Jean Dubuffet, a French painter and sculptor, described the concept of Art Brut* as “pieces of work executed by people untouched by artistic culture, in which therefore mimicry, contrary to what happens in intellectuals, plays little or no part, so that their authors draw everything (subjects, choice of materials employed, means of transposition, rhythms, ways of writing, etc.) from their own depths and not from clichés of classical art or art that is fashionable.” Art Brut, also known as raw art or outsider art, is essentially work done by someone outside the artistic community, without the restrictions of accepted norms. Today’s wine is a bit of Art Brut in a bottle, the Alpha Box & Dice Changing Lanes 2005.
Alpha Box & Dice is the work of Justin Lane, founded 2008, and home to an alphabetic collection of wines. Essentially set up as a garage enterprise, Lane sources grapes from a stable of local growers and makes wines based more on his personal tastes than on established conventions. While his “Hercules” Shiraz, “Rebel Rebel” Montepulciano and “Tarot” Grenache varietals may sound conventional enough, his “Apostle” Shiraz/Durif, “Fog” Nebbiolo/Cabernet Sauvignon/Tannat and “Golden Mullet Fury” Muscadelle/Chardonnay wines give perhaps a slightly better idea as to his unconventional thinking when it comes to what varieties might sit well together in a blend.
This wine in particular is a good example of Lane’s willingness to try something out of the ordinary. Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon are not typically found together in Spain or France, but in Australia they’re fair game as blending partners. Similarly, this wine is a collaboration with another winemaker, Justin’s brother Mark Lane, which again isn’t so out of the ordinary. Mark sourced some particularly good Tempranillo, vinified it, and sent some of the best barrels to Justin, who was doing the same with Cabernet Sauvignon. What is unusual is that Mark Lane works in Western Australia, some 3000km from Justin Lane in McLaren Vale, South Australia. That makes this wine one of the most geographically diverse I have ever encountered. In terms of wine being an expression of the varietal characteristics of the grapes, the terroir and the intention of the winemaker, this has all three, times two. And while it has no impact on what’s in the bottle, the label features a lenticular print of mugshots of both winemakers, with the image changing depending on the angle at which it is being viewed and it’s easily the most creative label I’ve ever seen.
While I don’t typically comment on branding, Alpha Box & Dice does it well. The convention they’ve established of wine names with an alphabetic theme works well, though it remains to be seen what happens after Z. Each label is uniquely designed, and while they have little in common with one another, they sit well together in a group. Even the cellar door has a quirky, rustic feel to it, which flows nicely from the old garage in the country where the wine is made. Should it ever grow into a $500/bottle ultra exclusive, mailing list only winery, I officially call dibs on the parody label Art Brut & Dubuffet.
While Dubuffet used his term Art Brut to refer to art produced by asylum inmates and children, I use it in the more general sense of self taught. In many ways this applies to Lane, as he has no formal qualifications in winemaking, and his approach to what can make a good wine is uninhibited by tradition or fashion. That said, he’s not strictly speaking quite so much the outsider.
Justin Lane grew up in the Hunter Valley, and while not from a wine family, he spent much of his time in vineyards and after an abandoned attempt at studying viticulture, worked with Hardy’s and Tatachilla wineries. Those experiences opened the door for him to work vintages in France, Italy and even Moldova. In Australia he helped run a cooperative in McLaren Vale called Redheads Studio, which provided him with the network of growers needed to found Alpha Box & Dice after his partner bought him out in 2007. He’s recently co-founded an eating and drinking establishment in Adelaide called Cantina Sociale that sources barrels of wine direct from producers and pours them by the glass. While I don’t do bar/restaurant reviews, I’m a fan.
How does all this come out in the wine? In the glass this wine is clear and bright, with a dark garnet colour and quick, stained legs. On the nose it’s clean and developing, with high intensity and notes of sweet spice, dried red fruit, persimmon, pomegranate and strawberries. On the palate it’s dry but with some fruit sweetness, medium acidity, medium plus body, medium plus intensity, high alcohol, medium minus fine tannins and a long length. There are notes of chocolate, pomegranate, black pepper, as well as dried fruit, both red and black.
This is a very good quality wine. It’s big in most respects. It has much more fruit than tannin, and while some of it comes across as dried fruit, it’s much more fresh than I would expect 7 years after vintage. It’s not for everyone – at 15.5% ABV it’s not a timid wine, but if you want a big fruit bomb that is showing itself to be capable of ageing, it’s a good bet. So while Lane has no formal winemaking credentials, there is nothing about this wine that suggests he needs to go back to school.
* Art Brut also happens to be the band that played at my wedding.