Brad Wehr is a West Australian winemaker/marketer, better known for his progressively off beat Wine By Brad label, which he established in 2003 as, “a bit of fun on the side to whatever else I was doing at the time,” he says.
“(Wine By Brad) was a bit of a crazy, quirky label that was very unique for the time,” explains Brad, “and luckily, there were enough people who engaged with the irreverence of it all, and enjoyed the good booze that went into the bottle at the same time… but, the quirky label thing has been done to death, now.”
For all intents and purposes, the Wine By Brad label was a great success, and could have been even bigger if Brad had decided to team up with the giant supermarket chains.
“The label would have been a lot bigger, if I’d had gotten into bed with some of the big supermarkets,” says Brad, “but, I always rejected them because I just don’t like working with these guys, or even shopping with them.”
In 2007, Brad launched another wine label, Mantra, which Brad describes as being more sophisticated than the Wine By Brad booze. The fruit is sourced from conventionally managed Margaret River vineyards, in small parcels, sometimes ending up as single vineyard selections, and the wines are made with a relatively hands-off approach, using wild ferments (if possible), and only minimal additions, fining and filtration, as required.
“I’m completely unskilled and unqualified, as a winemaker,” explains Brad. “I, more or less, fell into the industry after working in a few cellar doors around Margaret River, including Xanadu, and Leeuwin Estate, and I just sort of picked up things as I went. I learnt as much as I could, working in wineries and vineyards during vintage, until I was able to start the Wine By Brad label.”
Staying ahead of the curve is important for all types of businesses, and as much as we might not like to admit it, wine is subject to the whims and and fancies of fashion. Ten years after Wine By Brad was launched, the ever perceptive Brad Wehr started a third tier label called, Amato Vino, which means ‘beloved wine’, in Italian. Here, Brad is able to fully explore and experiment with alternative grape varietals, which are mostly Italian, and, which Max Allen writes in his book ‘The Future Makers’, ‘have quickly proved themselves well suited to Australia’s warm, dry conditions’.
“I got to talking with Ashley Ratcliff, from Yalumba and Ricca Terra Farms in the Riverland of South Australia,” explains Brad, “and he told me he was farming a lot of Italian varieties. He said I should make some wine out of them, which is how Amato Vino was born.”
Alternative varietals, as Max Allen has already pointed out, are well suited to the warm and dry conditions of Australia, especially those from Italy, such as the red grape varieties of Nero D’avola, Sangiovese, and Nebbiolo. The southern coastal parts of South Australia and the south west corner of Margaret River both feature a Mediterranean climate, which makes them exceptionally suitable to the planting of these types of grapevines. The problem is, not many people want to buy the kind of wines that are made from them.
“In Margaret River, there’s so many people making the same things, like ‘sem sav blanc’, and Cabernet Sauvignon,” says Brad, “and we’re all trying to fit into the same slots in the market. But, we can’t all fit if we’re all doing the same thing, so these alternative varietals give me something new to offer, and are a chance for me to get creative with the winemaking and the labels.”
Trousseau is a demanding grape variety hailing from the jurassic soils of the Jura, in eastern France. It has also been cultivated in Spain, and in Portugal, where it is known as Bastardo. This alternative varietal (for Australia), has a tendency to ripen early, is subject to disease pressures, especially botrytis, and has the potential to reach high sugar levels quickly. Which means, as the name would suggest, it can be a bastard to grow, let alone sell. But, when Brad found out that a grower in Margaret River had some hanging around, usually destined for some deliciously nondescript wine like, Margaret’s Dry River Red, or something equally obscure, he jumped at the chance to be able to experiment making, not just an alternative varietal wine, but an alternative varietal natural wine.
“I wanted to see if I could crank out a fully natural wine, and push the boundaries of what I’d done in the past,” says Brad. “And if it fucks up, then so be it… We tried to make a natural wine in 2013, with Grillo, and that did stuff up and we lost a bit of wine and a few dollars down the drain.”
Despite this, Brad says that the experience in 2013 was still a worthwhile one, because it enabled him to learn, and improve by the time the next vintage rolled around. When the chance to try to make some natural/lo-fi/ authentic /raw /real /naked /undraped /disrobed/unclad/stark/bare/nude/exposed/minimal-intervention/nothing-added-nothing-taken-away wine in 2014, Brad armed himself with 380kg of Bastardo, a Barrossan artisan amphorae, and some bated breath, and proceeded to make a natural wine.
“We let the wine do pretty much what it wanted to do, without any interruptions or distractions,” explains Brad, “and, it’s probably carrying a little bit more alcohol than normal, but in the context of a natural wine that’s been fully free to express itself, it is what it is.”
The fruit was hand picked and then de-stemmed, also by hand, and put into clay amphorae, where the grapes fermented, as is their want, with wild yeast. The cap was hand plunged once a day until primary ferment was complete, then sealed and left to go through a secondary malolactic ferment. It was then checked again to make sure that it hadn’t gone the way of the Grillo, before being sealed up again for a total of eight months. The wine was pressed off through kitchen sieves and colanders and then racked once with buckets and jugs (again, by hand), until, at last, it was, “gently, squeezed and massaged through muslin cloth to try and extract out as much wine as we could,” says Brad.
The wine was then transferred back into the amphorae where it was left to settle out any more large solids that still lingered in the wine, before hand bottling into 640ml beer bottles, which are crown sealed with black wax. No additions. Zero sulphur.
“I don’t have any specific ties to any natural winemaking philosophy,” says Brad “… it was an opportunity for some exploration and experimentation in winemaking, and I embrace the whole concept of it. But, I’m also pragmatic and practical in that I don’t want to make a faulty wine that nobody wants to drink.”
So what is this Bastardo like?
Red emeralds obscured by clouds, scented with spiced chocolate, cherries, brambles and game meats, concealing drips of VA. Maximum mouth filling tannin and tinned fruit juice textures, black fruit pastel jubes with tomato leaves and vines. 3 days later… earthy, port core, smoked venison… maybe. Brave, brazen, and brutish. – 14.2% alc/vol (approx). Only 250L produced.
“Making these wines was an adventure,” explains Brad, “and that’s what life is. There’s been times in the past 12 years where I’ve been doing my own thing and it’s very easy to slip into a tired, stale and bored state of mind. So, you’ve got to keep looking for adventures, and try new things, and that’s basically what Bastardo is about… it’s about going on an adventure.”
D// – The Wine Idealist
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