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MEET THE MAKER(S) SERIES #4: RISE AND REVOLT OF BOOTSTRAPPED VICTORIAN WINEMAKERS

What happens when sourcing great fruit means throwing out the rulebook? Alice L'Estrange catches up with three young, inspired winemakers, all who speak candidly about good farming, sourcing versus growing fruit, what makes Victoria so exciting as well as the mega challenges thrown at small scale producers who want to make hands-off, organically grown wines.

Victoria is seeing a renaissance of the low-fi kind, fast becoming a breeding ground of energised and experimental winemakers. But these spirited folk face financial, climatic, cultural and institutional challenges in their pursuit of the healthiest grapes. 

As conscientious drinkers, we demand organically grown grapes and minimal to no additions in the winery. We want these wines to be delicious and affordable and made by small, independent winemakers. Ideally with sex-appeal. We don’t often wonder though, if our demands are reasonable and easy to achieve in today’s volatile agricultural landscape and in a highly competitive market. Equally important to admit is that we make no effort to differentiate between the blanket (and often hollow) term ‘organic’ and actual healthy farming that improves soil health, not depletes it. 

Victoria, while really awesome, also makes meeting these goals pretty bloody hard for the small guys. And it’s the small guys, who share goals of hands-on regenerative farming and hands-off natural winemaking, who we most love and most want to support.

So I asked Niki Nikolovska from Babche, Alex Croker from Little Brunswick Wine Co. and Tidy Town, and Lawrence Scanlon of Dirty Black Denim and Street Walkin’ Cheetah, to shed light on what good farming means to them and how they each go about getting their hands on the grapes they want in the Victorian context. 

Niki, an uncompromising viticulturist come winemaker who has made her home on the Bellarine Peninsular (a region of scant few organic sites, pretty much all of which she has a hand in managing), makes pure and precise Pinot Noir and Chardonnay exclusively from vines she has managed organically.

Alex, creator of mind-opening and palate-awakening wines, takes very seriously the opportunity he has to further community-wide sustainability through committed and conscientious partnerships with growers, some organic and some not quite, coupled with a focus on urban winemaking to reduce juice-miles.  

Lawrence, starting with very little, has steadily built his reputation as a gifted and open-spirited winemaker, and one who has seen the warts and all of Victorian viticulture. Now arriving at a full 90% organically farmed grapes and a label that year out re-envisions regions and varietals, he has earned him his stripes as a winemaker to respect and follow.

One of the key points all three made was that crucial to all healthy farming is the right crop on the right site. Alex notes that in a viticultural region built on tourism, with geographic proximity and aesthetics bigger drivers than sustainable agriculture, you end up with vineyards planted to entirely unsuitable, but very fashionable grapes that need a lot of chemical inputs to be maintained. Niki understands from years working for the big guys here and abroad, that regenerative (beyond-organic) farming is aesthetically and economically not what they want.

For Alex and business partner Rob, trying to satisfy consumer’s competing desires for organic, natural wines from cool climate regions (i.e. wet, boggy and disease prone) is an unrealistic set of demands. His response, like Dirty Black Denim’s, has been savvy and practical: take un-sexy varietals from un-sexy regions that are actually perfectly suited to excellent farming, and turn them into sexy wines.

 “It’s our responsibility to find these grapes and turn them into wines that people want”, he says. Case in point a raging Pet Nat as well as skin-contact white from Moscato Giallo grown in Heathcote.  Always endearing and engaging, Alex’ wines are unique; both poised and playful representations of the new.

Lawrence Scanlon and his brother Tim started Dirty Black Denim in 2014, pretty much buying whatever grapes they could get. Since then, they’ve made wine from grapes grown in most corners of the state and have learned a lot about which regions are appropriate for good viticulture. They’ve forged a strong relationship with the Humis vineyard in Heathcote, where owners Michelle and Hugh thought well outside the box in the varietals they planted. Innovative farmers meet innovative winemakers and you have a shining example of how Victoria is changing for the better. This synchronicity has lead the boys to source most of their grapes from the Heathcote site and be an integral part of the vineyard’s increased health year on year, resulting in, of course, better wines year on year. Their Carménère, quite a balsy varietal naturally, has evolved this year and now sees just eight hours skin contact for decidedly satiating wine - fittingly named ‘Sedientameaning thirsty. Same same but different can be said of the Electric Marsanne; picked for acid, given three weeks skin contact, and seen zero additions.

