Some of the most interesting winemakers are the ones who come to the craft later in life, after immersing themselves in other vocations. Before establishing his own wine label, Jauma, with his wife Denise in the Adelaide Hills three years ago, James Erskine graduated as a soil scientist, performed experimental music in Berlin, won national awards for his work as a sommelier, and was chief judge at The Adelaide Review’s Hot 100 Wine Show.
Erskine, 34, is also at the forefront of the natural wine scene: hand-picked, organic grapes, no added yeast, enzyme, tannin or acid, no filtration, and only the bare minimum of sulphur dioxide at bottling, to keep the wine fresh. Not that he’s making wines to stick away in the cellar, mind you: the Jauma ethos is all about making “smashable” wines for drink-now pleasure.
I catch up with Erskine in the kitchen of an inner-city hipster bar: he’s cooking tonight for a bunch of customers and friends, and he’s brought his latest releases – all 2013 vintage, all available now, all thoroughly smashable. First he pours a wine called Mary Lou. It’s made from the savagnin grape, and it tastes perfectly normal, like a full-bodied chardonnay or pinot gris. I’m surprised, because Erskine, along with many other natural winemakers, usually embraces the unfiltered, cloudy, wild ‘n’ funky end of the spectrum with his wines. But this is almost conventional.
He grins. “I wanted to show people that ‘natural’ doesn’t always have to mean ‘weird’,” he says. “It’s named after my mum: she’s been on at me for years to make a ‘normal’ wine for a change. So I did.”
The other wines are more out-there: an unfiltered, slightly cloudy “pet nat” (petillant naturel) sparkling wine made from chenin blanc that tastes like baked apples and Japanese sake; a red named after his son, Danby, made from McLaren Vale grenache, that is intense, earthy, yet lively, juicy; and an insanely good gewurztraminer – an “orange” wine, fermented on skins – that has the spice and prickle of good ginger beer, and the soft grapey richness of late autumn.
Erskine is also fascinated by how we appreciate wine – how our brains perceive flavour, how the taste of wine can resonate with our other senses and emotions – and has explored these ideas in creative ways.
He recently collaborated with percussionist Eugene Ughetti, who composed a piece capturing each stage of the production of one of Erskine’s wines, from grapes ripening to harvest, pressing, fermentation and maturation.
Earlier this year the pair performed the final layer of the work, improvising over the recorded score as people tasted the finished wine. It was one of the most engrossing wine experiences I’ve ever had. Serious, but – in keeping with the Jauma ethos – totally delicious and heaps of fun.
MAX ALLEN, The Australian