Balancing The Contradiction – Living Between Five Bells

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Time that is moved by little fidget wheels 
Is not my time, the flood that does not flow. 
Between the double and the single bell 
Of a ship’s hour, between a round of bells 
From the dark warship riding there below, 
I have lived many lives, and this one life 
Of Joe, long dead, who lives between five bells. 

 - Kenneth Slesser -

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“Do I have anything useful to say?”, asks David Fesq, creative conspirator, and minimal interventionist winemaker behind one of Australia’s trendiest wine labels –  Between Five Bells –  from Geelong, in Victoria. “One thing I do know is that I don’t need to add any more wine to this industry”.

David Fesq is a 6th generation descendent of Georges Fesq, a young Frenchman from Bordeaux who arrived in Sydney as a supercargo who’s duty it was to travel with goods, and sell them in various ports of call. Upon arrival in Sydney, he decided to stay, and eventually founded Fesq & Company in 1848. He then began importing (amongst other things) “fine Medoc, in hogsheads, guaranteed direct from the vineyards at Margaux district, near Bordeaux”.

Photo by David Fesq - Used with Permission

Photo by David Fesq – Used with Permission

David is now a part of the management team at Fesq & Co., but before joining the family business he worked as a sommelier in Sydney, Hong Kong and North America, until returning home to begin studying (but never quite completing) a winemakers course , via correspondence, at the Marlborough Institute of Technology.

In 2009, slowly but surely, David decided a creative outlet was needed, and thought that he might be able to find it by making some wine of his own…. but, knowing what he knew about the need for more wines in the wine industry, David asked himself the philosophical question, “do I have anything useful to say?”.

In the search for answers, David began paying closer attention to some of the wines he was enjoying at the time. One was by a Californian winemaker, Sean Thackrey, based in Marin County, called ‘Pleiades’, which is a non-vintage, field-blend, where the wine is co-fermented and a blend is made from each vintage, then a cuvée is bottled and released. It is a wine described by David as, “smokingly delicious, but also complex, and interesting”.

Another inspiration were the wines of Domaine Gramenon in the Rhône, where “they’ve always tasted like wines where someone’s tried to grow the most intense fruit they possibly can”, says David, “which is low yielding, and then try to make the lightest wines out of that. So you get this funny combination of being drinkable and delicious, but also super complex and interesting, and in a strange way, concentrated”.

Inspired by these two unique and contradictory notions of field-blended, deliciously drinkable, yet super complex wine styles, David reconciled his own doubts and set about adding his two cents to the Australian wine scene and, “try and make a wine that is not great, or not even very good”… but instead “every time a decision comes up… to try and make something more drinkable and delicious”.

Photo by David Fesq - Used with Permission

Photo by David Fesq – Used with Permission

Having found something unique to say within the bulging Australian wine scene, David sought out the help of Ray Nadeson, long time friend and winegrower based in Geelong, Victoria, and owner of Lethbridge Estate. David and Ray formed a collaborative partnership, where both would get to exercise their creative sides, with the method  of operation being, first and foremost, “the pursuit of deliciousness”. David was intent on focussing on all aspects of the wine-growing process, from vineyard to glass, with the overall presentation and design of the wine being just as important as the fruit being used to make it.

The majority of the fruit for the wines of Between Five Bells comes from various parts of the Lethbridge Vineyard blocks, at the foot of Mt Dunedin, in Geelong.  A major component of the Between Five Bells wines is shiraz, and comes from the B5B block, which is a 2ha vineyard that is managed biodynamically by the owners of Lethbridge, Ray, and his wife Maree Collis. Other components of the wines come from various professional growers within close proximity to Lethbridge, where David has access to grape varieties like zinfandel, sangiovese, chardonnay, mouvedre,  grenache and graciano.

“We’re not trying to make great, terroir driven wine”, says David, “often (the fruit) is not from the same vineyard, but they have been picked on the same day, and then fermented together”.

