Brash Higgins' Nero d'Avola amphora project

More of a ballerina than a boxer

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Brad Hickey, of Brash Higgins Wines, McLaren Vale, South Australia

Brad Hickey, of Brash Higgins Wines, McLaren Vale, South Australia

 

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 and thrived in its native Mediterranean climate, so it seemed like a good fit for coastal McLaren Vale and our ever increasing 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 once it was old enough to harvest?

For a few years now I had been drinking Italian wines from Sicily and Friuli fermented and aged in clay amphora vessels, and I found them diabolical, challenging and thought provoking wines. COS winery in Sicily, in particular, ferments and ages their Nero d’Avola 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 ancients. 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.

Australian wines were getting bashed overseas for being homogeneous and lab made, and I was tired of hearing it. 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 hood, an esky full of Pale rattling behind me.

We got there, and we also had 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 John Bennett at his family pottery in Adelaide. We had a meeting and he was game to give it a shot, even though his biggest pot to date was a 100L tandoori oven. Bennett’s Magill Pottery had the largest kilns in Adelaide and the most experience. We wanted to use some of the red clay from our vineyard for the pots and were happy that all the clay was from soils almost identical to ours.

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 came up with 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 gym.

Well we got it all together, amazingly, and the result is highly drinkable. More of a ballerina than a boxer, and a glowing, translucent ruby in colour. On the nose waves of fresh cut lavender, honey, wet stone 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. Best served with a light chill.

 

Regions

  • Fleurieu (including Kangaroo Island) (SA)
  • McLaren Vale (SA)

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February 02nd, 2012
 
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