“I have a few colleagues who are very particular about the way they think wine should be made… When we released our first wine, in 2012, we had no idea what we were going to call it, and someone at work said to me, ‘the way you make wine is the wrong way’, and I said, ‘thank you very much, now I have an idea for what I can call my wine…'”
Alex Schulkin works for the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) in South Australia where he does wine chemistry research, looking into things like phenolics in white wine, and protein haze formation, amongst other things. He studied Biophysics at uni in Tel Aviv, Israel, and worked in a wine bar in the city. Once he finished his studies, he moved, with his wife Galit, to South Australia, and began studying a post Graduate Diploma of Viticulture and Oenology at Adelaide Uni, before being offered a job at AWRI.
“We moved to Adelaide to study winemaking for a year,” says Alex, “and while I was studying I met James Erskine from Jauma. I was amazed to see that the options for winemaking are actually limitless and that the rules don’t exist.”
In 2012, Alex bought half a tonne of Chardonnay and a tonne of Grenache from the Adelaide Hills, and made them into wine. The wine is called, The Other Right.
Charile Parker is often quoted as saying, “You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.”
Learning the rules helps you to see where the boundaries lie. Once you’ve identified them, you can push them, pull them, bend them, and maybe even break them. Doing so, of course, doesn’t automatically or always, lead to an improvement. But, it can provide greater clarity and enhance the definitions for what’s possible. Even if, by doing so, you distort and disrupt the very possibilities you’re trying to promote.
“I think studying winemaking is important,” says Alex, “especially with the way I make my wines, with a fairly limited arsenal of tools. There’s going to be some things that I’ve learnt that I probably won’t use or practice, but they’re still worth knowing, because you know what’s possible.”
Knowing what’s possible is the first step towards evolution. Evolution of technique, evolution of expectations, and, for a wine drinker, the evolution of their palate. I’ll bet that any of those dissenting curmudgeons still wailing and complaining about the direction in which wine has been going for the last five years or more have, at some point, experienced an evolution in their preferences for what spills across their palate. Say, for example, discovering surprisingly tropical flavours in a full malo Chardonnay that’s been grown in a New World climate, like Australia, and completely pushes the boundaries for what’s previously been expected of Chardonnay that, say, originated from somewhere in the Old World. Alex, and other winemakers like him are
simply evolving, nay have evolved, the expectations of what is an Australian wine, and therefore the palates of those people who enjoy drinking it.
“I don’t like sterile things,” says Alex, “and I treat very clear wines with suspicion, even if they still taste great, because I know that something has been done to it, and I ask why… I’ve been accused of making cloudy, natural wines before,” continues Alex, “but, I’m not worried about it, especially if it’s a certain someone criticising it, it just means I’m doing it right.”
Alex sources fruit from a number of different vineyards in South Australia, including the Adelaide Hills, the Barossa Valley, and the McLaren Vale. None of the vineyards he sources fruit from are certified organic, but, Alex says, one is managed without the use of any synthetic chemicals, not even copper and sulphur (which are both allowed in limited quantities under organic certification standards).
“I wasn’t all that excited to make Shiraz,” says Alex, “but when I saw the vineyard in the McLaren Vale, it was so wild because it hadn’t been sprayed with anything. The fruit looked so good that is was too good of an opportunity to pass up… I’m slowly becoming more actively involved in helping to manage it, which, for me, is very exciting, because I’m learning a lot from the grower and where my wines are ultimately coming from.”
Alex makes two wines with Grenache grapes grown in the Vine Vale sub-district of the Barossa Valley. 2014’s, Fire Head and Vine Vale Grenache, are grown in a fairly flat vineyard at the bottom of the valley on sandy soils over clay. The Pinot Noir for the joyous All Fruits Ripe is grown on two sites of the Adelaide Hills, the Basket Range and Norton Summit. The Chardonnay comes from the Basket Range, as well.
“The Chardonnay is hand picked and brought to a shed in Basket Range that I use to make the wine in,” says Alex. “It’s pressed right away, I don’t give it any skin contact, and I don’t use any enzymes to settle out the juice. I just skim off the solids from the surface of the juice while it’s still fermenting, and once it runs clear we transfer into barrel where it finishes fermenting. Unless I need to rack it, because it’s developing some characters I don’t want, that’s usually where it stays until we bottle it.”
So, the wines are made naturally, but not all the fruit is organic, yet.
“Not all of these vineyards are organically managed, at the moment,” says Alex, “but the search is on for growers who are doing this. We’re still very small, but sometime in the future, as soon as we can, we want all the grapes we buy to be organic because I think using chemicals is basically laziness and only good for short term gains. It’s definitely not sustainable.”
Alex’s various qualifications in science allow him to be more adventurous and experimental in his approach to winemaking. But, by no means, does he want the wines he makes for The Other Right to be undrinkable, just for the sake of being natural. Knowing the rules can, sometimes, lead you to find loopholes which you can exploit to enable the creation of something new and evolutionary. Then, it’s up to you whether you continue to experiment and rewrite the rules, or simply continue reading from the new ones you may have inadvertently just written.
“I reserve the right to to reach that age where I won’t be so young anymore,” says Alex, “and I might not be so flexible (thinking about how wine is made) as I am now. And, perhaps, one day I’ll still be making the kinds of wines I make now according to a set of unwritten rules that I just keep following. Whereas, for now, winemaking for me is really about fun and experimenting with what’s possible and having no rules to stick to.”
D// – The Wine Idealist
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