I first met Matt Gant when he was making wine at St. Hallett, one of Barossa Valley's venerable wineries. I had only a vague impression of him because chief winemaker Stuart Blackwell more or less monopolized the conversation. Gant's newest efforts from his own wine label, First Drop, made me regret I didn't direct more questions at him.
He has now left St. Hallett and is devoting himself full-time to First Drop. Some of its basic-level wines, imported here before now, struck me as pleasant enough but not extraordinary. But once you edge up in class, these wines compete with some of Barossa's biggest names.
Gant opened a few bottles for me on his last day in the U.S., en route home to Australia, when we met at Que Syrah, my local wine bar in San Francisco. I sampled the wines later in the privacy of my own tasting room, which confirmed my impressions. In the "new school" of Barossa winemaking, which layers some elegance and refinement onto the bold, ripe flavors the region is known for, Gant is a rising star.
He has a dry, no-nonsense Aussie sense of humor, starting with the winery name, which plays on Aussie slang for a sip of something alcoholic, as in "that's a nice drop." He calls the basic Barossa Shiraz, the keystone of any Barossa winery, "Mother's Milk." It's a very good wine and a decent value at $18. The next step up the hierarchy, a Shiraz that blends in a dollop of Albariño instead of Viognier, goes by "2%," the amount of the white grape in the blend. It sells for $35.
But the head-turners are single-site wines from old vines, which he calls "Fat of the Land," and they go for $75. The reserve wine, a barrel selection of the most ageable lots, called "The Cream," is $100. These are heady, complex bottlings that show the kind of grace Gant aims for. "It's what I'm describing as next world wines," he said.
"It's easy to blow 'em away with a sledgehammer style in Barossa," he added. "But I think it's critical to get balance into the wines."
I can't reveal my scores yet, because they haven't been published, but keep an eye out for these wines. They're going to make an impression.
My one disappointment is that Gant and his partner, John Retsas (who is also the general manager of Schild), export none of their Italian blends to the U.S. Gant poured me a sample of "The Big Blind," a Nebbiolo-Barbera blend made from grapes grown in Adelaide Hills. He said he patterned it after similar blends made in Piedmont, Italy, by Domenico Clerico. Although it doesn't have quite the depth of the Italian model, it has a lovely range of flavors and a sense of delicacy. If he exported any here, it would quickly become a sommelier favorite.
"I'm an Italophile," Gant laughed. "In my two weeks here in America, I've been drinking nothing but Italian wines. And I'm considering a project in Barbaresco."
Now that would be interesting, an Aussie take on Italy's most noble reds. Meanwhile, First Drop is becoming a winery to be reckoned with.