“Vine comes to age like human beings.” Brad Ray (Zonte’s Footstep)
Way before he planted his roots Down Under, Canadian-Australian Brad Ray’s wine journey found its origin at Calgary’s J. Webb Wine Merchants. When he stepped foot there some decades ago, little did he know a fleeting love affair with wine would escalate into a lifelong commitment.
After completing his oenology and viticulture degree from Charles Stuart University, Brad decided a degree was only as good as practical field experience.
Overwhelmed by the vastness of the wine world, he decided to trot the globe. This was how he ended up working in Oregon, Alsace, Loire, Tuscany, Navarra, and California, before starting a project with some friends in Langhorne, Australia.
“Even lazy and uneducated people can grow grapes in South Australia,” Brad laughed. He was referring to the region’s relatively forgiving climate, dry with low-disease pressure. “So when you put passion in your craft, you can do magic.”
And thus began Zonte’s Footstep, an independent Australian wine company established by Brad and a few mates in 1999. They bottled their first vintage on August 15th, 2003.
Their dedication to blaze new trails in Australia had led them to plant 80 different grape varieties – Viognier, Sangiovese, and Montepulciano to name but a few – in Langhorne, McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills, and Barossa.
“Some people thought we were crazy, but it was all about experimentation. The idea was to branch out from the Australian usual suspects, Syrah, Grenache, and Cabernet,” he said. “This allows us to learn what European varieties can achieve in the gorgeous Australian terroir.”
This didn’t come without challenges. “Australia has such a fragile eco-structure with strict quarantine rules,” he explained. “It took a lot of time and energy to bring new grape varieties to this island.”
Throughout the tasting, I was pleasantly surprised by how little traces of eucalyptus notes there were in these wines. A deliberate act, it turned out they have ensured none of their vines were planted within a nine-metre radius from the eucalyptus tree, as the eucalyptus compounds can easily become wine-borne.
Worth mentioning as well, are the unique label designs:
Brad likes to give a name and a unique face to each wine as a way to communicate their different personalities and expressions.
“Today, we are exporting to 28 counties, and it is easy to get lost in translation,” explained Brad. “Art transcends languages.”
Loyal Australian wine drinkers might be quite familiar with Zonte’s Footstep. Having been in the Ontario market for 13 years, some of their Shiraz wines can be found rotating through LCBO Vintages, along with the occasional rosé and red blends gracing the retail shelves on a seasonal basis.
Besides a trip to Australia, there is no better way to experience his wines than an up-close and intimate tasting with the man himself.
Thank you Cru Wine Merchants for setting this up.
2022 Zonte’s Footstep “Lady Marmalade” Vermentino, Fleurieu Peninsula, Australia
A 100% Vermentino is a rather fitting way to kick off a Zonte’s Footstep tasting, and a nod to their bringing non-traditional grape varieties to Australia.
Because Vermentino grapes are prone to sunburn, canopy management is key to its success in sunny Australia. To achieve vine balance, their Vermentino fruits planted near the mouth of the Goolwa River of Fleurieu Peninsula are shaded from the sun with a double canopy.
This is a rather salty wine with great sea spray energy, helped by great grapefruit zest and some pithiness. Inviting, energetic, and great citrus and candied mandarin orange flavours that tickle the palate.
The Regionality of Shiraz
2019 Zonte’s Footstep “Lake Doctor” Shiraz, Langhorne Creek, Australia (Alcohol 14.5%, Residual Sugar 4 g/l) LCBO $16.75 – reduced from $19.95 (750ml bottle)
100% Langhorne Creek fruits and possibly Zonte’s answer to the Northern Rhone Shiraz.
Shiraz – or dare I say Syrah? – are co-fermented with Viognier to create a bright and fabulous wine. Brad refers to this as “diamonding”, where adding a minuscule amount of other grape varieties could lift the flavours, create brilliance, and yield unexpected results.
The fruits come from a region that is cooled by the ‘Lake Doctor’, a southerly cold wind that comes directly from the Antarctic and Southern oceans to moderate the vineyard temperatures, slow down ripening, and retain elegant aromas a flavours.
Crunchy red plum, fresh raspberry and ripe cherry intermingle with notes of cedar, savoury, briny olives and a hint of cola. A stylish wine marked by elegance, bright acidity, and freshness.
