Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Meet the Winemaker: Brendan and Laura from Unico Zelo


As we reach the end of what has been a fairly traumatic year for people all around the world. In the world of wine there are many challenges that the industry had faced during this ”annus horribilis”: climate change, severe weather events, choppy international trading environments (understatement alert!), bullying and sexism, the impacts of COVID-19, to name but a few. However, it does feel right to look for some positives amidst this gloomy outlook. I’m a born optimist you see…! One of the main ones for me has been the sudden innovation in thinking around how wineries and producers can communicate with the external world. There has been a rush in new thinking in this space and initiatives have kicked off all over the world - from the prevalence of “Instagram-live” events where producers can talk directly to their market (big shout out at this point to Brad @winetimelondon who is doing this par excellence over on Instagram each weekday evening - check him out if you haven't seen it!); to virtual wine tastings and virtual winery visits - where you can have all the fun of experiencing the products of a winery and meeting the producers, experienced from the comfort of your own home. 
Nothing will replace the true joy of standing in a vineyard and directly experiencing the relief of the land, feel the texture of the soils; but as we start to appreciate the impact of international travel on our carbon footprint and the fact that trips abroad can't be accessed by many people, it does feel that these virtual experiences can help bring us closer as consumers to producers and appreciate their product without the time-, and resource-hungry, travelling. 
These themes of innovation and sustainability-focus are all brought together in the latest on our series of Aussie “meet the winemaker” series. I spent a very pleasant couple of hours last weekend with Brendan and Laura Carter of Aussie winery “Unico Zelo”. (You can check out my piece on one of other “meet the winemaker” sessions with Oliver’s Taranga here).  
Unico Zelo is a winery located in south Australia, near Adelaide and is an endeavour that they built from scratch, which is incredibly impressive when you consider what they have achieved. They produce fantastic wines, at accessible price points, in a way that leaves minimal impact on the environment. On the neck of each of their wines, Brendan and Laura emblazen their philosophy - “from the land we belong to” - and this very much speaks to the approach they take with their wine. Brendan explained this to us by saying that he tries to marry the concept of planting grapes that are perfectly suited to the environment that they find themselves in with low-intervention wine-making styles. The two concepts are very much symbiotic, Brendan says, as you can only have minimal intervention wine-making if you select grape varieties that perfectly suit the environment that you are working in. 
It is precisely this point that marks Brendan and Laura out as trailblazers; they acknowledge that there are exceptional sites for production of those grape varieties that did a great deal in putting Australia on the wine-map: Shiraz and Chardonnay. However, and they are extremely passionate throughout our discussion about this, they believe that most of Australia’s wine-growing areas are not sited in places which are suited to production of these varieties. Brendan and Laura looked at the areas around Adelaide Hills and Clare Valley where they source their grapes from and saw that the biggest challenge that they were going to face is that these areas experience drought conditions frequently and that the cost of water had been steadily rising over the recent years. As such, they concluded that they should not be looking to those grape varieties like Shiraz and Chardonnay, who hail from the comparatively wet regions of the Rhône Valley and Burgundy (respectively); instead, they felt that they should be looking at planting grapes that are more suited to their environment - and looked to Italian grape varieties. Their zeal on this point is verging on the fervent - and they are earnest on their mission of passing this message on to winemakers in their surrounding area - with varying levels of success. This is remarkable when you think about it - they are trying to help their competitors see that they need to adapt to survive. Just one of the many remarkable things about Brendan and Laura.

Unico Zelo’s wines

I tried three of their wines, which I purchased from All About Wines (the prices quoted are from their website) who have a good supply of Unico Zelo’s offering.
I started with their 2019 “Jade and Jasper” Fiano [£15.99] (UZ make several different Fiano) which had a lovely rich, vibrant colour in the glass. On the nose it was Quite rich and aromatic, I found it very expressive. On tasting, it was  bright and crisp with a crunchy green apple kind of vibe going on. I felt the wine was very clean and fresh, with a rather zippy acidity giving the wine a fairly electric profile.


Next up was a 2018 “Cherry Fields” Dolcetto [£15.99] produced in Clare Valley (a little further north than Adelaide Hills and somewhat renowned for Riesling). Interestingly Brendan told us that a very well-known Australian wine producer used to own the site that they get the grapes from but felt that they couldn’t make it work, which gives weight to Brendan’s idea that they were using the wrong grapes. They have opted instead for Dolcetto, a grape renowned for its usage in the wines of Piedmont. On the nose this was a little bit smoky, but was redolent of ripe, bright red fruits - it smelled so inviting! On tasting, it was very balanced, notable levels of acidity, but rich with dark cherry notes. I found this wine to be very approachable, not in a bad way - purely in an “this is a very pleasant wine to drink” kind of way!


My last wine was a 2019 ”Truffle Hound“ Barbera, Nebbiolo blend [£15.99], also produced in Clare Valley. In the glass this felt richer and darker than the Dolcetto, the fruits were move black fruit than red fruit. On the palate it was concentrated and intense, there were some quite deep notes at the outset, but on the mid-palate I felt that you got a nice sweep of acidity that provided some good balance to the wine. 
You’ll notice that all of the wines retail in the UK for the same price. Again this is deliberate from Brendan and Laura - they say that they aim to make approachable wines, at price points that are also approachable. They know and respect those producers who make ”crafted” wines that generate expensive price tags and become collectors’ items, but that’s not what they got into the game for. They got into the game to promote their ethos and to make great wine sustainably in a way that means that people in 50 to 100 years can also make this wine. Sustainability is an absolute cornerstone of the Unico Zelo story. Brendan and Laura are keen to point out that this isn’t with a hippy, tree-hugger, mindset - instead it is with a business hat on. After all, if something isn’t sustainable, then it is unsustainable, and that is not great for a business model.


Brendan in Decanter for his
“Wine for the People” show

Over these last few months, Brendan has become somewhat of an international COVID superstar (indeed, some of you may have seen that Brendan was featured in the January edition of Decanter on this). He started doing a series of live-streamed, wine-related video content. Brendan told us that he started doing this because he felt a need to remain in connection with people when COVID-restrictions meant that they couldn’t do this in the normal ways. In particular, he was keen to find a way to replace the social element of people finishing up their work and heading for a drink with their mates. So how have they gone about doing this? Brendan launched a series called “Wine for the People”, a purposefully social, irreverent take on wine and friendship. This has featured inspired broadcasts on subjects like “shit wine inventions” that you get sent by relatives when they know you’re a wine lover, and looking for wine matches with all the different flavours of Pringles. Seriously. It’s fun, it’s a little silly, it’s what we all needed in 2020.
Many thanks to Brett Jones (@austwinetasting on Twitter) and Ollie Farquharson (@ollieozwineuk) for setting this up, and of course huge thanks to Brendan and Laura for giving up their time to spend a couple of hours with us. It was a thoroughly enjoyable conversation and truly inspiring. With innovative and forward-thinking individuals like them in the wind industry, I have every hope that it will be able to survive the tumultuous events we are currently experiencing.