offering home-delivery of gleaming bright-hued bottles of alcoholic juice.

It’s lauded by touring rappers on hit TV shows and has been described by critics as having an “outsized influence” on Australia’s wine culture and reputation.

Yet it can be an oddly difficult thing to get the people who make the stuff to talk about.

Some winemakers will tie themselves in knots trying to define what it is they put in bottles and how best to categorise it.

Others are resentful of the recent rise in popularity of what is a centuries-old style of winemaking and fear it is now being co-opted.

One winemaker, whose products sit on the same shelves as what could fairly be described as natural wine, refuses outright to be interviewed on the subject — “I don’t do enough cocaine to be a part of the natural wine scene.”

Anton Van Klopper, alternately described as the grandfather and godfather of Australian natural wine, rejects the idea that there’s a natural wine scene at all (much less one that involves illicit drug-taking) — that at its core, it’s just a group of environmentally conscious farmers, families and producers.

He is visibly introverted and seems not all that keen on talking to anyone about anything, but that shouldn’t be confused for a lack of passion in what he makes and grows.

“With natural wine, to me it’s like looking at a [photo of a] landscape — because it’s unadulterated,” said Van Klopper. “You see the work from the producer and the work from the vineyard directly without any change. Whether you like the picture or not is up to you. It is quite easy these days to manipulate it so you would find it attractive, but I find the beauty in the unmanipulated work.”

If you’re not familiar with natural wine, good luck finding a consistent definition.

True believers will tell you it stands as a response to the homogeneous, large-scale industrial leanings of the conventional wine world. That natural winemaking offers a purer expression of the terroir and grapes themselves; that the wines are more juicy and vibrant; that they taste and feel alive.

But even the term itself is highly contentious, confusing and frequently interchanged with others, like minimal intervention or Lo-fi (the loved/loathed hashtag-ready ‘natty wines’ is also used).

While only representative of a particular sect of Australian natural winemaking, Van Klopper’s definition of his own coveted Lucy M wines (previously Lucy Margaux) is nonetheless a useful starting point.

“Natural wine is a really broad term for lots of different wines,” said Van Klopper, who has been making some form of it in the Adelaide Hills for more than a decade.

“The category I’m in is probably the most extreme, which is organically farmed fruit — that’s an essential part — then nothing added at any stage.

“So it ferments naturally, it’s unfiltered, unfined — it is just pure juice.”

This diverges from so-called conventional wine on a couple of key additions.

Most of the wine made in Australia will feature some form of fining, filtration and additive throughout the winemaking process, which in part help to create clean, stable, consistent wines.

The addition of the preservative sulphur dioxide is the most tediously contentious in the natural wine world. Some natural winemakers staunchly use none, others a little, others a little more, but most will tell you too much sulphur constrains or mutes a wine’s expressiveness.

Conventional winemakers might tell you they’re full of it.

‘It’s given wine a new identity’

Kyatt Dixon is not too fussed either way. He doesn’t add sulphur to his range of Limus wines, but mainly because he doesn’t like the taste.

What the Mount Gambier winemaker finds more interesting is how these types of wines have broken down barriers to entry into the wine world.

“It’s an exciting period. It’s given wine a new identity. It’s not that sort of stodgy drink that you need a degree to understand,” said Dixon, a former seaweed scientist who has been making wine for a little more than five years. Anyone can appreciate it, and the level of appreciation is not academic. It’s just a pure kind of enjoyment.”

Further north in South Australia’s picturesque Basket Range region, Jasper Button’s Commune of Buttons winery is part of the new wine counterculture.

“People are looking for new and interesting things to drink,” said Button, leaning over a barrel of naturally fermenting grapes. “I think to a degree, winemaking in general has moved too far to an exercise in making a sound wine. To a degree it has forgotten about the true and inherent deliciousness of what wine can be. So this movement is moving back towards that idea of making things that are ethereal, that are complex and that are delicious, without the hallmarks of convention.”

There’s no hard data — partly because the natural wine world sits somewhat adrift from that of wine industry bodies and research agencies — but anecdotally and from the types of bars and shops selling natural wine, the demand appears to be fuelled by a particular type of consumer.

