"I wouldn't have said I'm very creative in anything. I've always just been a front rower from Cessnock, but making wine is definitely my creative outlet."
So says Daniel Payne.
A primary school teacher and front rower from Cessnock, Payne is the vinous genius behind some of the freshest wines coming out of Australia's oldest wine region this year.
With artistic assistance from his graphic designer wife, Jen, Payne has been pushing the progression of fragrance and flavour, sensorial perception, and absolute fun with his unbridled and seemingly innate intuition for winemaking in the Hunter Valley.
Unless you're making wine in 25-litre demi-johns in your living room (which I did once), it doesn't get much more small batch than Dirt Candy.
Newcastle Herald: Food and wine in Newcastle and the Hunter
"Payne Estate just sounded a bit too . . . you know . . . Even though we're making wine in a very traditional wine region, I wanted to be a bit non-traditional with the way I approached wine. I wanted that reflected in the name, as well," Payne says.
"So, Dirt refers to the soil, obviously, and then grapes, well, they're sweet, like candy, aren't they? . . . . That's how the name Dirt Candy came about. It's just meant to be a bit of fun."
Most of the fruit for Payne's wines come from a pretty prestigious bit of dirt, down along Oakey Creek Road, and the wines are made in a very gung-ho style with Payne preferring to let go of the process and see whatever will be will be. Like the time he added a few frozen handfuls of white Gewrztraminer skins into a red wine he called The Little Circus.
"I threw in some frozen 'traminer skins that were left over from this wine called The Renegade, because I wanted to see if I could add some interesting aromatics to the wine, and, to be honest, I hated it, at first," Payne says.
"It was really floral, really over the top, and I thought, ah shit, I've over cooked it . . . but then I thought, I'll just leave it, let it settle in, give it time, you know, just let it go and see where it ends up . . . About three months later, I came back to it, and the wine was starting to come together, and I reckon it's actually turned out alright in the end."
The Dirt Candy wine range features a series of short, sharp names, many beginning with the defining clause, 'The', followed by a word or two that indirectly relates to something or someone special in his life, namely his kids, and his wife Jen.
"The One ($27) is Jen's wine, and it's made from chardonnay, because she loves chardy.
"The Wild One (a bold red blend of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon; $24) is named after my son, Max, because he's just loose and wild.
"The Game Changer (a pretty as can be rosé blend of Shiraz and Tempranillo; $24) is named after my first daughter Lucy, because having a little girl was a bit of a game changer for me, having grown up in a family of boys.
"And The Little Circus (a magnificent field blend of six red wine grapes; Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot, Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional, plus that frozen handful of Gewrztraminer skins; SOLD OUT) is named after Emily, my youngest, because she's all over the shop, you know, literally a one woman circus."
The Little Circus wine won the 'First Drop Danger Zone' award at the 2019 Young Guns of Wine Awards, earlier this year, in Melbourne. Wine critic Nick Stock, one of the judges at the awards described the wine as " . . . straight-up nuts . . . so-freakin' delicious". It was the first time a Hunter wine has ever won an award at the Young Guns of Wine.
"I'm glad it got recognised," Payne says. "That wine is probably the best reflection of what I'm trying to do. Just make something that's different, but really delicious. And Emily was pretty excited about it. She took the award into school for show and tell."
While the 2018 Little Circus wine has been sold out for months, the 2019 Little Circus is due for release at the end of October.
In the meantime, look out for Payne's other creative Dirt Candy wines on the pour around town, at places like the Lucky Hotel, the Mary Ellen, and Tighes Hill Cellars. Online at dirtcandy.com.au.
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