When we were first introduced to Alpha Box & Dice in Australia’s McLaren Vale wine region, we admit we were skeptical about a winery that is currently working with 29 different varieties from over 40 different plots. Like seeing a thick menu at a restaurant, our first thought was how could they possibly produce so many wines well—and with just one winemaker? Our concerns quickly dissolved when we sat down with Winemaker Sam Berketa and learned that there clearly was a method behind the seemingly apparent madness.
From its original inception in 2008, Alpha Box & Dice founder and winemaker Justin Lane created more of a laboratory than a traditional winery where experimentation was encouraged and pushing the boundaries was the only rule. The name of the winery is derived from his vision to produce a wine for each letter of the alphabet combined with “Box & Dice”, an Australian saying that translates to ‘the whole collection’. When brothers Dylan and Justin Fairweather took over the winery 5 years later, they not only embraced the concept, they challenged those boundaries even further.
All of the labels have a hidden letter within, and every letter corresponds to a different style of wine: white, red, pink, orange, bubbles, grapes that are French, Italian, Spanish, Austrian, Portuguese; blends, non-vintage, single varietal, single vintage, single vineyard…basically, the whole ‘box & dice’. The names all have a meaning to them, more often than not, derived from a humorous story. Take, for example, the Golden Mullet Fury Semillon/Viognier blend. The previous winemaker was at tasting show in Adelaide when he saw the back of a beautiful blonde woman in front of him. Deciding he needed to see the face behind it, he pushed his way through the crowd and tapped the woman on the shoulder, only to find out it was a man. Cue the fury (which likely fit better on the label than disappointment) and voilà, the letter G wine was born.
We met with Sam Berketa who became head Winemaker in 2016, only a month after being signed on as Justin’s Assistant Winemaker, when Justin decided to venture out on his own project. Although relatively young and in his first head winemaking gig, Sam’s mature calm and thoughtful answers bely an old soul who is truly passionate and serious about his work. Sam studied chemistry at University but working in a lab wasn’t fulfilling his need to be creative. He considered dropping out to do visual arts but after seeking counsel from his parents who suggested art might be better suited as a hobby, he discovered the world of winemaking. As he puts it, “it was the perfect marriage of chemistry and art. I fell in love with winemaking and it’s been a great ride ever since.”
Previous to Alpha Box & Dice, Sam worked for 18 months in viticulture with a vineyard manager in the Mornington Penninsula. Working in that climate gave him a really good grounding on how to grow grapes in a challenging environment, “being right beside the ocean, it was cold, wet, and there was lots of mold. It was really tough but also interesting to see what could grow there.”
It is this insatiable curiosity that continues to be fed in his current role at Alpha Box & Dice. He aims to use different styles and techniques to showcase different aspects of the winemaking world using Australian fruit. Other than the letter K, every wine is distinct, and no letter has been used to make more than one wine (there is a red and a white under the Kit & Kaboodle label). What the wines do share in common is that each reflects its specific terroir.
Experimenting with different varieties has demonstrated that unexpected varieties flourish in the McLaren Vale climate, in particular Italian varieties. “I find Shiraz an interesting choice for this region. I don’t want to knock it because I love McLaren Vale Shiraz, but I think we can make better choices and we’re happy to be leading the charge to create our own identity with varieties that do really well here. “Nero d’Avola, the Sicilian variety, is very well suited to McLaren Vale. Aglianico, Fiano and Grenache (a French variety) also do really well in showing the characteristics of McLaren Vale.”
The winery doesn’t own any vineyards and purchases all of their fruit from several growers, some of which they’ve been using since the inception of Alpha Box & Dice, “the foundations of what we do is based on good growers that allow us to make the best wines possible using the best fruit possible. We tend to go for more sustainable and more organic/biodynamic vineyards but a lot of the varieties we use are so unique they’re not necessarily grown or farmed in that way so we’re a bit limited in that respect.” As a result, they do all their crushing off site as a lot of the surrounding vineyards are organic and can’t be potentially exposed to any foreign matter. After crushing, they bring the fruit back on site for maturation and blending. Most of their grapes come from the McLaren Vale area, but they also take a lot of small parcels in the Adelaide Hills as well as a small portion from the Barossa Valley.
There is really nothing typical about Alpha Box & Dice which is clearly demonstrated by their tasting room. The basic tin roof structure reveals a casual, fun and inviting room that is more akin to sitting in your grandparents’ living room than what you’d find at most McLaren Vale tasting rooms. In fact, the velvet couches and much of the furniture and trinkets actually come from homes of Sam’s and the Fairweather brothers’ grandparents’, “the idea behind it reflects the way we approach things. You’re not going to have a ‘normal’ wine tasting here. We want to remove the smoke and mirrors around winemaking and instantly relax people.”
The overall vibe of the winery can easily be defined as unpretentious and friendly. Along with the clever concept behind the name, they’ve named their wine club the “Life Improvement Plan”, and if you prefer to spit when you taste, be prepared to be provided a bed pan as a spittoon! But beyond the savvy marketing where tongue is always firmly planted in cheek, at the heart of it all is a genuine passion for wine, and a steadfast devotion to produce something unique. Most importantly, what is getting them noticed more than their labels by even the most skeptical of wine enthusiasts, is the quality of their wine. Alpha Box & Dice has proved that there is plenty of substance behind their ABCs…along with just enough irreverence to remind us all that wine is made purely to be enjoyed.
2017 Kit & Kaboodle
This intriguing white is a blend of 66% Chenin Blanc, 17% Gewürztraminer, 15% Gruner Veltliner and 2% Riesling. We guess it gets its name because it is pretty much the whole kit and kaboodle of aromatic white wines. Each variety is fermented separately and then the finished wines are blended. We get a lifted floral with hints of spice in the aroma, showing the presence of the Gewurztraminer. On the palate lemon/lime and green apple dominate and rest on a medium light body that has good back end acidity. Very refreshing.
Very Good+ (AUD$25 at the cellar door)
2018 Pink Matter Rosé
Here is where the innovative side of Alpha Box and Dice shows its colours. This rose is a blend of Chardonnay and Riesling. Then, you ask, where does the colour come from? Good question! A portion of the blend is drained off and then spends a week macerating on unpressed Grenache skins. This is then added back to the rest of the blend until it gives just the desired amount of colour. The result is a very dry rose showing floral notes and cranberry flavours on a medium body with a bit of a tannic kick on the minerally finish. A great rose built for shellfish appies and hot decks!
Very Good+ (AUD$22 at the cellar door)
2018 Tarot Grenache
Light red colour belies the very intense flavour profile of this 100% Grenache from McLaren Vale. 10% whole clusters were fermented and the wine spent six months maturing on the lees in steel tank. Red cherry notes get back up from hints of black pepper and dried flowers. With some swirling we even get notes of cherry nibs! This is terrific Grenache with intense flavours on a medium +body. Hints of black forest cake can be detected on the long finish.
Excellent (AUD$22 at the cellar door)
This is an homage to Portugal: 50% Touriga Nacional (originally a Portuguese variety); 33% Tinta Roriz (the Portuguese term for Tempranillo); and 18% Grenache. Lots of black cherry and raspberry flavours come through with intensity on its full boy frame. Dry tannins compliment the soft, round texture. The balance is precise and the savoury component is a real catch.
Excellent (AUD $35 at the cellar door)
*Note: each of these wines represent excellent value.