Our Indie Wine Scene Explained
Our Indie Wine Scene Explained
You’ve probably clocked a change in the wines we see in bars, restaurants and wine shops. Introducing themselves with artful, esoteric labels, these wines may appear somewhat ambiguous. The information offered on the label is often without mention of detail like variety, or familiar label language and layout. The wines themselves are made in less classic styles; Pet-Nat, orange, light chillable reds, cloudy whites. Words like ‘natural’ and ‘minimal intervention’ are thrown about. What you're seeing and drinking here we’d sum up as the indie wine movement. It’s happening in wine regions the world over, including indeed in New Zealand.
You may already have noticed that we at By The Bottle, have enthusiastically embraced this movement and its wines. So we thought it was time to give our take on what’s going here, hopefully giving some context and explanation to the subject. We’ve also hit up a couple of local stars in the movement, Olly and Amy Hopkinson-Styles from Halcyon Days, and Ben Leen from Alpine Wine Co, for their thoughtful input.
What Do We Mean by Indie Wine?
In music, the indie movement emerged in the early ‘80’s when bands started recording independently of major record companies. The ‘do it yourself’ approach using lo-fi recording techniques allowed creative freedom. It came to define not only how these bands recorded music, but also the sound it produced. These less commercially polished recordings were distinctive and refreshing. It’s worth mentioning, as an aside, the early influence of New Zealand, with Flying Nun records and the Dunedin sound, on the movement globally.
‘Indie’ seems appropriate to describe the current movement in wine, it being a departure from commercial winemaking and a break from convention in the wines themselves. And this is where the term ‘minimal intervention’ comes in to describe the movement’s approach. It’s the aim to make wine with minimal handling, adjustment or additions, so that it is, as much as possible, a fermented expression of the raw material, grapes. This can involve fermentation with naturally occurring yeasts, rather than inoculation with cultured strains; no filtration or fining, explaining why these wines are sometimes cloudy; and minimal or no additions of sulphur dioxide, the main preservative used to stop oxidation and microbial spoilage. It avoids the addition of acid, tannin, sugar, a wide range of fining agents, and excessive sulphur dioxide.
The purests approach comes in the form of natural wine, made from organic fruit, with no additions of sulphur dioxide at all. Without this preservative, wines are left more at risk. Rogue bacteria and yeasts can cause spoilage and impart notable faults in a wine. Good hygiene practices and an experienced hand in the winery are essential.
But we’re writing this arse about face, because successfully making minimal intervention, and especially natural wine, first relies on the quality and integrity of the fruit. As with growing any crop, there are a myriad of factors like microbial disease that threaten a successful harvest, exacerbated by adverse weather. Quality is key, so while in the winery the aim is to be ‘hands off’, it is very much ‘hands on’ through the growing season in the vineyard. A careful decision of when to pick, and harvesting by hand further ensures this quality. The integrity of the fruit centres around organic practices in the vineyard, where no synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, or herbicides are used, and the health of the soil is given greater attention. Currently ten percent of New Zealand’s vineyards are certified organic, with more in conversion or using organic practices without certification. In New Zealand, it’s actually our leading ‘classic’ producers who have already led the way in the conversion to organic practices. Names like Rippon, Millton, Neudorf, Te Whare Ra and Quartz Reef come to mind. In fact, the approach of these top notch classic kiwi producers, having a focus on the vineyard and making pure expressions of place without too much winemaking trickery, is aligned with the indie movement.
Which brings us to note that not all of the indie crew have organic certification, and not all make natural wines. Each producer has their own unique experience, ethos, approach and technique. Like any movement, they may not all be on the exact same page, but they are singing from the same hymn book. Ben Leen from Alpine Wine Co in Central Otago explains -
“This wave has been underpinned by thoughtful farming and minimal intervention winemaking practices. Whether it be a dogmatic approach to zero sulphur additions, the use of alternative ageing vessels like amphorae, or weird and wonderful field blends, it all comes from a really good place based on passion and the desire to craft delicious wine to share. This is not unique to the new wave movement by any means, but what we do have on our side though is the freedom to be agile and experimental.”
How do these producers get started?
One of our first observations of the indie wine scene in this country is that the people involved have had a tremendous amount of experience honing their craft. They didn’t get started on a whim. They’ve worked their arses off, passionately chasing vintages in both hemispheres. They have the know-how, but with the astronomical price of land in this country buying a vineyard is usually, at least initially, out of reach. So how do they go about getting their start?
For many it all begins as a side hustle. A winemaking/viticulture day job supports the passion project. Sidestepping the need to own a vineyard, fruit can be sourced from growers, and can be done without compromising an organic approach. The Two Terraces and Osawa vineyards in Hawkes Bay, and the Wrekin Vineyard in Marlborough are great examples of dedicated, organic growers whose fruit falls into the hands of a number of small producers. Some producers lease vineyards so they can manage the growing season day to day. A lesser proportion have come to own vineyards themselves. When it comes to harvest, in lieu of having a winery, there are shared winemaking facilities, or a little corner of the winery at the day job. It becomes clear that agility, as Ben mentioned, is all part of the process.
