This time last year Nick Ryan wrote a beautiful article in the Australian offering an insight into Grant Dickson and Otherness Wines. Given the magnitude of what we were surrounded by at the time, it got somewhat lost. However for your reading pleasure, please read on…
Words by Nick Ryan
A life in wine is a destination reached by multiple pathways. There’s the path that begins with the baby steps of those conceived under vineyard canopies and born into fermenting families, the path for those with a birthright that can be bottled. There’s the path for those who don’t actually realise they’re on it until it takes them off the edge of a cliff. Having fallen into wine, the traveller soon loses interest in finding a way out and submits to the destiny chosen for them. And then there’s the path that takes you through conservatoriums, the woodwind section of several great orchestras, 750 performances of Phantom of the Opera and the lives of multitudes of music students before depositing you in one of the Barossa Valley’s sacred sites. This path is one much less travelled. It’s marked with only a single pair of footprints and they belong to Grant Dickson.
Dickson is a rare figure in the wine trade. A figure of quiet consideration in a business easily seduced by flair and bluster. He’s an unlikely proprietor of a wine label, but all early indications say he’s going to be a good one. Growing up as a precocious musical talent – oboe and Cor Anglais – in an evangelical Christian household in Sydney’s north, wine wasn’t exactly on the Dickson radar. It wasn’t until a free day on a regional tour with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra allowed for a day spent touring wineries in Rutherglen. Dickson was instantly enthralled, as much by the people as the product, and the seeds of an obsession were sown.
“When you pull a pendulum too far in one direction, it’s going to swing back pretty hard when you finally let go,” is how Dickson explains his Damascene conversion from teetotaller to wine lover.
When he ended up working in an Adelaide pub while completing musical studies there, he assumed responsibility for the wine list and began forging relationships with local winemakers, most notably Robert O’Callaghan at Rockford in the Barossa. Several years of weekend work in the Rockford cellar door led to an offer of a more significant role there, the only problem being it came the same day as a call from the Adelaide Symphony to join them as they prepared an ambitious mounting of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Not many employers would be prepared to share staff with a particularly demanding dead German, but O’Callaghan saw the benefit in someone selling shiraz by day and flying with Valkyries by night.
After 15 years with Rockford, Dickson took a different turn on his vinous path, opening the acclaimed Fermentasian restaurant in Tanunda. Building a wine list for a Vietnamese-accented restaurant in a region famous for wine styles most wouldn’t consider natural partners for that kind of food, was the kind of challenge for which Dickson’s nimble mind was well suited. He filled a cellar with great food-friendly wines from the Old World and tapped into a few private collections to offer wines that went deep into the previous century. But the thing that made the Fermentasian list so special, and helped it win Australian Wine List of the Year in 2017, was the way it shone a light on the quieter corners of the Barossa and illuminated the nuance that was too often overshadowed by stereotype.
Now, with his association with the restaurant at an end, Dickson applies that same approach to his new venture, Otherness Wines. The name is concise summary of the philosophy driving it. “It’s a deliberate push to be a bit niche,” explains Dickson. “It’s looking for something beyond the obvious expressions.”
Familiar tunes with new arrangements.
For each of the wines, Dickson recruits a different winemaking friend to help him, conducting an ensemble who each bring individual talents to the pursuit of real harmony. The result is a collection of wines each with a slightly out-of-kilter step, a gently tilted perspective, and a thoughtful rebuttal to conventional thinking. In that way they are a clear reflection of the man himself.
2019 Otherness ‘Urth’ Clare Valley Riesling – Click to Buy
By giving the three rieslings the names of Wagner’s Norns – the “weird sisters” of Norse mythology who shape the destinies of gods and men – Dickson invites us to look at them together. The Clare Valley wine is made with Neil Pike, with half the fruit undergoing traditional fermentation with cultured yeast, the other half allowed to ferment wild in barrel. It’s a shaley mouthful of slate and pith, fresh squeezed lime juice and a faint twang of olive brine. It’s the kind of riesling that seems to turn crystalline in the mouth, shattering in shards as it moves across the palate.
2019 Otherness ‘Skuld’ Eden Valley Riesling – Click to Buy
The Eden Valley wine is made by Ian Hongell, whose day job at Torbreck keeps him busy but doesn’t require his celebrated skills with riesling. So he deploys them here. A neglected, then restored, High Eden vineyard provides the fruit, which is then gently pressed to stainless steel, fermented with neutral Champagne yeast and left for an extended period on yeast lees. It’s packed with vibrant citrus characters that touch on traditional limes then move towards mandarin pith and draw in other elements like lemongrass and quince. It’s a wine with unwavering line and drive with a deftly handled phenolic clip.
2019 Otherness ‘Verthandi’ Tamar Valley Riesling – Click to Buy
The Tasmania wine comes from the Goaty Hill vineyard in Tasmania’s Tamar Valley, sourced by sparkling wine maestro Nat Fryer and delivered to riesling savant John Hughes from Rieslingfreak to work his magic. The off-dry riesling style, where the wines walk the tightrope between residual sugar and forthright acidity, is a tough one to get right in this country, but Hughes has it mastered. The wine shows elements like guava, jasmine and that sweet core of durian that inspires people to push through the stink. A whiff of saffron and paraffin in there, too. Thirty-five grams of residual grapes sugar sits demurely behind beautifully balanced acidity with a minerality that could convince you a marble statue shed liquid tears.
2017 Otherness ‘Tristan Chord’ Barossa Valley Shiraz – Click to Buy
More Wagnerian references, in this case the famously “unresolved” chord that opens Tristan und Isolde and imbues the piece with a palpable tension. That same sense of tension is what’s delivered here, with winemaker Dan Standish foot stomping whole shiraz bunches from Dickson’s home vineyard, allowing the juice to ferment wild and maturing the wine in egg-shaped vessels made of concrete, where it was left until being racked straight to bottle. It’s a savoury and complex wine, a challenge to those who see only the simple stereotypes of Barossa shiraz. Expect dark berries and the straw beds they’re grown in, some cordite and the burnt ends of barbecued brisket, salted plums and dark spices. Some savoury hot chocolate as well.
2017 Otherness ‘440’ Barossa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – Click to Buy
Marco Cirillo is best known for the sublime wines he makes from ancient grenache vines he treats with greater care than his own children. Dickson challenged him to rethink a wine style neither of them particularly liked – Barossa cabernet sauvignon. The criticism usually centres around a smudging of cabernet character in the Barossa’s warmer climes, so Cirillo and Dickson picked the vineyard in question in three stages over two weeks and different degrees of ripeness. The wine is called 440 after the A440 note Dickson was required to hit on his oboe in order for the rest of the orchestra to tune, the oboe’s distinctive and clear timbre making it the perfect instrument to project clearly through cacophony. Just like the cabernet character in this wine, with its high-toned red berries, shaved cedar, and the scent of a creek bed in high summer, dry gum leaves and cracking red earth. It has a sinewy shape, its architecture still evident, cladding discrete and demure. Fine, wispy tannins, gritting up nicely through the finish.
Words by Nick Ryan, The Australian
21st April 2020