Fine and Unfiltered - Daniel Ham of Offbeat Wines

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Name: Daniel Ham

Winery: Offbeat Wines - Dorset

Position: Founder / Head Winemaker

Fruit: Currently sourced from local vine growers.

1. Firstly, what inspired you and essentially led you to the way you work and to start Offbeat Wines?

After meeting winemakers and tasting wines from a variety of wine regions I realised that the wines I really wanted to make were those that harnessed old techniques, had terroir expression and were made from grapes grown in an environmentally considerate way.

2. Your fruit is currently sourced from local growers - what informs your choice? 

Firstly, I love the thought of producing authentic, interesting wines from grapes grown in the Wild West. Secondly, there are some fantastic growers in this area who grow fantastic fruit, care about their environmental impact and turn out an incredible harvest lunch!

3. What principles do you follow within your winery? What style of wine do you ultimately want to produce? 

I take a minimal manipulation approach – spontaneous fermentations, minimal (often zero) sulphur dioxide (SO2) additions, no fining or filtration and often extended skin contact. I also take the view that time is your best friend. Ultimately, I want to produce wines that highlight the quality of the fruit, are full of character and thought provoking. Having been an ecologist in a previous life, I thrive on the idea of producing wines using the raw materials that are naturally present.

4. What are the perceived challenges relating to this type of viticulture/wine production in the UK? 

In terms of viticulture, disease pressure is clearly the biggest challenge in terms of the use of pesticides. Consequently, vineyards planted with more disease resistant varieties offer a great opportunity to farm in a more sustainable way and often produce fruit with high potential alcohol that don’t require chaptalisation.

5. With more than 500 commercial vineyards currently established in England and Wales, those following Biodynamic or Organic principles are in the minority. How easy could it be for other growers to follow suit and convert?

As I mentioned above, I think vineyards growing disease resistant varieties would find it relatively easily to follow Organic or Biodynamic principles. With classical varieties (e.g. Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Pinot meunier) it is much more challenging, and although it could work well in some years, there is the potential to lose large amounts of crop in difficult years. With noble varieties it may be best to adopt a reactive, sustainable approach, whereby synthetic pesticides are only used when disease pressure is extremely high, rather than sticking to a regimented spray programme. That said, I believe weed control without the use of herbicides is possible in every vineyard.

6. Natural wines have a reputation for being ‘funky’ in flavour in terms of integrated faults, but how easy is it to produce a cleaner, more linear style? 

I think when drinking natural wines you have to be a little more open minded and accept that not every wine is going to be squeaky clean. Many fantastic wines have ‘integrated faults’ that elevate the wine and add complexity. For me faults are only an issue if they mask particular characteristics of a wine, especially terroir expression. Having said that, with a supply of clean fruit, good cellar hygiene and plenty of diligence there is no reason that wines made in a natural way can’t be as clean as a whistle.

7. Where do you stand on the use of sulphur in your wine making?  

Personally, I feel that excessive use of SO2 can kill the character of wine by binding with an array of beneficial flavour and aroma molecules that many winemakers work so hard to create. As a consequence, I only use SO2 when absolutely necessary and rely on smell and taste to guide my decision. Through experience I have found that by exposing juice to oxygen at an early stage in the absence of SO2, it has much greater resistance to oxidation later in its life.  

8. What about yeast?

I always leave fermentations to occur spontaneously, making use of the palette of microorganisms naturally present on the fruit and in the surrounding environment. For me, this is a fundamental part of terroir expression and produces wines with far greater complexity and individuality.

9. How do you feel fermentation / maturation vessels affect the organicity or naturality of a wine? (What do you use and why?)

I’m in love with my 800 litre amphora so am probably a little biased! In an ideal world I would prefer to use terracotta/clay or neutral wood vessels but believe that some fantastic natural wines are also made in stainless steel. I use the amphora for my skin contact wines as I believe that the insulating properties of the clay combined with micro-oxidation produces a wine of incredible complexity without losing the character of the fruit. For my pet nat this year I fermented in stainless steel as I was looking for a fresher, more fruit-forward style.  

10. What do you think the future is for your style of wine production in the UK and is it sustainable?  

I believe that UK consumers are becoming ever more knowledgeable about food and drink production and are increasingly buying products that are made with a considerate approach to the environment and human health. I believe this is particularly true for younger generations, who are willing to pay that little bit more to ensure that they are buying something that is truly artisanal. The rise in craft beer and small batch gins over the past ten years highlights this. Additionally, natural wine styles often pair fantastically with food and can be found in some of the best restaurants in the word. As a result, I believe demand for natural wines will only continue to rise.

11. Growing some of the varieties we do is such a challenge so would you say this is sustainable or ethical? Potentially forcing something that really struggles for the sake of being able to produce a wine and potentially harming the environment?

When growing noble varieties in such a marginal climate, the use of chemical pesticides is sometimes the only way to ensure an economically viable crop. The effect that climate change will have on disease pressure and subsequent pesticide use is anyone’s guess. Perhaps a vineyard planted with a mixture of noble and disease resistant varieties would be the best solution, whereby an adaptive, sustainable growing approach would yield a healthy crop almost every year. Selecting varieties that burst bud late in the season and ripen early would also reduce interventions in the vineyard and allow lower manipulations in the winery.

12. What is the ultimate goal for you and Offbeat Wines?

To produce authentic wines only using fruit that is lovingly grown by people who believe in sustainable viticulture. If I can utilise traditional winemaking techniques (spontaneous fermentation, extended white grape maceration, no filtration etc.) to produce wines that people enjoy, then I’ll be happy!