I love being outside, making things with my hands and being able to say—look, we’ve made something, and now we can drink it. How enjoyable is that!?
From a PhD in green seaweed diversity, to researching and diving for seaweed in the northwest Pacific, somewhere along the way, Gareth and Rainbo Belton fell head-over-heels for the wines of the Adelaide Hills in Australia.
A tasting with some of the region’s well-known natural wine pioneers saw Gareth hooked, and before he knew it, he was up at 5am in a truck to go and harvest throughout the hills. He never looked back. Gentle Folk was born.
They are known for their smashable, moreish Rainbow Juice and Vin de Sofa, which took the natural wine world by storm. More recently, they’ve turned their sights to fine tuning their single vineyard Pinots and Chardonnays.
One dream still remains. To make the equivalent of lunchtime Chianti. It’s a dream that’s not too far off… and one that will collide with Vin de Sofa.
In the midst of Covid-19, we sat down to Skype with Gareth
Gareth studied botany and marine science at university. After graduating, the head of the biology department, Margaret Clayton - a seaweed researcher - recommended that he take some time off to figure out what he wanted to do. She told him about a program based at the university of Washington.
“At the time I wanted to work with sharks and dolphins; classic marine biology things. But then this summer program came up in the San Juan Islands. It was amazing. I got on a sea plane – I’d never been on one before – and it was just magic. There’s just something about that part of north America, those great forests and islands. It was like something out of a movie. I was working with seaweed guys, in one of the seaweed centres of Planet Earth. They were so passionate and it changed my life in a big way.”
He wanted to become a full-time seaweed researcher, but couldn’t find a permanent position in Australia, so became a water scientist for the water board of Melbourne. But his desire to research kept tapping at his mind, so he came to Adelaide.
A love for the food and wine scene had already sucked the duo in while living in Melbourne, but it was in Adelaide that their love of wine become something more than a hobby.
A tasting in Adelaide at East End Cellars with Jauma, Tom Shobbrook and Lucy Margaux sparked a conversation between Gareth and James Erskine (of Jauma).
“They said, 'if you wanna come up to say goodday and pick some grapes during vintage, do.' So, I hassled them a bit and drove up to the Basket Range post office at 5am one morning, got in the car, drove down through McLaren Vale and picked grapes all day. I got pretty addicted after that.”
All Gareth’s spare time was spent harvesting and helping in the cellar. Simultaneously, he began to fall out of love with his work at the university.
“I was cooped up a bit and always trying to find money to continue a position. It’s not a bad place to be – there are worse places to be than a university – but I just loved being outside and making things with my hands and being able to say – look, we’ve made something, and now we can drink it. How enjoyable is that!? That philosophy bit pretty hard.”
Bit by bit over the years, they have grown from three barrels in 2013 to producing 4,500 cases today. Gareth quit his university job in 2015.
“When I got to the point where I was about to quit, I knew I wanted to be able to farm grapes as well. But we live in a really expensive part of the world. Every bit of land has a house or something on it, and so it’s not feasible for most people to even think about buying something here. Luckily, at that time vineyards started coming up for lease; slowly but surely the big producers moved out of the region because of the cost of fruit and land.”
So, the vineyards that were originally planted by doctors and lawyers were let go by the bigger companies who were moving into easier-to-farm and thus cheaper regions. In turn, this meant Gareth could sign a couple of leases and farm grapes.
“I had never pruned a grapevine in my life. When I signed the vineyard lease, I was like sh&%. Luckily, the stars aligned and I met a guy called Dylan Grigg one night; a superb viticulturist. I said I needed to learn the basics and asked if he’d do some consulting work. He was like, ‘what the hell have you done? But we’ll work it out man.’ We still work together – he’s out with us every fortnight or so for a morning.”
These days, Gareth and Rainbo are working across more vineyard land than they ever envisioned, with the help of their full-time employee, James.
“You get addicted to that side of things, even things like tractors… you look at a tractor and you’re like… ooo I like that one.”
“It’s been a journey, that’s for sure. It feels totally out of control most of the time, but it slowly feels like it makes sense. You make less errors every year.
“Because of all that time working in biology, I think I have a taken-for-granted understanding of what a healthy environment should and can be. There are many hurdles – after all, we’re growing something from Europe in Australia, but I believe we have to spend time and money to farm organically. It’s worth it, and I couldn’t sit just back and not do that. The planet’s already f*&^ed up. If I couldn’t farm in a way as to care for the environment, I’d rather just go and join Greenpeace and do something else worthwhile.”
Their section of Adelaide is steep, at high elevation. The vineyards are hard to farm and there aren’t many of them, but they are lucky that they are in close proximity to one another – only ten minutes or so – so they can drive their tractors simply from vineyard to vineyard.
