Meet the small-scale producers making their own way in big wine regions
[Pictured: Alfred-Alexandre Bonnie and son, Jean-Jacques Bonnie, of Château Malartic-Lagravière]
When I mention a region like Bordeaux, or Napa, or even a country like Chile, a certain image probably pops into your head. Who hasn’t heard about First Growth Bordeaux, or cult collectable Cabs or – at the other end of the spectrum – mass-market, cheap and cheerful Carménère? Of course these wines are all worthy and known for a reason: they’ve pinned their origins on the world wine map.
But what if you live and farm and produce wines in those regions but don’t make those types of wines? There has always been small-scale, artisan producers working in the shadows of the giants. Yet it’s hard to fit into the marketing matrix when you’re so small that you can easily fall through the cracks. Fortunately, it’s those same cracks that allow the highlights to shine through, and producers who choose to be small, or make wines outside of the norm, are finding their time in the light.
A collective shift in wine culture is trailing consumers’ purchasing habits with food. We all know that bigger isn’t necessarily better, and that more doesn’t equate to more. Since many consumers are changing their eating habits, to make more conscious decisions about what they’re feeding themselves and their families, what they’re drinking with their meals is also shifting. It’s bonkers to buy organic vegetables and free-range chicken and GMO-free bread made from heirloom grains only to serve an $8 bottle of chemically enhanced, additive-heavy, commodity-based, 20-million-bottles-a-year-production manufactured plonk. In our fast-paced world, slow food and farmers’ markets are enjoying a renaissance. The next step is to see folks pay as much attention to what goes in their glasses as what goes on their plates. Fortunately, terms like biodynamic and natural wine are becoming as commonplace as cult cabs and critter labels.
Good things come in small packages so here are a few small-scale producers in large wine regions that should change the way you think about wine.
Though South Africa has more than 350 years of winemaking history, it’s really only been since 1994 and the end of apartheid, that wine culture has been able to flourish. These past two decades of freedom have opened up the wine world to South Africa, and vice versa. For the first time, growers and winemakers were able to travel outside the country, to learn, experience and taste. Wine export and import shackles also relaxed, allowing for the flow of information as much as for wine. Today, South African wine production is in a golden age, fuelled by a league of youthful, well-travelled and passionate winemakers, many in their late twenties and early thirties. Camaraderie and collaboration runs high, with collectives such as PIWOSA (Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa), Swartland Independent Producers, The Zoo Biscuits and Cape Vintner Classification banding together for marketing, touring and resource pooling. Many of these talented folks hold senior positions at large, established wineries while developing their own brands. Vineyard land, especially pockets of older, heritage vines in exciting fringe areas, is still relatively affordable, encouraging experimentation and garagiste wine culture.
93 Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines Granite Chenin Blanc 2014, Swartland
This is one of the top-tier Single Terroir Range wines from Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines and comes from two vineyards in the Paardeberg, 38 and 42 years old, each with deep, decomposed granite soils. As with their other wines, winemaker intervention is minimal (wild yeast, low sulphur, no enzymes) allowing the terroir-transmission powers of Chenin on granite in Swartland to shine. After whole-bunch pressing and 4 weeks for the natural ferment, this wine spends a year in older French oak before being bottled unfiltered. Give this singular wine some breathing room to air off a slight reductive note. With a bit of time to stretch its legs (I recommend decanting), alluring wild herbs, sea salt and broken stones emerge, backed by a concentrated and intense palate of pear, flint and fine citrus peel. A very textured palate draws you through this powerful, finessed wine to a lengthy finish.
93 Craven Faure Vineyard Syrah 2014, Stellenbosch
A global affair, husband-and-wife team Mick (Aussie) and Jeanine (South African) met while working at a winery in Sonoma before returning to Stellenbosch to source fruit for their natural wines. Grown on granite, shale and dolomite, then entirely whole-bunch fermented with wild yeast and gentle extraction before 10 months in old barrels and bottled unfined and unfiltered. Light and finessed, with fragrant violets, savoury broken stones, blue and black plum and a pulse of fine-grained black pepper. Very savoury and fresh, and at only 11.5%, this haunting Syrah is a surprising beauty.
