People: Tim Wildman
Place: Riverland, Australia
Grapes: Fiano, Zibibbo, Arneis, Mataro, Nero d'Avola
Production: 13.500 bottles
British-born Master of Wine (MW), Tim WIldman wears many hats: he runs his own portfolio wine business involving travel, education and film. He became a Master of Wine in 2008 and in 2014 started his pet-nat project. He makes specifically pet-nat because he wants to pick the grapes, make and bottle the wine, all within his month-long trip in Australia. Tim is emphatic that wine should fall into one of two categories: fun or fine and was firm that he was going to produce wines of the former category.
“As a student in the late 80s I was really into UK guitar pop and US hip hop (The Smiths, Stone Roses, Beastie Boys) and my dream was to join a band, but having zero musical talent, I decided to make wine instead. I made my “wine” using a Home Winemaking Kit and put the fermenting demijohns on my windowsill, which was right next to the path from the carpark. I worked out I could make “wine” for 19 pence a bottle. I made a lot of friends in my first term that way and my whole career since has pretty much been based on the same principle.”
Even though Tim didn’t end up playing music, he believes his second (or first?) calling – wine - is the perfect conduit for meeting people, travel, keeping occupied, having fun. It could have been selling books or vinyl, journalism, scuba diving, photography, any number of things. Luckily for us, it was wine.
“My epiphany bottle, the wine that blew my mind turned me onto natural wine, was in 2008 and it was a bottle of 2006 Sebastian Riffault Sancerre. I’d been working for a natural wine importer in the UK for at least a year at that point, but the majority of wines I’d tasted were at trade events, in brightly lit rooms in the daytime, and I just didn’t get it. Then one night in winter I got home to my flat in South London and was starving hungry. I put some pasta on and looked for something to drink, but all I had was a trade sample in the fridge of that dodgy cloudy Sancerre by Riffault that I didn’t really like. But it was all I had, so I opened it and poured a glass. Boom. I think I’d pretty much finished the bottle by the time the pasta was cooked. I practically ate the bottle. I think because I was not just thirsty but also hungry, my stomach recognised something alive and nutritious in the wine, and once your stomach gets involved, there’s no turning back.”
What an engaging story! We believe that many have dived into natural wine in moments of ultimate enjoyment, rather than with masterclasses from sommeliers and trade tastings. That’s why the natural wine community is so disarming and welcoming.
“One of the things I love about the world of natural wine is that it spreads one bottle at a time, through people. It's a grassroots thing, unlike the boomer trends of Parkerised styles and international varieties that were spread top-down, by influential winemakers and critics; natural wine is a movement of the people. I often think of it as ripples in a pond, you get a wine bar opening in New York, Hong Kong or Singapore, and the influence spreads in that pond, with people being inspired to open their own natural wine bars, shops and restaurants, supported by a growing family of natural wine fans, and so the ripples spread. It’s very organic, very powerful.”
A region that limelights easy charm, Riverland keeps us eternally smitten, be it the coltish joys of wilder styles of pet-nat or those suede-feel charmers with a raised eyebrow toward Sicily. Tim’s pet-nats cue many moods through every day of the week.
“Because I’m using southern Italian grape varieties - which have the high acid and low pH I need to make sulphur free pét-nat - this narrowed my choice much more than if I was using more widely available grapes such as Shiraz or Chardonnay. The growers I work with all work hard to reduce chemical inputs as much as possible, but none are certified organic or biodynamic, although I’m always on the lookout for the holy grail of growers who have southern Italian varieties and are certified. I’m getting my first certified biodynamic Fiano next year, in my tenth year, which tells you how hard it is!”
In terms of volume, Riverland is the largest region in Australia in terms of volume, accounting for half of South Australia’s output and almost a quarter of the national total. Even though it’s a ‘super-zone’, there are plenty of growers that focus quality rather than quantity.
“I buy my fruit from growers, so am not involved in the direct farming inputs. I know I pay more to have my fruit hand-picked, and I then pay even more for the pickers to sort “off the vine” by cutting off any sun burnt or diseased berries out of the bunch, but that’s my main input cost when it comes to the vineyard. Oh, and I make sure I’m always there for the pick, keeping a very close eye on what goes into the buckets and making sure the picking crew are motivated to do a good job. I can’t tell you how important it is to actually be there on the day of the pick, I’d say it gives me an additional 10% quality.”
Tim works very hard to make sure he’s buying the right varieties from the right regions and the right growers. You can think of it as concentric circles. The outer one is the choice of what variety to use (zero sulphur pét-nat in a warm climate needs varieties that have high acidity but crucially low pH, which is what helps keep the wine fresh and clean if you’re not using sulphur or other additives). He chooses grapes such as Nero d’ Avola for the reds and Zibibbo and Fiano for the whites.
“While the Zibibbo comes from Riverland, I get certain grapes from McLaren Vale and Adelaide Hills as well. Getting the best growers is a never-ending process, because the best growers are always in high demand, but if you persevere you can get to the front of the queue. “In the winery, we winemakers have all the tools, chemicals and techniques to intervene at every stage of the winemaking process. Not intervening, and trusting the fruit is actually very hard to do. Of course, it’s much easier if you have clean, healthy, high-quality fruit. I once heard someone say that the previous generation of Australian winemakers saw grapes as a ‘problem to be fixed’ - which sums up the overly technical approach. For me it’s all about trusting the fruit.”
Wildman Wines has evolved drastically since Tim’s first vintage in 2014 thanks to the utmost seriousness it took to make these wines fun & tasty.
“My first vintage of Astro Bunny was in 2014, and it was very different to everything that followed. I made it from Grenache, it was 15% alcohol and was so explosively gushing that we had to hand disgorge all 600 bottles. I ended up selling most of it to a newly opened restaurant in Adelaide called Africola who thought it was a good match for their flame roasted cow’s head! Then the next year I hand bottled 1500 bottles all by myself and it took thirty hours and in that time half the sugar had fermented away, so the second half of the bottling wasn’t very fizzy, more a flat nat. Then in 2016 one of the tanks developed volatile acidity that was so high as to be officially illegal, so we had to tip that down the drain. So yes, I made a lot of mistakes in the early years, but that’s how you learn. The first vintage of Astro Bunny that was truly #NotShit was 2017, and I think we’ve been doing OK since then.”
Even though made by a Master of Wine, Tim’s wines are are fun wines not fine wines, and they are designed to be the bottle on the table that is empty first. “Two people ten minutes”, that’s Tim’s ultimate winemaking goal. Sunshine on a tap is what we say.
[Originally published in October 2022]