Rootstock Sydney gets all Melbourne cool

Rootstock Sydney tours Melbourne.

by Dorothy Cook

So: the bacon in your fridge came from a contented free-range pig and your carrots and spinach from the farmer’s market were grown within 100 kilometres. Big tick.

But what about your bevvies? Were the grapes for your wine sprayed with fungicide? Is the bottle laden with sulphites?

Global interest in ‘natural’ wines – wines that are organic or biodynamically farmed, with no additions or manipulations in winemaking, and no use of heavy machinery – is growing.


Four years ago, Australia’s top chefs, natural winemakers and organic brewers joined forces to form the Rootstock Sydney festival to show Australians and the world there are alternatives to mass-produced, sulphite-heavy wine.

As part of the 25th Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, Melbourne got a small taste of Rootstock when it toured outside Sydney for the first time earlier this month.

In an iconic cobbled laneway on a mild night, Melburnians tasted delicious pairings of sustainable seafood matched with natural wines and brews, while smooth jazz played in the background, giving Rootstock Sydney ‘Party Night’ a definite Melbourne flavour.

Using the produce of the best sustainable fishers and growers, a team of Australia’s top chefs including Luke Burgess (Franklin, Tasmania), Analiese Gregory (Bar Brose, Sydney) and Duncan Welgemoed (Africola, Adelaide), volunteered to create six courses matched with the crafted fruits of five natural winemakers and an organic brewer.

Wapengo wild organic oysters and wild mushrooms teamed with Two Metre Tall ale from Tasmania; grilled cuttlefish with lemon and marjoram with a 2016 Jauma McLaren Vale semillon chenin; and sardines argodolce with 2016 Lucy Margaux nebbiolo rose, were some of the offerings devoured by the appreciative, sold-out crowd.

Rootstock Sydney is a collaboration of top chefs and winemakers sharing plates, bottles, yarns and knowledge with organic farmers, coffee roasters, cheese makers, natural wine lovers and gourmands.

From its first year in 2013, Rootstock Sydney quickly caught the attention of foodies, with 13,000 attending in only its second year.

Rootstock Sydney co-founder Mike Bennie said the annual two-day November festival was fast becoming “the” natural wine fair on the international stage because it has food.

Natural wine fairs overseas had always just presented wine, Mr Bennie said.

“We (Rootstock Sydney) felt very strongly that food had to be integral to the wine experience,” Mr Bennie said.

“So from our very first festival we had market stalls, we had farmers, and we had chefs working with those farmers to create dishes that would then be a unique proposition – as well as the wine.”

Another strict rule at Sydney is the producers have to be there to pour the wine, ensuring authenticity and provenance.

“So it can’t be a sales rep, it can’t be a marketing person – you have to meet the farmer or grower.

“We were the first festival to be very strongly about the link to food, and the first festive to ensure entirely that it was the grower or producer pouring the wine.”

Both avant-garde restaurants and consumers were sniffing out the potential of natural wines, he said.

“Cutting-edge restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne – Bar Liberty, Belle’s, Embla –  these are people who care about where they’re sourcing product from, and they want their wine list to match how they care about their food.

“Restaurants are no longer satisfied to forage, buy local, support small farmers – and then have mass-market wines on the wine list.

“They want their wine list to reflect their food philosophy.”

Consumers, too, cared more about how their food was farmed, and were now getting interested in how beverages were produced, he said.

“People care about what goes into their fridge and into the egg slots. Now this is about how your wine and drinks come to your table.

“(Natural wines) are not what you expect to see in a glass – they are a natural product, they are a living product.

“I think people have started getting excited. They see different colours, flavours, and textures – there is an excitement about these wines.

“And as people increasingly source for their own kitchens at home – free range eggs, organic meat, single-source farmed vegetables, farmer’s markets – why wouldn’t you drink much like that as well?

“We want to show that there is a broader spectrum of wine that comes from sustainable farming places, that is made with love and care, and that gives a much more artisan, organic feeling to the product that you can drink.”

Jauma winery from McLaren Vale produces 40,000 bottles a year of handcrafted organic natural wines.

With Mark Warner and Fiona Wood, Jauma’s owner-manager James Erskine converted 12 acres of vineyards to organics from conventional farming.

He’s now literally reaping the benefits. Jauma’s organic wine is in strong demand, exporting to 18 countries.

Sixty per cent is exported to Europe, US, Canada and Asia, Japan being the biggest market.

What’s the appeal? “There’s very few people in the world who are actually 100% organic with zero sulphites,” Mr Erskine said.

Mr Erskine said domestic drinkers like it “because it’s so drinkable. Often the alcohol is quite low, about 10%.

“What’s driving demand overseas is organics.

“They want something organically farmed. In Japan, post-Fukoshima, there’s been a huge push towards organics.”

There was also a “massive” wave of interest in organics in Europe, Mr Erskine said.

Mr Erskine is a highly trained soil chemist and sommelier. He was named Gourmet Traveller’s Australian Sommelier of the Year in 2008 and was chief judge of the Adelaide Review Hot 100 wine show 2010-2013.

He began making wine after returning to Australia from Europe where he had been working as a professional sommelier, and “I just couldn’t understand the homogeneity of all the wines.”

“I decided to (start making natural wine) because I make delicious wine from it and I couldn’t find anything else.”

With a deep and thorough understanding of soil chemistry, Mr Erskine said sulphites need not be added to wine to kill bacteria if viticultural practices are changed.

Well before bottling, the quality of fruit – ergo, the wine – began with soil health, he said. After converting to organics, his soil was “spongy and beautiful”.

“When you drive through the Barossa you just see under-vine spray, and if you’re aware of this, it’s dead soil. You’ve just killed all those organisms there.”

He subscribes to the ancient Shinto Japanese philosophy which says that all objects, animate or inanimate, have a spirit and an energy.

“So this wine – is living wine. It’s organic, it’s not killed… and it’s going to be alive for a number of years.”