Since moving there in 2013, they have seen a drastic change occur in terms of overall organically treated vineyards in the region. When they first arrived, the average price of fruit per ton was between Aus $1200-1500. Gareth explains that that price is too cheap for the region and makes no sense; it also meant there was almost no organic viticulture. Since a group of like-minded farmers have started to farm organically, the vineyard owners have paid attention. Now, many are converting to organics and in turn are able to sell their fruit for closer to Aus $3,500 per ton.
“For the vineyard owners, they more than double their income by going organic. It’s driven a huge change up here. Last autumn it was great to drive through the vineyards and instead of seeing walls of yellow grass due to herbicide, we saw under-vine cultivation and mowing. The region is moving fast into organics. It’s great – it means growers are getting more money, the environment is looked after more, and everyone is drinking less poison. As for the vineyard owners – well, they live there. Sometimes I’m baffled – if I was a doctor with a vineyard and someone rocked up and said I have to spray chemicals, so close your water tanks off for a week, I’d be like… well don’t spray it. That doesn’t sound like a place where I’d want to live.”
They lease and farm several sites. Scary Gully at 3.5 hectares is their largest; planted to both Pinot Noir and Riesling. Then they have Little Creek – a small Pinot Noir vineyard, Ashton – one hectare of Chardonnay, Norton Summit – Pinot Noir, and Summertown – Sauvignon Blanc.
They classify their farming as experimental, with organics as the minimum. They use aspects of biodynamics, such as the 500, 501 and 508 composting and natural sprays, including seaweed! A local farm shop has realised that organics is the future, and now stocks every almost organic product available, including one composed of seaweed that acts as a natural fertiliser. It’s illegal to collect seaweed on your own in Australia from the beach as it is an ocean habitat, so this product allows Gareth to continue his marine science in the vineyards.
With regards to the cover crops, they are trialling several clover species, fava beans, lupin, rye grass and wildflowers, to fix nitrogen in the soil, for water retention and to compete against dominant grasses.
“I don’t like tilling the earth too much; if you do it at the wrong time you can lose your soil pretty quickly. Part of our job is dealing with grass. I feel like it takes up 80% of my headspace during the year. Hopefully we have a set philosophy in a couple of years’ time, but at the moment we’re just trying to not f*&^ it up.”
In addition, they work with four organic growers to buy fruit for Rainbow Juice and Vin de Sofa. He explains that he’d love to grow more but it’s not possible with a small team; it costs around Aus $7,000 to farm one ton of grapes, whereas they can buy fruit for much less, allowing them to make more wine and to have relationships with other famers.
They were fortunate that the fire season of 2019-2020 bypassed their vineyard area in the hills of Adelaide; others lost numerous vineyards, and in total 11 million hectares across Australia were burnt, with 33 people and an estimated almost three billion animals losing their lives, not to mention their habitats. In a world that is getting hotter and hotter, it doesn’t bode well. What’s more, it poses problems for organic farmers.
Working not only organically, but also in a regenerative manner, means there is more vegetation in the vineyards.
“The clovers that die in summer will mulch naturally. Mulching with wood chips costs a lot of money – we will experiment and see how long it takes and how much it costs. But I was speaking to a friend, who said, ‘if fire comes through, what’s it gonna burn? All that mulch.’ The organic vineyards got hit worse by the fires than the non-organic vineyards due to the grass. It’s brutal…”
He trails off. It’s not easy; there is no one solution.
“You have all these dreams of bottling wines after longer periods in barrel, but after this fire season that’s it. I’m gonna bottle half the production before fire season starts and send it out, so I at least know it’s a little safer...”
Gareth explains that coming from a science background is helpful, but also detrimental as he tends to overanalyse.
“I like my wines quite ripe – not Barossa Shiraz ripe, but still generous. That’s why I like this region because you can get ripeness with acidity without having to add it. But, you have to pay attention, because otherwise things can blow up pretty quickly in the vineyard. It can still get bloody hot. It’s hard. James [our employee] helps me out with everything. He understands the philosophy behind what we’re trying to do: to grow the best possible grapes. If we have disease-free fruit and a clean winery, then the rest should be fairly straightforward."
The wines are changing as time moves on. Rainbow Juice initially came from one little vineyard in the Basket Range that is planted to old vines of 21 different varieties, originally taken from Adelaide University’s experimental vineyards before they were ripped out. Gentle Folk no longer farms it, having passed the lease on to a friend, James Madden, who has recently started his own project – Scintilla Wines.
