Here’s something I love about natural wine; its potential to connect you with modest, creative, kind natured folks like Simon Jones, and Charlie O’Brien. Earlier this year I was asked to help with the harvest at a tiny natural producer 300km west of Sydney named ‘Chateau Acid’. I jumped at the opportunity to work with the makers of this mysterious label, synonymous with the words ‘sold out’.
A few weeks later I was throwing my backpack into Simons ute at the Canberra airport. After a two hour drive, we arrived at our accomodation just outside the small country town of Canowindra, New South Wales. That night the boys whipped up a casual paella, and I chatted to our 70 year old flatmate ‘Peter the picker’; an unsung hero of the industry who has been picking grapes for 40 years. We shared the first of many great bottles that would begin lining our kitchen window, the obligatory flex at any good wine communion.
OUTLAWS & OUTLIERS
Would you believe it, Canowindra once served as a leaning post for the countries first outlaws. In 1863, a bushranger named Ben Hall and his gang held up the towns folk at the Robinson’s Inn, today known as the Royal Hotel. (It’s the sort of place you can expect your steak to come speared with an Australian flag). After spending three days holding up the town, undertaking a 72 hour bender of drinking, and feasting, where even the local constable was coerced into the merriment. These days the only outliers in this sleepy town are the handful of biodynamic farmers who have been ‘rebelling’ against the conventional farming methods of its big brother region, Orange. Lying 30km southwest of the infamously high altitude wine region in Australia, Canowindra is in many ways the black sheep in comparison. With its farmers feet firmly rooted in their unsprayed, untamed soil. Enjoying large diurnal changes, (referring to hot days and cool nights), it sure makes a great place for organic viticulture. There is very little disease pressure on the vines, namely powdery mildew, so the area enjoys less need to spray for fungicides on the vines year round. Great news for Simon and Charlie.
Planted in 1997 the site that bears fruit for Chateau Acid sits around 350 metres above sea level. Not only do they get Chardonnay, Vermentino, Shiraz and occasionally Grenache, from this vineyard, all of the grapes are farmed organically and biodynamically. In fact, very little input is made in the vineyards at all. Having grown up amongst the very picturesque vineyards of Marlborough, New Zealand, I found the sight of these unruly vineyards somewhat like a woman's underarm in the 60’s. Beautiful, natural, wild, yes - but I couldn’t help wanting to get my lawnmower out.
From their very humble beginnings in 2017, making a total of 650 bottles, to making a couple of hundred more today. The two have been mates since high school in the early 2000’s, both fostering a keen love for music. The pair went on to spend the next decade working within the music industry. The dream of making Chateau Acid into a full time gig is somewhere on the horizon, but for now the two juggle a myriad of other roles to fund the project. At present, Charlie is still music producing, DJing and running ‘Heaps Decent’, a non-profit organisation that engages young people through music. Simon, graphic designer extraordinaire and formerly singer and guitarist for a band called ‘The Holidays’, is on anything but a holiday now, farming three vineyard plots in West Gippsland where he lives with wife and two young kids. (I should mention here that both Simon and Charlie also work for iconic wine wholesaler ‘Lofi’, part time, selling natural wine into the Melbourne and Sydney trade respectively). So the name is really a nod to their mutual appreciation of the music genre ‘acid house’. ‘Chateau’ being house, and ‘acid’ being the “acid house sound”. Referring directly to the noise that comes from an electronic bass synthesiser, named the Roland TB-303. Read more about it here . I asked Charlie if he felt there were any similarities between making music and making wine.
“To me there are lots of parallels. Both are really just a series of choices that you make along the way from start to finish. Just like in music, the choices you make in winemaking determine the path that is taken, and where the finished product will end up”.
If you have been lucky enough to try any of the Chateau Acid wines, you would agree with me in saying that these guys are making some damn good choices.
In the September Borough Box you will find a bottle of the 2020 Chateau Acid Chardonnay. Put it in your fridge, and get a plate of white anchovies ready. Forewarning; this is not a tropical, flabby Chardonnay. It’s more akin to a lean, slightly oxidative, salty, Jura style, which is exactly the kind of wine Simon and Charlie like to drink themselves. This year their tiny 1 tonne of fruit was pressed directly into barrel, 2.5 barrels to be exact. It spent one year with only two of the barrels being topped and one left exposed to oxygen. A natural veil of yeast known as flor is fostered to accentuate the nutty, sherry like characters that often result. While there we tasted these three barrels before bottling, corking and labelling by hand. No sulphur was added to the wine. For the record, none of the Chateau Acid wines receive any additions at all.
What struck me most about the wine was its texture. Simon described it as “a frostiness… and a lemon pith character that’s a bit like a lemon icy pole”.
If you could see it in a line up with its counterparts from the Canowindra region, this Chardonnay represents a truly unique style which celebrates the winemakers’ love for the restrained flavours of Jura whites. For the lucky few who will enjoy this Chateau Acid debut in the Borough Box, you will see that Charlie and Simon have managed to bottle that best friend energy we all want. It’s even labelled with a smile.