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May 21, 2018

Freddy Nerks and the quiet rise of Kuitpo wine

Setting up camp amidst the 'shroomy pines of Kuitpo, Justin Lane's next wine project is the diversification of the Adelaide Hills.

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  • Words: Johnny von Einem
  • Main images: Johnny von Einem
  • Additional Images: Josh Geelen

“Freddy’s is actually a surf break that is right near my house,” says winemaker Justin Lane, explaining the etymology behind his most recent label, Freddy Nerks.

“So it’s actually an old surf break, but it’s also a synonym for an unknown person, or when you can’t remember somebody’s name – like Old Mate or Joe Bloggs. I thought, Kuitpo – that is a great Freddy Nerks right there.”

For 15 years, Justin has been working in the Adelaide Hills sub-region, and fruit from its soil has featured in just about every Justin Lane-affiliated project, dating all the way back to Red Heads, his pre-Alpha Box & Dice claim to fame.

Geoff Hardy originally introduced Justin to the area back in 2003, and they are now an exaggerated stone’s throw away from each other, with Freddy Nerks’ operations moving into a former dairy house very near the K1 cellar door.

“[Geoff] said ‘Come up to Kuitpo and have a look at what I’m doing up there, because I’m planting new varieties,’ and I’m like ‘Where the hell is Kuitpo?’” Justin recalls.

On his first visit, the beauty of the locale was striking, but he was struck once more after tasting through the wines Geoff had produced from the vineyard.

After a friend bought the neighbouring 44-acre property, Justin jumped at the opportunity, initiating a partnership and convincing his friend to let him fashion the vineyard toward his own tastes.

“I started bringing more people up to Kuitpo and saying ‘Hey, you should buy some grapes from up here.’ So I’ve had this relationship with it.”

More than a decade (and a few wine projects) later, Justin has launched Freddy Nerks, which is as much about promoting Kuitpo as a region as it is about making stellar wines.

“[Geoff] put me onto a whole lot of other wine brands that were using Kuitpo fruit – and sometimes not 100 per cent exclusively – it really was an eye opener: this really punches above its weight,” He says.

“It really has been a bit of an underdog and sat just outside of the limelight of the Adelaide Hills, and the whole renaissance of the Hills through Basket Range, [which] was a bloody Freddy Nerks as well, but look what a community of winemakers up there has done.

“It was a conscious decision between myself and Sandy, who owns the vineyard… promoting to everybody else [that] if we work as a group… we make a bigger noise, and I think we can certainly achieve a lot more things.”

Justin Lane and Ange Bignell. This image: Josh Geelen

Justin and the Hardy family have not been the only operators trying to make a name for the region; Coates Wines, Golden Child, and Travis Tausend (who early wine-bar-hoppers will remember from Cork on Gouger Street) are also active in the region.

And they are gaining traction, with Golden Child, Freddy Nerks, and Wines by Travis Tausend all appearing as producers of Kuitpo at Wine De Jour, an event held at Cake Wines in Sydney showcasing “the much talked about Adelaide Hills.”

This could be a moment of maturation in the history of the Adelaide Hills, as its fledgling identity starts to diversify, no longer simply the binary of old school Lenswood and new wave Basket Range.

“There are enough people here who have got a really invested stake in Kuitpo, and are taking a bold move, or a leap, to start branding themselves as Kuitpo, rather than sticking Adelaide Hills on it and riding on the coattails of the dress circle,” Justin says.

“I reference Basket Range; as individuals, yes, there’s some really cool, great personalities there, and great brands that have done great things in their own right, but as a group, they’ve got their own festival now, and it’s authentic, because it’s got its own feel and story.

“I think that’s probably what Kuitpo really needs to spend some time on, is developing some narrative on what makes Kuitpo different, and how that plays out in their brands, and why Kuitpo?”

For Justin, the why of Kuitpo is in producing varieties not suited to his native McLaren Vale, and having the opportunity to focus more intently on a singular place. The results so far are two blends – Rosso and Bianco, a syrah, and a dolcetto will be bottled, and there will be nebbiolo and pinot noir in the future.

From the consumer’s perspective, Kuitpo is the epitome of current trends for cooler climate, lower alcohol wines.

“We’ve moved from the age of masculinity with wine, where Barossa and McLaren Vale were very dominant there… Now we’re moving into a more intelligent age with winemaking, and probably a lot more femininity being expressed in wines, which is great, and no better place than the Hills to be able to pursue those sort of styles, so Kuitpo’s probably good timing now,” Justin says.

Whether Kuitpo will reach the fanatical fervour of Basket Range and its many disciples remains to be seen, but it is certainly a region on the rise.

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