An élite global group of natural winemakers has taken root in Australia, writes Max Allen, and is set to grow.
Joshua Cooper grew up at Cobaw Ridge, the vineyard his parents had planted high up in Victoria's Macedon Ranges in the mid-1980s.
Like many wine kids, after he finished school Cooper left home to explore life in other wineries: to study oenology, work vintages in France and Portugal, and in Australia, in the Hunter and Barossa. It was here, in 2008, that a fellow winemaker put him onto the books of Nicolas Joly, France's charismatic, high-profile advocate for biodynamic grape growing.
His parents, Alan and Nelly Cooper, had started converting the Cobaw Ridge vineyard to organics in 2005, so the young winemaker had seen the benefits of removing synthetic chemicals from the farm. Intrigued by Joly's ideas of how the biodynamic compost preparations and techniques enhance organics, Joshua passed on the books to his mum and dad, and in spring 2009 the family started down the path to biodynamic certification.
For the Coopers, it was a step on a long journey of learning how to make wines with minimal manipulation - wines that are an authentic, unforced expression of the granite country they're grown in.
"Where we are here is perfect for this approach," says Joshua, who has returned to the family vineyard as well as holding down a day job at another winery in the region. "The wind dries everything out so there's not much disease pressure. The biodynamics give the vines more resilience. And the cool climate and high altitude means we can grow healthy grapes that don't need anything added to them in the winery. No acid, no tannin, no yeast, just natural ferments and a little bit of sulphur at bottling."
Once they started down the biodynamic path, the Coopers learned that four Australian producers - Castagna, Jasper Hill, Cullen and Ngeringa - had joined Nicolas Joly's group of international wineries, La Renaissance des Appellations. Also known as Return to Terroir, this collection of 188 biodynamic producers includes luminaries of the European wine scene such as Burgundy's Domaine Leflaive and Austria's Nikolaihof, and is renowned for staging extraordinary tastings around the world.
Winemaker Erinn Kleinn has participated in a number of these events since his family's Adelaide Hills vineyard, Ngeringa, became part of the group in 2008.
"It's a really positive association being involved with those other top producers in Return to Terroir," says Kleinn. "I really appreciate being able to bounce ideas off other winegrowers who share the same sensibility as us. They're great events."
Return to Terroir is back in Melbourne at the end of this month, and this time the Cooper family will be there pouring their wines. In 2012, Cobaw Ridge became the fifth Australian member of the group.
As well as proving their biodynamic bona fides through certification, prospective members of Return to Terroir are asked to submit wines to a tasting panel headed by Joly. For Cobaw Ridge, it was a 2010 chardonnay that made its mark on this very tough audience: a wine brimming with life and vitality and terroir. You can experience the same unforced vitality in Cobaw's latest releases, especially the 2012 Syrah, an amalgam of juicy currants and sinewy tannin.
Alan Cooper is particularly looking forward to the tasting in Melbourne. In November last year, the winemaker had to make the agonising choice between going to a Return to Terroir event in Hong Kong or supplying wine to the Rolling Stones for their concert at Hanging Rock, just down the road - a gig that required his presence backstage. Of course, he chose the latter (who wouldn't?), only to have the Stones cancel the concert because of Mick's sore throat.
"Bastards," smiles Alan, ruefully. "I could have gone to Hong Kong after all. Still, nothing'll stop me getting to the tasting in Melbourne."
Cobaw Ridge and Ngeringa will join the other Australian members of Return to Terroir and 50 international producers including Olivier Humbrecht from Alsace and Virginie Joly from the Loire, plus guest wineries from Australia and New Zealand including Stefano Lubiana and Pyramid Valley at public tastings on 28 February and 1 March as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. The venue is the magnificent Town Hall.