“I don’t really know how I got into wine,” says Gareth Belton from Gentle Folk. “It just sort of happened over time…”
Gareth has a degree in marine biology from the University of Adelaide and was studying for a PHD, to become a specialist in seaweed phycology, which means he goes diving in search of rare macroscopic, multicellular, marine algae in remote coastal locations around Australia, and elsewhere.
“I’m a seaweed specialist,” explains Gareth, “which means I dive to collect a bunch of different seaweeds and take them back to the lab and try to figure out what they are… but, these days,” continues Gareth, “no one wants to pay you to go diving and bring back seaweed, and tell them what it is.”
In 2012, Gareth started hanging out in the Basket Range and ended up doing vintage with James Erskine, from Jauma.
“I worked with James during vintage and he said I should make a barrel of my own wine,” says Gareth, “and then one thing led to another, and I thought, ‘I could probably do this’.
Gareth was eventually distracted away from seaweed taxonomy by the Siren song of wine, with the song being sung in seductive harmonies by, no less than, three of Australian wine’s most prominent 21st Century vanguardists, James Erskine, Taras Ochota, and Anton Von Klopper, who also happen to be Gareth’s neighbours. Gareth considered diverting his studies in seaweed, and completing a degree in winemaking, but came to the conclusion that hands-on experience would be more valuable than textbooks.
“I thought, I’ve been at uni for eight years and it’s not rocket science, making wine,” says Gareth. “… I’ve got loads of lovely people around me that answer all my questions, and happily come ’round and look through my ferments, especially if I’ve got beers. James and Taras and Anton are great and really help me out a lot… I really believe that, especially the way we make wine, it’s not really about the science, it’s more about your palate.”
Until the 2015 vintage, Gareth was buying in most of the fruit to make Gentle Folk wines from surrounding vineyards in the Adelaide Hills. A few tonnes of it was coming from Anton Von Klopper’s vineyard, 500m across the road from Gareth’s home, and some of it was coming from the Broderick (or, Gnomes) vineyard, next door. Close to the end of 2014, Gareth was given a tip off that a vineyard in Forest Range, called Scary Gully, was up for lease, because the owners had had enough, and were actually planning on ripping it all up. Gareth took over the lease of Scary Gully and now, for the 2015 vintage, up to 75% of Gentle Folk’s production will come from this vineyard that Gareth now looks after.
“It’s up to me now to manage Scary Gully,” says Gareth, “which is a great challenge, because it’s 12 acres and it’s where I get my Pinot (Noir), Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay from… We’ll make most of the wine from here, and I’ll still get a few tonnes off Anton’s block, and a bit of Merlot and Petit Verdot from Gnomes.”
The Broderick vineyard, which Gareth makes the wine, ‘Little One’, from free run Petit Verdot, and the ‘Gnomes’ wine, which is a blend of gently pressed Merlot and Petit Verdot, is managed conventionally, “but the owner only really sprays herbicide once a year,” explains Gareth, “which drives me nuts, and we’re talking about changing that.”
Anton’s vineyard, just up the road, where Gareth trades Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc, is farmed organically, but isn’t certified. And, the newly acquired Scary Gully, which used to have most of it’s fruit sold to the bigger wine companies in South Australia, has stopped being sprayed with chemicals since Gareth took over.
“For me, I just fucking hate chemicals,” explains Gareth. “I hate people spraying them for no reason, other than they want to make sure they don’t have a weed under their vine. Most of the time, people only do it because they want the vineyard to look good, and that’s just fucked, because then you’ve got to add chemical nutrients, because everything’s dead, and it’s just becomes one thing after another, when you start going down that path… it looks horrible, and you can’t imagine the plant would be too happy about it.”
Gareth is new to the experience of managing a vineyard. Talking with Anton and James, he’s aware of biodynamics, and is excited by the challenges that come with looking after a vineyard. His ultimate aim, however, is to do nothing, and add nothing to the Scary Gully vineyard.
“I guess the approach will be something like organic management,” explains Gareth, “with the odd sulphur sprays, if needed. It will take a while to completely understand what needs to be done… I understand the benefits, and a little of the philosophies of biodynamics,” continues Gareth, “but at the end of the day, I’m more interested in adding nothing in the vineyard, whether thats’s biodynamic or chemical sprays, and absolutely no additions in the winery… we’ve got a lot to learn.”
In the winery, the only text book Gareth pays any attention to is the unwritten one followed by James and Anton and many others, which proposes the idea of adding nothing to the bottle, other than fermented grape juice and (maybe) a touch of SO2. But, since this book doesn’t even exist this sentence probably isn’t even true.
“I do make natural wine,” says Gareth, “that’s what I strive for, and if I fall under that current label, that’s fine.”
According to my own definition (NB. there is no agreed upon definition, yet), natural wines are wines that are made from wine grapes that have experienced no human intervention or manipulation, other than to encourage a change of state, from the vineyard to the bottle. There are no additives, such as packet yeast, tartaric acids, or sugars, no use of new oak, and there is, usually, no finning or filtration to remove any excess pulp, or skin cells. Instead, the wine is a pure and honest, (sometimes too honest!) expression of the fruit, the season, and the place where it was grown. Only a minimal amount of sulphur-dioxide (SO2/220) is sometimes used (Isabelle Legeron says no more than 75ppm), as required, in order to help the wine travel safely.
Many touchy wine obstructionists think that natural wines are made by lazy winemakers. But, as we have heard time, and time again, to make a delicious natural wine, that people want to drink, requires – to paraphrase Sydney wine importer Andrew Guard – minimum intervention, but maximum observation.
“I think lazy winemaking is when you add yeast, and enzymes and other things to control the wine,” says Gareth, “so you don’t have to worry about it. But, for us, we sort pretty hard, by hand, out in the vineyard first, before the grapes make it to the winery… I’ll monitor the ferment all throughout the day, checking it by smelling it, plunging the cap as often as I need to. I don’t know if you’d call it lazy, but each wine gets a lot of love thrown at it.”
Gentle Folk produced 150 dozen, or 1800 bottles in 2014, with most of it selling out just as soon as it was made. So, the ability to make wine this way is obviously much more achievable, than if you were making wine on an industrial sized scale, in the same way McDonalds makes hamburgers. But then, that’s kinda the point, isn’t it?
“Natural wines are about working hard in the vineyard, growing the grapes to be the best they can be out there, so you can do less in the winery,” explains Gareth. “People have quite a strong attachment to the grapes that they grow, so they don’t really want to stuff them up…”
D// – The Wine idealist
Links and Further Reading…