Swan Valley Wines
A Feature Interview with Paul Hoffman
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Photography by Down By 12th
Swan Valley Wines are pioneers in the resuscitation of Australia's second oldest wine region.History, as it pertains to the relentless pursuit of narrative and authenticity in wine, is something you just can’t fake. By Australian standards, the Swan has got plenty.
Throwback to May, 2018, following our first Wine Playground in Perth.
A split moment’s decision to check-in with Old Mate (tip of the hat, Sammy) landed us in a driveway somewhere in the outer reaches of Perth. A big warm grin and a handshake ensued. As we tuned into the cheerful musings of Paul Hoffman, gazing out from the vineyard’s edge, we realised we’d encountered something special.
Perhaps unknowingly, Peter Hoffman (Paul’s Dad) tore off a sizeable chunk of ‘the dream’ in 1989. The estate, a plot of gnarly old vines and a big old shed, was deemed waste bar the land it stood upon. It’s been a brief saga of woes, of what-should-we-dos but thankfully, of hanging on. Persevering.
When the younger ‘Hoffy’ took charge in 2010, he began eliminating the presence of all but the friendly and hyperlocal partakers of the winemaking process. A ‘zero tolerance’ undertaking that compounds the pressures of discipline and expense in an already underwhelmed region. The Swan doesn’t exactly ring out with exuberance—it’s kinda been slept-on. That is, until recently, witnessed in the veritable gold rush of fruit-seekers who’ve only just recognised its potency.
There’s charm to be found under all corners at ‘SVW’. A motley gathering of elements, old and new; odds and ends, beautifully slung together. A cream-brick cellar door, laden with sentiments from a generation ago. An intriguing selection of limited-run liquids made from their as-yet fully identified, backyard fruit salad.
Alongside his partner Bree Lavell, Hoffy now runs their small operation from a beautiful little house they built right upon the vineyard where he grew up. If you’re the sort whose upper lip coils back upon hearing that ‘it’s natural wine they’re making there’, or on the flip, feel its title or labels are too poised to befit such ideals, then you’ve entirely missed the pleasure of Swan Valley Wines.
First off mate, can you tell us about the history of Swan Valley?
Luckily I’m a very keen student of history. I always loved it. No one talks about the history of the Swan. As I understand it, it’s the second oldest wine region in Australia. It goes back to the 1820s so it’s very, very old.
It was a guy called Thomas Waters, I believe, who was a botanist brought out to WA among the first settlers to sort out an issue with stock. Cattle were being poisoned by a native pea, but he also travelled with grape vine cuttings. In those days the botanists worked very closely with those early colonialists ‘cause that was the way they fed the colony.
I find it interesting that it’s a different genetic material that arrived in Swan Valley compared to the rest of Australia. I read that the source may have been South Africa, so the dominance of Chenin Blanc, even the occasional Verdelho cutting, Shiraz; it sort of makes sense.
Unfortunately we didn’t get as many old vines survive as they did in the Hunter, or Barossa. There was another wave of plantings after the soldier settlers came to the Swan Valley in the ‘20s after the first World War, I believe, and then after that we had all the immigrants from Southern Italy, in particular, and the former Yugoslavia.
A lot of those families still own their vineyards to this day, planted in 1940s and early 1950s—that’s the material that we typically work with at the moment. I think they liked the soils up this end cause we have a duplex soil. There’s a clay subsoil which holds a lot of water, so you can dry grow vines well and they survive. The rest of the valley is more fertile on the river terraces—that fertile country is good for your Cabernet Sauvignon and those sort of varieties.
The eastern end where we are, the really dry soil is great for bush vines; Shiraz, Grenache, all your classics… Chenin Blanc.
Tell me about the acquisition of Swan Valley Wines. What did it look like when your Dad bought it and what motivated him to buy it?
Yeah, well sometimes I curse my Dad. Ha ha. I mean why did we get into this, ya know?