“It seems to be a younger generation of wine drinkers and people that aren’t treating it in too sophisticated a way,” said Dixon.

“It’s people that are looking for enjoyment and drinkability, rather than this class or point system. They’re taking it on their merits, in the glass, and just having a taste thinking ‘Oh, well, this is something delicious.’”

A lot of the customers who pass through the doors of Campbell Burton’s recently opened no-additive wine store in Melbourne’s Fitzroy North tend to skew younger.

“Lots of young people have had their first introduction to the world of wine with wines that are farmed like this and made like this,” said Burton, who also imports wine and previously worked as a sommelier at a nearby restaurant.

“The traditional avenue for young people to embrace the wine industry… I don’t even know how that used to happen.

“Now all of a sudden, you’ve got wine drinkers who are 18-28 years old, whereas traditionally that demographic would have taken another 10 years to begin to enjoy wine. So the wine world at large really needs to thank [natural winemakers].”

To play in this world is not cheap. The small-scale, organic and hands-on nature of natural winemaking means each producer is only likely to make a limited number of bottles.

It also means they often charge far more than most standard Australian wines, with prices of $30, $40, $50 and even $60+ a bottle not uncommon.

A cynic might suggest natural wine drinkers just represent the latest in a privileged class of trend-chasing, virtue-seeking millennials (one Australian producer sells a tongue-in-cheek natural wine called ‘Hipster Juice’).

Dixon, whose 2020 Pinot Noir (when not sold-out) sells for $40+ a bottle, offers a countervailing view.

“I feel like a lot of people, especially in the city, have given up on the idea of owning a home. A lot of people are living in the now. They’re trying to enjoy their current situation. They’re really prioritising experiences in the best way they can without travel, so I think they’re willing to spend more. The price of our wine is a really, really difficult one for me. We sell to a lot of places that we could barely afford to eat at. We couldn’t even afford to buy our own wine at a lot of these places.”

Australian wine in Wyoming

An easy and common way to dismiss the rise of this wine counterculture is to point out that it’s only responsible for producing a very small amount of wine.

Given there is no legal or agreed-upon definition of what makes a natural wine, there’s no real way to accurately measure how much of it is produced — suffice to say it accounts for just a few drops of the almost 600 million litres of wine Australians consume each year.

That hasn’t stopped demand for Australian natural wine stretching around the world.

American Tess Bryant imports almost exclusively Australian natural wine into the US and distributes it across 17 states.

It is not easy or cheap — and involves coordinating boxes from different wineries into refrigerated shipping containers — but the demand makes it worth it.

“So far, from each of the [Australian] producers I work with, I have bought everything that they will offer me,” said Bryant, who is based near Seattle in Washington State.

That’s equated to just shy of 50,000 bottles a year from Australian producers like Dixon, Button and a dozen or so others.

The 34-year-old only started her business a few years ago, after being sent to Australia by her then-employer — a large-scale wine importer — to find cheap, conventional wines to send back to the US. Instead, she fell in with a group of new wave producers, left the company and went out on her own.

“I’m from Northern California, which is generally considered to be progressive in a lot of ways, but when I landed in Australia [in 2017] it was like ‘Oh, no, no, no!’” said Bryant. “I felt like we were so far behind what was going on with a lot of the restaurants and the wine scene in Australia. In retrospect, my definition of natural wine changed and shifted. It was sort of what I had hoped I could always find in the wine industry.”

Australia’s ‘critter wine’ problem

Australian natural wine can now be found not just in states like California and New York, but in wine shops in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

Bryant believes that for American drinkers, this new wave of producers is helping to overcome some long-held and unfavourable associations with Australian wine.

“The word ‘Australian’ in front of wine for a long time had a social stigma to it, because of the background of all this commercial, piss-poor wine that came out of your country,” she said, before clarifying, “believe me, we make plenty of it, too!”

“But it’s been really exciting to see that change in a pretty phenomenal way, pretty quickly.”

That is a view shared by no less than the chief wine critic for the New York Times, Eric Asimov.

“The wine vanguard in the United States really lost interest in Australian wines 10 years or so ago,” said Asimov.

