Margaret River

I’ve lived in Margaret River since 1979 - I can’t claim that I’m born and bred (I was 3 months old when Mum and Dad made the move south), but I think I can claim local status after nearly 40 years. I’m a product of Margaret River Kindy, Margaret River Primary School and Margaret River High School (although I did spend the last 2 years of high school in Perth, chasing a dream of playing cricket for Australia...until I realized that I just wasn’t that good!) My point is, Margaret River is my home in every sense of the word, and Harrie and I feel very lucky to be able to raise our kids down here. Although kids, if you’re reading this, you weren’t born in Margaret River either (you’ll have to talk to Mum about that one!!!)

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However, I feel like I’ve only recently come to fully appreciate my home town and how deeply ingrained it is in my soul (and, yes, I know that sounds like I’m channeling Oprah or Taylor Swift, but fuck it). For years I’ve looked over the fence at other regions, other wine styles, other lives and thought that the grass was greener. Sometimes you spend so much time in a place that you develop an ambivalence and simply can’t see the forest for the trees. If I'm honest, I also had a chip on my shoulder as I watched friends, colleagues and family living lives that just seemed cooler. Today's heavily curated, social-media saturated world only seemed to fuel my misgivings.

I have no idea what eventually broke the cycle - an impending 40th birthday, our kids growing up before my eyes or the fact that I've realised a dream of becoming a (sort of) farmer. Either way, I had to give myself a kick up the arse and call bullshit because, through some sheer cosmic fluke, I've been born and raised in one of the most amazing places on the planet. I don't say that for dramatic effect (although Harrie will tell you I'm prone, more than most, to a little hyperbole), it's just a statement of fact - I just had to wake up to it.

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I still want to travel and make wine in other parts of the world, and I'm confident that will come in time. But, more than ever before, I'm driven to farm here, and to make wines that reflect the sights, smells, textures and flavours of my home - that's what I want Heretic Wines to ultimately become. I think that’s a pretty compelling and worthwhile project to take on, and I’m content knowing that the journey is really the best part of the adventure anyway. I have no idea where the destination is - I suspect it’s a bloody long way over the horizon, somewhere alongside that little green flash that appears each night just as the sun sets behind the Indian Ocean. I guess we'll see......

Heretic Red

I would love to claim that the 2017 Heretic Red was planned from the beginning, that I had always dreamed of blending Cabernet with Grenache and Savagnin. I would, of course, be lying through my teeth - I had no intention of creating any such blend. When we started Heretic Wines I had pretty serious delusions of grandeur, of making Grenache that people confused with Pinot, and single site Margaret River Cabernet so pure that it made Eddie Woo look like a drug dealer. However, mother nature and vintage 2017 had other plans and, in the process, completely changed the goal posts for me.

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For years I, like most of the wine world, have been fascinated by the concept of ‘terroir' - how site, environment and seasonal variation affects the way a wine smells, tastes and feels. I think the impact that terroir has on wine (and plenty of other agricultural products for that matter) is both undeniable and profound. However, 2017 made me realise that we should add another variable to the mix - the personal circumstances of the person (or people) growing the grapes and making the wine. I’m not going for a ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ scenario here, I’m more interested in how the pragmatic realities of life affect each vintage and, in turn, the wines produced. For example, in an ideal scenario, you make the decision on when to press a red ferment based on the evolution of the wine on skins - how flavour, colour, tannin and acid combine. But....what if the ideal time to press coincides with your daughters school assembly, or you’re making the wine at a contract facility and the press isn’t available, or your wife is having a nightmare at home with your 4 month old son and you have to get home....what do you do then? I’m not suggesting that the challenges of each vintage, be they personal or professional, are part of the terroir, but they definitely leave a mark on the final product.

Which brings me to the 2017 Heretic Red. The growing season from Spring 2016 and into 2017 was considered, by many in the district, as one of the most difficult of the last 20 years. Rain throughout the season made disease control an ever present issue and higher crop loads made tannin and acid balance a challenge. Add to the mix that we were making the change to organic viticulture (ie. fewer options to combat such problems) and we had our hands full. As a result, we picked both Cabernet and Grenache at lower sugar levels than we would have labelled as 'ideal'. However, what we did end up with was excellent natural acid, perfume and vibrancy of fruit. We handled the ferments gently, and the finished wines were elegant, feminine and (we think) delicious.

That, however, is only part of the story and I've only recently reconciled the rest (months after the wine was blended and bottled). It crystalised for me while I was listening to an interview with Maggie Harrison of Antica Terra in Oregon's Willamette Valley (by Levi Dalton on his 'I'll Drink To That' podcast - check it out here). She spoke about the art of blending, not for a specific style or with a pre-determined destination in mind, but simply to to find the best wine. Ultimately, that's what we did with the Heretic Red - we had 5 barrels available to blend, and what looked (to me at least) to be the best wine was a blend of all 5 barrels. It was light-medium bodied and almost looked like a Margaret River version of Beaujolais. Now, some might say (and I wouldn't blame them) that it's a bit bloody convenient, because what would we have done with a barrel that missed the cut? The truth is, I have no idea, but (thankfully) we weren't presented with that dilemma.

I was underselling it when I said it had changed the goalposts for me - they've been ripped out and chucked on the burn pile! I went into vintage 2017 with a mix of ignorance, ego and a lack of respect to think that I could simply make whatever style of wine I wanted. Ultimately, I would have been fighting against the terroir and the season, and the resulting wines would have been a poor reflection of both. I'm slowly realising that, of all the things we're exploring with Heretic Wines, grape variety is the least interesting. How we farm, how we interact with the wines as they evolve and how we put them together to form a cohesive, transparent and beautiful narative of the season is much more compelling. 