When we bought it the place was in a state of chaos. The previous owner had made very traditional wines, much like we’re making now without preservative, but I think he had some bottle re-fermentation issues and bottles were exploding. There was broken glass everywhere. The place was an absolute mess.
Dad originally bought it ‘cause he was looking for a very big shed. I think his brother was into drilling and he thought, well, a big shed would be handy, but it came with this vineyard. He works for Department of Agriculture so he did have some experience in primary production but not necessarily viticulture. I think he got a consultant to come out, back in the day. A very high profile viticulturist. He took one look at the place and said ‘it’s shot, the vineyard’s no good but the property itself has value.’ The vineyard’s been shot now for thirty years and we’re still making wine out of it.
What’s the total crush? How much do you pull in each year?
It’s very small. If I harvested everything we have, we’re looking at between ten and fifteen tonne? Supplemented by purchases here and there.
You say that you curse your Dad for landing you in this position. I guess I’ve got somewhat of a glossy, romanticised view of what you’re working with. Was there a definitive moment when you realised what you’ve got there? I mean, did the gods of natty wine shine upon you one day and politely tell you that this is what your future would look like?
I mean, I always knew this site was special. When we first started making wine for ourselves, for the first few years, we used to sell grapes to Houghton’s, who were bigger operators out this way.
I always knew this site was special ‘cause I knew a lot of grapes that came through the winery. We did a lot of contract winemaking for other people. I always saw that our fruit was some of the better fruit to come through, so, I knew the site was good. I knew the vineyard was in a fairly dilapidated state. There was that question mark, do you hang onto it? Get lower and lower yields. We decided to replant and hang on, but just hanging on is not enough.
Since we’ve switched to organics, it might look like a bit of a mess. Weeds everywhere, but there’s much greater moisture, much more life in the vineyard and the vines are hanging on that much better. I think we’ve given ourselves an extra ten years. I’m taking cuttings from the vineyard to rejuvenate sections of it where I can.
Cursing Dad was in more of a financial sense. I mean, I’ve been very lucky to work with this material, but if you were starting a wine business I’m not sure you would do it this way. We don’t have the ability to discount much ‘cause our production costs are so high, but I’m not in this game to make money. I consider wine to be a piece of art, or music. I wanna make something cool.
It’s a labour of love you’re crafting there and in my opinion, you’re charging far too little. You’ve got old, old vines. You’ve got a house on the vineyard that you built yourself, with a beautiful family. You’ve got the freedom to run things as you want to see it run. I know you work your arse off and greater challenges undoubtedly lie ahead, but does it ever feel as dreamy to you as it does to me?
Nah, I mean look, it’s a good life and I’m happy with our position. What I guess that you don’t see is that I work as a full time environmental specialist and at the moment that income pays for a lot of our essential costs; buying barrels. It’s a really good job in itself. I’m really happy cause I’ve landed a good job but I think most people in my position might just do that, I mean, they might drink well as a hobby. I’m sort of in a position where I can’t stop doing either one of those things.
I’m increasingly finding that’s the cool thing—the jobs are a bit symbiotic. I work in the field of rehabilitation. We’re returning damaged sites back to native vegetation so I’m learning a lot about soil health. It’s really cool and it has a lot to do with what we’re doing here. So, ah, maybe ask me that question in ten years and I might have a slightly better view of my position.
We’re just having some teething problems right now, ha ha.
It sounds like a perpetually formative state, but the flip is that you’ve got some wonderfully unique material to work with. It’s not just the Chenin either. What are the other varieties you’ve got there?
Well, one of the projects I’ve got at the moment is a section of vines I’ve got out the back. I’m not entirely sure what they are. We think they’re Barbera, from 50 years ago. Whatever it is though, they’ve stopped producing grapes so at the moment I’m going through and taking, what the French call ‘massale’ cuttings, and trying to bulk them up. One day we’ll replant them in the vineyard.
This vineyard’s had all kinds of things growing here at various times but I think their value’s changed a lot. I asked one of these old Italian guys, ‘how come you planted like three varieties in the same row’ and he’s said ‘I was working at the railway workshops and my friend gave me one so I planted it, then my other friend gave me that one so I planted it too’. They just planted what they thought was good at the time.
