James Madden has been around. The nomadic sommelier turned winemaker was born in Sydney, raised in Tasmania and gained his hospo legs in Perth before immersing himself in the food and wine scene in Melbourne. He’s also worked vintages in the Mornington Peninsula and Languedoc in France. But it’s a little pocket in the Adelaide Hills that caught his eye for good.
The catalyst? A chance encounter with influential natural-wine minds James Erskine, Anton van Klopper and Tom Shobbrook in 2010. Madden was working as a restaurant manager in Perth at the time. “I’d never even heard of this concept of natural wine and these guys were crazy. I got blown away by it,” Madden tells Broadsheet. A year later he was working his first vintage in the Adelaide Hills and learning from Erskine, The Other Right’s Alex Schulkin and more.
He stayed for four months then moved to Melbourne where he worked at City Wine Shop, Pei Modern and Merricote before co-opening Green Park (now Park Street) in Carlton North. “I’d always talked about making wine but it’s a bit of a commitment and I had no confidence,” says Madden. “I’d done no schooling or study ... ”
He couldn’t shake the pull and in 2016 Madden and his partner Sam (who was 34 weeks pregnant at the time) packed up and moved to the Adelaide Hills, settling among a crew of wine-heads known for expanding, pushing and straight up obliterating the boundaries of winemaking. “The community up here is amazing,” he says, acknowledging the support he’s been given from a handful of local producers.
Madden now works out of Schulkin’s shed in Ashton. A third winemaker, Architects of Wine’s Dave Caporaletti, also shares the space. Bright orange mushrooms, known as the saffron milk cap, can be found along the driveway in autumn. Further afield the landscape delivers apples, raspberries, watercress and more. It’s a thriving little spot.
The shed is filled with oak barrels of juice from this year’s harvest. It’s fermented with indigenous yeasts and, when ready, will be bottled without fining or filtration. So far, Madden hasn’t had to add any sulphur. The organic, hand-picked grapes (“Integrity of fruit is everything,” he says) come from the Fleurieu Peninsula. There’s savagnin, chardonnay, pinot noir and shiraz plus a “rolling ferment” field blend (a cocktail of pinot gris, savagnin, merlot and cabernet picked from the same plot, on the same day, at different stages of ripeness) and a “proper skins-y orange wine”. Though Madden is hesitant to flog the wines based on varietal. Anyone who’s tasted his sauvignon blanc knows to leave expectations at the door.
“It’s all experimentation at this stage,” he says. His approach is open and playful, the process of someone still relatively new to winemaking, without the potential barriers of convention. He’s recently turned his attention to making “Jura-style, semi-oxidative” wines. In layman’s terms, its white wine that’s been deliberately exposed to oxygen (distinct from the significantly less appealing oxidated wines) by allowing a pocket of air in the barrel. If done right, it can create a “lovely nutty, complex” flavour profile, says Madden. “Like sherry, but in a table wine sort of sense. It can be quite rich and interesting.”
Another experiment is the sauvignon blanc pet nat “Flo’s Fizz” (named after his 14-month-old daughter), which he’s making solera-style (blending juice from different vintages over the course of the aging process). It’s a long-range project. “There’ll be a wine that’s got a bit from every year of her life,” says Madden. “It might be cool, I don’t know, we’ll see how we go.”
Family is the quiet inspiration behind Little Things. The labels are drawn by Madden’s sister (“They kind of represent where we are in life at the moment – they’re quite infantile,” he says). “Joy’s Wild Fruits” field blend is named after his mum. The “Comes a Time” grenache is named after a Neil Young song in honour of Madden’s dad, who passed away in 2017. “After we moved here and had a baby my dad suddenly passed away from cancer. He loved music and Neil Young was a big guy for him.”
His wines are “a little part of everyone I’ve ever interacted with ... It’s not just me it’s a patchwork.”
Until now Madden has kept busy behind the scenes (he doesn’t even have a website), but he’s about to come out from the shadows. His first public outing was at post-vintage party The Festival at Basket Range earlier this year.
“Being a somm and trying to sell your [own] wines is really tough. I’m used to championing the producers I love and it’s so easy … but when you make it … it feels really weird and super arrogant. It’s hard, because you’re so emotionally connected with what you’re doing.”
Little Things is a personal project. But like his minimal intervention cohorts, Madden just wants to make delicious, fun, drinkable wines. “For me natural wines have that personality and vibrancy. That’s the thing I love about them. They’re still living. They do change and there’s massive bottle variation, they’re not consistent but that's the lovely, whimsical, fun thing about them.
“But, you know, at the same time get hammered, don’t think about it and skull it from the bottle. That’s a good thing as well, they’re not meant to be serious.”