Additive-free wine: a topical drop

Topical: The Rootstock wine festival in Sydney was popular with the public and a bit political with winemakers.
Topical: The Rootstock wine festival in Sydney was popular with the public and a bit political with winemakers. Photo: James Brickwood

Put about 70 wine producers together in a room, add a pinch of yeast and a soupcon of zeal and what have you got? The second Rootstock Sydney sustainable and artisan wine festival.

The February 8-9 festival attracted 13,500 people, a big step up from last year's one-day event, with a much larger space (Carriageworks, the old Eveleigh railway yards in Newtown), more exhibitors and sideline activities including food, coffee, cider, beer, sake, an orange wine bar and music.

Rootstock is unsponsored and non-profit-making, with a legion of green-shirted volunteers ushering, manning the doors, fetching and carrying and doing the odd jobs. Many of these people are sommeliers, retailers and other members of the trade who so believe in the ideals of Rootstock that they just want to pitch in and help.

Almost 70 wine producers were represented, all of them employing organic, biodynamic or other sustainable forms of viticulture with minimal or zero additions and manipulations in their winemaking, an approach described as ''natural'' winemaking, for want of a better word.

''Natural'' winemaking has proved impossible to define, though, as these winemakers differ widely in their approaches. Some insist that absolutely nothing can be added to the juice or wine. That includes yeast, acid, tannin, enzymes and yeast nutrients, and - most controversially - sulphur dioxide. Others say that a minimal sulphur addition is essential at bottling time to ensure the wine doesn't oxidise or succumb to taints, such as mousiness and Brettanomyces.

In truth, the winemakers present at Rootstock spanned a broad range. At one extreme you had the arch-fundamentalists who practise strict biodynamics and whose winemaking neither adds nor subtracts anything from the raw grapes. On the other, you had people who espouse some of the principles of organic or BD (but aren't necessarily certified) and make their wines with minimal manipulation, but insist on sulphur at bottling. Consequently, the wines being poured for the public covered the gamut, from dirty infected wines to pristine modern wines.

Winemaker James Erskine wanted a new language of wine.

The public is increasingly interested in these kinds of wines. For many, this kind of wine (and beer and cider) is a logical extension of choosing organic produce at the greengrocer or butcher. People are also more aware of pollution and are prepared to go out of their way, and even pay more, for produce that has been grown or raised in a sustainable way.

Many of the established Australian biodynamic and organic wineries were there, such as Cullen, Castagna, Jasper Hill, Gemtree, Lowe and Lark Hill, as well as the new wave, represented by Bobar, Harkham, Ngeringa, Ochota Barrels and Smallfry. Cloudburst, whose 2010 cabernet sauvignon was almost unknown when it won three trophies at the 2013 Margaret River Wine Show, caused some excitement, while Pheasant's Tears, from the former USSR state of Georgia, which makes extraordinary wines from a plethora of indigenous Georgian grape varieties, including kisi, saperavi and rkatsiteli, turned many heads.

Leading New Zealand wineries Millton and Rippon were there, along with a strong representation of newer Kiwi ''sustainables'', including Churton, Muddy Water, Hans Herzog, Pyramid Valley and Mount Edward. There were also four Austrian wineries, including leading producers Pittnauer and Hiedler, pouring their indigenous varietals blaufrankisch, gruner veltliner, St Laurent and zweigelt.

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The atmosphere was more friendly, relaxed and less businesslike than most wine fairs I've attended. It was as though attendees were united by a common ideal. The workshops I attended were more intense: there was some evidence of the intolerance of the fundamentalist here and there. Anton von Klopper, whom I admire for many reasons and whose Lucy Margaux wines I've greatly enjoyed, gave his audience a couple of long-winded diatribes. He was dismissive of those who like ''fruit'' and ''freshness'' in wine, and ridiculed the use of the word ''texture''. Perhaps he was just being a stirrer.

In another workshop, fellow scribes Max Allen and Alice Feiring claimed not to be critics and to reject the whole idea of wine criticism.

Allen said writers should stop pretending we can be objective about wine and stop scoring it; we should loosen up and allow ourselves to fall in love with it. Yet both admitted they use their critical faculties when deciding who and what to write about.

In another discussion, Jauma winemaker James Erskine wanted a new language of wine, dismissing the old one as alienating and boring, but it wasn't clear what he was proposing as a substitute.

In summary, some of the philosophy seemed not to have been well thought out, and some presentations lacked preparation.

Overwhelmingly, though, Rootstock was a great event and there's no reason why it shouldn't continue to grow and flourish. Even if, as one Italian winemaker told an audience, the problem with ''natural'' wine today is that it's becoming fashionable.