“I think for the most part, Americans think of Australian wine as either very inexpensive critter wines, or just powerful alcoholic fruit bombs.”

‘Critter wine’ is an Americanism for cheap, mass-produced Australian wine sold with a cute marsupial or critter on the label.

When the New York Times sent Asimov to cover Australia’s wine culture prior to the pandemic, it was the small volume, minimal intervention producers in places like the Adelaide Hills, Great Southern and Margaret River regions who he found himself most drawn towards.

“I realised that there seemed to be a thriving natural wine movement in Australia,” he said. “I was so impressed by the quality of the winemaking and the very low tolerance for faults. The producers that I found were very serious about the wine. They were not in it for the so-called lifestyle, they were not wealthy trust fund-kids who were having a lark — they were very serious and very good at what they do.”

The intersection of natural wine with both hipster and wellness culture in the US has seen it derided as a fad, but Asimov does not believe such styles of wine will disappear anytime soon.

“What natural wine has presented as a counter-cultural commentary on conventional wine, I think, has been one of the most influential movements in wine in the last 30 years,” he said.

“Despite the very small number of natural wine producers and the tiny amount of wine that’s produced, the influence has been completely out of proportion. Whatever happens to natural wine in the future, it will never die out. It will never go the way of fads because the central ideas are too powerful. Those ideas represent an undermining of much that has been the foundation of conventional wine: that wine was better through technology and chemistry.”

A new tension emerges

Jasper Button from Commune of Buttons winery ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter

Basket Range winemaker Button believes the natural wine movement is providing a necessary disruption to previously ingrained ideas about how Australian wine should be made and sold.

“In the current climate with the difficulty of exports, particularly to China, looking at domestic sales and domestic consumption is an important thing,” he said. “Yes, we’re small, but we’re able to communicate and we have an audience, and that audience is growing. We’re making a lot of noise.”

The enthusiasm for these wines and the price point they’re able to attract hasn’t gone unnoticed by some of the bigger players in the wine industry.

Alcohol behemoth Dan Murphy’s is now working directly with a handful of producers to stock what it calls ‘Lo-Fi wines,’ like Pet Nats and skin-contact orange wines, in around 20 per cent of its stores.

In group chats among natural winemakers, grumblings have been shared about the presence of ‘fake nattys’ on the market. But the elasticity of terms like natural and minimal intervention wine has meant just about anyone can trade-off the aesthetics of the movement, even if they don’t necessarily subscribe to its vague set of principles.

Van Klopper, who makes 60 tonnes a year of all organic, no sulphur or additive wine, fears that as the scene expands and scales up, something risks being lost.

“The rusticness was something really lovely about the movement. I guess when anything looks successful, people sort of jump on it,” he said.

“But I wouldn’t call that natural wine. That’s just someone imitating.

“Hopefully people can taste the difference.”

It’s an emerging tension that occupies the thoughts of his colleague, Button.

“It is concerning,” he said.

“We have to be very careful not to grow in size so much that we lose the original idea.”

Further south in Mount Gambier, Dixon thinks larger-scale commercial interpretations of natural wine could actually serve as “gateway drug” into his small corner of the industry

“It’s pretty funny when you see a colourful label on something that’s obviously filtered from conventional grapes — it follows the visual cues without necessarily following the same winemaking idealism,” he said.

“But the other way of looking at those sorts of wines is that they can be almost like a gateway drug to people getting more seriously into [natural wines] and maybe falling down the rabbit hole.”

Lucy Kendall, who runs minimal intervention label Vino Idda with her partner Alysha Moscatt in Victoria’s Gippsland region, said the presence of bigger players in the natural wine space might cause some discomfort, but that tension was not necessarily a bad thing.

“They kind of need each other,” she said.

“The natural wine scene has a lot to thank bigger producers, who have shone a light on the regions that a lot of natural wine people are now sourcing their fruit from.

“The natural wine people might shine a light on things that are a bit different or interesting and push the boundaries, that [bigger producers] can learn from as well.

“Ultimately, natural wine has made wine more accessible. That’s where the cultural moment is happening.”

Source: ABC

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