A conversation with Abel Gibson, the 2012 winner of the Young Gun of Wine Award.
Rory Kent, Founder of Young Guns of Wine, spoke to Abel Gibson, the winner of the 2012 Young Gun of Wine Award, about taking risks, making luxurious wine and Mother Nature’s varied gifts. RORY KENT: In 2009 you were working for Pete Schell of Spinifex, the year he won the Young Gun of Wine Award, and I understand it was Pete who encouraged you to go out on your own and start your own label. Skip forward a few years – it’s 2012, you’ve had your products in the marketplace for little over a year and you’ve taken a clean sweep of the Young Gun of Wine Awards, picking up both the People’s Choice and the Young Gun of Wine. When you were starting on your journey with Ruggabellus, what did you imagine success to look like? ABEL GIBSON: Definitely not that. I was going to be happy that the wines would get some intrigue from a couple of good palates and then try and sell through them throughout the year. That’s all I was hoping for. That’s all I imagined. I definitely couldn’t have seen this happening. All I had to do was just knuckle down and make sure I made wines that were true to myself and true to the Barossa, release them and see how they go, see what happens. It’s been incredible. RK: What do you mean by being “true to the Barossa?” AG: At the start of that decade, a lot of Barossa wines were made for the American market. RK: You’re talking about Parkerization: those big, extracted, heavily oaked, high alcohol wines where more-is-more. AG: Yes, Parkerization. This Parker phenomenon really did dominate the Barossa from the early to mid ‘90s. I saw it happening before my eyes and was frustrated! I went to the U.S. in 2007 promoting my father’s wines. We met buyers who were frustrated too with these big styles of wines. But they kept ordering them because they had demand from their customers. RK: Does this mean your motivation to start Ruggabellus was a reaction to the Parker effect of wines from the Barossa? AG: It definitely played a big part. I just wanted to create something that would be enduring, that wasn’t a reaction to consumerism, to achieve the highest level of quality I could. I wasn’t going to do it until I owned my own vineyard, but Pete Schell said to me, ‘there are plenty of good vineyards in the Barossa you can source fruit from, and just have a go. Go and ask them and see if you can buy a bit of fruit and have a go’. RK: Starting Ruggabellus, was it a big risk? AG: Yeah, definitely. We lived, Emma (my partner) and I, pretty frugally for a few years there, and we still do by the way! Hopefully next year we’ll hit the sweet spot that I’m sort of aiming for. I tried to minimize risk by living frugally, and we were both prepared to do that, so I’m very lucky to have Emma’s support. She could see the passion. She’s in the arts and really loves passion and respects it. Of course, we’ve had to tightly control our costs. I’m out there picking the fruit myself. I do hire other pickers because I can’t pick it all physically, but I’m out there with them every time, which suits our crafted approach perfectly. By nature, wine should be made by hand. When I’m in the vineyard picking the grapes myself, I can monitor what is picked to make sure we get the bunches in at the right moment because the sweet spots vary throughout the vineyard. RK: Luxury is an ongoing pursuit and how it is measured changes over time. Therefore defining a new luxury in wine is going to involve change. With any change comes risk. In the struggle between art and science, what is your philosophy or relationship with risk in making your wines? When do you allow modern practices to protect the ferment or wine from making a wrong turn? AG: I suppose I respect both the art and science in winemaking. Having started making my own wine in the backyard, it’s been some what of a necessity that I take a more natural or minimalist approach to winemaking. As it so happens, natural wines are going to be more elegant because you have to pick the grapes with less ripeness to ensure the sugar and alcohol levels do not inhibit the ability of indigenous yeast to do their work in the ferment. The biggest challenge, the biggest issue is the sun, and things getting too much sugar too quickly. In this example, I minimize risk by picking earlier.
On the winemaking side, there has been a process of experimentation. Having said this, I was confident that the quality of the fruit would allow me to do things such as include stems with the ferment without the end wine being too confronting or unbalanced.
It’s just sort of the process of elimination, trying to trust my feeling of where I thought things would work and where they wouldn’t. But I think the biggest risk was those bottles. They’re not the best looking bottle out there. There was a philosophy behind the choice of our bottles that I had to make the call on. Pete Schell’s expression is, “grab your balls, hang on, and see what happens.” We did that. I kind of had to, everything that I had done before and after that had to honour our philosophy of creating something to endure. So, really, I didn’t have a choice. It was kind of nice to be guided by our philosophy, so that sort of removed the risk a little for me. It put the risk in perspective. RK: Without the risk, you’d end up making pretty boring wines. AG: Yes, you would. RK: Where would you be if you didn’t take those risks? AG: Would I be making wine? I don’t think so. I don’t think you can make wine without risk. I’m quite prepared to sell stuff off, give it away, put it down the drain, whatever, if it doesn’t fit. RK: Your approach is, less is more. AG: Absolutely. RK: You use inexpensive lightweight bottles in your packaging. Obviously, that’s with your environmentally friendly mindset. Were you tempted to use heavier bottles, which might be considered more fashionable for luxurious wines? AG: I was definitely tempted. I think wine is a beautiful thing, and I would love the package to be innately beautiful as well. At the moment, I don’t think these bottles are beautiful, they may become in the future. It will be interesting to see how the perception changes.
I was interested in your comment that luxury equals change and risk. It’s almost like it’s pre-programmed into the planet that things change. We’ll be fashionable for ‘X’ amount of years, and that will be a small amount I suspect and then it will change. I’m really trying to fight that somehow. At the moment, I’m really keen to consolidate what we’ve started. I probably didn’t expect to be in this position this soon. I thought we’d still be working hard to get awareness of our wines for probably four or five years, and then we’d work hard on consolidating it but it’s happened in two years, and I’m really keen to catch up. Yeah, really consolidation is where it’s going and the risk associated with that is that it doesn’t become fun anymore.
The beauty of wine is that it varies from year to year with the seasons, it’s intimately connected in the seasons. I get change, I get natural change, every year, natural variation, which is a beautiful thing. So I’m hoping that will cater to that necessity for people that need change. So hopefully they see it just from what Mother Nature gives us every year.
Max Allen, Judge of the Young Gun of Wine Award said, “You see, wine’s not just about what’s in the glass. It’s why we ultimately chose Abel Gibson as our 2012 Young Gun of Wine. Yes, his wines are stunning, but it’s the whole package, from the lightweight bottles to the minimalist labels, sophisticated blending and maturation philosophy and sense of tradition that sets Gibson apart.”