Legendary, iconic and expensive, the First Growths of Bordeaux have dominated the region, and some may argue, French wine in general. With these titans riding high since the Official Classification of 1855, it’s surprising to learn that the top growths only make up 2 to 3% of the market by volume. Allen Sichel, CEO of the Conseil interprofessionnel du vin de Bordeaux, has a strategic plan to do just that. “It’s important that Bordeaux stays in line with its historic identity, which is Château wines,” he notes. However, even behemoth Bordeaux has to compete globally. “Bordeaux, as a region, only makes up 2% of worldwide production. So we have to find a way of communicating around these top wines, while keeping that legacy and theme intact.”
Marketing efforts to highlight Bordeaux’s 64 appellations are one way to show diversity of style and terroir. Collectives like Bordeaux Oxygène (BO2) take this one step further, making it their ethos. These new-generation winemakers have banded to show what’s happening beneath the classed growths, and coming from the soils. Calling themselves “the new face of Bordeaux,” these 18 producers are working with organic, biodynamic and natural wines – in many cases, from lands handed down from their parents, and worked very differently in the past. Their goals are summed up well on their website: “Our parents have done so much, they have created what Bordeaux is today, and now it’s our turn to build on this foundation. Our approach must respect this history. But Bordeaux has also evolved. Bordeaux has changed. We are the hands of this change.”
92 Château Malartic-Lagravière Blanc Grand Cru Classé 2013, Pessac-Leognan
Sauvignon Blanc is splashed with 10% Semillon in this structured, savoury white. One of the Bordeaux Oxygène producers, this is from the family’s clay and gravelled vineyard in Pessac-Leognan. A sustainably farmed wine, it spent 1 year on lees in barrels (50% new, partial foudre). Ample wild herbs and earthy salts are flushed with a depth of lemon verbena and orange, scented by honeysuckle, lined with lees and kept bright and vibrant with a pristine citrus acidity. A great backbone will allow this wine to age gracefully.
91 Château Sémeillan Mazeau Listrac 2014
The Cru Bourgeois Château began converting their Listrac estate to organic production in 2012, and 2015 will be the first fully organic vintage. This blend of 60 Merlot/40 Cabernet Sauvignon was early harvested and entirely by whole bunch, with limited extraction to mitigate tannins. Very fresh and bright, with a bamboo-lean structure framing a shining and tight cherry core. White pepper, gravels and finely rasped spices linger on the finish.
Trends come and go, but good terroir is everlasting. That is, of course, if you know how to translate it. Of course, the Australian wine industry was not always selective for quality – at least on the large scale – and subsequently became a victim of its own success. A wine sea of cheap and cheerful critter labels, multiregional blends and globally omnipresent bottles created an image of low-quality, cheap, industrial wines and a consumer backlash that still persists today. There’s no denying that Aussie wine is big business. But that’s only one story. Highly diverse wine regionality, detailed research and an adventuresome Aussie spirit has propelled Australia to the fore of progressive wine culture. And they’re not new to the game: Australia has been making wine for 200 years, with vines arriving with the First Fleet in 1788. What is new, however, is a focus on communicating place over style. The overripe, wood-impacted and adulterated reds of the past are being replaced by lighter, fresher, earlier-harvested styles, often grown on marginal or higher altitude sites. Along with the style shift has come a territory shift. In this new BBE (“Beyond Barossa Era”), we’re talking about regions like Adelaide Hills, Tasmania, Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula, among others.
92 Soumah Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2015, Yarra Valley
This sustainably farmed Chardonnay is from the Warramate foothills of Victoria’s upper Yarra Valley. It’s a mix of three clones, wild fermented and given an 8-month layover in a mix of oak barriques and puncheons (20 percent new). Earthy throughout, with an alluring reductive edge, salt, wild herbs and brisk white grapefruit pith brighten a leesy, green fig core. Tight, driven and focused, this finessed wine has enough energy now to be enjoyed very much in its youth, or to hold onto for the future.
91 Ochota Barrels The Fugazi Vineyard Grenache 2013, Adelaide Hills
Ochota Barrels’ aim is to express old-vine, single-vineyard sites in the cool Adelaide Hills as naturally as possible. Here, organically farmed 66-year-old Grenache undergoes a 7-day cold soak, 70% whole-cluster fermentation with wild yeast and 82 days on skins. That’s about as pure an expression of site and low-maintenance winemaking as it gets. The result is a light crimson-hued pour, with aromatic wild strawberry, dried herb and a five spice/star anise nose. The bright, fluid palate carries the same, across wild, earthy, salted cherry and red berry fruit, and enough crunchy tannins to call out for food. Allow it time in the glass to warm up to you, and you to it. Front wave of natural winemaking in Australia.