2019 Zonte’s Footstep “Chocolate Factory” Shiraz, McLaren Vale, Australia (Alcohol 14.5%, Residual Sugar 4 g/l) LCBO $19.95 (750ml bottle)
Sourced from McLaren Vale, a climate that is classified as as ‘Mediterranean’ – warm, but seldom hot, summers, mild winters and seasonal rainfall mainly in late autumn and winter.
“Unlike wine grapes, everyone can purchase the same barrel. There is nothing special about it,” Brad explained. And this is why his winemaking style is all about fruit definition and the expression of the vineyards, with little wood use.
The wine displays bright and concentrated cassis, ripe red cherry, black forest cake, with notes of cloves and a signature milk chocolate aroma, a deliberate play on glycerol levels.
The incredible fruit weight on the palate and a lush mouthfeel make this wine an undeniable crowd pleaser, and rightfully earned its place as a Vintages staple.
2019 Zonte’s Footstep “Hills Are Alive” Shiraz, Adelaide Hills, Australia (Alcohol 15.1%, Residual Sugar 2 g/l) LCBO $26.95 (750ml bottle)
The essence of Adelaide Hills is very much alive in this bottle.
A pedigreed Shiraz of the Hermitage clone sourced from hand-tended blocks in the Mount Pleasant sub-region of the far northern Adelaide Hills, this wine is displays great elegance, finesse, and prettiness as one would imagine from high-elevation vineyards, 400 metres above sea level.
Marked by aromas of bramble, red cheery, dark plum, liquorice, Kalamata olives, and a hint of violets. Soft and silky tannins helped by refreshing acidity. Charming.
2018 Zonte’s Footstep “Baron Von Nemesis” Shiraz, Barossa, Australia
With a winemaking style rooted in elegance, Brad had made Shiraz from Langhorne, McLaren Vale, and Adelaide Hills. However, none in Barossa until 1998 as a response to export markets that were demanding Barossa Shiraz.
”This wine is my nemesis. You can’t make elegant wines in stinking hot Barossa,” said Brad, so instead of making heavily extracted styles with lots of new oak, he decided that the wine needs to have defined fruit and reflect the Germanic heritage of Barossa. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Well, he did so with great success.
This a classic Barossa Shiraz, one that is plush, ripe, dark, and broody. Bold and robust, reminiscent of a Christmas pudding, with aromas of dark plum, bramble, liquorice, and a hint of cola. Fleshy fruits and the signature Barossa jamminess feels almost like a warm hug.
2021 Zonte’s Footstep “Splitting Hares”, Fleurieu Peninsula, Australia
Splitting hares, a play on words of “splitting hairs”, is thoughtfully named to reflect the lengthy process and important decisions behind making this blend. For six full weeks they tweaked the blend in tiny 1% increments to ensure the final wine is in perfect harmony. And similar to how his Barossa wine pays homage to the Germanic heritage, Splitting Hares reflects the Spanish lineage of the Fleurieu Peninsula.
A blend of roughly 65% Tempranillo and 35% Grenache. The wine displays an earthy, shrubby, and savoury notes of fresh herbs, herbal oil, and seaspray. Wild raspberry and blueberry is lifted by fragrance of lavender. Molasses and mocha notes from its 12 months in hogshead barrels add complexity. Its hallmark Dutch-cocoa dusty texture making it extra alluring.
2021 Zonte’s Footstep “Blackberry Patch”, Fleurieu Penninsula, Australia (Alcohol 14%, Residual Sugar 4 g/l) LCBO $19.95 (750ml bottle)
This is a blend of 95% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Shiraz sourced from both Langhorne Creek and the Blewitt Springs sub-region of the McLaren Vale, Blackberry Patch is as much a blend of two grapes as it is a blend of two terroirs.
Juicy blackberry and dark plum, meet notes of cedar and crushed gravel. There is an interesting softness and elegance that reminds me of bergamot, with some undertones of dark chocolate and crème fraîche. Full and mouthfilling on the palate, with fresh acidity that cuts through the fruit weight and chalky tannins. A wine of great purity and poise.
Thank you Brad for sharing the time.
(All wines are scored out of a possible five apples)