We’re a funny lot, us humans. A never-ending quest for perfection, for bigger, better, louder, smoother, longer, finer occupies an industry of technologists and scientists on a fulltime basis. Fashion-shoots can be airbrushed to high-gloss that will never exist, films are bionically enhanced with CGI, haute cuisine utilises phials of dry ice to transform raw ingredients into unrecognisable filigree, musicians and singers are autotuned for otherworldly pitch accuracy.
Yet simultaneously we crave experiences that are more raw or visceral, without the photoshopping or the frippery. We love the gritty veritas of movies made with handheld cameras. We talk about musicians going back to their roots, being “unplugged”, or so good they don’t need studio trickery. Airbrushing in fashion photography isn’t just divisive, it’s becoming a political act. Now we want “authentic” street-food, “dirty” eats rather than tweezered flower petals or multi-coloured splots in a half-moon. Michelin is old-fashioned (except it’s not – even they’re giving out stars to the street-food joints now).
Theo Cole makes wine that could be described as unplugged, raw, natural or naked. “These are basically pre-technology wines” is how he sums it up. Theo hails from New Zealand, but the inspiration for his personal winemaking project came from further afield. The Hermit Ram is a gnarly etching that showed up while he was travelling in Italy. Framed in his living room back in Canterbury NZ, it glowered down at all and sundry for years. Then in 2012 Theo discovered a beautiful Pinot Noir vineyard in the Waipara Gorge. A vintage was made with the vineyard’s owner Gareth Renowden, and Hermit Ram was born as a label.
And what a handsome beast of a label it is. But Theo has moved on from just making a thousand bottles of Pinot Noir. He’s a lover of skin fermentation for white wines (that makes two of us then), and now makes a sensational pair of defiantly not-white wines from small plots of Sauvignon Blanc and Müller-Thurgau. Who knew that New Zealand was once swimming in Müller-Thurgau? It’s mostly unloved and blended away, but Theo decided to put it centre stage – a nervy, wild animal with acidity that would terrify most Californians.
That Müller-Thurgau is a fun one, although as Theo says it’s a “crack and smash” affair. Don’t leave it out overnight, it might turn into a gremlin and scare your kids. My favourite is the equally naked, but rather more refined skin fermented Sauvignon Blanc 2017. This is alchemy. No autotune, no amuse bouche, but it most certainly will amuse your bouche. It’s every bit a Kiwi Sauvignon at first – ripe limey aromas, candied peel. But then it opens up into pillows of hay, carried by lithe citrussy sparks. And at 11.5% this wine has no right to pack as much flavour or concentration as it does. In short, magic. But magic achieved only with amazing grapes, a mix of barrels and cement tanks and a tiny pinch of sulphites.
This is winemaking without a make-up artist or an offline editor. It’s offroading in the rugged Waipara gorge in a truck with dodgy suspension, smelling the ozone breeze in the air. It’s being alive, and knowing that no scientist is ever going to find a way to capture this in a test tube or quantify it in a textbook.