Australia’s Innovative Winemakers You Need to Know
In your mind, picture an Australian wine region. Presumably, that mental image won’t look like South Australia’s Adelaide Hills.
Most likely, your image resembles the flatter, more sunbaked terrains of the regions flanking “The Hills” (Barossa Valley to the north, McLaren Vale to the south). By contrast, the Adelaide Hills are quaint and lush, defined by steep winding roads, babbling brooks and hobbit-like stone cottages.
The wines are also different—elegant and light on their feet. Cool-climate varieties like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris thrive, thanks to the region’s altitude, which ranges from 1,300–2,300 feet above sea level.
But perhaps most unexpected is the small but growing number of artisanal winemakers transforming this bucolic region into a leading light of modern-day winemaking, changing the face of the Australian wine industry along the way.
—Photos by James Braund
“There have been moments like this before: when the right people converge at the right place at the right time and take Australian wine culture in a new direction,” wrote Max Allen in the August 2015 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.
The “right place” is a tiny district called Basket Range in the Adelaide Hills. It’s attracted an inordinate number of game-changing winemakers (four of whom are featured here) whose bottles can be found in trendy wine bars worldwide.
The philosophy that these winemakers share is minimalism. Grapes, whether homegrown or sourced, are farmed organically or biodynamically. Native yeasts, skin contact and neutral aging vessels are favored. Filtration and additives (other than a dash of sulfur) are frowned upon. The wine styles, however, vary greatly.
“When I started 10 years ago, I did the opposite of everything I was taught at winemaking school. I was fighting for a cause, making wine in a wild way that had structural integrity.”
An unofficial leader of this movement is South African-born Anton van Klopper. His nickname, Wildman, could refer to the untamed Pinot Noir vines on the 16-acre property that he and his wife, Sally, have owned since 2002. (Several of his wines bear the Wildman moniker.) It could also be a nod to van Klopper’s shock of unkempt hair and polarizing public persona—he’s been known to break into dance at trade events while wearing shirts with holes cut from the nipple region.
These unconventional antics belie thoughtful winemaking. A sharp, educated chef and sommelier turned winemaker, van Klopper is one of Australia’s unlikely revolutionaries at a time when the industry needed a recharge.
“When I started 10 years ago, I did the opposite of everything I was taught at winemaking school,” van Klopper told Allen in his Gourmet Traveller article. “I was fighting for a cause, making wine in a wild way that was sound, that had structural integrity.
“I helped others get started, because I wanted people doing interesting stuff. And now the cause is here.”
Van Klopper’s range of handmade wines constantly changes. While the complexity and elegance of his top-tier Lucy Margaux single-site Pinot Noir is widely heralded, it’s the more glug-worthy Domaine Lucci bottlings that you’re more likely to come across.
The 2015 range includes a bright and prickly rosé-colored Gris Gris, made from Pinot Gris whole-berry fermented in amphorae; a light and crunchy Noir de Florette, made from whole bunch Pinot Noir, and several beautifully textured, multihued skin-contact whites. Grapes are sourced from around the region.
It was the threat of having to sell the family vineyards that finally coaxed siblings Jasper and Sophie Button back home. Twenty years ago, when their mother planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines on 8.6 acres of the family’s 64-acre Basket Range property, she couldn’t have imagined that her tiny district would become one of the most thrilling wine spots in Australia. Even so, she was ready to pass the viticulture baton.
Enter the next generation of Buttons, who, upon returning home five years ago, had a lot to learn about grape growing.
“We began the journey of learning about viticulture—tending to the grapes and starting to understand what this big, old world was all about,” says Sophie Button.
Two years in, they realized they weren’t happy selling off the grapes they’d worked so hard to farm.
“It was clear we needed to make our own wine,” says Sophie.
And so Sophie and Jasper, along with Jasper’s partner, Stella, launched their Commune of Buttons label, while simultaneously converting their vineyards to organic practices.
“The organic side just made sense. We’re rather secluded from other farms. We have natural barriers from the outside world such as forest and hills that protect us from outside threats.” —Sophie Button
“The organic side just made sense,” she says. “We’re rather secluded from other farms. We have natural barriers from the outside world such as forest and hills that protect us from outside threats.”
As for the name, the Buttons live in a small commune—three houses dot their bowl-shaped property, inhabited by family and friends.
“We would not be where we are without [their] help at vintage and throughout the year,” says Sophie. “As with most things, living in a commune is brilliant, but it has its moments.”
The Buttons’ wines are made traditionally—vinified slowly and gently, with only very low levels of sulfur added. Their Chardonnay is a more typical expression of Adelaide Hills, exhibiting mineral, crisp green apples, fennel and mint, with a smidgeon of oaky creaminess.
The much wilder Gris St. Mary, a sunset-hued, tangy, skin-contact Pinot Gris, is inspired by the Friulian producers Jasper admires. The reds include a savory Syrah as well as Scary Button, a raspy, earthy yet juicy Pinot Noir that has aging potential but is incredibly drinkable now.
With just two vintages under its belt, Commune of Buttons has rapidly emerged as an exciting addition to the Basket Range crew.
What do you do when you’re set to inherit a multimillion-dollar skincare company? Make wine instead.
When Erinn Klein was handed the keys to his parents’ world-renowned company, Jurlique, he decided his passion lay in growing grapes, not herbs and flowers for botanicals. While studying oenology at college, Klein met his wife, Janet, a viticulturist. In 2000, Erinn and Janet returned to his home at Mt. Barker Summit, on the eastern edge of the Adelaide Hills.
One of Australia’s original biodynamic farms, Klein carries on the family’s “whole farm” approach. The Kleins produce their wines from just 12 acres of their 183-acre property, on three meticulously managed vineyard sites.
