Wines of incredible energy and character are coming out of a warehouse in the middle of Adelaide, proof that you don’t need a chateau or high-tech equipment to make good juice. With their attention-grabbing artwork and focused freshness, they’re truly expressive of the guy behind the label. Frederick Stevenson, the winemaking alias of Steve Crawford, appeared in 2011, and has been defying vinous norms ever since. Steve/Fred’s frank charisma and enthusiasm make it a challenge to keep up with him, but we managed to pin him down when he was in London recently to get the full story.
With hindsight it seems inevitable that Steve would end up making wine. Originally, he hoped to be a chef, but while working in a garden store he realised he wanted to do something that involved travel and being outside. He studied viticulture and worked in cellars and vineyards across South Australia. He talks about the difference between the traditionally European path into winemaking – being born into wine from living in a certain region – versus the Aussie way: ‘I was surrounded by wine but not involved in it; the whole thing is more industrialised, you go to study wine and then decide to do it, it’s not so much “in the blood”’.
Steve in his Montepulciano vineyard
His interest in the European winemaking culture led him to work in Rheinhessen. It was Steve’s first encounter working with a natural and biodynamic producer, and with Riesling. ‘It was a more intuitive form of winemaking, built up over years, compared to the clinical way I’d studied and learnt.’ Here was winemaking with a simple approach, with a focus on slow, oxidative processing, that produced a wide variety of styles of wine. This, says Steve, hugely influenced and still frames his own handling of Riesling.
‘Texture and interest’ became the focus of what he looked for in a wine, and he spent the next four to five months travelling around France, northern Spain, northern Italy, Austria and Germany considering this idea. Steve’s curiosity led him to explore constantly; when in Italy, at harvest he would buy bottles from various producers in the region to drink over dinner each night, to see what was being done nearby and to gain a deeper understanding of that place’s character and potential.
For a time Steve worked in the Southern Rhone in Costières de Nîme, and it was here that he became fixated on Cinsault, as well as Marsanne and Rousanne. ‘I think I gravitated towards Cinsault… it provides nuance to Grenache and Shiraz, it gives that rose petal or Turkish delight thing as well as something savoury.’ This is the blend he ended up using in his Dry Red – bright, crunchy and loaded with personality. In Steve’s words, ‘this is the wine you just drink – smash against the wall – and walk out.’ He also talks about how Marsanne/Rousanne blends ‘aren’t really done in Australia’, again something he ended up working with himself. Nor does he feel dry styles of rose are very widely explored back home ‘they’re usually very sweet; I only really encountered dry rose in France.’
In 2011 he moved back to Australia with a head full of ideas and a fresh approach to winemaking. ‘I actually felt weirdly anxious about recipe winemaking in Australia.’ 2011 was a wet vintage – ‘It got terrible press, restaurants wouldn’t touch it, even though we praise wet years in Burgundy. It was a first chance to explore elegance in wines this year but the opportunity wasn’t grasped. People still pushed high yields, and it didn’t work.’ That year there was too much Grenache in a vineyard he liked so he bought a tonne of grapes to make his own wine. ‘It’s very susceptible to botrytis… in the end it was fine, a bit spicier than usual, but restaurants still wouldn’t buy it because of the vintage.’
‘I actually felt weirdly anxious about recipe winemaking in Australia.’
This first venture into winemaking came about while he was still working for a large winery. His desire for a platform to experiment with his own ideas pushed him to create his underground label, and in 2012 he made his first Montepulciano in his garage. The fruit came from an old vineyard with sand over clay soils: ‘I find clay brings a savoury aspect to the wine. Montepulciano has that great sausage skin savouriness.’
‘Bloke Art’: hand marbled paper by Steve for his Montepulciano label
He reflects on the shift that’s taken place in the Australian food scene over the past few years: ‘big Barossa Shiraz isn’t valid anymore in top restaurants’. With the rise of Nordic cooking, pairing menus and Asia-Pacific influences, a need has arisen for a different style of wine more akin to the lighter styles he admired and enjoyed in Europe. These are food friendly wines, and it’s this social aspect that is at the heart of his ethos. A sense of collaboration and community is central to his project; the striking artwork on all the labels are done by friends and local artists, with each artist being responsible for their particular bottle each year.
‘big Barossa Shiraz isn’t valid anymore in top restaurants’. With the rise of Nordic cooking, pairing menus and Asia-Pacific influences, a need has arisen for a different style of wine more akin to the lighter styles he admired and enjoyed in Europe.
Steve still has his reservations about the industrialised wine scene surrounding him. He muses – ‘A younger person can only get so far’ – and yet he’s able to live out that intuitive winemaking he so admired in Europe. He works with the biodynamic Vine Vale property in Barossa, and his organic Hongell vineyard. It’s still early days – ‘I work with simple equipment, I’m getting to know my vineyards’ – but it seems the pirate winemaker of Adelaide is now very much the captain of his own ship.
We currently stock three of Steve’s wines: The Dry Red, a bright perky blend of Cinsault, Shiraz and Grenache, a little untamed and loaded with personality, the perfect entry into the world of Frederick Stevenson; the Montepulciano, bursting with cooked plums and mulberry, fine dusty tannins, fresh acidity and alpine herbs on the finish; and the plush Hongell Grenache, with a fine tannin backbone and juicy acidity.