BASKET RANGE, Australia — By day, Alex Schulkin studies arcane topics in wine chemistry, like protein haze formation, for the Australian Wine Research Institute, which is supported by mainstream grape growers and wine producers.
When he leaves work, Mr. Schulkin heads to an unprepossessing warehouse outside this small town in the Adelaide Hills. There, he and his wife, Galit Shachaf, make gentle, lovely wines under the Other Right label that come alive in the glass, free of additives, manipulations and the other trappings of the conventional winemaking he studies.
The Other Right is just one of many producers that are part of a thriving wine counterculture in Australia, clustered here in the Adelaide Hills but extending throughout many of the nation’s winemaking regions.
This counterculture is not a single group of winemakers working toward one goal, but a spectrum encompassing many different degrees of rebellion from the mainstream Australian standards set in the 1990s. What they have in common is the myriad beautiful wines they produce.
On one end are those who embrace extreme interpretations of natural wine, producers like Anton Van Klopper (of the Lucy Margaux label), James Erskine (Jauma) and Travis Tausend in the Adelaide Hills, Tom Shobbrook in Barossa and Sam Vinciullo of Margaret River.
On another part of the spectrum are producers who are subversive but not single-minded, who reject being called natural winemakers, either because they dislike the term’s connotations or they do not live up to their personal definition of the genre. They include La Violetta and Brave New Wine in Denmark in the Great Southern region, Blind Corner and Si Vintners in Margaret River, and Gentle Folk and Ochota Barrels in the Adelaide Hills.
And there are outliers like Abel Gibson and Emma Epstein of Ruggabellus, in Barossa, who make complex, challenging yet gorgeous wines that show the influence of Radikon and Gravner, masters of ancient-reborn-as-modern styles in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of northeastern Italy.
These are not producers who dabble in more low-tech styles. They excel at them, showing little tolerance for careless winemakers who accept flaws, or wannabes who value theory over practice.
While no more than a niche in the entire country’s wine culture, Australia’s natural winemakers, like natural producers around the globe, have assumed an outsize influence that goes far beyond their numbers.
With their emphasis on minimalist winemaking and organic or biodynamic farming, these producers have unintentionally become a sort of conscience to the industry, a voice in the heads of wine drinkers everywhere, asking questions that go beyond taste to issues of health, morality and philosophy, all while making wine that ranges from delicious to profound.
Such issues cannot be raised without causing anger and resentment. Few debates in wine during the last 15 years have been more heated or emotional than the arguments over the meaning and importance of natural wine. From a small, unorganized cadre of producers in France, their numbers have spread through all corners of the wine-producing world.
Even so, “natural wine” remains undefined and subject to dispute, not least among the producers themselves. It is above all an ideal, a desire to farm with respect for nature and centuries-old traditions, and to make wine with as little intervention as possible — with no added yeast or bacteria for fermentations, no acidity or tannins beyond what came with the grapes and nothing to enhance or alter texture, flavors, aromas or color.
The most contentious issue is whether small amounts of sulfur dioxide, a kind of cure-all antioxidant and preservative, should be employed at all.
Sulfur in one form or other has been used in wine for ages. It is sprayed in the vineyard to combat a range of maladies, while it is ubiquitous in modern, conventional winemaking.
It is used before fermentation to kill natural yeast so winemakers can use yeast of their own choosing. It may be used again after fermentation to prevent oxidation and microbiological spoilage in the wine, and again before bottling as a stabilizer.
In natural winemaking, the debate centers on whether to use a little sulfur dioxide before bottling to help wine withstand the rigors of travel, as well as other potential scourges like brettanomyces, a rogue yeast that can cause funky barnyard aromas, and mousiness, a bacterial taint reminiscent of the smell of a mouse cage. Mousiness is only detectable retronasally, after taking some in the mouth, which allows saliva to activate the mousy compounds in the wine.
Some producers choose to use a little sulfur dioxide before bottling to avoid risks, accepting the tapering, narrowing effect on aromas and flavors it might have. Others do not, preferring the increased vibrancy and unmediated aromas and flavors that can come without sulfites.
Instead, they seek stability through meticulous hygiene and winemaking, scrupulous attention to detail and keeping the pH of the wine low enough to discourage unwanted microbiological life.
Mr. Schulkin, who began his wine studies in Israel before coming to South Australia, chooses not to use sulfur dioxide, but he is easygoing about it. “We don’t mind life in our bottles, but we don’t like activity, so we prefer low pH,” he said. “It’s not about avoiding risks, but about managing them.”
Sam Vinciullo, who makes wine in the Margaret River region of Western Australia, is not nearly so laid back. He is resolutely antisulfur, just as he is uncompromising in what he demands of others and of himself.
Unlike Mr. Schulkin and some other natural winemakers who buy grapes because they cannot afford their own vineyards, Mr. Vinciullo has essentially put everything into leasing an old vineyard and all his winemaking equipment. He would rather do all the farming himself than allow others a role. Indeed, he says he has at times camped out alongside a vineyard, rather than cede control.
Yet he makes delicious, unconventional wines, like his 2018 Warner Glen White/Red, 75 percent sauvignon blanc and 25 percent shiraz, which is fresh, pure and textured, like biting into fresh fruit. He says winemakers who work naturally must be both meticulous and willing to wait. Too often, seeking return on investment, producers rush wines into bottles and then to market.
“It’s like raw milk cheese,” he said. “Have patience and you can have something pure, alive and not nuked.”