We’ve got some Chenin here, we’ve got some Semillon, Shiraz, we’ve got about three or four that I don’t know what they are. I think there’s some Dolcetto, there might be some Cinsault, potentially. And in the Valley, I buy some really interesting fruit: I buy this Greco Bianco, which is from Calabria. We’ve got some Sangiovese, which is a younger vineyard but it’s the real Sangiovese. There’s some really good Malbec in the Swan Valley. We lost access to the vineyard that we had, but I’ve been talking to someone recently and he has some 30 year old Malbec for me next vintage.
Yeah, so watch this space, I guess. It’s not really well known but Swan Valley Malbec is some of the best I’ve tried. It’s really special.
Ah man. I fell in deeply in love with Cahors a couple years back, the region where it originated. There’s a renaissance booming there with a small wave of young natural producers. They’re making super fresh Malbecs. The powers that be let them throw in a bit of Merlot, Tannat, which is cool, although both of those grapes were introduced. There’s a few natives being replanted now. It’s a dynamic region that fell by the wayside, due mostly to location and its history with Bordeaux. Sounds a bit parallel to what you’ve got going on there?
That’s sounds exactly like what I say about the Swan Valley. It’s not like good wine can’t be made here, but when Margaret River took off all that expertise went south. We’re only just starting to discover its value, that we can make really good wine here.
I guess this answers my next question too. If you could plant something else, would Malbec be it?
Yeah, look, we used to make wine for a lot of other people and I’ve seen a lot of fruit come through the winery. Our business back in the day was to make wine for other vineyard owners whose production was so small that no one else would touch them. The bigger wineries handled a lot of Chenin, Verdelho, whatever, but we had a lot of grapes come through that people don’t get to see very often, so I got to assess things.
In my head I’ve got a great idea of what I wanna plant. Some of the grapes I’ve seen perform really well up here; Malbec was almost number one. It makes a beautiful wine. I saw a parcel of Marsanne that came through once, it was incredible. It tasted like pure honey. Petit Verdot goes quite well up here. I’ve seen some different clones of Shiraz which are far superior to the average clone up here, so some experimentation with Shiraz clones would be worthwhile. I’ve imported a lot of Tannat cuttings actually, so funny you should mention Cahors. It might be a part of our portfolio one day. It’s got great acid, great tannin.
Let’s talk about Chenin. Was it a grape that you had a particular love affair with before you started the SVW journey?
Yup. I mean, I grew up on the vineyard here. I was too young to be drinking wine in those days, but I was eating a lot of grapes off the vine. It’s a grape that I’m just familiar with. It’s a part of my childhood. I mean, I can be objective about these things. If I didn’t think Chenin was any good I wouldn’t be working with it.
Up here, our soils and our climate are similar to some of the better sites in South Africa where Chenin’s been going off lately. We’re both on these decomposed granite, lateritic-type soils. I can’t believe there’s not more focus on Chenin locally. I think the natural wine movement taking off has been really good for Chenin. It’s a grape that lends itself to natural winemaking; it’s got a great pH. Some of the better natural winemakers are from the Loire Valley, as you know, and that’s the home of Chenin. We’re crazy for not looking at Chenin with the respect that it deserves.
And your offering? It’s obviously your signature grape, but what are you hoping to achieve with it?
There’s been a lot of trial and error. It seems to be very sensitive to the environment in which it’s grown. The first few Chenins I made, I don’t think they were very good, in hindsight. I was trying to be too structured with where I wanted the wine to be. I make decisions now based on the palate. In the past, I was like, I’m gonna railroad this style into the wine, and it just doesn’t work.
Mate are you trying to make Burgundy in the Swan? With Chenin Blanc?