Coming to winemaking from viticulture, Niki’s approach is vineyard before wine for Babche, She managed the site she sources from organically and regeneratively for several years before taking grapes to her cellar. Making her bread and butter as a viticulturist and keeping her solo project small and focused means she can grow the entirety of her fruit."Winemaking is a way of living to me. I want to make conscious decisions throughout the process and enjoy it in my day to day." This full-circle perspective also extends to zero-additions in the winery: ‘wines like grandma made em’ is the slogan, referring to the traditional, natural wines of her Macedonian heritage. Her Pinot, Chardonnay and Farmer’s Fizz reflect what she knows of that grape in that year, because she was there throughout the season and for years prior. But she recognises this is a fortunate position not afforded to winemakers starting with very little, nor is it secure: “The opportunity to be involved in the growing process is not the case for many and may not be mine forever in this region”.

For Alex Croker, an inspired and innovative winemaker come regenerative farmer in the making, his approach to sustainability in his business places broad community impact as its value. To this end he understands that supporting phenomenal land stewards through committed, considered and consistent grape purchases is where his greatest impact will be seen. Pragmatically, Alex says, if we were a business that purchased solely organic fruit, we wouldn’t be converting anyone to the practices we want to see.

Alex eschews the self-righteousness of demanding full organics from day one from growers. Look, he says, right now we’re in a La Niña weather pattern with a lot of rain into late summer, we’re looking at a potential significant yield loss and a very serious increase in mildew and mould. This is coming off the back of 2020 which saw devastating fires and sunburn at flowering, causing up to 70% yield losses. The vulnerability of farmers’ livelihoods at the hands of climate change cannot be taken lightly, and sharing the risk they face is vital. If a farmer needs to spray a fungicide to save her crop in a woeful year, Alex will be there to buy those grapes on which his business depends, with the confidence that in the long run their shared goal is one of healthy, regenerative and smart farming.

Niki’s firm approach to 100% own-grown, organically farmed fruit, and without recourse to corrective chemicals in the winery, means she is also subject to the very real risk of ‘bad’ seasons. Tough vintages like the one just gone mean lower yields, irregular ripening, disease pressure, and without simply searching for grapes from other regions to fill that yield gap, Babche will make less wine and cop the financial hit.

Lawrence’s many years of sourcing grapes all over the state provides him with a unique perspective on the term ‘organic’. I’ve been to organic vineyards that look like shit, he says. I’d rather see someone use a bad chemical once in a blue moon but who actively cares for soil, vine and canopy health, than see someone mistreating their site while claiming some sort of moral high ground. The Heathcote vineyard they buy from is not organically certified but there are no systemic sprays, sheep graze to control the weeds instead of tillage and machinery, and yields are kept low.

Important to Alex and Rob’s perspective on farming and land ‘ownership’ is a recognition that they are two white cis guys benefitting from an invasive species grown on colonised land. It is an important part of being Australian to recognise the damage done emotionally and physically, he says. Alex respects that our country has been farmed for tens of thousands of years by the oldest living culture on the planet – the soils on which today’s grapes are grown were born of indigenous agriculture, they represent peoples who have unbroken physical, spiritual and cultural connections to them, and we are today profiting from these soils, he says. 

Growers, makers and buyers alike have to take very seriously the complexities and controversies of land management in our context. We need to consider soil and community health as primary, and deeply question our colonial concepts of ownership and dogmatic ideas of how best to treat this stolen land. We must continuously rethink how this industry can be better for soils and communities, and put that goal well above our subjective opinions of what makes ‘good’ wine. 

The future? All three are excited and so are we. The calibre, diversity and sheer surprise coming out of Victoria right now is something to get around. Lawrence points to Minim, Ephemera, Combes, Konpira Maru and the Gippsland crew (Pat Sullivan, Bill Downie, Dane Summers) as exciting projects that have their hands deep in chemical-free soils. And we’re eagerly awaiting Vino Idda’s first releases.  Alex sees the movement in Victoria as part of a national one; all sharing a particular Australian audacity that says wine doesn’t have to be anything other than fun. For Niki, the amount of young people wanting to leave the city and make farming their life is utterly inspiring. But government has a big role to step up to in supporting the right people. Young makers who want to work on a small, local scale and who put social and environmental goals ahead of dollars are woefully underfunded.

Organic grapes are notoriously scarce and expensive in Victoria. If you’re not lucky enough to inherit a vineyard, nor to have a spare million or few lying around to buy one, being able to make the wine you want is fucking hard. The road to financial sustainability in Victoria is long and very bumpy. Small entrepreneurial winemakers working hard to source the best grapes they can need the support of consumers, and they need consumers to be educated about the realities of farming.

Green-washing is so prevalent in our industry, we’re all guilty of it to some extent. But it is our responsibility and privilege to be informed and transparent, to not take anything for granted, and to admit we know pretty much nothing. We have an opportunity to be active members of a generation of wine growers, slingers and drinkers who can leave our soils better than we found them. Thirsty work.

Check out the VIC pack through here if you're interested in supporting these guys and their wines.