By Kate Cox
South Australia’s famous, fertile regions – Coonawarra, the Clare, Eden and Barossa Valleys, McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills and beyond – punch above their weight, producing more than half of Australia’s wine.
The state has long been famous for its spicy rieslings and big, full-bodied reds. But now it’s gaining a formidable reputation as a worthy producer of natural wine. When NOMA recently popped up in Sydney (tickets sold out in less than five minutes), the dining experience was all about seasonal, organic food and wine. And South Australian natural, organic and biodynamic wines dominated.
Premium South Australian drops making the grade included the 2015 Travis Tausend Robot! Semillon, the 2015 Commune of Buttons Estate Chardonnay, the 2015 Domaine Lucci Chardonnay, and the 2015 Good Intentions ‘Floppy Giggle Day’ Sauvignon blend.
Wine writer and judge and natural wine enthusiast Mike Bennie worked intensively with Noma’s sommelier Mads Kleppe, introducing him to these energetic “naturalists”, chaperoning him around wineries and then helping narrow the list.
He is super-impressed with the growing bunch of smaller, artisan wine producers in South Australia bringing wonderful sustainable, organic wines to the public. We asked him to fill us in about this growing trend, and where we can find them in South Australia.
What is natural wine?
Natural wine is an umbrella term that refers to wines that are made from grapes that are farmed without the use of chemicals in the vineyard, usually organically or biodynamically, and then made in the winery using minimal intervention. Natural wines are fermented naturally (using ambient yeast in winery) and sent to bottle without the use of additions (like acids, enzymes, tannin powders, stabilisers, colour fixers and any of the 60-odd things that can be added to wine in Australia), without the use of heavy mechanical intervention and usually sent to bottle without filtering and fining. Low or no sulphur, used as preservative, is also an element of natural wine.
But isn’t it just a way to get hipsters to pay more?
Natural wine costs are the same as any wine, per se. There is no premium for natural wine.
OK, why should we care about natural wine? What are the benefits?
In the same way that people source organic produce, visit farmers markets, are interested in single origin protein sources, buy free range eggs, seek out produce from better sources, wine should follow. We should care about natural wine because it is a more natural expression of fermented grapes, the basis of wine, using less chemical intervention, and because it shows a variegated spectrum of flavours and aromas that show a broader potential of grapes being turned into wine. If you care about what you eat, you should care about what you drink. The irony is, you sit down in a restaurant, or create a meal for friends, and the food follows a similar philosophy of organic, single source, chemical free, farmers market-sourced, but the wine comes from a different, more industrially made agenda – this seems oblique. In terms of benefits, natural wine offer, simply, a drinking experience with less stuff in the thing you are drinking – less chemical, less manipulation for consistency, less for your body to process.
Are all regions doing it?
Increasingly, yes, but not all as a blanket rule. In South Australia, it seems most regions have an engaged winemaking community who are at least experimenting with some of the tenets of natural winemaking.
Who are the ones to watch?
At the forefront, Shobbrook (Barossa Valley), Lucy Margaux/Domaine Lucci (Adelaide Hills), Gentle Folk (Adelaide Hills), Commune Of Buttons (Adelaide Hills), Ochota Barrels (Adelaide Hills), Jauma (Adelaide Hills), Manon Wines (Adelaide Hills), with emerging producer Travis Tausend Wines (Clare Valley), Good Intentions Wine Co (Mount Gambier), Yetti and Kokonut (Eden Valley), Frederick Stevenson (Barossa and Eden Valleys), amongst those to watch, but there are many more on the rise.
How did your relationship with NOMA come about?
I have been friends with several of the Noma team for some years, but having visited Noma in Tokyo began discussions with sommelier/drinks manager Mads Kleppe about the potential of Australian wine, beer, spirits and drinks for the Noma Australia project. We began work about a year out from the launch of Noma in Sydney, sharing information, before Mads began his first tours to Australian wine regions. Like the chef team, Mads and I travelled extensively around Australia to meet producers, taste, observe, discuss and give context to wines and drinks that could potentially suit the Noma Sydney menu. We spent several weeks in South Australia alone, visiting wine growers and producers, building relationships and further learning about wines that might suit the menu. After our travels finished, Mads was able to attend Rootstock Sydney festival where winemakers who we hadn’t been able to meet were attending too. As the dishes for Noma were being worked on, we were working on wines and drinks, with Mads fine tuning the matching drinks menu almost constantly – his attention to detail was remarkable. Before Noma Sydney opened I conducted several training sessions with the wines, including a day long Australian wine overview which we conducted in a park on a sunny day.
What did you think of the wines in the end?
The wines of the matching menu were excellent, eclectic, challenging (as the food menu) and delicious (also as the food menu). The idea that only white and organic wines, beer and sake would be served (notably no red wines), was also unique, and thrilling. Setting challenges was always part of the goal, as was the importance of overall experience elicited from aroma, texture and flavours that were complementary.
What proportion were natural, and why?
The Noma list is 100% natural. The Noma experience is about simpatico experience between food and wines. If the food menu is about expressing produce at its purest, yet complex form, so should the wine menu match.
What did you think of the NOMA experience?
A little hard to comment as engaged as a Noma employee! Personally, I thought it was amazing, thrilling as an expression of indigenous foods, exciting as a dining experience, thoughtful in execution, an experience as well as a visceral pleasure. Memorable.