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Winemakers - Peter Bristow, Russell Walsh and Brent Laidlow.Photo: The faces behind the Garagiste label, from left, Peter Bristow, Russell Walsh and Brent Laidlaw. They are about as garage as the wine industry can get.

MICROBREWERIES HAVE GOT nothing on the garagiste winemaking movement reports Danielle Costly, where a tin shed in the backyard and an airconditioner somewhere in the house is all you need to strike gold.

It began quietly in a Bordeaux garage almost 20 twenty years ago but has since inspired a global movement with garagiste popping up across the Americas, as far afield as New Zealand – and in Australia.

But this is no fad driven by wine wannabes, many of the garagiste are proud artisans working with a passion limited only by the dimensions of their domesticity.

Margaret River garagiste Nigel Ludlow established his Evoi wine label on a shoestring with just two barrels of Chardonnay in his backyard garage in 2007.

His garagiste wines, which are fermented under his living room airconditioner, have already won gold at the Decanter wine awards.

Not bad for an expat Kiwi who started with nothing more than a dream and still has not much more than his discrete domain in downtown Margaret River.

Where he now churns out a staggering 32 barrels a year.

Making barrels of wine in a garage sounds simple, right?

According to Ludlow, it was anything but.

“It’s not easy working conditions as, inherently, there are big losses of juice involved. Normally you may get 800-litres/tonne of fruit, whereas in my first vintage I only produced about 500-litres per tonne,” he explains.

“Producing such a limited quantity of wine left little margin for error, but it also meant I became very intimate with the product. I chose Chardonnay to launch Evoi as it is very special to me. I think of it as a red grape in white drag, as it doesn’t really follow the rules of a white grape.”

The fruit for his award-winning Chardonnay is sourced from Willyabrup, a sub-region of Margaret River, and was handpicked into a bin and loaded onto a trailer for the short trip home where it is pressed with a small basket press into a tank.

It was then left to partially settle overnight before being racked into the barrels. The barrels were carefully rolled to have pride of place in front of his airconditioning unit, where he kept the fermentation as cool as possible.

After ferment, the wine stayed in the barrel (in his lounge) with weekly stirring to integrate the lees of the Chardonnay into the wine, producing a richer, creamier wine.  One year passed before the wine was filtered into bottles.

Today 20 of those 32 barrels are a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Merlot and Malbec.

He has also just received funding from Naked Wines, a sponsorship agreement which will lift this tally by a further 1500 cases in the coming year alone.

While Ludlow’s barrels still take pride of place in the living room during fermentation, he has had to start storing some of the barrels at a nearby winery.

RENAISSANCE OF THE GARAGISTE

In recent years, this backyard approach to winemaking has been reborn as a wave of passionate winemakers pursue their dreams of making small lot wines in their garages. Michael Hutton is one of these enthusiastic winemakers, producing a measly 275 cases annually.

Part-time winemaker, part-time architect, Hutton is the eldest son of first-generation wine producers (his parents established Gralyn) and it is from his parents’ vineyard he sourced the fruit for his inaugural Hutton Wines release.

“My first vintage consisted of four barrels of Cabernet Sauvignon in 2006. I aim to produce a tiny quantity of the highest quality wine I am capable of and then selling it at a sustainable price, while keeping overheads to a minimum,” he says.

He has since added a Chardonnay and a Semillon Sauvignon Blanc to his Triptych range, which is processed at a commercial winery and the juice is transported to his garage, using a stainless steel variable capacity tank on the back of his ute.

A small centrifugal pump with one-inch hoses and a racking spear is used to transfer the juice to five French oak barriques (two of which are new).

“The juice is then inoculated and sulfur is added once fermentation is complete. The wine stays in the barrel for eight months, with some lees stirring. It is then transferred back to the winery for finishing and bottling,” he elaborates.

Hutton says the lack of equipment is his biggest challenge.

“I do not have a forklift, so everything such as the barrels, cases and tanks is handled manually. The wine is stored in the garage, which is insulated and air-conditioned. There is no additional cooling during fermentation.”

This iconoclastic winemaking movement is seeing individuals such as Chris Hill, the founder of Garage Wines, think outside the box to establish distribution markets for his small-lot wines.

While Australia was in the midst of a massive wine glut in 2006, Hill found himself helping long-term industry friends who were stuck with wine they couldn’t sell because of cancelled export orders, or reduced demand from traditional distributors and retailers.

This alerted him to the potential for a garage-based wine business – and his label was born.

“I borrowed space in a friend’s winery and built-up a network of ‘garages’ throughout McLaren Vale, Barossa Valley, Adelaide Hills and the Hunter Valley. I quickly established more of a negociant style operation then a true garagiste,” he recalls.

Full story in February’s Grapegrower & Winemaker.

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