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Podcast: The organic winemaker versus the traditionalist


In our latest podcast, Nicole Haack sits down with a young gun of organic wine and a veteran South Australian winemaker, to talk about organic versus conventional wines, young wines versus the aged, and whether organic wines really can help you escape a hangover.

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Vanessa Altmann, the young winemaker and CEO at organic wine pioneers Temple Buer, says she wouldn’t make a wine that wasn’t organic and is more than happy to release fresh, young red wines.

Geoff Merrill, SA wine industry veteran whose eponymous label is based in McLaren Vale, says he won’t drink a red wine that doesn’t have some age on it, and reckons most Australian wines have minimal sprays anyway.

The pair agree that organic winemaking has come a long way in a short time.

In the early days, Merrill says organic winemaking practice was “pretty ordinary”, as a result of some winemakers trying to find an angle to make up for their own inadequacies.

Altmann says Temple Bruer founder, David Bruer, didn’t initially put “organic” on his labels for that very reason.

“The wines he had tasted that were organic were poor in quality, and he didn’t want to be associated with it,” she says.

Today, however, she argues it’s very difficult to come across a certified organic wine that isn’t of outstanding quality.

Merrill, while not opposed to organics, says he will stick with the winemaking style he knows best.

“It’s a non-argument, but for those who are doing it (organics), it’s an expensive argument – it’s a costly business to get it right,” he says.

Altmann, who runs her own small label, Switch, as well as Temple Bruer’s larger operations at Langhorne Creek, disagrees.

“I think it’s affordable for everyone, small and large,” she says.

Where the pair does diverge in a more serious way is in relation to the drinkability of very young wines released on the market, particularly reds.

Altmann produces a range of preservative-free wines, bottled straight out of the fermenter, and released to an enthusiastic market.

“Those wines aren’t going to win wine shows awards, and they don’t, but if customers love the wine and they drink it every day, what more do you want?”

Merrill responds: “I don’t have an argument against that – I just can’t drink them myself.”

He also reckons a lot of winemakers who are happy to release young reds won’t drink them either.

“After a wine show a two-year-old red will win and then the winemakers go out to celebrate and drink 40 or 50 year old Australian and imported wines,” he says.

“So they’re not true to themselves, in a sense…

“I’m tired of the argument of old wine versus new wine because there’s not many of us left that sell our wine with age on it. I’m outnumbered 90 per cent.”

His attitude can perhaps be explained by his hatred of “accountants’ wines” – a reference to the early days of his career, when winemaker managers were replaced with bean-counters who quickly realised that a current vintage wine released in June would immediately start bringing in cashflow.

The old ways – which he still uses – are expensive: “There’s a hell of an investment in oak… warehousing… bottle costs.”

“I understand that but I don’t want to change my winemaking style – and I’m not going to.”

As for Altmann, she believes the fast-growing organic wine sector can act as a “bridging” industry, encouraging more food production in Australia which is organic and sustainable.

There is one issue on which both agree: the idea that an organic wine won’t give you a hangover is a fallacy.

It’s a question that Altmann receives weekly, but she believes a hangover is primarily a function of alcohol volume – not the presence of sulphur.

Merrill has a straightforward answer: “I think it’s bullshit. I don’t get a hangover anyway.”

Listen to the full discussion below.



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