You might laugh about that but I kind of am. I mean, I love natural wine but I still love the classics. Sometimes when I make a wine I know it’s not going to be like those wines but that’s still the style in my head while I’m making it. You know, I want that perky acidity and I want that really good length, I want that impact that you get from a good Chenin Blanc on the palate, in particular.
There’s some quirks of Chenin; it’s different from other varieties. It’s very transparent to the terroir its grown in, and that’s good, but you’ve gotta be prepared for the occasional strange flavour and not freak out.
So this zero sulphur directive. What started you on this path?
It goes back to 2007. I was backpacking through France with my mate. We landed in the Loire Valley. He’s not a wino at all. He responds very, for want of a better word, very organically to an experience or to a wine. All I know is we went to a few bars and we drank a few wines. Some of them I assume were pet nats, others I think were just natural wines. I’d never had anything like it. It blew my mind. It was such a huge change from the technical tastings I’d been having. Some of them were cloudy. Some were a bit acetic, but still so drinkable. ‘Smashable', for a better word. Just absolutely delicious. I came back to Australia and was like ‘I wanna make wine like that’.
Of course there’s no textbook on how to make natural wine. That’s where the trial and error comes in. From what I understood of the process, you want the right yeast to build up in your winery. If you use cultured yeast in any way, they will dominate the microflora in the winery, so when I took over the winemaking in 2010, I thought ‘there’s no half measures here’. Everything natural.
I started off by eliminating all the package yeast that we were using. Went indigenous ferments for everything and gradually started to pair back the things we were doing to wine. There’s things that I thought were mandatory that I’m now realising are not mandatory, like cold stabilisation. I mean, if you get a cloudy wine, is that really the end of the world? If people are enjoying it, what’s the problem?
Love a cloudy one. I’ve been told that sight is the most misleading of the senses we use to experience wine. It deludes us. This idea that things need to be crystalline, perfect. It’s extreme: bit like the Kardashians. I pair this thinking with that kinda scope of reality.
Ha ha. It’s still no excuse to make a defective wine, a faulty wine. I still try to make the wines as clean as I can have it. I think we differ from a lot of natural producers in that we mature our wines for a long time before bottling. A lot of them are bottled early for freshness. It’s just a different approach.
So you’re landed yourself right in the middle, having a love for the classics and wanting to achieve that level of precision at the same time as being emotionally driven to make wines naturally. It’s a bit of a paradox, no?
I’m fully aware of that. Ha ha. I’m an ideas man, but a lot of my ideas don’t necessarily work. You’ve gotta try though right? I’ve got a lot of friends in the conventional industry. They seem so bound by dogma sometimes. I mean, how do you know what you know? They’ve read it once in a journal article. That doesn’t mean that it’s the truth. I can find another journal article to contradict what they’ve just told me.
The point is, you need to run these experiments to work out the style of wines you wanna make. I’ve run a lot of experiments. I drive my Dad nuts. He wants me to settle on one thing. That thing for me is Chenin, and Grenache… and maybe a couple of other things, but I’m gonna keep trying.
Another crippling hit to the wallet ha ha.
That’s it. I mean, if it wasn’t for money, things would be a lot easier.
Along with the new oak you’re bringing in every year, you’ve also got qvevris and a multitude of other vessels. All still part of the experiment, right?
There’s two reasons for the experimentation in this space. I understand it’s a bit of a paradox; you’ve got new oak and so-called natural wine. The two don’t really meet. I get that. I was very uncomfortable buying a lot of new oak for the last couple of years, but there’s a reason. Firstly, the market for second hand oak in WA is really competitive. When barrels become available from a good winery, ‘cause you don’t wanna buy from a winery that’s no good, right? They’re snapped up really quickly. Also, I’m thinking those barrels are infected with cultured yeast strains. Really, if I wanna make wine that speaks more of our vineyard than someone else’s vineyard, I really have to buy new oak and cycle several wines through them.
Then you’ve gotta find the right barrels. I originally had this idea that big oak was better, that it had less impact on the wine. I’ve actually come full circle and am back down to barriques, ‘cause with our site, they work better. I did follow the trend. Big is cool, ya know? They’re just not good for our site.
