Wine is not made in a vacuum. Nor is it consumed in one.

We have heard, ad infinitum, that great wines are made in the vineyard. But great grapes don’t stay in the vineyard. They might have been pruned and fed and trained a certain way, and picked by hand or machine, at varying stages of ripeness, which all impact the quality of what comes next.

And then what? Enter the winemaker.

With all their individual philosophies, all their well-educated technical knowledge, all their economies of scale and possibilities.

And then? Do we ever take into account the personality of said individual winemaker? The back story? The conservative business type? Or artist and maverick?

How do those myriad character traits find their way into a barrel, a bottle, a glass?

This is exactly the chinwag I am having with Adelaide Hills winemaker Brendon Keys, who, like the rest of his ilk, is mid-vintage, grapes coming into his Basket Range shed that is stacked to the rafters with barrels and stainless-steel tanks and concrete eggs and clay amphora, hoses snaking over the floor, heads down, bums up, looking like chaos yet totally under control.

Skateboarding is a big part of life for the Keys family. Photo: Josie Withers

There is, however, something else going on here at base camp BK Wines. There is music pulsing loudly through the place. No ordinary streaming playlist music. This is riveting and all-powerful music. The Stooges one moment. Then Miles Davis, Sketches of Spain. Then Patti Smith’s Horses. The radical turnover of sound is based on how long the side of a vinyl LP lasts. There are boxes and boxes of them at the far end of the winery. It is every person’s duty in the house to keep the music going.

Keys tells me of a moment when a Californian colleague and he were in the shed late one recent night sorting out a one-barrel blend of Chardonnay and Riesling, the music was up, DEVO, circa 1978, with a favourite song “Gut Feeling”, filling the room. They knew immediately what should happen, and chalked on the barrel head the name-to-be of that wine, vowing to mirror the project with a similar blend in the US later in the year.

Such is the spontaneity of the artist as winemaker Brendon Keys.

Then there’s the back wall, where scores of skateboards hang as modern-pop painted artworks, one even carrying the same design as his gloriously fun, chillable red wine Pur Jus.

The skateboards and the music all create an environment where Keys is totally at home, with his past – skateboarding being a big part of it ­– and his present. He works so much better with loud music playing, he says.

“It creates a vibe and an energy just by the way it makes me feel. It gives me clarity.”

Right there on a long timber table between the wall art and the record collection and turntable is where he does his blending trials, his winery records, and his barrel and tank tastings. It’s no fluorescent white laboratory, that’s for sure, and there’s a very BK method to the madness.

“The main reason that looks like that in there is it’s an environment [in which] I want to drink wine,” he says.

“If I’m blending, or looking at wines, or making decisions about all that, I want to do that where I would normally drink wine.

“Sometimes that part of it is lost in many wineries. Why would you make a decision about wine in an environment where you would never drink wine?”

‘My goal is to make world-class wines’ – Brendon Keys, with wife Kirsty. Photo: Josie Withers

The logic within this kind of thinking is something Keys seems to generate across much of his winemaking. He came to the craft from the world of cheffing, from his New Zealand home and across Europe and Britain. After pivoting into winemaking, studying formally, and working in France as well as California, Argentina and McLaren Vale, he took a job in the Adelaide Hills in 2006, working within the mainstream before starting BK Wines in Basket Range with his wife Kirsty.

A few years later he found himself in the midst of the whole Basket Range natural wine movement, which he navigated in his own way, taking on board core elements of its philosophical aims to remove the classical snobbery and elitism from the world of wine with such styles as per nats and some more textured and cloudy white iterations, whole-bunch pinot noir with a year on skins and so on.

On the other hand, he maintained a more rigorous classical styling in many of his finer chardonnays and pinots.

Again, there was a clear reasoning in the line he trod.

“My goal is to make world-class wines, made with just about no sulphur, and never cultured yeast – wines of purity that are world-class, that’s the goal,” Keys says.

