An infinite streak of bright blue stretches out over bush green hills, valleys, gullies and pockets of red terracotta earth. Contrasting against the enormous sky, equally impressive white, grey, and black sentinels hang silent in the air, providing this familiar scene with a sense of awe, calm, and a hint of warning. They drift over the land below, forming finite atlases of sheer size, and breathtaking beauty, billowing upwards like sky bound echoes, in homage to the epic eruptions from the now dormant, distant past of the volcanos below.
Whenever I think of Hunter Valley wine country, my thoughts immediately turn towards the sky. Unless it’s a scorching hot day you will, more than likely, have your view of the blue obscured by clouds. Consistently white with a grey underbelly, they shift across the sky threatening to dump their cargo of rain upon the parched earth below. When the rain does fall, just before, the sky is painted a shade of comic book blue. Black storm clouds slowly ease in between the colours of white and blue, evoking the sensations of Hunter Valley Shiraz – charcoal blue/purple, white pepper, and soft, but ever present dark fruits and tannin.
At the end of 2013, I asked Ross McDonald, of Macquariedale Organic Wines, if I could make some Hunter Valley hooch during the 2014 vintage. I wanted to learn the winemaking processes first hand, from the initial harvest right through to fermentation, pressing and maturation, and I wanted to invoke wine idealism, by making the wine natural – nothing added, nothing taken away. But, of course, me being me, and a wine idealist to boot, I didn’t want to just make wine. In doing so, I wanted to capture the sense of place that the Hunter Valley provokes in me with it’s diversity of landscapes, distinct characteristics, and big sky, including of course, the clouds.
There were a number of ideas I discussed with Ross, including putting the grapes in a large drum, tightly sealed, and submerged in the Hunter River, allowing the fermentation and maturation to occur underneath the water, thereby extending the idea of terroir from the Hunter Valley to aquaior from the Hunter River. I had experimented with this earlier in 2013 when I sank and aged eight bottles of Hunter Valley wine in the Hunter River, as part of the What’s In Your Glass? festival. Ross, all credit to him, didn’t actually say no to the idea, but he did suggest we take it one step at a time.
“In making dry white wines, as in all winemaking, the composition and soundness of the grape is of major importance, since this dictates the quality of the wines resulting from them.” – How To Make Good Wine, by Bryce Rankine.
Sound advice from Bryce, and so that’s why I am using certified biodynamically grown semillon, verdelho and chardonnay from Macquariedale to make the FBW
Having put the idea of a submerged fermentation firmly on the back burner, I suggested to Ross that we make a field blend. A wine that is produced from two or more grape varieties that have been planted in the same area. I wanted to co-ferment all the different grapes together in the same vessel, and take nothing away by including the skins, seeds and the stems! Because the whites are usually harvested before the reds, and this year, in the Hunter, was even earlier than usual, we were forced to separate the overall white/red co-ferment by having a separate ferment for the whites, which would then be followed later by the reds.
Including the skins, seeds and stems in the white fermentation (usually you just want the juice from white grapes only) meant that we were going to make an orange wine, something which is becoming pretty trendy in the wine world, but has been produced in regions like Friuli in Italy, as a matter of course and tradition for centuries. Extracting the colours, flavours, pectins and tannins inherent in the white grapes and their stems, essentially making a white wine using red wine techniques, is not something that is practiced too often in the Hunter Valley, and Ross certainly has had no precedent for what we were attempting. It was an exciting prospect.
We picked the whites at 6am on the full moon in January. It was a flower day (the second best day to harvest fruit), the 15th, right in the middle of a nationwide heat wave, with temperatures soaring above 30°C. The semillon that was coming off looked incredible, some of the best he’d seen in years, Ross told me. The verdelho seemed endless, but looked sunlit as we picked row upon row in sine wave fashion, moving back and forth between them. The chardonnay was picked in the cool relief of the following morning. I took my parcels of SVC back to the winery at Macquariedale and dumped the bunches, stems and all, into a 200L stainless steel drum, which I’d taped pictures of clouds to earlier. The pictures were my way of connecting the soon to be made wine to the sense of place I was trying to achieve in making it.
As soon as the bunches had been loaded into the drum, I hopped in and began playing out every winos fantasy by stomping, and squishing the juicy little morsels into a pulpy, skinny, seedy, stemmy, soup. The juice burst out from each of the variety’s protective sacks and spilled into one another, blending and bonding immediately. The juice felt cold between my toes, compared to the outside temperature, as the squelchy sound of suction and compression bounced off the walls of the red tin shed. There were quite a few berries left intact after the 10 minutes or so of vigorous stomping and experimental tight spaced running in circles (I tried to dynamise the crush as per the biodynamic stirring method), but this is what I wanted. I hopped out, and sealed the drum loosely with its lid, but not before sticking my head in to take in a big deep whiff. It smelt freshly sweet like dry grass and apricots. I left it to ferment, naturally.
The next day, I returned to the drum, opened the lid and peered inside. A solid cap had formed on the surface of the soup and it was pretty tough to break. Who says you need to innoculate with packet yeasts to ensure a ferment starts?! All you need is healthy fruit, in good condition, and I certainly had that. I punched the cap down with my hand and stirred the bubbling, frothy broth for a couple of minutes before sealing the lid on again. I had set up my guitar amp next to the drum with my iPod connected, which included a collection of songs I’d made into a playlist, including Mogwai, Beethoven, John Frusciante, and a piece that I’d written and recorded specifically to tie in with the overall concept of the project (listen below). Unfortunately, there was only limited power connected to the winery via a diesel generator, so the music wasn’t able to be played 24 hours continuously, like I’d hoped, but Ross assured me that he would leave it on whenever he was down at the winery.
By the 21st of January, the wild fermentation was racing, moving through Baumé levels like it was a hot dog eating contest, only this time the contestants were chowing down on healthy food that was good for them! I plunged the cap with a wooden pole that had a steel plate on the end of it, lent in and drew in a deep breath. My lungs immediately filled with CO2 and I began to choke on thin air! Now I knew how that worked – good! In the process, my nostrils had picked up the faint smell of nail polish remover, which is caused by acetic acid, or volatile acidity, more commonly referred to as VA. This was something that every winemaker dreads in excessive amounts as it tends to make the wine smell vinegary and unpleasant. Sometimes, in smaller doses, it can be seen to add complexity to a wine. In this instance, seeing that the ferment had only just begun, I wasn’t too concerned, and was assured that most of it would blow off before the ferment had finished.
I instructed Ross to plunge the cap at breakfast, lunch and tea, and let the ferment ‘breathe’ a little to encourage some oxidation, and hopefully decrease the smell of VA. 12 days later, after the grapes were first added to the drum, the wild ferment had finished, and the wine was ready to be pressed. We pressed out the juice using an old, but never before used, basket press that Ross had. The free run juice (juice that has already been liberated from their grapey home) poured into the plastic bucket below the press. We squeezed as much of the rest of the juice (the press) out as we could, and added it straight in with the rest of the free run. That VA smell was still faintly present in the juice, soon to be wine, but we all agreed that it wasn’t at levels that were unpleasant, and instead, actually quite nice. In fact, the juice smelt of sweet summer fruits, and had a delicious grippy texture. It was only the colour that I thought left a little to be desired, but I was assured that the juice just needed time to settle, and that clarity would come later.
We transferred the fresh grape juice into a steel beer keg which we could seal up with a bung (like a plug), not wanting to use oak, in order to retain the true flavours the grapes had given me. The wine will now sit and relax, and take it easy for a few months while we wait for the reds, and then we can do it all again!
Click to Play the Obscured By Clouds soundtrack…