Grappa, marc, orujo: where you have wine, spirits often follow. For centuries, winemakers keen to minimise waste and make cash have turned the natural by-product of the winemaking industry, pomace – leftover grape skins, pulp and stems – into something palatable and profitable. It’s been part tradition, part financial necessity; after all, spirits aren’t impacted by the environmental uncertainties of harvest quite like wines can be. Even the acclaimed Piedmont producer Gaja makes Grappa di Barbaresco from its Nebbiolo grapes.
But things are changing. Where once distillation was largely an afterthought – and often someone else’s job entirely – more winemakers are considering it a worthy focus. And more are explicitly hoping to craft something unique, showing the same care, and principles, they afford their wines.
Spirits by winemakers: Chasing terroir
In some cases, like that of Australian winemaker Rory Lane, the plunge into spirits happens by accident. Known for his wines from Rhône varieties grown in the Grampians region, Victoria – The Story Wines – Lane was acting as a winemaking consultant to a client with a burgeoning spirits business. When he mentioned how he’d love to play around with gin, the client ‘pointed at the still and said “off you go!”,’ says Lane. The Story Gin was born.
From the start he knew he’d be using only Australian botanicals, including finger lime, lemon myrtle and wattle, which give the spirit a distinctly bright, citrussy aroma. ‘I wanted my gin to taste like it comes from somewhere, not of something,’ Lane notes. Essentially, he admits, he was after terroir. ‘I wanted my gin to smell like the national park after rain – I wanted it to taste like Australia.’
The search for a spirits equivalent of terroir, or sense of place, is a common theme with these winemakers-turned-distillers. For this reason, many choose to make gin – they can literally integrate the flavour of a place using local botanicals. But in South Africa, minimal- intervention wine producer Adi Badenhorst, of Swartland’s AA Badenhorst Family Wines, set himself a different challenge. He fell in love with mezcals when he drank them on several trips to the US, captivated by ‘the wonderful sense of place, plants and people they could express’. Four years ago he decided to have a go himself, producing a spirit from agave plants grown on a farm outside Graaff-Reinet, 750km away from his vineyards (though made in the style of mezcal, Badenhorst’s spirit cannot technically be labelled as such due to mezcal DO regulations).
‘I strongly believe that mezcal is a good representation of terroir and species,’ says Badenhorst. His mezcal-style spirit – The 4th Rabbit – is, like his wines, made as simply as possible, and he claims the process is very similar, ‘just much harder work’. You wouldn’t know the toils from a tasting, mind; smooth, soft and lightly smoky, the spirit is elegant and approachable. But, a lover of experimentation, Badenhorst isn’t finished with it yet. ‘We have produced a few small batches from different soils and altitudes, and the differences are subtle but definitely there. [Expressing terroir] is something we are working on as we speak.’
Part of his spirit’s character is undoubtedly down to the care Badenhorst shows at every step of the process. He works closely with plantation owner Tim Murray and treats each moment, including 10-14 days of agave cooking in an underground oven, with interest.
And while mezcal is admittedly unique, this end-to-end closeness appears to be another common characteristic among winemakers producing spirits.
While most traditional distillers focus on the later stages of production – often buying base spirit from outside sources – many winemakers like to exert more control.
‘It’s widely known that great wine is made in the vineyard,’ says trained winemaker Sarah Elsom, now head distiller at Cardrona Distillery in New Zealand. ‘But in whiskey, the nuances of a distillery and the maturation environment are important. The terroir is the people in the still house, the oak maturation.’ Elsom is talking about the complete ‘180’ she experienced when first moving from the winemaking world into spirits. ‘It’s a mental shift on which part of the process it is that claims dominance on the final liquid.’
But under her direction, Cardrona takes charge wherever it can. Unusual for a New Zealand distillery, it manages the fermentation of its own base alcohol from 100% malted barley on site, to produce premium vodka, gin and whiskey. Mashing practice is constant for the full range; a late inoculation of lactobacillus bacteria encourages flavour. Elsom’s ‘grain to glass’ range of spirits is full of character. The Reid Vodka, with its pear drop and baked-banana notes, is delicious sipped straight – with a mouthfeel akin to wine – while The Source Gin is aged in ex-Felton Road barrels, employing a very literal wine influence.
Grape meets juniper
That wine influence is, sometimes, even more pronounced. Australian gin brand Four Pillars, part-owned by a former winemaker, bottles Bloody Shiraz – a deep purple gin infused with red wine. Premier cru Château Climens and Salcombe Gin recently collaborated to produce Voyager Series Phantom, a gin aged for eight months in Sauternes casks. And in a modern spin on traditional marc production, Chapel Down head winemaker Josh Donaghay-Spire has released gins from Bacchus and Pinot Noir skins, and vodka from Chardonnay grapes. He draws parallels between his wines and spirits of freshness and weightlessness, certainly evident on the palate.
However, the synthesis of wine and spirit might just reach its pinnacle with Mirabeau. The Provence rosé producer launched a classic-style dry gin that truly mimics the characteristics of its wines – down to a pinky hue. Made from a grape spirit with the addition of about 13% of Mirabeau’s own wine, the botanicals used include garrigue herbs, Menton lemon and lavender. After a 24-hour maceration, the mix is redistilled through yet more botanicals, and the result is a soft and fruity gin enjoyable even without tonic.
‘We’re used to making wine that people consume neat, and we approached our gin from this perspective,’ say co-owners Jeany and Stephen Cronk. But, as they note, the most important thing is for a winemaker to produce something people want to drink. ‘Ultimately, it’s got to smell great, it’s got to taste great.’
Six to try: delicious spirits by winemakers
Cardrona The Reid Single Malt Vodka
Cardrona Distillery’s malted barley spirit has rich aromas of toasted nut, baked banana, tropical fruit salad and pear drops, and a fruity palate with a distilled malt note on the finish. See also Cardrona’s gin (aged in barrels previously used for Felton Road’s Pinot Noir) and whisky. Alc 44%
Chapel Down Chardonnay Vodka
Chapel Down winemaker Josh Donaghay-Spire triple-distils this from the estate’s own Chardonnay grapes and English wheat spirit. Green grape and peach; delicate, smooth, with a velvety mouthfeel. Sip neat or enjoy in a very dry Martini. Alc 40%
Mirabeau Rosé Gin
Aromas of Provence – lavender, white pepper, sun-baked thyme – meet rose petals and a juniper backbone. A natural extension of Mirabeau’s popular rosé wine range. Alc 43%
Four Pillars Bloody Shiraz Gin
One of the founders of this Aussie gin brand is an ex-winemaker. A drier, punchier take on sloe gin using Shiraz grapes. Medicinal mint and chocolate chip nose, with a mulled wine palate of winter spice, blackcurrant and orange peel. Alc 37.8%
The Story Gin
An aromatic spirit by Melbourne winemaker Rory Lane with a real sense of place. Only-in-Oz botanicals translate to Thai basil, green pepper and lemongrass aromas – and a distinctly herbal palate. Clean, fresh, bright; a drink for sunny days. Alc 42%
AA Badenhorst The 4th Rabbit Karoo Agave Spirit
Adi Badenhorst’s mezcal-style spirit has aromas of charred padrón pepper, barbecued pineapple, eau de vie and lingering smoke. The palate is lightly smoky, smooth and honeyed. Alc 43%