Samuel Flynn Scott explores the buzzy flavours of the natural wineries of downtown Wellington.
I’m in the Garage Project Taproom with my long term comrade in music Lukasz Buda. We’re entertaining Marlon Williams and his lovely band The Yarra Benders. We find ourselves here because it’s close to the gig, and we’re trying to impress the band with our great local, and because of Jos Ruffell, the Garage Project co-founder and bon-vivant, is joining us to watch the show and I just know he’ll show up with some weird shit for us to drink.
Which, true to form, he does. And to my surprise and delight he shows up with a bottle of wine which I actually had small hand in making. I pressed this dirty field blend and got absolutely covered in its juices over a year ago and now here it is, golden and mysterious and as yet untasted even by Ruffell. I’m pretty excited. This is an equal blend of Martinborough riesling and gewürztraminer, all organic, zero sulphur, 100% wild ferment, no additives, unfiltered, unfined, two months fermenting on skins and then aged in amphora for twelve months. And yeah did I mention, I pressed these grapes?
The wine is golden, but not like a New World chardonnay. It’s gold like some kind of golden elixir created as a film prop, full of dark magic. It almost smells like a really good tequila. It’s chalky, acidic in the right way, and mysterious. Marlon thinks it “tastes like delicious feet”. It fits right in with the complex and unusual Garage Project beers we’re imbibing, but does it fit anywhere else?
Natural wines are blowing my mind, and yes I understand why people say they taste like feet or compost, but they don’t all taste like that. Also if it tastes like delicious feet, then drink the feet people!
“It’s made in an ancient, arcane way, and tastes like it,” says Ruffell. “But once you start drinking it, and acclimatise to it, it goes down fast.”
The wine is made in Garage Project’s ‘Wild Workshop’ brewery on Marion St in downtown Wellington. It’s quite the place. Watched over by workshop head brewer Dave Bell, whose beard is so long I wonder if it’s full of wild yeast and part of the flavour profile of the brews. Hundreds of wine, bourbon and tequila barrels are slowly ageing the more experimental end of the GP range. And then there are the huge terracotta amphora. It’s not all strictly natural wine: a lot of the GP ‘crushed’ project is about having natural ideals as a starting point, but then using the technology and yeast mastery of brewing to make something completely new.
“We want to make interesting wine accessible,” says Ruffell. “I mean, how many times have you been in a restaurant, you know a bit about wine but you still feel like an idiot? What I love about beer is you can’t buy your way in.”
Garage Project are holding a Pet Nat Picnic as part of Visa Wellington on a Plate and this ancient sparkling style, petillant naturel – characteristically zingy, light and drinkable – is probably a good place to start if you’re natural-curious. Garage Project’s version is the very smashable ‘Fun Juice’. It’s not going to blow your mind or break the bank, but as it says on the label, it’s fun.
Ruffell started Garage Project with Pete and Ian Gillespie. Ian was his best friend and Ian’s older brother Pete just happened to be some kind of mad scientist brewing genius.
“When we started the brewery, I told Pete I thought we should take the same approach to beer as [elBulli chef] Ferran Adria takes to food,” Ruffell explains.
And Pete, who has to be one the nicest, most open minded people you will ever meet, took the bull by the horns and came up with a new beer every week for their first year. With a tiny brew kit in a big empty garage they changed the idea of what a New Zealand brewery should be. They probably pissed a few people off with their audacity, but it worked, and now they’re the Radiohead of breweries: as they get bigger they get more, not less, experimental, branching out into more obscure, sour, wild and unpredictable beers. A big part of some of the crazier beers is a family of yeast called brettanomyces, or “brett”, which can have a wondrous or devastating impact on a ferment. So why not chuck in some wine and see what happens?
“I don’t want our ‘Crushed’ programme to be defined by brett,” says Ruffell. “I think we’ll probably only release two brett ferment wines for the ‘18 vintage. But in terms of using these types of yeast, which brewers have been tinkering with for a long time and can enhance incredible floral notes, using it with wine? I think we are probably one of handful of people trying that in the world.”
