IT WAS LIKE WOODSTOCK WITHOUT the Grateful Dead. Peace, love, food and drink, not necessarily comfort but long queues, accompanied by the steady hum of the crowd and the clink of glassware.
The first Rootstock Sydney Sustainable and Artisan Wine Festival on February 17 pulled a major crowd - possibly as many as 1000 responded to the call. The organisers, led by wine writer Mike Bennie and sommeliers Giorgio de Maria and James Hird, and sake importers Linda Wiss and Matt Young, thought they might attract 150, but had no real idea what would transpire.
In reality, they capped the online ticket buyers at 400, and there were rumours of hundreds more being turned away. Add in 50 volunteers and about 30 food-stall holders, and probably 500 were tasting. The venue, the Cultural Centre inside the Italian Forum off Norton Street in Leichhardt, was throbbing with people; excited, young (mostly under 30 years, by my guesstimate) and eager to taste, talk, listen and learn.
Headlining the 47-odd wine, sake and beer producers (many of whom use organic or biodynamic viticulture methods) were Italian wine producers Stanko Radikon, Dario Princic, Giuseppe Rinaldi and Fulvio Bressan. There were 25 Australian, seven Italian, five French, three New Zealand and two Spanish wineries, and one each from Slovenia, the US, Austria and Greece. Many of them, including the foreigners, had the winemaker or a representative standing, pouring the wine. And it was all achieved without funding or sponsorship. Pourers, stewards, water carriers and printers all donated their time and skills.
Outside in the forum were marquees where 17 restaurateurs and providores sold freshly cooked ''real'' food. They included Billy Kwong, Feather and Bone, Hartsyard and Three Blue Ducks.
As we might expect from winemakers who prefer to refrain from intervention (winemaking techniques such as pH control, sulphur dioxide addition and filtration) there were some quite diseased wines on show but, on the average, the quality was very good. There were those who always make beautiful and technically excellent wines, epitomised by the aromatic whites of the great organic Alsace producer Albert Mann. The riesling, pinot gris and pinot blanc were right up to the usual standard.
Adelaide Hills winemaker Anton van Klopper was pouring his Lucy M wines (they used to be Lucy Margaux until the French lawyers made a fuss). He makes an array of pinot noirs, and I tasted five superb 2012s culminating in the single-vineyard Monomeith and Little Creek bottlings.
Rippon from central Otago, Shobbrook from the Barossa, Yangarra and Jauma from McLaren Vale, Lowe from Mudgee, Lark Hill from Canberra District, and Blind Corner from Margaret River were all showing high-quality wines. I did not manage to taste everything, so this is not a complete list. But the Italian producers stole the show.
Radikon is justly famous and is one of the gurus of the natural wine movement. He ferments his white wines (pinot grigio, ribolla gialla, friulano and others) on skins, in old oak vats, with no temperature control, no added yeasts or enzymes and, most controversially, he uses no sulphur.
The wines can have an orange shade of colour, are not necessarily clear, and can have a high level of volatile acidity, but there is no denying their complexity of aroma and flavour and marvellous texture. Like most of Italy's so-called ''orange'' wines, they demand an open-minded audience. Princic is another guru from Friuli (a north-eastern Italian province), and I very much enjoyed his white wines. They are complex and relatively fresh.
La Biancara di Angiolino Maule is the Veneto (near Venice) winery of Angiolino Maule, who applies a chemical-free philososphy to his white wines from garganega to trebbiano. Tannins (or phenolics as they are usually called in the case of white wines) are a feature of these wines, and I found them just too grippy for my palate. Others enjoyed them.
They too are bottled without sulphur, and this is the most controversial insistence of the Italian hard-core natural winemakers. It is very difficult to have a fresh, unoxidised white wine without at least a minimal dose of sulphur at bottling time. I found the wines of French winemaker Riffault to suffer from this.
However, I did like the Veneto wines of Contra' Soarda, especially the dry whites made from vespaiolo, a grape that I was not familiar with. These were fine and aromatic wines, clean and well-made, the pinnacle being the 2010 Breganze Vignasilan.
Rinaldi's Piedmontese reds were superb, although we did not see any nebbiolo. Carlotta, Rinaldi's daughter, who happened to be travelling and working in Australia, manned the stand. She poured the less-famous reds of the estate: dolcetto, freisa, barbera and one I had not heard of before: ruche. These are elegant, well-made reds.
The organisers were careful not to call Rootstock a ''natural wine fair'', or anything similar: there has been negative reaction to the term ''natural'' wine, and many of these producers would not qualify as completely natural anyway, depending on your definition (especially if the definition includes no sulphur at any stage). Real wine is a better term, as in ''real ale''. Rootstock promises to become a popular annual event.
To source these wines, try 121BC (Italian wines), Best Cellars, Cremorne Cellars or Annandale Cellars.
Methods and madness
I've saved visiting Italian Fulvio Bressan for special mention. He is larger than life: a one-off. Chewing on a stub of unlit cigar and wearing a camouflage jacket (it's what he wears every day at home, so why should here be any different?), Fulvio fulminates about anything and everything. ''I asked someone how long has Australia been making wine and I was told since it was settled in 1788. My family has been making wine in the same place since 1726.''
His favourite term for dissing wine is ''plastic''. Or ''shit''. Or ''not wine'' at all. Irrigated vineyards produce not wine. Mechanical harvesting produces not wine. Riesling is sold too young: ''Even Mosel riesling, I would not drink before 10 years old. Here, you already sell 2012 riesling. It's not wine.''
He believes in indigenous grape varieties and says his part of Friuli - Isonzo - is the right place for those that he cultivates: schioppettino, pignolo, verduzzo, friulano and ribolla. He preaches low yields and self-grown grapes: ''Italian law allows 12 tonnes per hectare; I produce 3.5. Am I stupid?''
No; high yields produce plastic wine and he prefers natural wine. As for grapes, he says you must never use bought-in grapes, because you have to control the way the grapes are grown.
As someone who comes from a family with a nearly 300-year winegrowing history he can afford to take the high moral ground. He says modern wine producers' main concerns are cost and time. That is why they make shit.
High yields, bought-in grapes, irrigation, inappropriate varieties planted in the wrong sites, and wines released too young: his arguments are convincing. The wines he pours back him up. A peppery but ripe, rich 2006 schioppettino and a complex, mellow 1999 pignolo. Very tasty and showing positive age effects. Real wines, for sure.
But if you don't like them, I doubt Fulvio will care too much.