It’s been said by those who have met Fraser McKinley, of Sami-Odi wines in the Barossa Valley, South Australia, that he is very generous with his time, and that his passion and enthusiasm for wine is as infectious as it is knowledgeable. But when I spoke with Fraser, he was quick to assure me that he prefers to be thought of as the dumbest person in the room.
“I like the idea of being the dumbest person”, says Fraser in his Australian-worn New Zealand accent, “because there is so much to learn from all these people around you, and if you can soak up and sponge a lot of that information, the possibilities for learning something new each time, is infinite”.
Originally from Auckland, New Zealand, Fraser began his voyage into wine after a quick-fire trip to the Barossa in 2003, where he spent much of his time working the harvest at Torbreck wines. With a wine knowledge “starting at zero”, and a wardrobe consisting of “an arsenal of t-shirts and shorts”, Fraser bathed in the warm days, and battled the cold nights in his selection of underprepared clothing, soaking up all that the Barossa had to offer. After harvest was complete, Fraser returned to Sydney, where he was living at the time, with the memory of those warm days and cold nights burning bright in the back of his mind, open to the infinite possibilities that he had discovered there in the heart of Australian wine country.
So in 2006, he and his wife, Andrea, made the move to the Barossa Valley, to start immersing themselves in the history and people that inhabit this beautiful place.
Fraser began practising and defining his winemaking skills outside of the regular hours he spent working full time back at Torbreck, utilising each precious hour given to him by the early mornings, and late nights.
Not wanting to limit himself to just the winery, and knowing that all great wines are made out in the vineyard, Fraser wanted to seek out his own patch of earth to look after and take care of. He approached Adrian Hoffmann, who’s family had lived on the property since 1857, and asked him about looking after a segment of one of their vineyards, “not because I knew what to do with them, and I didn’t”, says Fraser, “but because I wanted to look after them… as an educational project for me to learn”.
Adrian acquiesced the city boys request, and approximately one-third of a hectare, or four vine rows, which were planted in 1995, were now Fraser’s to care for and manage on his own.
“Their viticulture was very close to organic, but close to organic is not organic”, says Fraser about the state of his vineyard plot when he took over its stewardship. “I think we started with a very happy place already, despite not farming organically, because they knew how to farm… but they did spray with flint (which stops powdery mildew), and weed-killer under vine”.
A desire to work as close to his newly acquired vines as possible drove Fraser towards organics, where he thinks that “the Barossa should be the most ultimate place for organic viticulture in the whole world. We get 18-19 inches of rain on average each year”, Fraser reasons, “so farming organically is easy, because fungus and molds are hardly in existence due to such a dry climate. If people can farm organically in Burgundy, then you should be able to do it blindfolded in the Barossa”.
Having spent a few years managing his four precious vine rows organically, with the Hoffmann’s respecting his desire to do so by not sending the spray tractor down amongst the vines, Fraser and Adrian noticed that this particular part of the vineyard wasn’t doing so badly. “This is working,” Adrian had remarked to Fraser, “organics was something that (Adrian) had an interest in, but hadn’t got around to experimenting with it yet… but over the next few years he decided not to spray the entire block, until he then decided not to spray the entire property”, says Fraser.
Out in the vineyard, know as the Dallwitz vineyard, which was first planted by the Dallwitz family, and owned by the Hoffmann’s since the 1940’s, Fraser enjoys the freedom, and uncomplicated process of interpretation of the rules, rather than following them to the letter, “the biggest decision (I need to make out the vineyard) is when to pull the trigger (and decide when to pick the fruit)”, says Fraser, “there’s no right or wrong, which is what’s so cool about it. There’s no exact science, because everyone is different!”. It’s Fraser’s own section of the vineyard, so, “I can pick the grapes when I want to, and I pick early because I don’t want to add any acid so as to retain as much natural acidity as I can, to make the most transparent product off the site”.
Speaking of transparency, Fraser explains his philosophy behind Sami-Odi is to be as honest, and transparent as possible. “Transparency seems to me to be the single most important thing in wine, and I love the transparency that some of the great wines of the world have”. In order to achieve this, Fraser doesn’t add anything to his wines, other than a certified organic yeast nutrient, which Fraser calls, “giving the wine snacks”, along with the minimal amount of sulphur prior to bottling to help the wine travel well.
To impede on the gifts from the vine by adding packet acids, sugars and other forms of manipulation “is kind of like robbery”, explains Fraser, “because mother nature gave you this, and just because it didn’t work according to your science book, doesn’t mean you can make it into what you think it should be like… there’s such a wonderful variance, and I love the enourmous difference that you get with mother nature, and climate, and everything that happened in the vineyard in that season”.
This transparent, minimalist interventionist technique started when Fraser first began making his wines with time stolen from either side of the day. As Fraser explains, “it was awesome to start making wine as simply as possible… working without pumps, stomping the grapes by foot with pigeage, working with whole clusters to make the wine as simple as I could”.
The shiraz grapes Fraser gets from his section of the Dallwitz vineyard are made using a one part Beaujolais style carbonic maceration, to one part Barossa style open vat fermentation. “Shiraz is such a reductive variety”, says Fraser, so, in order to achieve the “softer, frilly smells and delicate notes inherent with carbonics… the vats are sealed up at the beginning, protected and unbroken as whole clusters, but by the end of their fermentation the fruit has been broken up by pigeage, the lids are taken off, and the wine is exposed to a lot of oxygen to try and avoid reduction”.
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An unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and a passionate desire to be as transparent as possible defines the wines of Sami-Odi, by Fraser McKinley. “The process is far more important to me than the final outcome. (Sami-Odi) was never about having my own name on a wine, and just wanting to stick it up on the mantle piece and be able to show it off to people; it was about me wanting to learn more and more about wine”.
The story of Sami-Odi has only just begun, and with Fraser’s persistent aspiration to be the sponge in the room, soaking up the wisdom of the people around him, the story should easily continue long into the future, with the vineyard getting healthier, and the wines getting better… but, Fraser might just need to concede , sooner or later, that he might now know a thing or two about what it takes to make great wine.
D// – The Wine Idealist
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