It’s rare in any industry—and in life—to meet a person as sincerely passionate and genuinely interested as Campbell Burton. Our paths have crossed many times over the years, from the days when he was behind the bar at Melbourne's Builders Arms, a historic pub that's today a hub for the city's roaring natural wine scene. From there Burton has gone and started up a wine-importing business with his partner, Charlotte Ryan. They bring in and distribute wine that meets strict criteria: organically grown, additive-free, and made with love—that last part being par for the course in lo-fi winemaking.
Burton was kind enough to sit down with me for Sprudge Wine and talk about his philosophy, his wine portfolio, and the industry at large—all while attempting to eat a delicious pita-bread pocket, sitting in the dappled sunlight on a lovely Melbourne spring day. This city has a world-class natural wine scene, thanks in no small part to Campbell Burton.
This interview has been edited & condensed for clarity.
Hello Campbell, and thanks for speaking with me. First things first: how did you start in the wine industry?
My first experience of understanding that there were differences in wine and that there was something to know was back when I was working in a restaurant in New Zealand in 2001, Tiffany’s in Christchurch. I learned enough there and got enough information to realize that there was a significant amount to know—it’s my first memory of being really conscious of it.
During my time in New Zealand, I met a lady named Amy Hopkinson who was studying winemaking at the Lincoln University in Christchurch. Amy had told me, “If you’re coming to Europe, come and work with me.” So by 2005 everything just fell into place and I moved to Spain to do a vintage with her. Even back then, she was really heavily enthusiastic about biodynamic farming and doing things really well agriculturally. None of that—in a wine context—at the time meant very much to me at all. I didn’t know anything, but my mother (a remedial therapist) was always super enthusiastic about eating well so my brother and I were raised to be really conscious about what you were putting into your body so it felt right. Eventually, my visa ran out in Europe and I came back to Australia and started working at City Wine Shop.
What led you to the sort of wines that you work with at Campbell Burton Wine?
Once I had tasted a couple of wines that had not been filtered and not had anything added to them, I went from being really interested to extraordinarily interested and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. That was in 2008. I had tasted a couple of things from Le Coste, Frank Cornelissen, and Pierre Overnoy. I had no idea that you were allowed to make something that looked and smelled so interesting and delicious and digestible and different.
Then I did vintage with Mac Forbes in 2011, left City Wine Shop in 2012, started working at Builder’s Arms and Moon Under Water, did vintage with Le Grange Tiphaine in the Loire in 2012, and Claude Courtois in 2013. Working with Claude was an incredibly pivotal time. I had never worked with anyone quite so principled and committed—and I have since met many people who are even more principled, but that was the first time I had seen someone with as much passion. We sat and tasted many, many wines over the course of our time there.
That was the first time I had gone day after day of drinking wine with zero additives and it was like a lightbulb had gone off in my mind. I realized there were different things to taste, different things to smell, that you could drink a glass of wine at lunchtime and go straight back to work with a clear head.
I learned then for the first time that if you farm really beautifully in an area like that for 30 years, fermentations will happen like I’d never seen them happen before. I learned as much in that tricky, overcast vintage as I think I’ve ever learned. There were so many things that really fell into place, in terms of my own questions and learning, and I’ll always be grateful that we got the chance to be there because it was life-changing.
How many producers are you working with now?
31. We started out with four, the first shipment was really small… I’d met four really interesting quite diverse producers, so I just bit the bullet and bought about a pallet and a half across them—I apologized to all of them for such a small order, but I just wanted to see how it would go. That was the first and had Herve Ravera, Pierre Rousse, Pierre Boyat, and Catherine and Gilles Vergé—it arrived in early 2015.
What countries do you currently import from?
France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Switzerland, and Australia.
Your offering is very specific. What criteria do you use to select producers?
First of all, if I’m interested in meeting with a new producer, I’ll send them an email and explain to them straight away that I only ever work with wine that’s organically farmed and made without fining, filtration, or additions of any kind. This is the first step. From here, I’ll go and meet them, visit the vineyard, taste the wines and spend a few hours together. If the wines taste great and we feel like we would enjoy working together, then we can go to the next step.
What has the response been like from producers when you present this criteria to them? Have you ever found someone that you thought would be that way inclined to decline?
The response is typically really good! For the type of people I work with, this set of criteria is just as important to them as it is to me. Most have explained to me that they love working with importers who passionately share their beliefs and they love having their wines listed in portfolios alongside colleagues they respect.
The most important part is organic farming. It really makes my heart sing when people take over an old domaine or go into something and farm totally organically. The important thing is not simply refusing to use synthetic vineyard treatments but treating the entire farm as living, breathing whole. This is an approach that has been largely forgotten in agriculture in the past 80 or so years and it’s completely necessary that we celebrate and embrace the small farms that champion biodiversity, small-scale food production, and general health of the planet. This is the only way for produce to have true, delicious flavor and to carry the proper nutrient levels. The relevance of this to wine growing is absolute—not only is flavor enormously improved but fermentations become naturally more effective, wines become more stable, more age-worthy, and more nourishing.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about wine since you started out?