“I try to make wines that are like ones I’m in love with, or something similar to a wine that sparked an epiphany – even now I think about wine like that.”

Keys recalls the multiple wine epiphanies that have changed the direction of what he does: pinots that are aromatic, with stemminess, maybe brown but they age well, and chardonnays that have an edge of oxidation, wild ferment, and really, really good fruit. He’s proud to say he’s always on a learning curve.

“And still I push BK Wines so that it remains a journey. I’ll hopefully make a good wine every year, but it won’t look the same as last year.

“I’m always questioning and challenging myself, proving to myself that I can make a wine with zero additions, and still show varietal character while also being an awesome wine.

“We all know what good wine is,” he nods. “But how do you define great wine?”

TASTING NOTES

BK Wines Carte Blanche (White) 2021
Adelaide Hills / 12.8% / $40

Predominantly Chardonnay and Savagnin grapes with a little bit of Gruner Veltliner and Pinot Gris in the mix, though winemaker Brendon Keys doesn’t worry about the proportions too much – they’re blended post barrel ferment of each separate wine. Begins with a tropical fruit salad nose and journeys through the palate with much the same sense, then finishes with a vital spring in its step. It’s all about fun drinking, lively adventure and, if you want to get all serious, there’s plenty of vinous interest in every sip.

BK Wines Ramato 2021
Adelaide Hills / 12.5% / $40

A skin-contact Pinot Gris – 10 days, in fact, then nine months in barrel, entering the world with the blush of a rose and smelling of crushed plum and powdered minerally rocks. The palate has a wonderful tang and juiciness to it, and the mouth feel (tannins) only come into play in the last breath, salivating to the end. A terrific food match wine across all imaginable ingredients.

BK Wines The Fall Chardonnay 2021
Adelaide Hills / 12.5% / $55

One of five Chardonnays that Brendon Keys creates – it is, arguably, his preferred grape. This comes from the Scary Gully vineyard in the Carey Gully district, while others are sourced out of central Piccadilly Valley and Lenswood, and all of them are 100% whole bunch/wild yeast/barrel fermented. Each displays very individual character, with this the more classically styled, showing pristine lines across the whole trajectory of the wine, green pear and ginger notes its calling card. Delicious and moreish.

BK Wines Archer Beau Chardonnay 2019
Adelaide Hills / 12.8% / $110

There’s a lot to take into account here for a wine of such distinction – and a price that makes you sit up and take notice. Chardonnay at this level deserves such a pedestal, by the way. Across all the chardonnays in the BK squad, the three finest barrels are selected – usually they are in new French oak – and then Brendon’s wife Kirsty, who has seen a lot of BK Chardonnay in her time, selects her favourite. The personal touch is endearing, and clearly the couple have a marvellous simpatico in this regard. The oak is subtle, the grapefruit-like acidity and ripe stone fruit notes have such power that the balance of barrel impact and fruit richness come together in delightful harmony. All class. (A similar act occurs with a high-end Pinot Noir, the Remy, again with complete expression of variety and winemaking prowess).

BK Wines Pur Jus 2021
Adelaide Hills / 12.5% / $40

A Cabernet Franc block near the BK winery in Basket Range was grafted over to Pinot Noir but only about 90% succeeded, so this remains a true expression of the vineyard with Pinot and Cab Franc in a field blend – in 2021 in tiny quantities. The result is a bang-on modern, chillable style red, bright cherry in its fruit feels with light tannins across the mouth and happy with its Cabernet elements to be on show alongside its Pinot earthiness. Crunchy, thirst quenching and very drinkable.

BK Wines Gower Pinot Noir 2021
Adelaide Hills / 12% / $55

From the Gower vineyard in Lenswood, BK drills down into a specific clonal selection for this wine, and with 100% whole bunch winemaking and a 20% bleeding of juice that goes off to a rose, he comes up with a finer and purer style pinot with layered forest and native bush floral aromatics that work into a delicate liquorish like flavour. All up, plenty of complexity, and impressive pinosity.

 

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.