Whereas the beer is brewed by the Gillespie brothers – with Ruffell providing ideas and new angles, knowledge of trends and, I daresay, a lot of encouragement to delve into the avant-garde – the wine is really Ruffell’s thing. Up to this point it is all very much a collaboration with Alex Craighead of Don & Kindeli wines, but it’s mostly Jos getting into his underpants and jumping in and out of amphora. I get the feeling that Ruffell is loving having a hands-on project that he can get down and dirty with. As we tour the workshop, tasting wines ageing in bourbon and tequila barrels, funky out there wines, traditional refined wines, it’s clear that this isn’t a little side project; this is the mark of the passionate and obsessive.
Garage Project don’t push their wines as being strictly natural, but some of them certainly are, so what actually even is that? One of the biggest champions of this new wave of old wine is Dan Gillet of Wine Diamonds. I got double teamed into natural wine by Ruffell and my brother Max Walker (he’s much younger than me, runs the wine programme at LP Meats, and always knows about the new thing before me), but it was a Wine Diamonds pop-up at Customs (remember the toast, pay attention people) that pushed me over the edge. I was bored by wine, uninterested. Even extremely great Otago pinot noir seemed to all taste the same to me (they don’t, I’m stupid, I was just in a fug), but nothing that Gillet was pouring tasted anything like anything. What the hell was this shit?
I was a waiter at a fancy restaurant in the ’90s. I did some wine courses, I did lots of tastings. I was lucky enough to try some really exciting French wines that aren’t really part of the wine library of New Zealand. But that shit was expensive, and a long time ago, and besides none of it tasted like this. Brazenly acidic Momento Mori wines from Australia, soulful Kindeli wines from Nelson, L’Anglore wines in a cosmic dance with the cycles of the moon. This was some freaky shit.
“Natural wine to me is always made from organically or biodynamically farmed fruit and without intervention,” Gillet says. “In its purer form it is made by a vigneron, that is the same person who grew the grapes has made the wine, and in its purest form it is all that and made without any additions whatsoever.”
“Making natural wine is just part of the story though. Essentially it’s possible to tick all those boxes and still make something undrinkable. So for me it acts as a starting point and what can be achieved from there is why I love it.”
Gillet is something of a searcher, an idealist perhaps, but he knows his shit and thinks deeply, not just about wine, but about the farming and ethics around wine. “Beyond being ‘natural’ I’m looking for wines that are representative of time and place – that is, they taste like a certain grape grown in a certain soil, in a certain climate, and of a certain year.”
But, I hear you scream, “All wine is natural you flamin galah!” Well…
“I think if it there was the same level of transparency in wine as with food a lot of people would be surprised and shocked about what they are actually consuming. A bottle of conventional wine will often see see cultivated yeast, enzymes, sugar, acid, tannin, beef/poultry/fish-based fining products, and high levels of preservative (sulphur dioxide) added. I’m not here to scaremonger, but there’s definitely a better way.”
Gillet’s not being a scaremonger at all, that’s just the reality. There are food additives in just about everything we eat and drink but isn’t wine supposed to be a luxury item? They don’t put all that stuff in craft beer and hey, that seems to be doing ok.
I have just read the MPI’s wine making standards and I’ve worked out why I can’t be a real journalist. That was some boring shit. Regardless, it turns out you can put heaps of crazy shit in wine. It’s chill.
Obviously Wellingtonians are into natural wine, but as per usual, they’re being little shits about it by doing things their own way. Urban wineries, for better or worse, are becoming a thing. In Wellington it’s not just Garage Project. There’s also Te Aro Wines, from Jules Van Costello of the Cult Wine bottleshop, and Echo Wines, part of the Choice Bros beer family (do you see the pattern forming here?) which has just bottled its first release, a colourful low intervention rosé pet nat. According to brewer/winemaker Kerry Gray, the pet nat process in this wine was “very much our own approach. I’m not sure anyone else has done it this way.”
“Being a brewery we have access to equipment that wineries traditionally do not have,” Gray continues. “We held tank pressure at 18psi during the final half of fermentation. This allowed more controlled and consistent carbonation.” Is it delicious? “Feedback has been 100% positive from both wine and beer people.”