Heretic White

If you had told me 5 years ago, that the first white made under our family label would be a Savagnin, I would have asked you what you were smoking (and why weren’t you sharing!) I was familiar with the variety, in that I knew the story of it’s mis-introduction into the Australian viticultural landscape as Albariño. However, I doubt I’d ever knowingly tried one, much less considered making a wine out of it.

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Fast forward 3 years and I’m drinking a wine from a guy named Francois Rousset-Martin, based in the Jura. At this stage, I know next to nothing about the Jura, but a Sydney based importer named Andrew Guard brings in Francois wines. I’d heard of Andrew, and his reputation for importing some really interesting wines, particularly from less fashionable regions like the Jura. But I’m telling you, this wine was spellbinding, the kind of thing that causes a paradigm shift.

I could bore you death with tasting notes, but they're irrelevant, I connected with this wine on a very personal level. At the risk of sounding like a complete wanker, I felt like I had known this wine all my life. It felt like walking along the track at Gnarabup in winter, with the wind ripping sand over my feet and salt spray in my face. I could smell the coastal scrub and I felt like I could taste the granite and limestone. It resonated with me deeply and I’ve never forgotten that wine.

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I did, however, forget about Savagnin for another couple of years. Until I left Deep Woods, to take up a vineyard role with Arimia, and went hunting for fruit to make our first vintage of Heretic Wines. We had sourced Vermentino from Phil and Lyn Foster when I was working at the Woods, and I was hoping there might be a bit spare. Phil simply smiled and said he could sell his Vermentino three times over, but would I be interested in some Savagnin? Now, I don’t know if the universe was pointing me in this direction or if it was just dumb luck, but here was this variety again. It felt like we were being presented with an opportunity, and that we should run with it.....so we did!

Fast forward a few months and Phil was loading us up with our first ever grapes. I'd never made Savagnin before (I'm now a veteran of 2 vintages!) but we were pretty set, philosophically, on how we want to approach our wines. No adjustments, no additions, no filtration, no new oak, very little lees stirring and as little movement of the wine as possible. Basically, we put our faith in the fruit and get the bloody hell out of the way.

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We tend to sulfur quite late, because I like the savoury, textural notes that white wines get when ageing on lees without sulfur. As a result, we suspect the wine went through MLF. We're not 100% on that, because we never checked, but there is another textural dimension to the wine which I'm pretty sure is malo-related. What was also really interesting was the depth of flavour and texture in our pressings barrels - they ended up being a critical component of the wine. It makes sense, in retrospect, Savagnin is also known as Traminer (it's closely related to Gewurztraminer) so of course it's going to have a lot of character in the skins.

Which brings us to now. It's been very cool how our wholesale customers and the general public have embraced the Heretic White (so much so that it's now sold out) - we're very thankful for the support. The 2018 version is progressing along very similar lines, although (unfortunately) in much smaller quantities. We hope to make a bit more in 2019 and, long term, will have to look at ways of getting access to more fruit (plant, graft, other growers....not sure!) It's been a weird old road to releasing our first Heretic White, but it felt right to us and we're very proud of the wine. 

Who, What, Where......and Why?

The ‘who’ and the ‘what’ are relatively straight forward and to be honest, in my opinion, effectively the same question. Heretic Wines is, as our daughter Abigail often reminds us, our 'family wine'. Farming ventures, wine included, are almost uniquely family affairs. In our case I'm the one driving the tractor, pruning the vines and fermenting the grapes. But, and this is a really bloody BIG but, this is a family business - there is just no way it would be possible or worthwhile without Harrie, Abigail, Theo and Addy. 

The ‘where’ is slightly more convoluted. We currently make a Heretic White and a Heretic Red, both out of Margaret River. Margs is where I was raised, where I went to school and where my family has lived since the late 1970's. More importantly, it's where Harrie and I have chosen to raise our family and where we plan to grow old. From 2018 we are also making a Yarra Valley Pinot Noir, sourced off the Syme property on the banks of the Yarra River, also known as 1,000 Candles. The Yarra is sentimental for 2 reasons - I cut my winemaking teeth in the Yarra, chasing the unicorn that is Pinot, and it's where Harrie and I met. 

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The ‘why’ is more difficult and, to be honest, I still haven't entirely figured it out. With current estimates suggesting there are somewhere between 2,500 and 5 billion wine labels in Australia, why the bloody hell do we need another one!!!? That's simple, we don't. There are more glamorous and lucrative ways to make a buck, so......why? Because it turns out I love farming! When I was growing up in Margs, I was jealous of the kids from farms. I grew up on a 7 acre bush block 5 minutes from the beach, and it was awesome. But I couldn't shake the romantic notion of early mornings, tractors and dirt under my fingernails. I now get all of that, and more, and I can assure you they can also be very bloody unromantic! 

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Just as importantly, I wanted to better understand how farming translates into a finished product, be it fruit, vegetables or, in this case, wine. I wanted to challenge the paradigms I built for myself surrounding wine - how it's grown, how it's made, how it's distributed and consumed. I'm comfortable with the fact that I may not get the answers I want, or that I may not get the answers at all. The wines themselves are an end point, I'm much more interested in how we get there. 

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So, that's it......the who, what, where and why. All that's left now is to start the story, I hope you enjoy it as much as we do!

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Dan