In Food + Drink

Meet The Sommelier Who Wants You To Drink More Blends

Blends are back, baby.

Producing somewhere around 20 percent of Australia’s premium wines, the Western Australian wine scene south of Perth Western Australia is known to be one of the best in Australia. Both the south-west and great southern wine regions are  home to some of Western Australia’s most revered vineyards, with heavy hitters and long-time producers such as Leeuwin Estate, Cullen Wines and Goundrey. Perfect expressions of chardonnay and cabernet are synonymous with the region, but now blends – rather than single variety wines – are starting to stand out, with small boutique producers pushing the trend.

As Rachael Niall, owner and sommelier at Budburst Small Bar sees it, the boutique producers are not just necessarily the ones with a smaller output, but the ones who are 100 percent hands-on in the process. And the absolute stand-out? Blends with more than one grape variety.

wine blends

The vineyard at Vasse Felix Photo: Supplied

“A boutique producer is hands on in the vineyard as well as in the winery. They are producers that are doing their own thing because they don’t really need to answer to any shareholders or certain trends. I think that is the beauty, and that is what is making the boutique producers down south more appealing and interesting,” says Niall.

She explains the market shift towards boutique and small batch wines in the south-west as a thirst for something new, and wine blends are scratching the itch.

‘The people that are making these different styles of wines are just getting bored with all the conservative wines that are on the shelf at the moment.”

And it isn’t just the wine makers getting tired of the same selection. Niall has noted a shift in consumer attitudes towards wine too.

“Punters are more willing to explore these days, and that gives producers a little bit more freedom to play around with their styles. It gives them the confidence that if they do play around with a wine and make it left field, there are people that will be interested, buy it and drink it.”

wine blends

Although the consumer uptake on the boutique wine movement wasn’t as rapid as that of craft beer – which Niall attributes to the previous lack of thought towards interesting blends by winemakers – the state’s desire to back smaller, local producers is seeing the market through a state of growth.

While drinkers’ interest in newer styles of wine and smaller producers isn’t going to be the demise of the traditional chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon production Western Australia is known for, Niall is confident that Western Australia’s new direction towards blends will continue to flourish for some time yet.

In fact, it is the new-style of blends coming from Western Australia that most impressed Niall last year.

“I was actually going back through my favourite wines of last year – for me that is what is the most memorable and what was the most delicious to drink – and easily 50 percent of them were blends.”

“One of my favourite reds through summer was a light red ‘Vintage Mix’ by Sam Vinciullo, a natural wine maker from Margaret River. It was a Semillon-merlot-chardonnay-sauvignon blanc. They were his vintage picks; and it probably sounds revolting and crazy, but it is just amazing,” she said.

Niall’s other favourite blends of the year hailed from the great southern region.

Brave New World bottles Photo: Down By 12th.

“Andrew Hoadley from La Violetta is the blending king. He does some really exciting whites in particular. And, Brave New Wine made a Riesling that uses lemon myrtle. It actually has a whole bunch of botanicals added in at ferment. I can see how some people might think that it isn’t a wine or a true Riesling, but if you don’t like it, don’t drink it,” says Niall.

Exciting new blends are just one constituent of the burgeoning boutique wine industry in Western Australia. Small batch producers in the south west and great southern are also championing the minimal intervention, organic and biodynamic movements; bringing a more environmentally and health conscious product to the table.

Utilising wild ferments, Margaret River’s Cloudburst Wines take the minimal intervention approach seriously. Geese run around the small, unmarked vineyard, and even the vines are hand pruned and picked to reduce damage to the plant and fruit.

In the same region, the 2016 Young Gun of Wine award winner – Josephine Perry from Dormilona wines – produces small batch wines by hand, from her biodynamic farm. Most notably, she experimented with a project batch of wines (the Clayface series), fermented in an old-world style in terracotta amphora pots.

“There is a lot of experimentation happening, and a lot of focus, precision and thought about what the wine makers end product is going to be,” says Niall.

Flow on effects of the amplified experimentation in the boutique wine market can be seen in the wider industry too; with some larger-scale producers turning to creating offshoot product lines and more art driven labels to keep up with the increased consumer demand for ‘boutique’.

“It is just great to see more people in the industry experimenting, but also taking that experimentation more seriously’, said Niall. ‘Personally, I think anything that gets people trying something different and interesting is a win for everyone.”

Published 12 January, 2018