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Australia’s Brave New World: How the country's young winemakers have gone rock ‘n roll

Australian wine is a paradox in many ways. People tend to think of it as a relatively new product, although it actually goes back over 200 years. For many drinkers it is associated with the late 1980s and early 1990s, with a rise of big, clean wines that were, on the one hand, consistent, on the other rather too fruit-driven, over-oaked and commercial – a bit too ‘in your face’.

The true picture is that Australia now produces some of the world’s most fascinating and delicious wines, and has a far wider selection than many realise. A new breed of younger wine makers have learned lessons from the previous generations, and broken away to make new styles of wine in their own way, with the emphasis on enjoyment and fun. In 2000 Australia exported more wine than France to the UK for the first time in history.

All this in a country which had no indigenous vines of its own. The first vines arrived in 1788 on the First Fleet. After a rocky start, by 1850s large areas of vineyards were being planted in South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria, and this is where the main producers are today. A Victorian Syrah (also called Shiraz) competing in the 1878 Paris Exhibition was likened to Château Margaux, an Australian wine won a gold medal at the 1882 Bordeaux International Exhibition and another won a gold medal "against the world" at the 1889 Paris International Exhibition.

Once the Second World War ended, Australia saw a huge influx of migrants, bringing with them new skills and techniques for wine production. The country’s climate and soils proved perfect for making a new style of wines which could be sold internationally at very keen prices.

Another reason Australian wines are so well thought of is down to the age of the vines. European vines suffered from phylloxera in the 19th century, a disease which effectively wiped out most vineyards in Europe before a solution was found, grafting American vines onto the rootstock. However, being so geographically remote, some Australian vineyards remained free of the disease, meaning that some of the world’s oldest vines can actually be found there.

The country has a wealth of terroirs and this, coupled with a wide variety of grape varieties, produces a huge variety of wines, from easy drinking cheapies to bespoke, single-vineyard vintages and everything in-between.

The beginnings of oak

In 1971 the first Australian Chardonnay was made, and five years later Murray Tyrrell experimented with new oak barrels. This resulted in a style of heavily oaked wine that many people enjoyed, but it gained a reputation for Aussie wines as being slightly cheap and artificial tasting. "Nobody will drink white wine with wood in it," Tyrrell was warned by a visitor from a rival winery.

The reputation lingered well into the 1990s, when the UK was flooded with cheap Aussies, full of big flavours and oak but lacking subtlety or finesse in many cases. Many first-time wine drinkers were lured in by very cheap prices and the fact the wines were approachable, easy to understand and, thanks to the Aussie climate, pretty consistent from year to year. This was the period when Jacob’s Creek seemed to rule the world, for better or worse.

As the UK’s tastes became more sophisticated, and people tired of oaky Chardonnays, big Cabernet Sauvignons and Shirazes, the Australian wine-makers took note, and smaller ‘boutique’ producers started to make wines that were far more interesting. They used cooler areas, planted different grape varieties and used different production methods to make wines far more complex and interesting – and with little or no oak.

Australia now has almost 2,000 wine producers, most of whom are small winery operations determined to break away from the reputation of the big producers and go it alone in a new, self-titled ‘punky’ style with the emphasis on small production but big quality – and fun. There’s also a huge new interest in how the wines are made – words like ‘organic’, ‘biodiversity’ and ‘natural’ are becoming increasingly important and reflected in these new young young gunslingers’ methods.

One such producer is Ochota Barrels, based in the Adelaide Hills. Their website is full of references to rock music, explained by the late founder Taras Ochota’s early life playing bass in various punk bands. It also explains the names of some of his wines – grunge fans will be familiar with the names ‘Fugazi’ and ‘Slint’, ‘Lost In A Forest’ is a Cure song and as for ‘Impeccable Disorder’, they sound as if they surely had a John Peel session...

Taras then became an Oenology graduate from Adelaide University, developing his craft in numerous vineyards and cellars around the world. He met Amber, who had experience in Italy, cellar door sales in the Adelaide Hills and coordinating production and wine analysis for Nordic Sea Winery in southern Sweden. After travelling around some of the world’s best wine and surf regions, they decided to make premium wines back home in South Australia, on steep acres tucked away deep in the Basket Range of the beautiful Adelaide Hills. Sadly, Taras died at the age of 49, after a long struggle with an auto-immune-related illness.

Taras’s wines drew fans like Mick Jagger, who once visited Ochota’s property, bought out most of his wine stock, and stayed for a few beers.

Ochota now farm interesting older plots of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with old bush vines producing small berries and low yields. They take a holistic approach in the vineyard, the small biodynamic producers in the south of France having been a huge influence.