Now, personally mate, I love your labels. There’s a pleasurable degree of dissidence about them; they’re very ‘anti’ while obviously lending to certain conventions. Typography’s set ablaze. It’s a good bit of eye candy. What was the impetus here?
So with the Extent Range, it’s got a bit of a faux Burgundy edge to it. I really like… it sounds corny but back in the day when Australian wine was really discovering itself and there were wines like ‘Barossa Pearl’.
Those really retro labels. I think it’s really cool that there was a wine that was totally tacky, packaged in a beautiful French bottle, coming straight out of Barossa and trying to look like it was from Burgundy or something. I think that’s really cool. So, I’ve tried to tap into that retro side of things. We have got this really good graphic artist who’s a gun. I like him because he’s not on social media, he doesn’t believe in it. He doesn’t get influenced.
Ah mate. That’s pure gold. I reckon the best designers are the ones who are at least semi cut-off from that world. Everything’s available at a fingertips’ reference these days, to remix a remix of a remix.
The thing is, he does that, so when I ask him to do something, he’s not polluted by all these other influences in the natural wine world. When he hear’s it from me he thinks I’m some kind of genius, but really I’m ripping off the idea, then he’s hearing it secondhand and trying to reproduce it ha ha.
Ha ha ah, that’s fantastic.
He’s cool. He’s Polish. He comes ‘round here and teaches me how to make sausages and I teach him how to make wine. We’ve made a few wines together. He’s exactly the type of guy we wanna work with.
Classic. So, acquiring a title as prominent as Swan Valley Wines, and doing what you’re doing with it now, has there ever been a thought given to changing the name?
Oh yeah, like every day. My partner’s really keen to change the name. We talk about this a lot. You know when you’ve been doing the same thing for so long that you can’t look back any more?
We’re one of the only wineries in Australia that’s named after the GI. Now, you wouldn’t be able to do this. It kinda speaks to a different time in wine when people were more relaxed about it, when it wasn’t the be-all and end-all that it is now. I’m sure the name doesn’t do us any favours, in some respects. People ask ‘what’s the label’ and I’m like ‘Swan Valley Wines’ and they’re like, ‘no, what’s the label’.
It’s cool that we’re named after the region where the grapes come from, and we’ve trademarked now. We can’t really release anything under that Swan Valley Wines label that’s not from Swan Valley so I feel like we’ve honed in on the reach and we’re focused. It’s cool, but kind of annoying.
There’s a perfect imbalance of elements in the whole operation, if that makes sense, that I love. Between the labels, the name, the nature of the varieties, the entire thing. It’s all a bit Willy Wonka. Gene Wilder. It’s zany, nutty. It throws back but also has a future perspective about it. Don’t change it for the world.
It’s archaic and it’s weird, but one thing I need to do is introduce you to my old man. When you meet him, and you start talking to him you’ll understand.
I did! Momentarily, in the cellar door. That whole experience is also a part of the magic. The choccy syrup?
It’s a Port flavoured with a chocolate extract. We’re kinda famous for it up here.
Finally, if you could paint a picture of the perfect Swan Valley, the most ideal future for the region, what would it look like? What would you change? What would you implement differently?
It might be a bit simplistic of me but it’s a real simple one: tell those vignerons out there, stop using Round Up! Like, I’m not even asking for certified organic grapes, just stop spraying herbicide underneath your vines. It kills the expression of your grape. The Swan has an obsession with this. My Dad told me that 20 years ago, it was actually uncommon to find people using herbicide. Now, I’m running out of old dudes to buy grapes off ‘cause they’re all using Round Up. The best I can do sometimes is to say, ‘can you please use less Round Up’. They’ve got this obsession with having the vineyard look pretty, but they’re not aware of the damage they’re doing to the soil. They’re not aware that their wine could be that much better by not using it. So, be a bit more sensitive to the soil, a bit more aware of the environment. Their wines would be better and I could buy more fruit, simple as that.