Ochota Barrels is part of a collective culture broadening Australia’s wine image, and its winemaker is at the vanguard with his personal flamboyance and compelling offerings.
Ochota Barrels wines are thrilling the cutting-edge sommeliers, pleasing traditional wine critics and charming a broad spectrum of wine enthusiasts. The ever-growing suite is produced by winemaker Taras Ochota, and family, in the Adelaide Hills parish of Basket Range. This micro-region is a hotbed of avant-garde winemaking and has garnered attention for its breadth of captivating wines, with Ochota firmly at the forefront.
He has an easy appeal – a beaming smile and a dishevelled look. Many will know Ochota for his parade of rock star visitors or his history as a surfer-cum-punk rock musician, but that part of the story underplays his intelligence and winemaking nous.
Well before Ochota found himself in the spotlight, his family, as recent migrants from Ukraine, were starting their life as grape growers, establishing vineyards in Clare Valley. Fruit was grown without chemicals and wines produced without pretence. “The seed was planted,” he explains. “I learned picking, pruning and ploughing, and the alchemy of natural winemaking unfolded.”
Ochota finished high school and studied hospitality management, but it was the wine subjects in that degree that captured his attention. “Wine learning reeled me in. Then I started making wine in a shed, and in the early 90s, between finding surf breaks in my Kombi van, I completed a vintage in California.”
From here, Ochota embarked on his formal winemaking study at University of Adelaide. Having graduated, he accepted a job in the Barossa Valley at Two Hands. Following on from his time in the Barossa, Ochota found himself in Sweden working for a wine importer, invaluably providing him with some prized global perspective.
The lure of South Australia and family were strong, and Ochota returned to the Adelaide Hills to work at Nepenthe as assistant to the keen-minded Peter Leske. It was here that he had his epiphany.
“After making millions of litres of wine I suddenly realised I wanted to potter around in my shed and make wines with my hands,” Ochota explains, “I started with grenache from an old vineyard that I used to drive past on my way to surf. This is when the Fugazi Grenache came about.”
Ochota’s first release arrived like a thunder clap. Australia’s natural wine scene was on the rise, and his lo-fi, wildly aromatic, crunchy-textured, pure-feeling grenache was right out of the playbook.
“I wanted to make wines that were elegant and pretty. The big, heavy, oaky Australian wines were overwhelming, so I thought I would make stuff that was easier with food, had good natural acidity and a nervous tension that would get your saliva going,” Ochota states. “The main thing was picking early. Technically the grapes wouldn’t have flavour ripeness, but I found a sweet spot where flavour is coming on, but natural acidity is high.”
Ochota’s organic vineyards have provided a playing field from which he plies his science-based understanding. Grenache is the superstar, with Fugazi still outstanding as an expression of Ochota’s original vision, joined by 186 Grenache, which spends 186 days on skins, fermenting in a single barrel.
Pinot noir is his private favourite. Home Pinot Noir is from a ‘tennis court-sized vineyard’ and is produced by Ochota’s wife Amber. The delicate, sleek expression is a neat counterpoint to the fuller-flavoured, yet loose-knit A Forest Pinot Noir, a yin and yang of styles from separate Adelaide Hills sites.
The whites are all from the Adelaide Hills and their names, including the Slint Chardonnay, are musical references that have touched Ochota in one way or another. From a single site, Slint is lean, yet flavoursome, offering en vogue raciness married to pithy citrus characters.
Ochota Barrels wines are of high quality and brash personality but perhaps the greatest measure of Ochota’s success is how he has broached the conversation about natural wine and given a new currency to Australia’s wine image. He’s a winemaker of the here and now, referencing the past, while always looking to the future. It’s a very potent thing.