In 2009 Brash Higgins obtained some of the first cuttings of the Sicilian red wine grape, Nero d’Avola, available in Australia. Nero is drought and heat tolerant, ripens late and thrives in its native Mediterranean climate, so it seemed like a good fit for coastal McLaren Vale and our ever mounting heat and water issues. We dedicated a research block on our Omensetter Vineyard to the variety and grafted it to shiraz rootstock in October 2009. It took off like gangbusters. We were heading in the right direction, but how would we vinify it? It would take 2 years before the vines were old enough to harvest.
A little background: for a few years now I've been drinking Italian wines from Sicily and Friuli fermented and aged in clay amphora vessels, and I've found them diabolical, challenging, sometimes ethereal/scary, yet always thought-provoking wines. Frank Cornelissen and COS winery in Sicily, in particular, ferment and age their wines using this method of burying the amphora up to the rim in a cool cellar, a method which they in turn learnt from Josko Gravner in Northern Italy and he from the pre Romans. It was then that my curiosity got the best of me: how can I get my hands on these amphora? If we handle this new grape variety to Australia, nero d’Avola, in a unique and gentle way, eschewing oak and steel, then, perhaps, we can get something totally new and distinct.
Amphora seemed like a good way to not only introduce Nero d’Avola, a high acid and transparent varietal, but to make a statement, as well. We were just as ready as the Italians to step deep into the past to make a leap forward.
2011 was cool and wet, most rain since 1973, and not ideal for growing any grapes, let alone Mediterranean sun-loving types. But diligent work in the vines early, an excellent site open to mildew defeating breezes and a miraculous dry, warm week in late April helped get our first nero harvest across the line. It was a nail biter, riding up and down the rows on a ATV at dawn and dusk chasing the starlings off the latest ripening patch in the district, an esky full of Pale rattling behind me. The baume crossed 13.5.
We got the fruit there, healthy and ripe, and now all we needed was our amphora. I was distrustful of importing clay pots from abroad, especially from far way places like Georgia or Tuscany. Would they even send them or just keep my money; what if they were poorly made? And foreign amphora is even more expensive than new French oak, which had my accountant in a tizzy. So I started asking local potters if they were up to it, and they all said, “No! too hard to do, too big.” Until one of them told me to contact a family pottery in Adelaide. I had a meeting with the potter, John Bennett, and he was game to give it a shot. Even though his biggest pot to date was only a 100L Tandoori oven, Bennett’s Magill Pottery had the largest kilns in Adelaide and the most experience, so I trusted him. We wanted to use the same red clay from our vineyard for the pots, making a ‘terroir incubator” of sorts, and were happy that the red clay John used was from our local soils, nearly identical to our vineyard.
The last issue was how to line the insides of the pots, as terracotta is porous, and we weren’t ready to submerge the pots in the earth just yet. We decided on McLaren Vale bees-wax as a logical seal, and decided to apply it just after the warm pots came out of the kiln to get deep penetration into the clay. Although dried bees-wax is inert and flavourless, the pottery smelled like the inside of Winnie the Pooh’s locker. It kept the wine from evaporating, as well as keeping oxygen out post ferment. Plus, it makes the pots more hygienic for the long haul, easier to keep clean, and keeping microbial activity at a minimum.
Our research block of nero d'Avola fruit was handpicked May 1, 2011, a trim one and a half tons, then destemmed and gently crushed into each of the five amphora. A wild ferment ensued, as we left the pots open, hand plunging the skins once or twice a day. After 14 or so days the ferments went dry, the skins sank and we sealed up the amphora, skins and all, with custom made 1/4 inch thick stainless lids for 7 months. We basket pressed the fruit in late November, let it settle naturally, and bottled 112 cases unfined and unfiltered before Xmas 2011.
"More of a ballerina than a boxer, the 2011 Brash Higgins NDV is a glowing, translucent ruby in colour. On the nose waves of fresh cut lavender, ginger bread, wet stone, nutmeg and orange zest aromas leap out of the glass. Soft and delicate on the palate with an earthy warmth, there is a deep core of bright, sweet cherry fruit that belies the wine’s initial lightness. Good acidity and clarity with firm fruit tannins from extended lees and skin contact, the finish lingers long after the first sip. A gentle-natured newcomer with great purity and potential, the wine is best decanted and served with a light chill. 112 cases. BH"