The fruit is hand picked and dumped straight into 500 litre picking bins, where it is driven 15 minutes down the road, back to the winery at Lethbridge. The fruit is then sorted and about half of it de-stemmed, keeping the majority of the whole berries intact. Then, the fruit is put back into the picking bins and left on the side of the road where it just sits there, co-fermenting in the open air underneath the sun and sky. Occasionally, David will plunge the cap by hand, using a rake.

All the blending is done at the same time, and judged solely on taste. “Every year we throw out at least one of the bins because it goes weird with VA or something”, says David.

Once the ferment has stopped, the juice is then pressed off into old puncheons, with David and Ray trying to hold onto that light carbonic extracted red wine character the whole way through. Then the wine is prepped for bottling by getting the sulphur levels up to a decent amount. “I don’t really get the point of not adding sulphur”, says David, “because it’s there for the wine’s protection, and it’s not that much, generally between 35 and 50 ppm”.

Once the wine is bottled, it’s labeled, and sent out, un-fined, and un-filtered, as natural as can be, with the rest being left up to the drinker.

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Photo by David Fesq - Used with Permission

Photo by David Fesq – Used with Permission

“I don’t know what’s going on here… I can’t put my finger on it, but I really like it”, says David about what he hopes people will say when they encounter his wines for the first time.

The design element of Between Five Bells is completely complementary to what’s inside the bottle – complex and intriguing, but still totally understandable and transparent. The label designs were dreamed up by David’s distant cousin Nick Felton, one of America’s most influential designers, and creator of some of the most intelligibly intricate info-graphics in the world.

“Wine can be so full of bullshit” says David, and so, “I wanted to tell people what’s in the bottle, and be honest about it… but I knew that if it was too nerdy it wouldn’t work, so it had to be beautiful, which is where Nick comes in… and Nick makes things look so goddamn beautiful”.

David had kept all the data on the vineyards, vintage conditions, ferments and finished wines from that first vintage in 2010. He gave this data to Nick and asked him to interpret the information, and somehow come back to him with a beautiful label design.

“I wanted (the label) to summarise the philosophy of the differences and deliciousness of the wines inside the bottle”, says David, “it had to balance the contradiction… how do you be challenging but digestible, quirky but delicious at the same time?”

This idea of ambiguity can be found in the very name itself.

Between Five Bells is a line from a poem by Sydney poet Kenneth Slesser, called Five Bells. It is a poem which recounts the final moments of a friends life as he drowns in Sydney harbour, with the sound of the ships register ringing out across the sea.

“It is a poem that resonated with me for two things, one is that it’s about Sydney, and I’m a Sydney-sider, and I like that”, says David, “but, more importantly, it captures the essence of limbo, and ambiguity, and I loved that because it said something about the wine that we were trying to make.  I didn’t want someone (drinking it) to say ‘oh that is shiraz dominant Geelong wine’, I want people to say, ‘I don’t know what’s going on here… I can’t put my finger on it, but I really like it’”, explains David.

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Photo by David Feq – Used with Permission

There can be no denying that Between Five Bells is one of the more trendy of the wine labels doing the rounds at the moment. But, it’s not without good reason – the wines that David has created, with help from Ray and others, do, in fact, achieve that contradictory balance of intrigue and complexity whilst consistently referring back to that initial idea of deliciousness.

The wines themselves may be ambiguous, but there can be no mistake about where Between Five Bells now sits in the Australian wine landscape. They are honest and transparent interpretations, not anchored to any particular notion of site or place, or idea of terroir – they are authentic representations of David, and his contribution to wine.  Brilliant examples of intrigue, mystery and enchantment presented through one of the most simple and recognisable drinks we know… and isn’t that the essence of wine?

D// – The Wine Idealist

Links -

++ Snippets of my interview with David Fesq from Between Five Bells, plus a short excerpt reading of the poem, Five Bells, by Kenneth Slesser…