Ochota takes a hands-off, minimum-intervention approach to winemaking: picking early to maintain natural acidity, fermenting using indigenous yeasts, whole-bunch pressing the whites, and using whole-bunch fermentation and longer maceration for the reds. Texture is an important focus, mouth-feel is created via time on skins and batonnage. Aging is in old French oak, just a touch of sulphur is used at bottling. The wines are mouthwatering, they have a compelling energy and nervous tension.

In Taras' own words "We just want to produce something delicious and gorgeous for all of us to enjoy with none of the nasties and more of the love".

Five of the best Ochota Barrels wines are:

 Ochota Barrels, A Forest, Pinot Noir, Magnum 1500ml £75 

A bright, earthy expression of Pinot. Most Ochota wines are from single vineyards but fruit for A Forest comes from two sites planted with two different clones, high in the Adelaide Hills. Old French barriques, lees stirring. South Australia

Ochota Barrels, Fugazi Grenache, McLaren Vale, 2020 (£36)

The grapes come from an unirrigated site in Blewitt Springs, the tiny berries give a warm, fragrant wine with wild herbs, raspberry, and some spice and pepper notes. It has lovely finesse and texture. 90 days on skins, 80% whole-bunch, Aged for six months in a seasoned French barriques. Old vines and a lot of elevation gives acidity to the wines.

Ochota Barrels, Home..., Pinot Noir, Adelaide Hills, 2020 (£85)
A wine made by the other half of the Ochota team, Taras's wife, Amber. From a single vineyard the size of a tennis court only around 300 bottles were produced. Silky stuff, but with a real sense of precision, elegance and the exotic, touches of Sandalwood and bracken, the palate sweet with fruit but always under tension, it finishes very long, gently spicy, and tapers to the finest point.
Ochota Barrels, Impeccable Disorder, Pinot Noir, 2020 (£58)
An edgy, racy Pinot with classic Hills acidity and freshness allied with grainy texture and a core of brooding fruit. From a late-ripening organic vineyard in the Piccadilly Valley. Ultra minimal handling and whole bunch press. Only 100 cases made. A Pale ruby, lightly cloudy colour. Bright red fruits of cherry, raspberry & strawberry. Earthy herbal notes of rosemary, anise and sage.Youthful. Dry. Smooth & feather-like. Soft with fine tannins, medium acid and a long finish.
Ochota Barrels, The Slint Chardonnay, 2020 (£34)
A thoroughly ‘modern’ Australian Chardonnay, in a cool climate style, which sees only the tiniest amount of new oak. Think tangy Granny smith apples and steely minerality overlaid by a gentle leesy creaminess. The palate is taut and precise with some savoury umami on the finish. Seasoned oak barriques and one new oak puncheon.

Payten & Jones

Another new young producer – with more musical references – is Peyton & Jones, based in the Yarra Valley, an area constantly referred to by experts as a big up-and-coming area in terms of quality. They describe drinking their wines as “like experiencing a band live, as opposed to listening to a recorded track.”

What they mean by that is their wines may be murky in the glass and can sometimes throw a bit of sediment. They say “The wines are not ‘perfect’ by industry standards, but they have the perfect personality for the situations they’re made for. There’s minimal intervention and doing nothing to a wine is the hardest part of making it. There’s a bit of ‘raw’ processes, and nothing filtered or cleaned up in any way. The wines aren’t squeaky clean, they are a bit edgy, even a bit raw.

Behn Payten’s dad Pete managed Australia’s first organic vineyard before moving to the Yarra Valley, and he is always focused heavily on sustainability. Their wines are ‘delicious, always smashable. And bloody good with any food. Always interesting, with a little soul left in.’

They are clearly open to experimentation. For example the Yarra Valley in Victoria is not famous for Sangiovese, but Payten & Jones have vines there. Behn claims “each vintage all we really have to do in the winery is look over the newspaper once day at the ferment.” A wine that really makes itself.

They also have Shiraz, but again are experimenting: their Major Kong is made from two vineyards, 100% whole bunches from one and 100% whole berries from the other to produce a unique style of Syrah.

Payten & Jones wines to enjoy:

 Payten & Jones 'Major Kong' Syrah, Yarra Valley 2018 £32 
Wondrous nose with violet perfume plus rich blackberry fruit. Long, complete, balanced with a gradual graceful finish.
Payten & Jones Solera No. 2 'Leuconoe' Sangiovese, Yarra Valley £32.99
Payten & Jones Valley Vignerons Sangiovese, Yarra Valley, Australia 2017
Victoria's Yarra Valley is a great place to grow Sangiovese. This classy wine has lifted aromas of sweet red cherries, raspberries and dried herbs.

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