When handed the keys to his parents’ world-renowned company, Jurlique, he decided his passion lay in growing grapes, not herbs and flowers for botanicals.
Many of the vines’ biodynamic preparations are made from the remaining herbs grown on the farm, and everything from planting and fertilizing to picking is done by hand. The Kleins are working to re-vegetate other parts of the property that were stripped for agriculture, seeding hundreds of native plants yearly.
This handmade approach is mirrored in the winery.
“We describe our style as European-inspired, traditional and with minimal intervention,” says Janet. “The work is done in the vineyard. Erinn handles the fruit gently in the winery, aiming to preserve its natural characteristics, rather than to work it for hard tannin and flavor extraction.”
Stylistically, Ngeringa Vineyard’s wines may not be as wild and experimental as some of its peers, but they’re consistently classy, vibrant and expressive of place. The Chardonnay is restrained, but sure of itself: all stone fruit, smoke and nuts, with a steely, Chablis-like quality.
In contrast, the JE Assemblage, a blend of Chardonnay and Viognier, is more outgoing and easily likable, a round, floral, exotically perfumed number. Of the reds, Ngeringa’s Syrah is an elegant beauty, crunchy fruit, peppery, and floral. Alternative reds include Nebbiolo, Sangiovese and Tempranillo.
The Kleins don’t shout about their life-affirming work in the vineyards and winery. They go about things quietly. Their wines say it all.
Taras Ochota, of Ochota Barrels, literally embodies the term “rock star winemaker.” The former punk rocker has traveled the world playing music, surfing waves and making wine. But growing up amidst his Ukrainian grandfather’s vineyards and veggie patches instilled a desire to return to the land.
“I spent years in Europe employed as a fancy-pants flying winemaker,” Ochota says. “It was an amazing experience, but the chance to hand-make holistic, small-batch wines back home in the Adelaide Hills was always [mine and my wife Amber’s] dream.”
And so, in 2008, Ochota Barrels was launched. The cult label (each bottle is hand-numbered and waxed) is made at Ochota’s beautiful 10-acre property in the Basket Range district.
“I like nervous tension—raw wines released fresh and with energy. Gimme that fresh gear.”
Wines for Ochota’s 17 bottlings are made from Gamay grown on the steep 1,475-foot hill in Ochota’s backyard, in addition to grapes purchased from Barossa, McLaren Vale and Adelaide Hills. These include Gewürztraminer, Syrah, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and his most renowned variety, Grenache. “When I first started, I was told, ‘Your wines are a bit light. They need to age more, and Grenache won’t sell,’ ” says Ochota. “I stuck to my guns about picking on natural acidity and not ‘apparent’ flavor in the vineyard. I like nervous tension—raw wines released fresh and with energy. Gimme that fresh gear.”
Ochota’s wines are certainly lively, but they’re also textural and complex—wines for drinking and thinking. They reflect Ochota’s love of raw, edgy music. Many feature punk references like The Shellac Vineyard (an obscure hardcore punk band), a juicy, mineral, high-pitched Syrah made from ironstone soil in the Barossa Valley.
Weird Berries in the Woods, a nod to the Dead Kennedys, is a precise, pithy and gingery Gewürztraminer. A Sense of Compression, made in collaboration with Maynard James Keenan from the rock band Tool, is a floral, spicy, red-fruited Grenache made from 70-year-old bush vines grown organically and co-fermented with a small proportion of Gewürztraminer skins.
Don’t let Taras Ochota’s ultracool, rebel image fool you. With college degrees in business and oenology, and wines that sell out within weeks of release, Ochota is one switched-on rock star.
A hop, skip and a jump from Domaine Lucci and Ochota Barrels resides a botanist who specializes in seaweed. He’s also one of Australia’s most talked about winemakers.
“I was doing a PhD in Marine Science here in Adelaide and got a little distracted, and now I’m full-time distracted,” says Gareth Belton.
In 2011, Belton attended a tasting in Adelaide city with another Basket Range revolutionary, James Erskine of Jauma Wine. Later that same week, Belton found himself picking grapes with Erskine and van Klopper up in the Hills.
“I fell in love with its wildness and the many small vineyards and microclimates,” says Belton.
Before long, he and his wife, Rainbo, bought their own slice of pastoral life, where Belton is currently planting his own vineyard and managing three others in the region, all farmed without chemicals.
“I fell in love with its wildness and the many small vineyards and microclimates.”
In 2013, Belton launched Gentle Folk Wines. (In May, he’ll also release a premium label, G. Belton Wines.) Just a year later, he nabbed multiple awards at the acclaimed Adelaide Review Hot 100 competition, including top drop for his springtime wine, Blossoms. It’s a blend of Petit Verdot, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, which Belton describes as making “one feel as if they were running through lush meadows in the Adelaide Hills.”
Belton’s autumnal release, Little One Petit Verdot, is a shining example of Belton’s gentle touch: surprisingly light-bodied, yet unafraid of tannins. It’s crunchy, silky, herbal, floral and mineral, and truly expressive of terroir.
Gentle Folk is the perfect name for Belton’s down-to-earth wines. The Beltons are indeed kind, humble people, but there’s also a gentleness in Belton’s winemaking. Opening a bottle of Gentle Folk promises an easy, enjoyable drinking experience.
A Note on Availability
A selection of Domaine Lucci, Ochota Barrels and Ngeringa wines are available in the U.S. Gentle Folk’s wines will be available (through Vine St. Imports) sometime this year. Wines from Commune of Buttons are not currently available in the U.S.
- 1The Wildman: Anton van Klopper
- 2The Commune-ists: Jasper & Sophie Button
- 3The Skincare Heir: Erinn Klein
- 4The Punk Rocker: Taras Ochota
- 5The Botanist: Gareth Belton