“The first batch of wine we made was just so that we had something to drink…”, says winegrower Wayne Ahrens, from his family home in the Barossa Valley, “It was a small barrel of cabernet which we made at home”.
Wayne is a fifth generation grape farmer in Australia’s pre-eminent winegrowing region, the Barossa Valley, where his great grandfather was one of the original settlers to the region, arriving in the area even before the Lutherens. But, surprisingly, despite his family’s grape growing history, Wayne is the first in this long line of growers to ever make his own wine.
Having worked in industrial scale vineyards for Orlando (Pernod Ricard ie. Jacobs Creek/Wyndham/Poets Corner), Wayne was fascinated by the use of wild yeast ferments at a vintage he did in 2002 with Andrew Wardlaw at Tin Shed Wines. There, he and Andrew utilised wild yeasts (yeasts that exist naturally in the vineyard and winery, as opposed to ones derived from packet, which have been cultivated in a factory), to create wines that Wayne describes as “really exciting”.
By utilising indigenous, or wild yeats, the idea is that the winegrower is better able to express the individual site that their fruit comes from, and therefore the final wine is imbued with a greater sense of vintage variation, and provenance. Wayne believes that, although the ferments can take a day or so to get going, during this time preferment maceration of skins occurs, which enables him to be able to extract a more fruity flavour profile.
When it comes to making wines, the Small Fry ethos is to “get out of the bloody way!”, exclaims Wayne, “We’re trying ever so hard to not be the egotistical winemaker, and just let the thing happen”.
“My thought pattern in the winery is, what the hell can we do without”, says Wayne, “how can we minimise input by looking at what winemaking was 100 years ago when they didn’t adjust and manipulate in the winery”.
“Working naturally in the cellar is an ongoing journey for us”, says Wayne, “one of real enlightenment, which is becoming more and more important, and one that I’m really enjoying”.
This journey of enlightenment stems from Wayne’s exposure to biodynamics as a “real world solution on how to farm”, because, as Wayne explains, “when we started making wine, it was the idea that we could perhaps use biodynamics to make better wine that really drove us along”.
Wayne’s father was a pioneer in the Barossa Valley, applying zero tillage viticulture to the family vineyards in 1974, and who also pioneered the use of spray trucks to apply the various pest and herbicides used on vineyards around the area, including his own. One of Wayne’s first jobs on the family farm was to be out spraying herbicide to vineyards that Wayne’s father had been contracted to spray, using his purpose built spray trucks. As a result of that intense exposure Wayne, “developed a a high sensitivity to chemicals”, so now, says Wayne, “I quite intensely don’t like working with chemicals, which has lead me towards organics”, as an alternative farming system.
Wayne, however, bypassed organics and moved straight on to biodynamics, because it was “biodynamics that really hooked me and caught my attention”, says Wayne.
“I’ve always been quite impressed by the people that I’ve met within BD”, says Wayne, “they all seem to be very pragmatic farmers, who are looking for real world solutions on how to farm. When you listen to the detractors of biodynamics, it’s all hippy bullshit, and dancing around naked in the moon” says Wayne, “and that couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality, once you start meeting the people involved who are practitioners (of biodynamics), is that it’s all about getting the job done, and farming smart”.
Wayne began converting the two vineyards, one in Eden Valley (12ha), and the other ‘Schlieb’s Garden’ in the Barossa (18ha), to biodynamics after a brief transition period whereby he was using some new biodynamic methods mixed with some ‘conventional’ (chemical) techniques.
“We stopped farming ‘conventionally’, for want of a better word, and went straight to BD, with a small crossover period where we were using biodynamics and chemicals”, says Wayne. “I wasn’t quite game enough to give away the botrytis-cides, and we used an insecticide to combat light brown apple moths”.
Eventually, Wayne took a leap of faith and switched over completely to biodynamics, exchanging fungicides with milk whey and casurina teas in order to combat disease, and occasionally spraying with copper and sulphur if ever the need arises. Both sites are now being managed using biodynamics, with ‘in conversion’ certification of the Eden Valley vineyard, which Wayne hopes will become fully certified in 2015, while Schlieb’s Garden in the Barossa has been certified biodynamic since February, 2013.
Small Fry is certified by ACO (certified biodynamic), and certification is important to Wayne because, “it is truth, and not a story”.
“If I’m going to talk about it publicly”, says Wayne, “I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that, unless I had a third party truth that can confirm what we’re actually doing out in the vineyard. If there is an attraction (for organics/biodynamics) in the marketplace, then there will be some unscrupulous people that will come along and fill that attraction, and do damage to everyone else in the process. Those that say they’re practicing but don’t certify are actually encouraging and making a legitimate space for those unscrupulous people to sneak in and do the same thing”.
“I think that commentators, and customers should be demanding certification of people who want to talk about being organic, or biodynamic, because it’s fundamental and too valuable a thing to be open to a lack of scruples”.
Using the word conventional to describe those farmers that use chemicals on their vineyards is one thing that does bother Wayne and he thinks, “the use of the word conventional to describe chemical farming is wrong. As a monoculture system of farming, I think they’ve stolen the moral high ground by saying that this is what’s normal, when it’s bloody not, because it wasn’t conventional 40 years ago, and it’s still relatively new nowadays”.
Despite Wayne’s conviction for certification of his wines, and any others that say they’re organic or biodynamic, at the heart of Small Fry lies a deeper conviction, which is to just make wines that people will enjoy.
“We cook and enjoy food and wine”, says Wayne of his family, including viticulturist wife Suzi, “so the concept of making wines in a style that we appreciate, and that goes with food is a big driver of what we do”.
Having worked in Spain (teaching English), Wayne was exposed to that European tradition of wine and food being consumed together, and he believes Australians are reaching a point where more people are beginning to understand much more about wine, calling it a “maturation of our national palate”.
“We’re getting smarter about wine”, says Wayne, “and that whole cultural shift is really becoming quite apparent, very quickly, and I find it wonderfully encouraging”.
Small Fry might be just that, at the moment, but since much of their fruit (about 70%) is bought by the likes of Tom Shobbrook, Abel GIbson (Ruggabellus) and even brands under Treasury Wine Estates, it won’t be long before the wines follow suit and Small Fry become one of the Barossa’s big boys.
D// – The Wine Idealist