“I said, ‘take it over, you’ll learn a lot from it.’ It’s so cool to taste his wine as it’s also a blend of everything: a beautiful pink delicious wine. I do miss that, but I’m like - good on you and at least I get to drink heaps of it!”
He explains that there are more and more small wineries in the area, so it’s hard for people to find fruit let alone a vineyard to farm.
“I want to see James around; I want him to be here when we’re 70 so we can drink bottles of 2015 Rainbow Juice together.”
It is a notion similar to that of the prephylloxera vineyard passed from Clos du Jaugueyron to Closeries des Moussis: the heart-warming idea of passing the baton (in this case a vineyard) from one aspiring farmer to another.
It means that Rainbow Juice is undergoing a constant evolution.
“I’ve always had these ideas of what I want it to be – imagine skin contact Pinot Gris with Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürz – that’s the ultimate dream for a rosé: pungent and floral. Gewürztraminer raises its head once in a while; I was supposed to get some from a vineyard but it burnt down…”
Meanwhile, a friend of his is converting a large Sangiovese vineyard to organics, which will become the new Vin de Sofa. Gareth beams from ear to ear as he says,
“It’s my dream to make Sangiovese from here. I’m excited. I want to make a million litres of Sangiovese like a dirty Chianti. It’s the answer to everything: the ultimate Vin de Sofa wine. That’s what it’s supposed to be – a gateway to something else.”
Meanwhile, with the single vineyards, they are still experimenting.
"From Little Creek we picked six tons and made six different wines, because I still have no idea – will whole bunch work? Will half whole bunch and half destemmed work? Will carbonic work? Should I pump over or leave it?”
It’s these experiments that drive the wines forward. With Scary Gully, the 2020 vintage is finally at a place where Gareth is content. While he still loves making Rainbow Juice and Vin de Sofa, the real focus is on the Pinots and Chardonnays.
“I’ve also gone through a journey of what I like to drink. Sometimes, I still wanna drink something wild, but I also want wines with more purity, like beautiful straight Chenins, Chardonnays, Syrahs… But I like to work with what’s here; which is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. They’re in beautiful spots, they’re older vines and they are established. That is the primary reason for working with them. If we’re going to make wine, we may as well make the best thing we possibly can. The vineyards are crazy: steep and low yielding and it’s expensive to farm. We could spend our whole time making fun wines, but our business wouldn’t last like that. All that time and money farming – working around the clock – to produce something sub-standard would be an atrocity. It would be an insult to our work, to our employees and to the owners of the vineyards.”
Meanwhile, Chardonnay is the wine that drives him crazy.
“Every year I go nuts. You have this tiny moment to decide what to do.”
Generally, they press whole-bunch straightaway, then move the juice into tank to settle overnight, one tank cooled and one not, and then the wine goes into barrel without any additions. This year, however, he’s experimented with tiny amounts of sulphur at the beginning for Chardonnay as he has had troubles with malolactic occurring too quickly.
In two years’ time, they plan to build a winery to have separate cellars, as he feels that Chardonnay doesn’t like temperature variation.
Sulphur dioxide is always kept to the very minimum, with wines bottled with just 10ppm (miniscule amounts). This is fairly easy to do in the region – as although the fruit is ripe, pH tends to sit fairly low for Chardonnay.
“Pinot Noir, however, you have to watch like a hawk. The pHs are higher and things can spiral out of control quickly. It’s a rollercoaster ride.”
Often the Pinots are 100% whole bunch, as they like the aromatics that the stems bring to the wine. Gareth figured out a way to layer the fruit like a sandwich – so with one layer of whole bunch, one of destemmed, one of whole bunch, and so on. He since also discovered that other winemakers, like Julien Guillot in Macon, use the same vinification techniques. It is a full circle of winemaking education.
“We start to see hints of what works. It used to be like a runny soup, but now with the layering there’s just enough juice to be able to jump on top of the ferment but still feel like there’s something there.”
Each year, the most striking barrels from the single vineyards are bottled on their own, and everything else goes into a Village Pinot. They seek vineyard and vintage expression, and try to ensure that each wine has a similar soul to its counterparts.
“I hope that they all have a similar signature. As long as they’re generous and easy to drink, that’s the main goal. I want them to be delicious and enjoyable when they’re young, for people to think they all have drinkability, even if one is a little darker. The last thing I want is to make something which you feel like you can’t drink for 20 years. Maybe over time the wines will become more refined, as we get older, but I love the idea that they should be interesting and different from the alchemy of barrels, rather than from tannin, alcohol or oak.”
It’s an exciting time for Gentle Folk as they undergo a metamorphosis; both in the vineyards and in the cellar; from fun wines to wines with a little more hiding under the surface.