Getting some wine into a bottle is one challenge, selling it is another. Facing a very competitive, crowded larger market, small producers in general have their work cut out for them. They are distributor, salesperson and marketing team all in one. It does serve as an upside though, having the ability to tell their own story and build relationships with their customers in person. Gaining support from the hospitality industry, one of the strongest ambassadors a producer can have, is key. As a retailer, we’re dealing with most of the indie crew in New Zealand directly, and we love it that way.
Further supporting each individual endeavour is a collaborative approach within the movement. We have so often been recommended one producer’s wines by another. They band together for trade tastings and events. Olly Styles from Halcyon Days in Hawkes Bay sees this as “one of the greatest hands our industry can play. Most of us are a pretty friendly, minimal-ego bunch. A wine journalist from the UK visited Australia recently and was so enamoured of all the winemakers he talked to, their openness and geniality, that he wondered why Wines of Australia didn't send them all over to the UK. We're the same here. It's our not-so-secret weapon and we try to collaborate as much as possible with our friends and colleagues. It generates so much energy and so many ideas and it's just a better, easier, more beneficial way of working. It's tempting to say it's a generational thing and there are elements of that but it definitely goes beyond that. Philosophically, it's also the obvious route when you're a smaller player: it's better to collaborate and work with others (even if you don't always agree!). It immediately lifts everyone up and it means we can collectively pack a bigger punch.”
And what about the wines themselves?
With its experimental nature, this movement presents wines that are less prescriptive, less ‘it does what it says on the bottle’. It has championed new styles like Pet-Nat and orange wine (which are technically ancient styles revived), which has allowed the movement to stand out from the crowd. It offers consumers something to discover outside the parochial usuals. The unusual blends of variety reflect its agile and experimental nature. In this country we have become very used to varietal labelling, and this is often eschewed by indie producers. Olly explains their reasoning behind this for Halcyon Days -
“Primarily, it's practical. Most varietal labelling ends up being a stylistic determiner, kind of like the way a beer is sold as an IPA or a Pilsner. In other words, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is a style of wine as much as it is about a grape variety. The same would be true of Pinot Gris or even Pinot Noir. Those aren't predetermined boxes our wines would fit into and it would be kind of wrong to even hint in that direction. It's more than that though. Varietal labelling can be pretty reductive. Wines are more than just their grape variety. Sure, it works if you're in a bind in the supermarket and you want a lazy (or speedy) purchase decision without too much thought. But the reason we got into wine – and the reason most people get into wine – is more than just the grape variety. There's so much more to tell and naming a wine seems to resonate more with that ethos than an identikit approach.”
Where the producer chooses to label by variety, it’s still generally an alternative take on a classic style. Ben Leen’s Pinot Noir is made in a bright, chillable ‘nouveau’ style, offering drinkers a (literally) refreshing take on Central Otago Pinot. He offers his thoughts behind this -
“Firstly I have to confess my love for Central Otago Pinot noir. It is my primary reason for living and making wine in this beautiful part of NZ. When Josh & I started Alpine in vintage 2018 we knew we wanted to stand out from the crowd. I love the purity and intensity of pinot noir, it reminds me of the edginess of the alpine environment. And for this reason I was keen to highlight that purity and intensity without the conventional barrel ageing approach. The other factor that played in nicely to embracing the nouveau style was having spent time in the Beaujolais region of France famous for its steely intense examples of Gamay. I have fond memories of warm harvest days sipping on chilled gamay at lunch to quench our thirst ready to take on an afternoon of picking grapes. To me it felt like a right fit to highlight pinot noir in its raw form, and offering a chilled style that works beautifully with the intense alpine profile.”
The indie music scene has had a huge influence on mainstream movements like Grunge and Britpop. So it begs the question, will the indie wine scene influence the wider wine industry? Organics is on the up, although as mentioned, this drive has come as much from our top ‘classic’ producers as it has from the indie movement. While conventional producers might be having a go at making orange wine and Pet-Nat, Olly from Halcyon Days is cautious of the future -
“We're already seeing more 'mainstream' outfits getting in on it on a stylistic front but inasmuch as there is any real commitment to something like organics or sustainability, I wouldn't keep the candle burning. Broader economics always play a hand in wine's fortunes (from consumer to producer to retailer, etc.) and the stark reality is that wine's greatest demographic, the middle class, is struggling; meanwhile (and for similar economic reasons) production costs are going up. All of which means that, unfortunately, it's more likely that the larger industry will have an effect on the organic, natural sphere than the other way round. The only place where there will be any environmental or sustainable progress will be at the very top end with expensive wines. All of this is playing out in a bigger level in France at the moment. Top cru châteaux have a full sustainability program, tree planting, regeneration, polyculture, etc. you name it.”
In a world of AI, fake news and where almost anything can be purchased online, Ben from Alpine sees that the future lies in consumers seeking something authentic -
“As the support grows for indie/new wave wine brands/styles, I think the wider industry will take us more seriously and see that there is a real thirst (excuse the pun) for authentic and exciting wines.”
With a global general trend towards lower alcohol consumption, we see it ring true in our business, that when we do drink, we want to drink better. Quality and authenticity are difficult to scale, so small, innovative producers like those among the indie crew, will always have the upper hand in this sense. Keeping our small producers, classic or indie, doing what they love and thrive at, is fortunately as easy as buying a bottle. So we invite you to do so.
We currently have two of our favourite wines from Halcyon Days, Heliacal Rise and Alcyone, available online and instore. We have Ben’s delicious new Alpine Wine Co releases on the way!