While Australia is particularly rich with more than a century of winemaking legacy, much of it has no bearing whatsoever on the story of Brendan and Laura Carter, the husband and wife team that have carved out Unico Zelo from scratch with the purpose of introducing a fresh narrative to the broader story of Australian wines. No older than their early 30s, this energetic couple has built a company from the ground up with attention to stewardship and sustainability from the outset. This begins with responsible water management in the vineyards, which has become exceptionally difficult in the era of climate change and extreme drought, and follows through with minimalist cellar practices and a responsible, triple bottom line approach to business management. They have earned the difficult-to-attain B Corp certification for their efforts. B Corp companies must undergo a rigorous, multi-stage assessment, and generally are aligned with a central “mission to transform the economic system into a more inclusive, equitable, and regenerative global economy.”
Browsing their site will quickly show the dizzying array of bottlings this team is producing. They might well be without equal in the sheer variety of expressions, encompassing everything from a bold Syrah-Merlot blend, lithe Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo, to orange wine, sparkling wine, and a piquette. There are also vermouth, spirits, and bottled cocktails to complete the line-up. In less capable hands, this might look like an overreach. At Unico Zelo, however, each bottle tells a unique story, and does it with a wine that achieves a high level of quality.
Unico Zelo comfortably falls on the spectrum of natural wine with their adherence to several key tenets. Fermentations utilize only naturally occurring yeast, no additives are used in the cellar, and sulfur additions are kept to an absolute minimum to protect the bottles for shipment (and never more than 50ppm). Sulfur, wonderful sulfur, keeps the wine from earning the approval of the strictest natural wine acolytes, but it lets the bottles travel safely around the world, eventually to be tasted in my kitchen in absolute pristine condition. They are flawless and faultless wines. The preferred term at Unico Zelo is “craft wine,” in Brendan’s words, “wine that's independently owned and responsibly made… wine that’s better for the planet.”
Jade & Jasper was the first wine sampled. As with all the wines I tasted, it is made from an indigenous Italian grape. Fiano, as it turns out, performs very well in Australia’s dry limestone soils. The wine has an oversized impact for something so simple on the surface. The purity of fruit (lemons, peaches) is apparent, wrapped in a soft salinity. An ideal summer wine.
Two reds followed, a Nero d’Avola called Fresh A.F., and a Barbera, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, blend named Truffle Hound. Sicily’s heat-loving Nero d’Avola seems a likely transplant to Australia, and it performs very well. Juicy, low in tannin, and fresh, this was very enjoyable with a slight chill. Truffle Hound was the star of the show. Complex enough to be cerebrally captivating, it is still very direct and inviting, full of plum, savory, and earthy notes as the name hints toward. These Tuscan and Piemontese varieties play well together, resting on a backbone of acid and fine tannins, and creating an excellent bottle to pair with just about anything you could imagine.
This as far as one can get from Yellowtail and the critter wines, or the blockbuster, international icons like Penfold’s Grange. The Unico Zelo wines are charming, full of life and character, and are supremely delicious. The mission of this winery is to “seek Australian identity in the products we craft.” Individually, each bottle contributes a unique color and highlights a singular aspect of that story. If these wines are indicators of what an “Australian identity” can show in a bottle, I can’t wait to see more available in Wisconsin. Watch for the just-arrived 2021 Esoterico, a hazy orange wine which might be Unico Zelo’s most coveted release.