What makes a wine a “fine wine”? It’s a question that critics, collectors and producers have long debated. For us, it’s about the quality of the fruit; the precision of the winemaking; the potential of a wine to improve in bottle; and – crucially – “sense of place”.
We want our wines to capture something that’s unique to our chalk and flint and clay.
But there’s more to sense of place than soil and sunshine: one of the factors which can have a huge impact on the flavour profile of a wine is yeast.
Tom Jones, our resident Kiwi and Associate Winemaker, has been working on a project to use our vineyards’ native yeasts to ferment specific parcels of wine. “We started looking at this around four vintages ago,” says Tom. “Initially it started with two barrels; then four; last year was six and for this vintage we have eight barrels. Each has turned out to be unique and each has been better than the last.
“So far, it has just been experimental. We’ve never released any of the wines – until now.”
The skill of doing nothing
“The beauty of wild ferment is that it’s so hands off,” says Tom. In theory, this makes the process sound simple, but there’s a huge amount of skill – and nerve – in knowing when it’s acceptable to leave the wine to look after itself. This is where Tom’s background in biodynamic winemaking comes in.
In Tom’s early career, he worked with Pyramid Wines, a brilliant biodynamic producer in New Zealand. “I loved the care that was taken in the vineyard, and the methodical way of working,” he says. “People still think of biodynamics as airy-fairy, but it’s methodical, hands-on work – and that really shows in the quality of the fruit.
“Every single ferment that’s carried out at Pyramid uses wild yeast. It taught me that there’s a million different strains, all slightly different to each other and all that can contribute different aspects to a wine.”
The key to success with wild yeast is zoomed-in focus on some aspects – for example, surgical levels of cleanliness in the winery – and a hands-off approach in others. As soon as the juice is in barrel, it’s time to let nature take over. “We put the barrels into a warm environment – our small cellar, Louise. Then, you let it heat up, look at it every day and wait.
“You have to hold your nerve. This year it took nearly five days for fermentation to kick off, and it feels like a risk to leave juice unprotected for that time. But knowing when not to do something is just as important as knowing when you should.”
Tom describes the moment of relief when, on going in to check the wine, he heard “a spritz” – the sound of a fermentation coming to life. “Once you hear that noise, you know the wine is doing the work itself,” he says.
The 2021 barrels
So far, Tom has experimented solely with Chardonnay for his wild ferment. At harvest 2021, he selected perfect, top-quality fruit from Commander’s vineyard.
His choice of oak was a key decision – especially in a cool vintage. “We used neutral barrels from 2017,” says Tom. “I didn’t want the oak to be hugely expressive, or to dominate the fruit. That meant we didn’t want new oak which would detract from what we’re doing; nor did we want to risk oxidative notes from older oak.”
The resulting Wild Ferment Chardonnay 2021 has its own unique characteristics, but stylistically it still sits within the Gusbourne range.
“It’s quite tropical, with gooseberry and elderflower notes. It’s incredibly aromatic, but with this mineral character too and typical Chardonnay citrus,” says Tom. “It’s got a nice, pithy quality. It’s broad and quite voluptuous. It’s a big wine.”
Tom’s name on the bottle
Tom’s Wild Ferment Chardonnay is one of a growing selection of Winemaker’s Edition wines created by Gusbourne’s young and talented team. It’s an important opportunity to let each winemaker’s skill come to the fore. “It’s an avenue for me to still progress and make a name for myself within the industry,” says Tom.
“It’s exciting being named on the label. Then again, there’s nowhere to hide. I like the wine, and I believe in it. Perhaps not everyone will, but you’ve got to accept that you’re not going to please everyone all of the time.”
Each wild ferment Tom’s made has taught him something – but the most important lesson, he says, is to keep experimenting, to keep trialling things. “We’ve learned we can do this – we can be confident in our winemaking.
“And we’re building on what we’ve learned with each vintage – I’m using a different parcel of fruit this year; I’m hoping the outcome will be different to show that the established yeasts in Boot Hill vary from those in Commander’s.
“We’re not in any way a hipster winery, and we don’t want to be. But we are willing to experiment and be unafraid,” says Tom.
“We want to continuously express different aspects of our winemaking philosophy.”
Tom’s Winemaker’s Edition Wild Ferment Chardonnay 2021 will be released to Gusbourne members in mid-February 2023.