Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Winemakers: they're everywhere

Winemaker Kevin McCarthy siphoning
 some pop-up nebbiolo for us to taste

Forget trendy pop-up bars or restaurants. Two pop-up wineries appeared in the heart of Melbourne and Sydney during the 2010 vintage, both producing some of the most exciting booze from this year's harvest.

In late March, lunchtime office workers and shoppers bustling through the Southgate complex on the banks of Melbourne’s Yarra River were treated to the unexpected sight of big vats full of nebbiolo grapes, bubbling away inside an empty shopfront.

Winemaker Kevin McCarthy from T’Gallant and chef Simon Humble from Southgate restaurant Tutto Bene were the hearts and minds behind this crazy 'garagista' project. As well as bleeding off some juice for a pink wine and pressing off the bulk of the wine for an earlier-drinking red, the pair also decided to leave some wine in the vat in contact with the grape skins for another three months before pressing, to extract the finest tannins and flavours.

This is extreme winemaking, even by the standards of Barolo, the Italian heartland of nebbiolo. But Sydney wine retailer, artist and musician Sam Hughes took winemaking to an even more extreme place.

This time, the location, fittingly, was an art studio in a crumbling 19th century terraced house directly under the flight path near Sydney airport. As the 747s roared overheard, I looked on in wide-eyed wonder at Sam’s pop-up semillon, made from Hunter Valley fruit.

The wine was fermented in nine large ceramic egg-shaped vessels, each buried in a drum. And when I say ‘buried’, I mean it literally: three of the ‘eggs’ were buried in sand, three in clay and three in crushed shells. Each group of three eggs had sound played to it while it fermented: the sandy group had the high-pitched tone of a finger running around the rim of a glass, the clay group had a heartbeat, and the shells the sound of a single note played on electric guitar. Some of the eggs contained just fermented juice, while some contained whole grapes - skins and pips and all. There was no temperature control, and nothing was added to the wines: no yeast, no acid, no sulphur. In other words, all the modern rules of white winemaking have been gleefully broken.

But the wines I tasted from those eggs were amazing: full of wild fruit flavours and concentrated textural characters I’ve never before seen in Hunter semillon. I think it’s fabulous that someone is pushing the boundaries of wine so very far beyond what is considered acceptable - and, like Kevin and Simon at Southgate, is having an enormous amount of fun doing it.

For more on the egg semillon: http://www.naturalselectiontheory.com
A version of this story was first published in The Weekend Australian Magazine, April 10, 2010. 

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