Plant Life Balance

Pottering-about with Mike Bennie

INTERVIEW BY: MAGGIE SCARDIFIELD
IMAGES BY: ROWAN JACKSON

To potter (v): to spend time in a pleasant, relaxed way, often doing small jobs in your house.

We could listen to Mike Bennie talk about wine all day. As a wine writer, wine educator, winemaker and wine slinger – the man knows his pet-nats and his Penfolds better than anyone. As a co-owner of P&V Wine + Liquor Merchants, a bottle shop “for the neighbourhood by the neighbourhood,” in Sydney’s Enmore, he’s also a seasoned expert on the many ways to drink natural. We visited P&V to chat with him about minimal intervention wine, terroir and how to get a little plant life balance in your next glass.

For those playing along at home, Mike, what’s P&V Merchants all about?

P&V is a natural wine, artisan spirit, craft beer, pure rice sake and education-focused bottle shop. We sell amazing drinks from around the world, with a focus on organic, biodynamic, small-batch and artisanal production. We’re also a big supporter of local businesses and education, and have a wine school facility upstairs for endless masterclasses.

For thousands of years all wine was natural, right? Why has there been such a boom in this style?

I think people’s value systems are changing; they’re more interested in the provenance and process of things that they consume. We buy free-range eggs, shop at farmers’ markets, eat increasingly with a focus on the heritage of products, dine out at places that do great produce simply, and natural wine is an extension of this. If you care about where your food comes from and how it’s produced, then wine is exactly the same.

Natural wine in a nutshell, go!

Natural wine is a phrase that covers a broad umbrella, but when narrowed down it is:

wine produced from hand-picked, organic or biodynamic grapes (certified or to standard), produced without any additives aside from small doses of sulphur, naturally fermented and bottled without fining or filtration.

In what ways does P&V keep it green?

We’ve recently created our own reusable wine program. You can buy Wine Tubes (wine bottles with swing tops) from rotating kegs we have on tap, and when you bring back the bottles we reuse and refill them for you with a discount. It’s very popular.

When we first opened, too, we filled our courtyard with native finger lime, native herbs and native pot plants to green the space up and allow customers to pick things in season to use in cocktails or mixed drinks.

We also filled the shop with indoor plants, ranging from palms to ivy to succulents and cacti.

What first inspired you to get greening?

Freedom as a youngster to get out and about and play until it gets dark (or it’s time for dinner!). Though I grew up in central Sydney, the remarkable bushland at the end of my family’s street was abundant with natural life, a running creek, a waterfall (yes in inner city Sydney, Lilly Pilly Falls) and a strong bush regeneration program that I was fascinated by. Additionally, I really liked the idea of growing my own vegetables, fruits and herbs at home, so that has been inherent since I could dig dirt out of pots.

What role do plants play in your life?

Working in the wine world, and more specifically natural wine,

plants are literally the be all and end all of it.

Without the plants we have no fruit, no juice, no wine. Minimal intervention winemaking, in particular, is humbling because it’s all about being receptive to the environment you’re in, and having respect for nature.

What advice do you have for someone dipping a toe in natural wine. Where should they start?

Petillant naturel (pet-nat) sparkling wines are vivacious and fun, teeter towards farmhouse cider or kombucha at times, but regularly are just fizzy, joyous expressions of wine, and completely natural (no sulphur even) when best made.

Likewise, an introduction to orange wines (white grapes produced like red wines) is done well through pinot gris or grigio. When you ferment this variety on its skins it ends up kind of like a rosé, which is a pretty neat way of introducing orange wines.

If you’re trying to navigate the wine list at a bar or restaurant, just ask straight up, ‘do you have any natural wines?’ and explain what sort of wine you like normally, be it light and crisp whites, big reds, or light bodied reds that can take a chill.

I’m keen to hear what you’re drinking this autumn-winter. What should we keep an eye out for?

Small batch Australian whisky from producers like Belgrove in Tasmania. Chinato, which is aromatised wine/vermouth from red grapes typically, produced from Piedmont in Italy. Brown beers, porter, stout and the like. And Beaujolais, as it retains freshness but the best examples show depth for warming in winter.

What’s your version of getting your hands dirty?

Getting out amongst the vines, making Brian (the wine I produce in Tasmania) and assisting other wine makers in the pursuit of knowledge and learning.

Where do you go in Sydney for a bit of Plant Life Balance?

I spend a lot of time in Brisbane Waters National Park. Also, I grew up playing and walking through Lane Cove Bushland Park, which runs along Gore Creek to Gore Creek Oval, almost daily, so that’s a special place for me.

How would you rate your own Plant Life Balance?

Between super nourishing organic fruit and veg from Marrickville or Carriageworks Farmers Markets, my office, shop and home chock-full of native flowers, and my gardens in Enmore and Patonga, I think it’s pretty good. Although I don’t know if there’s such a thing as too much when it comes to plants.

If you could spend the day gardening with anyone in the world, who would it be?

I’d love to garden with any of the gatekeepers of knowledge of Aboriginal farming practices from the Gadigal or Guringai people, on whose country I spend most of my life, and where my gardens are in Enmore and Patonga. William Kent, the 18th century landscape gardener, would be a neat addition, too.

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