RECENTLY, A FEW OF MY PET Faverolle chickens were massacred by a fox. Feeling the cold grip of melancholy creeping up, I decided to drop the needle on a record—Eddie Current Suppression Ring’s Primary Colours—and pull a calvados shaped bottle of shiraz from my wine rack: Sami-Odi’s ‘Little Wine #8’.
A wine of lush atmosphere, it’s a brooding glass of earthy memories that dig into the century-old roots of the vines to tell a heavy story that’s fresh and full of light. Sami-Odi wines are described as, “heroic, dense and muscular.” Brooding with deep plum-toned brush strokes, the wine I’m drinking feels like it’s doused in spice and pepper; a transcendental wine that’s the product of artful hands.
Those artful hands belong to Fraser McKinley, the revered winemaker behind Sami-Odi. He makes wines that stand tall in the prestigious Barossa Valley, a region famous for producing full-bodied shiraz of intense berry flavours with mocha and tobacco characteristics.
McKinley’s wines have a cult following around the world for their uncompromising originality, from the packaging to the winemaking techniques he uses. To learn more about the buzz behind his bottles, which are both rich yet simultaneously ethereal, I decided to give McKinley a call.
A course-altering wine
It all began while McKinley was studying fine art in New Zealand. He took up a job in hospitality where he was introduced to a wine that stopped him in his tracks.
“We sat at the bar at this restaurant, swirling and sniffing. It was 25 years ago now but it was so memorable. I hadn’t ever tasted anything like it, which is why you have those bottles where the penny drops,” says McKinley. “It was the 1990 Babbage Iron Gate chardonnay. It just had such a concentration of flavour and it was so rich. The wine has a fond place in my heart.”
By the time Fraser graduated, he was more interested in making wine than practicing art and design. He moved to Sydney in 2000, and then travelled around Europe working in hospitality and collecting life experiences before returning to New South Wales.
He knew he wanted to get into wine, so he sought advice from some of his heroes within the world.
“There’s a master of wine based in Sydney called Andrew Caillard MW. He was a great mentor. When I mentioned studying winemaking to him, he said, ‘you’ve already got a degree you don’t use, you don’t need another one. You should go to work a harvest in a winery.” So Fraser fired off some emails, and eventually landed a stint at Torbreck in the Barossa valley.
“I was under the impression that Torbreck only made shiraz, grenache and mataro. But they also made chardonnay, sangiovese and some sparkling white wine. I got to see a pretty cool scope of all these different varieties. By the time I finished my first harvest, all I wanted to do was come back and do it again.”
The Hoffman’s were a local family that grew grapes for Torbreck’s wines. They would drop off tonnes of grapes during the vintage the old fashioned way—in an old Bedford truck. McKinley would spend an hour pitchforking the grapes off the truck while striking up conversation and eventually landing himself a small section of vines to manage in the family’s historic Dallwitz Block vineyard.
“That’s what became Sami-Odi,” adds McKinley. “All I really wanted was for the wine to be interesting. I wanted it to be interesting to me.”
Breaking the mould
McKinley was inspired by some of the region’s heavyweights, such as Chris Ringland, the head winemaker at Rockford at the time, who was experimenting with small batch runs of shiraz under the label Three Rivers. “Those wines were so extreme in their flavour,” says McKinley. “I didn’t necessarily need our wine to be as extreme in its flavours [but] I found that project to be so full of personality.”
Fraser began his own trials, testing different techniques, “We picked late at Torbreck, so I picked early. We were de-stemming grapes at Torbreck, [so] I was kept them in whole clusters. They were racking, I didn’t rack. None of it was to counter what we were doing at Torbreck, I just wanted to see what the results were like, because it simply wouldn’t make sense to me to make a Torbreck wine and put my name on it.”
To find a new way forward, McKinley leant on his past. “The skills I picked up studying [fine art] inspired an artistic approach. I look at winemaking through an artistic window because I’ve never had that scientific background.”
The art of a “multi-vintage expression”
His unique method to achieve the most authentic reflection of his sites has been through blending the wines; weaving together a range of vine ages and vintages across different years to achieve a cohesive sense of place that spans time.
“I remember reading Hugh Johnson’s Atlas of Wine and it noted in the champagne page a Jacques Selosse champagne called ‘Substance’. I’d never tried or seen that wine at the time. It was like the ultimate essence of the terroir in Champagne because it was wine blended from the same site every year since 1986. It’s like this multi-vintage expression of only one site. I thought that was such a cool way of approaching wine. It’s really got me interested in the idea of blending multiple vintages from the one site.”
Fraser began employing the method in his own practice. “I like to pick 12 or 13 times during a harvest, to give us heaps of options to blend from. The oldest vines, we will pick three times, and quite often they’re all blended back together to achieve the best wine from that harvest. But what I find interesting is blending wine from the same site across different vintages, across years and years.”
As I return to my bottle of Sami-Odi’s ‘Little Wine #8’ the following day—over a kangaroo steak no less—the wine’s red clay details emerge; vanillin, tobacco, black fruits. Fraser McKinley’s wines, I decide, are a wholehearted polyrhythmic experience.
Sitting there, I recall a poignant comment of McKinley’s: “I love looking at blending as an expressive art form, rather than a science of things coming together.”
Here, meanwhile, Mahmood sits down with Lyndal Taylor, the in-house sommelier at Victoria’s best restaurant Brae, to speak about the best wines to drink in Spring.
Mahmood Fazal is a Walkley award-winning investigative reporter. On the outskirts of his crime writing, Mahmood is currently compiling a book about wine. It is an extension of his Instagram page semiautomaticwine — where he experiments with journalism, automatic writing and poetry to demonstrate the meaning of his favourite wines. Uncorked is his take on a wine column; a romp through the bottles, varieties, phenomenons and personalities that colour the world of wine today.