Abel Gibson grew up surrounded by wine but was never really interested in it. His father, Rob Gibson, was senior viticulturist and winemaker at Penfolds, where Abel spent his days running through cobweb riddled cellars and riding in the grower’s trucks from the weigh-bridge around to the crusher. But, the bottom line style of winemaking at Penfolds appealed least to Abel, and he saw the big business, corporatised nature there as less than inspiring. So, he took off overseas, and began to explore the wider world around him.
Whilst traveling, Abel kept stumbling upon all these Australian wines, many of which were from where he had grown up, in the Barossa Valley, South Australia. He noted these as little signs and signals and, once the restless travel bug had settled, he eventually made his way back home, and began working at Rockford Wines.
“That’s probably where it all changed”, says Abel, “I saw wine for the first time, done on a small scale, with an old petrol powered stationary motor, leather pulley’s, an old crusher, and a hand cranked basket press, and I thought, wow, this is real, this is really quite artistic, and creative”.
Abel then went on to learn about winemaking simply by observing, watching, and doing. He worked on a number of vintages with Rockford, both in the Barossa, and then in Spain, before he began working at Spinifex Wines, where he tried his hand at making his own wine, in small batches, on his lunch break in the car park. It was while working here that Abel received the encouragement from Spinifex’s owner, Peter Schell, to embark on his own wine journey, and start his very own label… Ruggabellus.
Ruggabellus wines are the antithesis of the big and rich full flavoured beasts of the Barossa Valley, with Abel trying to capture “something a little more representative of the place, rather than sunshine and new American oak”.
“The mystique of wine is such a beautiful thing”, says Abel, “I’ve grown up with it and seen it as a commodity, and I wasn’t interested in that at all. I’m interested in it being something that makes you think, compels you to consider, and is evocative, mystical, and a reflection of the place that it comes from”.
Only just three years old, Ruggabellus uses fruit from word of mouth agreements with various grape growers around the Barossa, half of which are managed organically, or biodynamically, while the other half do use some synthetic sprays under vine. This is something, Abel says, “which is programmed into a lot of growers in the Barossa, but we are definitely more attracted to the ones that don’t (use chemical sprays)”.
Owning and managing his own vineyard is a long term goal for Abel, but in the meantime, because of the infancy of Ruggabellus, he is having to rely upon established growers in the region to source his fruit. However, with the steady rise and continued success that his wines are experiencing, this is helping Abel to work more closely with these growers, influencing them, and enabling him to select the right fruit required for his wines.
“If you don’t have good fruit to start with, I don’t feel as though you can make great wine. If you get good fruit”, continues Abel, “you can still stuff it up in the winery, so it all starts in the vineyard, and continued in the winery”, with the objective being to “nurture (the fruit) and let it express itself fully”.
The winery is the place where Abel can really express his intrinsic talent for winemaking, “I don’t consider myself a natural winemaker”, says Abel, “however, I am making wines minimally”.
Abel does make his wines with as minimal intervention as possible, preferring to let the grapes speak, but he will utilise some tartaric acid as required, to provide added lift, and uses sulphur in minimal amounts in order to protect the wines from spoilage.
Wines that make you think, and which are the hallmarks to life, are what most inspires Abel’s winemaking. It’s “the aroma and flavour that you just can’t put your finger on”, he says. The kind of wines that beguile and intrigue you with their subtle perfumes and dense silken textures.
“I like things that are a little bit nervous, and have a little tension”, explains Abel about his decision to use stems early on in the winemaking process, “and stems, for me, add a bit of that. They can sit beautifully with the fullness of fruit that the Barossa gets so easily, and create a little play in the mouth, which is something that I love”.
The grapes for Ruggabellus wines are fermented in the Beaujolais style of carbonic maceration, whereby the whole berry goes through ferment completely intact, which Abel says, “is a very important way to capture aromatics, and I love aromatics”. The grapes then become split or broken late on in the ferment, or in the press once the wine is extracted.
It is this playful combination of whole bunch and berry ferments that provide Ruggabellus wines with a unique personality profile. “Whole berry for aromatics”, says Abel, “and stems for snap, liveliness and vitality”.
There is no additional tannin boost from the wood Abel uses – old, seasoned oak puncheons – which provide the wine a neutral vessel for it to expand and contract… “If you just leave (the wine) in a tank, it can’t do that, it sweats and condenses back onto itself, and leaves it a little disorientated”, whereas, says Abel, “if it can go into a barrel, I feel like it can reconcile and resolve itself”.
The end result are wines that are unique to place, have their own identity and character, and don’t sit within the big brash and bold Barossa wine box.
Ruggabells wines are each named after the Latin words Timaeus (honour), Efferus (untamed), Archaeus (soul of place), and Fluus (flow). Each are individual wines in their own right , but, together, provide a snapshot of the aspirations of Abel Gibson as a winemaker, and human being. Abel uses the words “endurance, complexity and integrity”, to describe his winemaking philosophy…
I would also add unique, innovative, and humble.
The wine’s of Ruggabellus are born out of a deep-rooted, natural connection that Abel has with his home in the Barossa Valley, a connection that respects the traditions of the past, but is influenced by the possibilities that only become apparent once you begin to question and search for another side of the story.
D// – The Wine Idealist
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– If you live on the east coast of Australia, near Newcastle, you have the opportunity to taste Ruggabellus wines at What’s In Your Glass? – Newcastle and the Hunter Valley’s first ever Real Wine event –
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Links… 2, 3, 4