Jules van Costello of Te Aro Wine had a circuitous journey to winemaking. “I was really into wine, then discovered the wide world of craft beer, which challenged assumptions of what beer had to be, and that’s what led me in a roundabout way to natural wine.
“I’ve found a lot of the customer base are newer wine drinkers. They’ve come from beer and they are really after lighter fresher styles and not so interested in big oaky wines.”
Te Aro wines haven’t sourced organic grapes so van Costello is at pains to point out that he sure ain’t claiming it to be natural wine. What it is, is wine of this generation. Te Aro plan to open a tasting room in the delightfully tiny winery around the corner from Moore Wilson’s. Again, the talk is of the wine being accessible. That seems a primary driving force behind the new wave of wine.
“Some of the classic name producers, like Neudorf, Escarpment and Milton, have done a great job of evolving and adapting some of these techniques,” van Costello says, “but others are less open to change. They haven’t thought about what the next generation of wine drinkers are going to enjoy. There is a broad spectrum in natural wine from really kooky, funky stuff to really elegant refined wine.”
I explain to van Costello that I’m really into the funky stuff. Experiencing the crazier flavours puts those living compounds into my reference points of taste. Then when I drink a really elegant natural wine I can hear the whispers of funk and it gives me an emotional connection. A feeling that my taste buds are connecting to the soil, connecting to something old and esoteric, but also something new and exciting and evolving.
One of the hardest things is just getting people to try new styles of wine, and then not have them freak out at the first sip.
“When we recently ran the Belles Hot Chicken pop ups it seemed people’s willingness to try something new was a lot greater in Wellington than Auckland. I think craft beer has done a great job at this and unlike wine there isn’t the same convention or notion about what something ‘needs’ to look or taste like,” Gillet says.
There are some who would say this urban winery thing is a fad. They may be popping up in Melbourne, L.A. and Wellington, but can they really compete with wine that is made by the grower, that is connected to the soil? There are also many who say that natural wine is a bunk concept that just allows badly made on-skins wine to be sold to hipsters when they should be poured down the drain. There is probably 5% of truth in those statements and a whole lot of arrogance. Who cares if it’s a fad? This is a luxury item that we drink for the thrill of new flavour mixed with the comforting drug that is alcohol. If we don’t allow for radical shifts here and there then it’s just the latter, and who wants to admit that?
If you can eat kimchi or washed rind cheese and love it then you can drink the mankiest 100 days on skins ‘brutal’ wine (‘brutal’ is an open source wine label that anyone can apply to their wine as long as it’s experimental – kind of like the Dogma films thing, but for wine). And some natural wine is just really incredible, not at all crazy wine. But it has something else. It has a spring in its step that conventional wines just don’t. More and more I hear this referred to as ‘energy’.
“I love ‘energy’ cos it’s vague and impossible to measure and mostly to do with how something makes you feel. Sometimes I think you need to have a great understanding of wine to really appreciate it but other times I see someone with a great palate just ‘get it’,” says Gillet.
I don’t know if I get it or not, I think I do. It’s a bit like meditating; am I there yet, am I actually experiencing this?
If you’re in Wellington and you want to get on this buzz then please go to 1154 and get a bowl of pasta and a glass of whatever they are pouring. They sell good food and very interesting wine at a good price. It’s an unpretentious spot and indicative of where I think food and wine are going.
Check out Noble Rot, a great wine bar. They’re not on the natural tip really, but they have a vast list with some great old school European wines that are part of the wider story of wine that is starting to be told, and the staff know their shit. Go to Cult Wine and chat with Jules. Get to the Garage Project Taproom and maybe swap one beer out for a wine (or sign up for their Pet Nat picnic!).
If you really want to go deep then maybe order some Kindeli or Hemit Ram from Wine Diamonds. The hugely influential Pyramid Valley natural wines are available almost everywhere in NZ now (and from Auckland’s Great Little Vineyards). Natural Wine, low-fi wine, interesting wine, it’s out there.
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