Creative, small batch beauties made from thoughtfully sourced Riverland fruit.
Search the term ‘Riverland’ when you hit Unico Zelo’s bright, vibrant website and the result is dizzying. Just ask brand ambassador (aka “Wine Guy”) Noah Ward. It’s his job to spread the word (and wine).
There’s the Unico Zelo River Sand; a fun white drop packed with pineapple and tropical flavours. Then there’s the Unico Zelo Disco Caviar which combines Fiano from the Riverland’s ancient sandy limestone soils and the head-snapping twang of native finger limes. The NSFW White (or not so, ahem white) is a playful mix of Moscato Giallo and Grenache, while the Halycon Days Nero d’Avola was made using fruit sourced from Barmera. The Seafoam Fiano is devilishly playful fizz, and the Esoterico (which has a cult following) contains Zibibbo, Gewurztraminer, Moscato Giallo and Greco from the hood (with a bit of Chardonnay thrown in for good measure). There’s even a True Blue red blend and a Unico Mando liqueur made from Riverland citrus.
As a line-up, they are a titillating example of what can be done with Riverland-grown fruit, something Unico Zelo founders Brendan and Laura Carter have championed for nearly a decade.
“We started getting fruit from the Riverland in 2014,” Brendan says. “We’ve continued to make more of the same Italian varieties, rather than lots of different ones”
In addition to Fiano, Vermentino, Nero d’Avola and Greco, the team sources Moscato Giallo (grown mostly in northern Italy) and Zibibbo (aka Muscat of Alexandria which is believed to have originated in Egypt).
The Unico crew was fuelled by the positive reaction their creations received across the US market.
“We were selling wine over there and they were thrilled that they were seeing Australian wines but also alternative varieties,” Laura says. “They’d say, ‘This is not in any of the books… this is not in our education. We don’t even know that this stuff is growing and being made is Australia and it’s so cool’.” Laura smiles. “That was point at which we realised; okay we need to do more of this.”
Ricca Terra’s Ashley Ratcliff manages Unico Zelo’s relationship with a handful of growers. “We also source from Basshams,” Brendan says. “The quality of their fruit is wonderful.”
Brendan are Laura are big thinkers. They’re not afraid to give something a go – especially if it involves education and greater connection with consumers.
When COVID forced the hospitality industry into lockdown, the tech savvy go-getters launched ‘Wine For The People’ – a daily live streamed happy hour featuring entertainment, interviews, and wine education. For their efforts, they won The Great Wine Capitals award for Innovation in the 2021 Best of Wine Tourism Awards.
The informative broadcasts included many-a Riverland producer (and fan) and were recorded at their Gumeracha cellar door. There, winemaker Laura’s creations are poured (along with a healthy collection of their Applewood Distillery spirits) and visitors can hear why they’re such big fans of the Riverland.
“We have a particular methodology when it comes to selecting vineyard sites,” Brendan says. “We go from the Riverland, to Clare Valley, to the Adelaide Hills. We’re trying to prove that Fiano and Nero d’Avola are noble in a sense that they can translate a vineyard site really well.” He pauses. “The Riverland is a key part of that. Firstly, it’s a very important place to make wine from – period – but also, it’s a very unique place. It not only has the oldest soil, but it is a place where you can find fresh limestone in a hot climate. Next to Morocco, that doesn’t exist.”
The river itself is an important part of the jigsaw. “We’re able to make high quality wine off high quality soils in a hot area exposed to bodies of fresh water,” Brendan says. “It’s a river that as powerful as the Mississippi… It’s just bonkers to think of.”
There’s mystery and intrigue underground, too.
“The beautiful thing is that it’s an old flood plain. People talk about Kimmeridgian soil [a mix of limestone and clay made eons ago] and dead sea life. Where do you think we got the limestone from? Or crustaceans in the river? There’s just not enough discourse around soil.”
Unico Zelo’s portfolio of wines is particularly popular interstate, where Brendan says stigma about the Riverland simply don’t exist.
“If I held up a map of Australia, 99 per cent of people couldn’t point to where the Riverland is and yet the name is so evocative. It’s awesome.”
He smiles. “This generation of drinkers seeks identity. If we can provide that through something unique, something they’re happy with from a quality perspective, and something they can actually call their own… that’s huge. That’s called brand equity.”