Mr. Vinciullo has very little time, however, for others who don’t share his militancy. He is skeptical of winemakers who say they work organically but add “just a little sulfur,” and he refuses to sell wine to people who he believes do not understand what he is trying to do. He struggles himself with compromises his situation requires him to make.
“Every time I spray sulfur in the vineyard, I die a little inside,” he said.
Others who share his antisulfur position include Mr. Shobbrook, one of Australia’s natural wine pioneers, and Mr. Erskine of Jauma, who makes wines of eye-closing beauty.
Mr. Shobbrook originally planted a vineyard at his parents’ farm in Seppeltsfield, northeast of Adelaide. When his parents sold it a few years ago, he and his wife started over again.
They moved to Flaxman Valley, on a ridge between the Eden Valley and the Barossa Valley, where, in lean, acidic soil with pockets of rose quartz, he has planted his own vineyard and makes wines that are fresh, lively and savory. He doesn’t use sulfur in either the vineyard or the winery.
“I didn’t like adding things to to vineyard, so why add things to the wine?” he said.
He also buys organically grown grapes from old vineyards, like sémillon, muscat, cinsault or chenin blanc, grapes that might otherwise have been pulled out and replaced by more conventional selections like shiraz, which fetches higher prices. In an effort at preserving these old vines, Mr. Shobbrook buys the grapes at the shiraz price.
Taras Ochota in the Adelaide Hills has inspired a number of local producers who work naturally, including Basket Range Wine and Commune of Buttons, but he does not want to be called a natural wine producer. “It’s a bit annoying, actually,” he said.
He farms organically, and succeeds in making juicy, crunchy, delicious wines that develop over time. But he likes to use a little sulfur dioxide.
While he loves wine of acidity, that feel alive, he is not a fan of genres that are popular among natural wine producers, like pétillant naturel, or of rigid attitudes.
“Snobbiness comes more from the hard-core natural winemakers who think anything with sulfur dioxide is trash,” he said. “The old order is a bit more accepting and curious.”
Younger Australians have been attracted to natural wines more by the aura of informality and unpretentiousness.
Jasper Button grew up in the Adelaide Hills, in a sort of commune. Several couples there, including his parents, planted a vineyard in the early 1990s. By 2010, the market for its grapes was dying, but Mr. Button was able to sell to producers like Mr. Ochota, which allowed him to keep the vineyard and make wine. His label, Commune of Buttons, now produces juicy, easygoing, energetic wines.
Way over in Denmark, in the Great Southern region in far southwestern Australia, Andrew Hoadley of La Violetta makes a set of wonderful wines. He avoids the term “natural wine” because he thinks it is divisive and because he chooses to use small amounts of sulfur dioxide.
Still, he embodies its rebellious ideal. He worked in Australia’s corporate wineries, and saw firsthand how fruitiness was valued over savory complexity in red wines, and how whites were made using cautious methods that avoided risk at all costs.
For his own whites, he took the opposite approach. He ferments his riesling in barrels rather than in steel tanks, and neither filters nor fines the wine.
“When I started, it was a radical thing not to fine or filter a riesling,” he said. “Not to protect a wine at every step along the way was considered unthinkable.”
His 2017 riesling is lovely, richly textured, one of the best Australian rieslings I have had, full of elusive flavors that you want to pursue. He calls it Das Sakrileg.
A 15-Pack of Australian Natural Wines
Here are 15 winemakers in Australia who are working naturally and whose wines are worth remembering. Many others work in this style, and their wines are worth trying if you see them. Unfortunately, most of these are made in small quantities, and some producers’ bottles are not yet available in the United States.
Blind Corner Juicy, delicious wines from biodynamic grapes in the Margaret River. (T. Edward Wines, New York)
Borachio Bright, crunchy wines from the Adelaide Hills, “smashable” thirst quenchers. (Tess Bryant Selections/T. Elenteny, New York)
Brave New Wine Outstanding, experimental, idiosyncratic wines, from a husband-and-wife team in Denmark in the Great Southern. (Not imported)
Commune of Buttons Fresh, unpretentious wines from the Adelaide Hills. (Tess Bryant Selections/T. Elenteny)
Gentle Folk Serious but pretty wines from husband-and-wife scientists in the Adelaide Hills. (Tess Bryant Selections/T. Elenteny)
Jauma Delicate, gorgeous no-sulfur wines from McLaren Vale and Adelaide Hills. (T. Edward Wines)
La Violetta Wonderful range of wines from the Great Southern. (Not imported)
Lucy Margaux Luminous, provocative wines from a natural wine pioneer in the Adelaide Hills. (Terrell Wines, San Francisco)
Ochota Barrels A great, wide-ranging selection of fresh, energetic wines. (Vine Street Imports, Mount Laurel, N.J.)
The Other Right Bright, savory, refreshing wines from the Adelaide Hills environs. (Tess Bryant Selections/T. Elenteny)
Ruggabellus Striking, singular, skin-contact wines of rare beauty from the Eden Valley. (Not imported)
Sam Vinciullo Pure, energetic, uncompromising natural wines from the Margaret River. (Tess Bryant Selections/T. Elenteny)
Shobbrook Wines Always surprising, always delicious, from a natural wine pioneer in Barossa. (Terrell Wines)
Si Vintners Easy-drinking wines from biodynamic grapes. (Vision Wine Brands, Port Chester, N.Y.)
Travis Tausend Thoughtful, subtle wines from a searching producer in the Adelaide Hills. (Tess Bryant Selections/T. Elenteny)