In Food + Drink

The Inside Story Of One Of Australia’s Most Unconventional Winemakers

Tradition is a wonderful thing. It teaches us about our past, guides our present, and leads us towards our future. Sometimes, though, it pays to throw tradition out the window and seek out your own path. In the wine industry, that can be a risky move… yet it can pay off. Alpha Box & Dice in South Australia’s McLaren Vale region is one of the success stories.

Opened in 2008, the boutique winery has carved out a niche for creating bold, inventive, and downright delicious wines using left-field varietals such as Nebbiolo and Barbera. Most importantly, they’ve helped make wine fun, bringing it to a whole new audience.

Sam Berketa, head winemaker for Alpha Box & Dice, says while the winery was initially created as an experimental project, it soon became a hangout in the McLaren Vale region, attracting wine lovers with its quirky offering and modern interpretations on classics.

Their wines have evolved since the early days, yet the spirit of experimentation lives on. Every wine Alpha Box create is assigned a letter of the alphabet to catalogue it.

All of Alpha Box’s wines are small batch and made with minimal intervention, vegan friendly winemaking techniques. They also have a huge focus on art and lifestyle – every wine tells its own story and is illustrated with a unique label based off its letter of the alphabet.

Though the idea of creating a distinct wine for every letter sounds a little intimidating, Berketa believes the biggest challenge is actually being constrained to just 26.

“The scope of showcasing the ‘whole box and dice’ of wines is actually quite daunting,” he says.

“There’s so much to pack in. We are spoiled for choice with the quality and diversity of South Australian wine, and the inspiration you can get from around the world is limitless.”

“Since we enjoy a whole breath of winemaking styles – you can expect AB&D wines to cover a whole range of varieties, influences and flavour profiles. It means that in an AB&D tasting line-up you can try wines sourced from all over South Australia. They might taste completely different to each other, yet they’re all linked through their winemaking philosophy.”

As a small batch winery, Alpha Box & Dice has a great deal of freedom to experiment, and this is nowhere more evident than its ‘Kit & Kaboodle’ label – a ‘winemakers’ choice’ which takes whatever is available in the winery on the day and throws them all into the mix.

The current 2017 white blend contains of chenin blanc, gewurztraminer, gruner beltliner and riesling, while the red features grenache, montepulciano, and cabernet sauvignon. If there was a grape equivalent of the kitchen sink, that would no doubt make it in, too.

“For me, the blending celebrates the lawlessness for Australia’s wine industry – we aren’t bound to the same rules as Europe in terms of what vines you can grow or blend together within a region. Just because it’s unconventional doesn’t make it any less valid.”

“Some experiments don’t always work out, but the ones that do really shine. The blend changes every time it’s made, so every Kit & Kaboodle is essentially a limited edition.

If Berketa and his team ever strike liquid gold with one of their more experimental blends, there’s no easy way of replicating it, as there are simply too many variables in the vineyard that can’t be predicted or controlled – weather being the major one. If one vintage or wine is especially brilliant, it just makes it a bonus for anyone who happens to have a bottle.

With that in mind, Berketa says there are ways to help guide the fruit through similar winemaking processes to try to ensure the style is the same at least, but they prefer to let their wines do the talking, allowing each one to tell a story from the vintage that year.

Some of the standout wines produced by Alpha Box & Dice include the Siren Nero d’Avola, a complex and expressive take on Sicilian Nero; and the brilliantly named Dead Winemakers Society Muscat – a natural, skin-contact white wine which is full of texture and flavour.

Though Alpha Box & Dice could have chosen to open in any number of wine regions across South Australia, Berketa says McLaren Vale has embraced their unconventional approach.

“McLaren Vale is an interesting region as it has a long winemaking heritage, yet is also quite progressive, allowing smaller, boutique producers to flourish alongside larger wineries.”

“We have a fun-loving approach to winemaking and believe that should extend to the whole experience. We like to educate people through a tasting on the winemaking, but not like we’re giving a lecture – it’s like a friendly conversation. I still work in the cellar door one day a week and it’s invaluable to get feedback straight from the people tasting the wines.”

“Wine tasting shouldn’t be stuffy or intimidating, it should be fun, because it is fun.”

Published 21 September, 2018