The story behind McLaren Vale winery, Brash Higgins, is a unique one.
Co-founder Brad Hickey, is a former New York sommelier, turned McLaren Vale winemaker who made the decision to venture to the great southern land after visiting South Australia on an industry trip back in 2007.
With a background in horticulture, and aspirations to become a food writer, Hickey worked in a number of restaurants and vineyards in France, then moved back State-side to pursue beer brewing in Portland, Oregon before heading east to the Big Apple where he scored a gig composing restaurant wine lists.
“When I moved to New York to work as a writer, I obviously needed work to stay afloat,” says Hickey. “Even though I knew more about wine than most (Hickey’s father was a wine importer) I didn’t know that there was actually a job out there where you could be a sommelier or be a wine director for a restaurant, so I sort of thought, ‘well this writing stuff is pretty hard, in the meantime I’m going to take a leap and go down the wine path’… And I kind of thought ‘if I’m going to work in a restaurant, I’m going to work in the best that I can,’ so I started working at one of the better restaurants in New York, Danny Meyer’s Union Square Caf.
From there, the wine director at the Union Square Caf offered Hickey a job as a “wine cellar rat” at the Saint Redges Hotel – a mid-town hotel with a four Michelin star restaurant. Hickey says that the role served as a sort of apprenticeship that comprised largely of receiving, unpacking and doing all the behind the scenes wine related activities for the restaurant and hotel.
“When wine makers came to New York, they would come to the restaurant and then come down to the cellar with my wine director and taste wine. So that is where it all started and from there, I kind of got into a tuxedo and went onto the floor where I learned about service, how to sell wine and how to serve it and all the things that go along with being a sommelier.”
Following his position at the Saint Redges Hotel, Hickey moved to Daniel, a French mecca of gastronomy on the Upper East Side, then to a position as head sommelier for Caf Boulud before landing a role David Bouley’s three Michelin star Tribeca restaurant Bouley – a stint that lasted five years and which Hickey describes as the “apex” of his hospitality career.
“I knew that at the end of that, it would be at the end of my restaurant tenure. I just wasn’t interested in opening a restaurant – you know you get to that stage in your career when you sort of think, ‘why am I being abused like this?!’… That’s clearly a path that a lot of people take but I knew I didn’t want to do that. Restaurants are amazing but obviously it’s very, very hard work to own your own. If you’re not sort of wired for it, it’s not going to work.”
Sommelier to vigneron
It was at this time that Hickey decided that another seachange was in order. McLaren Vale had made a big impression on him when he visited the area on a buying trip, so he decided to take a leap by sub-letting his New York apartment and moving to Australia.
Not long after arriving in McLaren Vale, Hickey met local vigneron, Nicole Thorpe who invited him to stay with her at the Omensetter Vineyard which sits on the south-western lip of McLaren Vale, and boasts seven acres of red-brown clay over limestone. To avoid the attention of Australia’s immigration department, the next year was filled with short trips overseas every three months – a period which ended up inspiring the brand name, Brash Higgins. (Brash being an amalgamation of Hickey’s first name Brad and the term Brash American; and Higgins referring to a fake name that Hickey used when filling out ID forms during his backpacking days.)
The wines that Hickey and Thorpe set out to make under the Brash Higgins brand were those that Higgins used to get excited about when he was purchasing wine in New York – medium bodied wines that work perfectly with food.
“The wines that I sort of gravitated towards in NY were the ones that had stories, were delicious and easy to work with Bouley’s food. So when I started making wine, I wanted to make the kind of wine that I would like to buy.”
With a million different types of Shiraz and a million different kinds of Cabernet on the market, Hickey and Thorpe knew that they had to come up with something that would separate their offering from the rest of the market. While the pair had every intention of continuing to grow McLaren Vale’s mainstay varietals, they decided to take a leap into the unknown by being the first winery to get cuttings of Italian varietal Nero D’avola in McLaren Vale, and the first to commercially produce a wine from it.
Considering that McLaren Vale’s climate is almost identical to that of Sicily, and the risks associated with extensive droughts are forever present in Oz, introducing an Italian varietal that didn’t need and a great deal of water and could handle excessive heat – such as Nero D’avola – was a no-brainer.
