Black Flag: winemaking without limits

Black Flag: winemaking without limits

by Great British Chefs 28 September 2020

It can be hard to find wines that stand out from the crowd, but Virgin Wines’ Black Flag range is all about pushing boundaries, experimentation and trying things no one else has done before. Take a look at how the project came about and the very special wines created as a result.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews as well as access to some of Britain’s greatest chefs. Our posts cover everything we are excited about from the latest openings and hottest food trends to brilliant new producers and exclusive chef interviews.

There’s always a bit of a journey to go on when learning about wine. As we start discovering what we want in a bottle, ‘red’, ‘white’ and ‘rose’ become Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Provence. Countries of origin become specific regions; loyalty grows towards particular winemakers. Even a master sommelier would never be able to taste every single wine out there, so there’s no risk of running out of something new to try. But to find something truly new and exciting it can be hard to break free from the traditions, rules and regulations that have defined winemaking for so long.

Appellations, market demand and government rulings mean a huge amount of the wine available has to conform to certain ideals and production methods. There is always room for a little experimentation, but winemakers often don’t stray too far from what people expect from them to ensure their wines will sell. Over at Virgin Wines, however, head wine buyer Andrew Baker and legendary Australian winemaker Steve Grimley are approaching things from a completely new angle – and the result is some of the most exciting, experimental wines ever made.

‘Steve has been working with us in some capacity for around fifteen years, and he’s always had an interest in doing something different,’ says Andrew. ‘He started a project called Five O’Clock Somewhere, where he and other independent winemakers would get together to create small batch wines in Australia, and we wanted him to do something similar especially for us.’

Steve and Andrew’s collaboration earned the title Black Flag, and the whole idea behind it was to create experimental, unusual wines with no commercial restrictions whatsoever. Usually, winemakers – even those producing the finest in the world – have some sort of constraints on what they can and can’t do. By throwing all those rules away and giving Steve free rein to try whatever he wanted, the wines released under the Black Flag name give people the chance to try something that’s brand new in the world of wine.

Virgin Wines' head buyer Andrew Baker and Aussie winemaker Steve Grimley collaborated on Black Flag after years of working together
The range of limited-edition, small-batch experimental wines offers something you can't find anywhere else

Treading these unchartered waters means Black Flag wines are made in very, very small batches – sometimes as low as 1,200 bottles – and once they’re gone, they’re gone. ‘Because these bottles are made exclusively for Virgin Wines, Black Flag has already gained quite the following amongst our customers,’ explains Andrew. ‘It’s something people find quite exhilarating, and they look forward to the next release. There’s no passive consumption at all – when you buy a bottle of Black Flag wine there’s a story and a journey behind it, and it’s quite an exciting thing to open, taste and talk about.’

Because of the fleeting nature of these bespoke, limited-run wines, the Black Flag line-up can change relatively regularly. There are some more familiar-sounding bottles, such as the Adelaide Hills Chardonnay, which is made from grapes exclusive to Virgin Wines from the cool climate of the Adelaide Hills. There’s a tailor-made Pinot Noir with a dash of Grenache grapes thrown in for warmth, or a Cabernet Sauvignon made using grapes from three different Aussie wine regions, aged in French and American oak barrels before making it to the bottle. These wines are there to smash preconceptions about Australian wine and showcase how blends can create some astonishing flavours.

The grapes come from Steve's own vineyards and others from around Australia
Steve works with a small group of cutting-edge winemakers to push the boundaries of what Aussie wine can be

Then there are the Black Flag wines which do something totally new. There’s the Barossa Langhorne Creek, a big, bold red made with dried Shiraz, Touriga and Durif grapes that results in an Australian alternative to Italy’s Amarone. The Nero d’Avola blend takes Nero d’Avola, Touriga, Montepulciano, Sagrantino and Mataro grapes – all European varieties but grown in south Australia – and blends them together to create something greater than the sum of its (already great) parts.

All the wines listed above are what Black Flag is all about – combining amazing grapes with Steve’s incredible winemaking expertise to create something that hasn’t been seen before. It could be a special vineyard, a unique blend of grape varieties, the way a wine is made and aged or producing a specific style in a region it’s not usually associated with. ‘The normal way to create wine in the trade is to look at the numbers,’ says Andrew. ‘You can see that you need however many thousand bottles of Pinot Grigio made in a certain way to a certain price point, and you know it’s going to sell, so it’s risk-free. But things are never going to change and evolve in the world of wine if you always look at things in that way.’

Black Flag wines are truly small batch – sometimes as little as 1,200 bottles are produced
There are plans to expand the Black Flag range beyond Australia and continue innovating around the world

Because of Steve’s involvement, Black Flag has almost exclusively been focused on southern Australia, in particular McLaren Vale, where Steve’s own winery and vineyards are based (‘although Steve uses grapes from all over the country too’, says Andrew). There are thoughts about expanding the Black Flag idea globally, to work with interesting independent winemakers, vineyards and grapes around the world, but for now Steve and Andrew are happy enough to showcase just how varied Australian wines can be. ‘We’re opening people’s eyes to what sort of wine Australia can actually produce,’ he says. ‘For the past twenty years Australia has been a very commercial region for wine retailers, but to do something this experimental and different has proved Australian wines can be really exciting and ground-breaking. It’s about showing what can be done, rather than what’s always been done.’

Whether you’re a seasoned wine drinker tired of the same old varieties or a newcomer to the world of wine who wants a taste of the new frontier of winemaking, Black Flag is offering something you simply can’t find anywhere else. There’s clearly a global demand for wine that breaks from tradition – natural and orange wines coming to the fore are a prime example of this – but while natural wines can be a little hit and miss, Black Flag takes a different approach, utilising Steve’s winemaking panache to do something different with grapes that are usually associated with more classical wine varieties. ‘There are lots of very small producers all over the world who knock out some really unusual orange and natural wines,’ says Andrew. ‘But in my experience a lot of these wines are so inconsistent and unpredictable; you don’t know if they’re going to be good or have faults until you’ve opened each bottle. With Steve and the Black Flag range, we’ve got a really safe pair of hands doing something incredibly interesting.’

To read more about Virgin Wines’ Black Flag range and to get your hands on these limited-edition bottles, head to their website.