It’s not just Gareth Belton’s beard that’s been growing since The Gentle Folk won the Hot 100 Wines 11 months ago.
Since charming the judges with his 2014 Blossoms, a blend of Petit Verdot, Merlot and Cabernet-Sauvignon, things have got both bigger and better for Belton, whose base is tucked away in the idyllic folds of Basket Range. In recent weeks he has taken on several hectares of established vineyard in Carey Gully, adding to the vines he leases from neighbouring Basket Range vineyards and other grapes he sources from Ashton. Of his latest acquisition (the original Deviation Road vineyard), Belton says he’ll keep the Pinot Noir and the Chardonnay and restore the Sauvignon Blanc block, but the Pinot Gris will walk the plank in favour of Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc. “Instead of telling people how to grow grapes for me, it’ll be easier if we do it for ourselves,” Belton says. “I’ve had very strong opinions in the past and now I’m really trying to do it, although it means I have no money and no time. But it will pay off.” It’s unlikely that the empire will spread any further than the seven-minute drive to the Carey Gully vines: Belton is very much a terroir man, and a serious believer in growing and making locally. “In the long term I think that’s where things will go in Australia, and we’ll head back to the European style of making wines in our back yard: otherwise we’ll just get laughed at on the world stage.” With a degree in science, Belton might seem an unlikely recruit to the “natural” winemaking fraternity, but says his attitudes were shaped by hanging around his neighbours, the likes of Anton Van Klopper and James Erskine, and asking them lots of questions. A mere soupçon – 66 dozen – of Blossoms was made last year. In 2015 Belton made larger quantities of all his wines, which include a co-fermented Pinot Noir/Pinot Blanc blend and a Petit Verdot-Merlot called Gnome, but they sold out in two days after release. There is, however, a bit of wine remaining in barrel and tank, and he has intentions to play with a couple of straight Pinot Noirs. Given the still modest production levels, the market for Gentle Folk wines is surprisingly diverse, and includes the UK and Japan as well as the eastern states’ capitals. And it looks as if the French are about to be added to the list. Belton is heading off on a brief European tour to spruik his wine – he likes to deal face-to-face – and do a bit of winemaking with a “no additions” colleague on the Loire. Belton says the incredulity on his face on the night of Hot 100 was unfeigned – he really thought his wine was too “totally weird” to win. As part of his prize, he gets to sit on the judging panel for this year’s Hot 100. With his own wines entered in the Dreamers and Believers category, Belton has to judge in other sections, and is convinced he will be towed well out of his comfort zone. “I have a very closed palate, and I’m sure I’ll end up doing the styles I don’t like, the crisp, clean, aromatic whites and the juicy fruit bombs, to teach me a lesson.” Belton says he would never presume to preach, but is relieved that the high-octane, Robert Parker-driven model has fallen from grace. He says the next few years in Australian winemaking look exciting, with a younger generation of “underground” winemakers inheriting some outstanding fruit from their family vineyards, particularly in Victoria. He is delighted that his own philosophy is striking a chord with local drinkers. “We’ve ignored what’s seen as a normal Australian wine, and have just done what we want. It’s all about producing grape juice rather than chemicals.”