“We sought of thought, well, we grow those varieties [Shiraz and Cabernet] so we are definitely going to make those wines, but what else can we do? Why not take out some Shiraz and put in Nero D’Avola – which of course nobody in their right mind would do. It was really just a Brash attitudee to say, ‘well, let’s take out some Shiraz and put in a variety that has never been seen here before? Wouldn’t that be fun? And if it works, we could be heroes!’”
According to Hickey, today there are at least 25 different growers in Australia growing Nero D’Avola, the largest concentration being in McLaren Vale along with a number of growers in Riverland Victoria. In addition to growing Nero D’Avola, Hickey decided to travel to Sicily to learn how to use an open Amphora (clay kiln) fermenter and naturally occurring yeasts on his quest to create approachable, medium-bodied and delicate drops that work well with food.
“So we had a new variety and a really ancient [wine making] technique, the combination of which really helped put Brash Higgins on the map. So that was in 2011 and at that time in Melbourne and Sydney, the wine scene was, and still is, thriving. Places like Fix St James and 121 BC were really supportive of those first wines of ours, and those styles [are still reflective of] the wines that we are making across the board at Brash Higgins. Those with massive drinkability and those that are more interested in the fruit and trying to capture where the wine actually grew and where it comes from. It contrasts to the big rich opulent styles of wine.
“Medium bodied wines are really where it’s at, and that’s what a lot of these alternative varieties that you’re also seeing in the Vale are championing which is really positive. Premitevo, Nero D’avola for example, people who are growing those varieties are making them with a light hand – they are not making them look like Shiraz. I think they realise that the real magic with these varieties is that they can thrive in a hot area but still produce a medium-bodied style. At the end of the day, the great wines of the world are medium–bodied, in my opinion. It’s not the massive wines that captivate people, it’s Burgundy, it’s Barolo, those beautiful, fine, elegant styles of wine.”
Scarce Earth Project
As an area that has been traditionally overshadowed by the big reds of the Barossa Valley, Hickey says that McLaren Vale has well and truly placed itself on the national wine map in recent years.
An initiative that has helped drive interest in the region is the McLaren Vale Grape Wine & Tourism Association’s Scarce Earth Project, which was designed to showcase the release of select single block Shiraz from the region. Inspiration for the initiative came about in 2009 when the Association was bequeathed with a highly detailed geology map that had taken around 20 years to create. According to the association, the map is the most detailed and accurate wine geology map in the world.
“McLaren Vale is really sort of coming into a golden age,” says Hickey. “In the 90s McLaren Vale was making lots premium wines for the Hunter Valley and really was in the shadow of the Barossa – it didn’t really have its own real personality, and it wasn’t really considered as one of the bigger wine regions. Then in the last five or six years, there has been so many interesting initiatives like Scarce Earth. You know the [wine geology] map puts us light years ahead in terms of identifying without question why one vineyard might be different from another.”
According to Hickey, the map identifies all the special ‘nooks and crannies’ of vineyards in the region that represent ideal parcels of land for growing grapes, the next step of which he says – like in the evolution of any wine region – is to identify which vineyards produce the best of a particular variety.
As part of the project, each year a tasting panel comprising winemakers and wine specialists will select wines to be part of that particular year’s Scare Earth program. Each of the wines chosen will only be available for sale for a strict three month period at the Association’s cellar door with none of the wines distributed outside of McLaren Vale – a decision that was made specifically to drive wine tourism to the region during the winter months.
“It’s a big marketing project for McLaren Vale, but it’s tied very specifically to that map,” says Hickey. “The Adelaide Hills and the Barossa are now all eagerly trying to come up with their own maps, which is really interesting. Everybody wants one now because it’s just an amazing tool for all the winemakers, but also for the region to look at land that may have been developed that in the future could be really interesting for vineyards.”
Hickey says that the Project itself was driven by ex-president of the Association, Dudley Brown of Inkwell Wines and as a testament to the authenticity of the program, Inkwell’s wines didn’t make the list until 2011.
“For the first two years, Dudley’s wines weren’t picked and he was one of the people that came up with the idea, so it’s really quite authentic. You know people who have vineyards that sell their fruit to Grange didn’t get picked, so in that sense it’s quite fair and really interesting.”
For more information on the Scare Earth project, click here.
Hospitality magazine visited the McLaren Vale wine region as part of Brand South Australia's Epicurean Way tour in association with Tasting Australia.