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  • Christina Pickard

Rootstock Sydney: Australia’s first natural wine fair

After 11 years in London, I knew that making the move to Perth, Australia would bring me more sunshine, and more beaches, and an exceptionally good quality of life. I also knew what it wouldn’t bring me, and that was the variety and abundance of wines of the orange, cloudy, earthy, mineraly, wacky-labeled natural persuasion that I so enjoy glugging.

a sea of orange wine

To top it off I would be reminded of this fact on a daily basis. After all, I was heading up the social media for the Real Wine Fair again this year, and despite my excitement over the exceptional line up, I couldn’t afford to fly over for it.

It was a hard pill to swallow. (Strangely however, I received zero sympathy from my friends in the UK regarding my predicament of living in Australia.)

And then I learned about Rootstock Sydney, the first natural wine festival ever to be held in Australia. Through email and phone conversations with wine journalist Mike Bennie, one of the fair’s organisers, I learned of the festival’s aim–to bring together some of the world’s best organic/biodynamic/natural winemakers with Sydney’s top artisan food producers, and to give people the opportunity to taste wines with a sense of provenance so as to start a dialogue similar to the one surrounding food. And of course to have a ton of fun in the process.

one of the many orange-clad volunteers

Sound familiar? This was a Real Wine Fair in Sydney (albeit on a much smaller scale-it was the first one, and Australia is a long way from, well, everything)! But nevertheless it was absurdly exciting. So I did what any self-respecting wine lover would do and booked a ticket to Sydney.

Boy am I glad I did. Rootstock turned out to be as thrilling as I’d hoped, and its success was beyond anyone’s expectations, particularly the organisers’. The wine tasting sold out days before and there were queues of people waiting to get in. Thousands of people weaved between the free-of-charge food and drink stalls in the outdoor square. An orange wine bar (orange both in bar and wine) hosted by a rotating set of orange-clad sommeliers was stocked with an assortment of the skin-macerated white wines. A variety of masterclasses on subjects like seafood and wine, biodynamics, and soil, were led by journalists and sommeliers from around Australia including Max Allen, Richard Hargreave, and Richard Cornish.

Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to visit the orange wine bar, and I missed all but one of the masterclasses. I didn’t even get around to all of the producers. It was one of those occasions where I wished I could have the same day x3.

But what I did get to taste was top notch across the board. To the point where I had to stop writing tasting notes because everything was too darn good and I just wanted to knock it back and enjoy it.

I was at last able to put faces to the names and wines I’d come to love in the UK. The Natural Selection Theory boys were as weird and wonderful as I’d hoped, with matty hair and colourful shirts, each wearing Karate Kid-style bandanas around their heads and having a whale of a time gulping each other’s wines. Anton von Klopper’s ridiculously sexy and complex Lucy Margaux wines attracted a constant stream of admirers (but that also might’ve been because he was the only one to have free nosh on his table). James Erskine stood beside us on the tasters’ side of the table chatting happily about his beautifully textured Jauma chenin blanc and bright, crunchy reds. Dario Princic’s wines, as always, stood out as some of the best orange wines around, and my buddies at Si Vintners in the Margaret River (who will be at the Real Wine Fair) were being showered with praise over their exceptional rosé and skin-contact whites.

There were plenty of exciting new finds as well. From Hamilton, in southwest Victoria, Hochkirch’s balanced, textured riesling was a close to a top German as I’ve tasted. And their single vineyard chardonnay and pinot noir would have been at home in a top Burgundy tasting.

Another fabulous find was Lark Hill, in the Canberra district. At 6-900 metres above sea level, Lark Hill wines are cool climate beauties. The chardonnay was cracking, all limey leesy goodness with heaps of ageing potential. They also make a sangiovese in old oak that retails at a reasonable $25 (£16). And for that you get an easy-drinking drop with all the Mediterranean olives and clean bright red fruit you can shake a stick at.

Late in the day I got to tasting Harkham wines, and clearly so had everyone else because they were on the dregs of their last bottles. Located in the Hunter Valley, it’s no wonder all those New South Wales folk were keen to try a local drop. Made by a hipster-hat-wearing winemaker who appeared no more than twenty-something, Harkham are doing a stellar job with their peaches-and-cream (but fresh and balanced) style Aziza chardonnay and rose-petal perfumed Aziza Shiraz.

In between all of this boozing, I did manage to sit in on James Erskine and Eugene Ughetti’s ‘Sounding Terroir’ masterclass. But that experience is worth a post in itself so it’ll come later.

After sipping a few wonderfully refreshing beers from the guys at Young Henrys brewery (I would visit them in Newtown a few days later), I headed in for dinner. The culmination of the festival was a multi-course dinner consisting of dishes made by some of Australia’s top chefs, including Ben Greeno of Momofuku and Luke Burgess of Garagistes in Tasmania. At $200 a pop, my still-in-stirling pockets didn’t run deep enough. However, Lady Luck graced me with her presence and I was offered a complimentary seat by a kind importer at the last minute.

dinner menu with Blind Corner's cremant (on left)

Throughout the delicious dinner, our courses were paired with wines that had been available to taste earlier, and the winemakers themselves gave us a run down of their wines before each course, which turned out to be an excellent way to round off such a special day.

I was completely bowled over by the level of interest in the fair and the wines. And so, it seems, was organiser Mike Bennie. Here’s what he had to say when I spoke with him over the phone for a Drinks Business news article:

‘The reach has been much larger than we expected. The extraordinary show of support from people far and wide for Rootstock has been heart-warming and reaffirming. We received between 600-700 tweets on Sunday alone mentioning us and the feedback has been extremely positive and enthusiastic, and even dramatic. We had high profile people in the wine industry who were previously very public naysayers change their views totally about natural wines after visiting the fair.’

Rootstock dinner

I could not be more thrilled for Mike and the other organisers, for the growers, and for Australia, in being a leader in this very important wine conversation. I am honoured to have been witness to the first of what will surely be an annual not-to-miss event on the Aussie wine calendar.

#australia #naturalwine #rootstock #sydney

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