“I came from a winemaking background where I’d make one hundred, to one million litre tanks of chardonnay at a time,” says Taras Ochota from Ochota Barrels, in the Adelaide Hills, South Australia.
A student of oenology at Adelaide University, Taras and his partner Amber travelled the surf breaks of California, Mexico, Portugal and France, and thought about making small-batch wines from old vineyard sites back home in South Australia. When they eventually came home, Taras accepted a job as a flying winemaker in Sweden, making large scale commercial wines all over Europe, before flying back to spend time with his emerging family and crush a couple of tonnes of grenache. Seven years later, in 2008, Taras and Amber decided to focus full time on their own label, Ochota Barrels – a name which is taken from their surname and *means ‘desire’ or ‘to hunt’, and the obvious parallels between essential winery equipment and a good surf break.
“We wanted to make wines that were more European in style, and had no nasties in them, just because they were the sorts of wines we liked to drink,” explains Taras.
The fruit for the Ochota Barrels wines come from a mixture of conventional, organic and biodynamic vineyards (some certified, others not) from around their home in the Adelaide Hills. Taras works as closely with his growers as he can to make sure that the all important picking decisions, when it comes time to harvest, can be got just right. The fruit for the Green Room Grenache Noir Syrah, for example, comes from an organically certified vineyard in the McLaren Vale, which, Taras says, “doesn’t look as neat as a conventionally farmed vineyard, but the fruit that comes off it is so beautiful and pure.”
“Starting with amazing vineyards makes life easy,” says Taras, “and we have faith in our growers because they’ve been working these vineyards for yonks… during the last few months before harvest, I like to spend as much time out there as I can.”
Getting the picking decision right should be priority number one for any winemaker worth their salt, but for Taras, because of the types of wines he wants to make, picking right means picking early, even if the numbers indicate that the fruit might not be quite ripe yet.
“The picking decision is key to the kinds of wines we make,” says Taras, “I like to have a bit of tension in our wines, so I tend to pick earlier to try and capture that natural acidity, and try to make wines with more of a textual element to them… we want our wines to be elegant and acid driven, rather than thick and ripe, jammy and fruity, so I look for acid profile and pick based on that. Then, the rest should fall into place,” he adds.
The decision to pick early and capture that acidic tension was a bit of a happy accident.
“I made a few picking decisions with grenache a couple of years ago, when we were just starting out,” explains Taras, “and we probably picked too early. But when I did my blind tastings later on, I found that the best batch was the one that had been picked early and had natural acidity, so from then on, I’ve concentrated on trying to get that right.”
All of Ochota Barrels wines use wild ferments and no additions to transform the acid driven grape juice into tense elegant wines.
“We let all our ferments happen naturally,” explains Taras, “Sometimes, we have to leave the fermenters out in the sun to make sure they go dry. For the reds, we leave them on skins longer than usual, waiting for the cap to drop, then seal it up to macerate on skins and stalks.”
Lengthening the time the juice is spent in contact with the skins (from the grapes) emphasises the textual sensations of a wine, encourages tannin polymerisation causing the wine to soften, and highlights the savoury characters of a wine.
“Texture is about how the wine feels in your mouth,” explains Taras, “I love that pear skin grip you get from extended skin contact… the natural acidity of satsuma plums (blood plum) with their sapid astringency and crazy red flavours. I try to capture that element in all our reds,” Taras continues, “by picking early and including the stems and stalks.”
In the case of the Green Room (grenache/syrah), there’s a delicious sheen of red fruits, cured meats and other “butcher shop characters,” as Taras puts it, which builds restraint, and tension in an otherwise easily flabby style.
Once Taras is happy with each ferment’s structure, the reds are basket-pressed into seasoned French oak, and sulphur is added, as and when required.
“I actually love sulphur,” says Taras, “because I love how it can tighten a wine up, but I use it carefully and at the right times, only when it’s needed.”
The use of sulphur is a controversial subject in the world of natural wines, with many hardcore campaigner’s advocating for it to not be used at all, but in small and the right amounts, sulphur can be a wine’s best friend.
“I add sulphur to the whites after primary ferment, because I don’t want them going through malo (a secondary ferment that turns malic (apples) acids into lactic (milk) acids), and to keep the wine fresh,” says Taras, “and if there’s any damaged fruit in the vineyard, I’ll add sulphur to the crusher to kill any nasties that could cause the wine to turn into vinegar, because there’s nothing worse than that,” he adds.
If the wines require a little more sulphur to protect them when bottling, Taras is not averse to applying it here as well.
“I’ll usually add sulphur to the reds as soon as they’re through malo, and by the time it comes to bottling. Hopefully I’ve gotten it right so they won’t need another hit, because it’s already in there and integrated nicely,” explains Taras.
Despite what could be viewed as the liberal use of sulphur, Taras says that the total amount of sulphur per bottle doesn’t exceed 80 ppm. So, are Ochota Barrels wines natural wines?
“Everything we do is natural, so Ochota Barrels are natural wines,” says Taras, “but I’m not really comfortable being under that umbrella of being a natural as there’s so much natural wine out there that is just continually so disappointing and faulty.”
“The word ‘natural’ can sometimes be used as an excuse,” Taras continues, “and used as a kind of a trump card to excuse shite wine. To be included in that kind of winemaking is a big negative for me, although some of the best wines I’ve enjoyed are apparently natural. The wine has to be absolutely schmick first, or it goes down the drain…”
“We want to make wines that are beautiful and are made with love and attention to detail,” explains Taras, “wines that are edgy and raw, from that acid and the texture, but still melodic and beautiful.”
Taras Ochota is turning the screws and pushing the limits of what wine is, and can be, from South Australia, creating bottles that probably capture more of a sense of style, rather than any sense of place.
But… perhaps he’s imprinting his own understanding of what is a sense of place, his home, rather than a particular region, sub-region, or vineyard site.
D// – The Wine Idealist