Not too many song titles by seminal LA punk band The Dead Kennedys turn up on wine labels. In fact, the ‘I am the Owl’ Syrah by Ochota Barrels pretty much has the field to itself.
The 2015 vintage of the Owl was the runner-up in the latest Hot 100 Wines. Its maker, the lanky and genial Adelaide Hills winemaker Taras Ochota, has never been one to segregate his enthusiasms; his loves of surfing, frantic music and making wine happily coexist, and occasionally overlap.
Ochota Barrels (the name has its own built-in nod to surfing) is based at a rambling nine-acre property in Basket Range, a locale well known as the headquarters of Adelaide’s ‘natural’ winemaking fraternity. Ochota himself does not embrace the term, perhaps because of the variable quality so-called natural wines can display, but he certainly does observe a holistic philosophy in his practice of organic grapegrowing; his winemaking, too, is free of additions, with the exception of minimal sulphur at bottling.
Ochota is yet another example of a micro-maker who previously worked at the big of the end of the industry: he has an extensive track record locally (Nepenthe and Two Hands) and an overseas CV that includes making and managerial roles in California, France, Sweden and Italy. In 2008, he declared an end to his role in producing million-litre batch blends of Chardonnay et al, choosing instead to go small at his home in the Hills. His wife, Amber, mother of their two children, looks after the winery’s admin and constitutes the rest of Ochota’s personnel.
The south-facing vineyard that produces the Owl is not far from the Ochota house and winery, and takes full advantage of the prevailing winds to assist in natural protection from disease. Ochota says the character of the Hills fruit gives the wine a litheness that typically distinguishes cool -climate Shiraz from its more macho counterparts grown in warmer regions.
“It tends to have a bit more spice and white pepper characters,” Ochota says. “We pick it early, so it’s fairly low in alcohol — this one is 12 per cent — and high in mouth-watering natural acidity.”
The wine is made entirely from whole bunches and co-fermented with a tiny proportion of Viognier from the same vineyard, using indigenous yeast.
“We really try to under-extract it if anything — we’re trying to make wines that are a bit more elegant, feminine and pretty, chasing those lovely violet aromatics that this vineyard produces,” he says.
The wine is matured in seasoned French barriques for five or six months.
“We’re just trying to release them fresh and energectic. We are definitely not chasing a big, thumping, extracted, juicy and oaky style.”
At the same time, Ochota says the wine does age well, thanks to the low pH and high acid conferred by early picking, as well as a partial extended maceration that allows the tannins from the phenolics in the skins and stems to act as a natural preservative. Dissolved oxygen is also kept to a minimum during the racking from barrel to bottle.
Taras Ochota (photo: Jonathan van der Knaap)
The usage of Syrah in preference to Shiraz is deliberate, and while direct expression of the vineyard is paramount, Ochota’s long-term admiration for the small-scale biodynamic vignerons of the northen Rhone is tangible in the style of the Owl.
“There’s a real sort of northern Rhoney edgy, gamey character, with a mineral, slatey tannin presence. It’s quite light, and what I consider to be in balance with those alcohol levels. I’m not trying to make a showy wine; I’m just trying to make a wine that is delicious, without any nasties in it.”
The Hot 100 judges described the wine as both “brilliant” and “incredible”, with the decision between first and second reportedly a close-run thing. Ochota, a great advocate of the Hot 100 Wines and its ethos — “It’s the only wine show we enter” — has thrown his hat back in the ring this year with the 2017 version of the Owl.
As the Dead Kennedys didn’t quite sing: Drinkability Über Alles!
2015 I Am the Owl Syrah