The most interesting thing I’ve learned is tasting terroir in a different way through zero-additive wines. There are lots of little features that you can taste through flavor, especially soil type and structure if nothing’s been added to the wine. It’s obscured if sulphur has been added. For example, there’s a huge difference between the tangible sense in the palette of the wine between schist soils, clay soils, decomposed granite and sand, quartz as well, they all change the structure a lot. It’s really fascinating.
I continue to grow more and more in love with the taste of a wine that’s been well farmed. I’ve loved it for the past few years and I’ll continue to love it more and more. There’s a big difference between a wine that’s had nothing added to it and it’s from a chemically farmed vineyard compared to a wine that’s come from a vineyard that’s been farmed beautifully for 20 years and had nothing added to it. There’s a huge difference. And that’s the way to make something that’s truly digestible and defines deliciousness.
One really distinct thing that I’ve always found about the wines that you have and the way that you present those wines is this term “digestible.” You talk about them in a way people talk about other naturally fermented things like kombucha or sauerkraut. Can you elaborate on that?
I realized a few years ago that for something to be truly nourishing and delicious, it needs to be alive. If you think about some of the world’s most loved foodstuffs (yogurt, cheese, sourdough, lambic beer, kimchi, etc.), they all rely on the presence of healthy lactic bacteria and the resultant lactic acid that is formed when this bacteria “consumes” carbohydrates. We know, with absolute certainty, of the health benefits of lactic acid and these fermented foods and that digestibility is a feature that ties them together. A well-made wine should provide the same sensation for your palate and your stomach and for this to happen the life in the wine must not have been stifled with sulfur dioxide or sterile filtration.
How do customers respond when they taste the wine?
Super well! We’re very proud and fortunate to work with some extraordinarily talented and dedicated people and customers enjoy having the opportunity to experience their work. Of course, the style of the wines can be really quite new and essentially very different to what many customers are accustomed to so it gives me lots of pleasure to talk about the main reasons for the difference in structure and flavor.
The way you release wines for sale is very measured, in the sense that you’re not trying to push wine on anyone before it’s at its peak. Many other people don’t talk about minimal intervention like that. They tend to be in a hurry to get them out and about. Could you talk about your approach?
I feel very lucky to have worked in a restaurant where the owners allowed me to sell the wines that I wanted to sell. And I had the opportunity to see wines evolve post shipping, so I was in a position where I learned that a good-quality natural wine will recover from shipping but that it can take a significant amount of time. There can be a big difference in terms of how a wine tastes between having rested for one month and having been rested for four months, for example. That said, there is no hard and fast rule and every wine is different; some wines require six weeks rest while others may need two years.
That has been the ultimate reason—I really want the wine to taste as good as it can possibly taste, relative to its age when it’s released. Wine buyers and sommeliers generally won’t taste it more than once and so you get one chance of introducing a new product into the market and if it’s not tasting great then who’s going to buy it?
The thing that I love most about well-made, well-farmed natural wines is that they should explode out of the glass and have a lot of aroma and a lot of flavor—they should stop conversations and essentially be quite unforgettable. In our business, we really want to do everything we can to make sure that this is the experience people in Australia have with our wines and release dates post-shipping is huge, huge part of this.
Do customers find your wines to be distinctly different to other kinds that are out there?
Totally. From the perspective of a WSET-educated sommelier, just about every aspect of a totally additive-free wine is different. From the aromatic spectrum, the flavor, the structure.
Then, from the prospective customers buying wine in a retail setting, we’ve had incredibly positive feedback for exactly the same reasons—the wines do taste different—and the choice of these wines in Australia is now significant, thanks largely to lots of other great importers such as Giorgio de Maria, Living Wines, Lo-Fi, and Wine and Food Solutions, just to name a few.
I don’t consider natural wine and conventional wine to be remotely the same thing. And I don’t think that we should be selling them as the same thing, or saying that one should taste more like the other—they’re simply different products.
In Australia and around the world, the term “natural wine” is quite ambiguous… it’s been co-opted, abused, and a lot of wines are presented as “natural” that don’t align with those inherent values. How do you feel about this, especially having watched the industry grow while your own understanding of wine has grown as well?
With respect to this issue, I would just like to make things as easy for the consumer as possible and it’s this ambiguity that has made things trickier in many cases. Yes, the term has been a little diluted within this market but, it’s important to take this opportunity to really celebrate the importance of good farming and attentive, diligent winemaking. If the word has lost a little gravity, then we need to find another way to celebrate the work of people who are making a really positive impact agriculturally. One visit to Manon Farm or Karl and Eva Schnabel’s vineyard is all you need to see just how brilliant can be the results of sensitive, holistic farming and how much this needs to be celebrated. I really like it when producers simply list what has(n’t) been added to a wine—this is a clear way help customers make a choice with a bottle of wine. Information doesn’t need to be brandished across the label but just some small print stating whether the wine has been filtered and whether it has added sulfites.
That said, we can’t ever overvalue the benefit of having a relationship with a good retailer or sommelier—after all, just because a wine is additive free doesn’t make it good—and not every style will suit everyone—advice from a serious wine lover who values excellent customer service is always handy, irrespective of the labeling or the use or non-use of the word “natural.”
While I really love the word “natural” and gladly use it in conversation, I don’t think it’s all that helpful for Australian consumers at this stage.