Brash Higgins isn’t a person. It’s a myth, a universal theme about leaving and searching, absorbing experiences, embracing friendships and creating things to inspire other dreamers. As a myth, it belongs to no one and is offered to all; an idea to inhabit, if you’re the dreaming type.
And clearly I am. I’d enjoyed some of the wines before but was blindsided at a
recent tasting. You go to these things and assess away, routine, business-like. You nod, raise and furrow eyebrows, jot down notes, move on. As journalist and student I guess I’m generally uptight and on guard but on this occasion the Brash Higgins range burst through my defences. I sighed in surrender and felt an urge to lay down arms – pen, notebook, phone – kick back and enjoy a drink. Perhaps the wines spoke to my inner Brash.
New York sommelier Brad Hickey first travelled to Australia in 2004 as a guest of US wine importer Dan Philips. On that trip he met then Rockford winemaker Chris Ringland. The two stayed in touch and when Ringland invited Hickey to work vintage in the Barossa in 2007, Hickey jumped at the chance. He ended up staying on in South Australia and pruning vineyards in McLaren Vale that winter, by which time the Aussies had rechristened him Brash. Brash Higgins, the fake name used to keep immigration officials off his tail, ultimately became the mythical hero of this adventure.
Hickey fell in love with, and in, McLaren Vale. It was here that he met partner Nicole Thorpe. Together they now own the Omensetter Vineyard, from which his Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Nero d’Avola wines are made. “It’s always something I’ve followed in my life, to try to work with good people who enjoy what they do and who I enjoy being with,” he tells me. “They say fortune favours the brave. I’ve done that kind of thing a few times and landed on my feet. That gave me the confidence to make the big leap from New York to McLaren Vale. I see this as an incredible land of opportunity and possibility. I moved from a high-population urban jungle to an area where there’s an immense amount of space and natural beauty.”
And it sent his imagination soaring. Co-fermented Grenache/Mataro and amphora-fermented Nero d’Avola were the two wines that inspired this blog, while I didn’t even get to try the Riverland-grown Zibibbo (the cool name for Muscat of Alexandria; the label’s even cooler, like a 70s juice brand on acid) because it’s so insanely popular.
“I’m really happy with the variety of tastes that we’ve created, from light and ethereal to more classic archetypes,” he says. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel with Shiraz and Cabernet. Those are wines to express the vineyard.”
While respecting tradition – and achieving excellent results – with those two varieties, Hickey’s sommelier heart beats strong. That means there’s always a puzzle to solve and new gems to unearth. “I like to drink all kinds of styles from all over the place. I felt this way when I built wine lists. There’s no point having two things that are the same. Before we put a new wine into the Brash Higgins stable, I look closely at what I’m adding to the landscape here.
“Wine drinkers want to dream and imagine a little bit,” he concludes. “I’m constantly searching for wines that have interest and personality, and that’s an endless quest. To those who are dreaming and fossicking, I want to say: ‘Here’s something that might be a little bit different and hopefully a bit delicious’.”
Brash Higgins NDV Nero d’Avola Amphora Project 2013 McLaren Vale
Hickey’s first few vintages in Australia were “excruciatingly hot”, making it difficult to craft elegant wines from Shiraz, Cabernet and Grenache. “I wanted to find something that was a more natural fit for the vineyard. I thought of Nero d’Avola because it’s a very Sicilian climate here: hot, dry and windy. When I heard it was available I was very eager to experiment with it.”
He grafted over some Nero vines in 2009 and made the first wine in 2011, fermented in 200-litre beeswax-lined amphorae made by fifth-generation Adelaide potter John Bennett. The wine spends six months on skins and is hand plunged twice a day for the first four weeks or so.
Inviting bright ruby in colour, with a pronounced nose at once deep/rooty and bright/floral – bass notes of rhubarb, beetroot and fresh liquorice with lavender, plum and cherries in a higher key. The entry is soft with vibrant red fruits, the sweetness in check. It’s fleshy and plummy through the mid-palate with a cherrystone tang that never leaves, yet accompanying that brightness is bitter-mocha depth to slump into, blanketed by mouth-hugging, fine-grained tannins. The tangy acid draws it out to a conclusion of moderate length. A juicy, caressing and very moreish wine.
Costs $42 from winery website – Alcohol 14% –Tasted 18/03/14
Brash Higgins GR/M Grenache Mataro 2012 McLaren Vale
This co-fermented blend is another happy experiment launched in the tough 2011 vintage. “I thought we’d make a more interesting wine if we could ferment them together. It’s almost like you create a new hybrid.”
Bright crimson/garnet in colour, the perfumed nose giving off violet floral notes backed by red berry and plum, leather and earth. The attack is heavenly – sweet raspberry, blood plum and cherry – before the mid-palate adds some wilder, darker notes – mulberry, blueberry and damp earth. It’s juicy and harmonious with chewy tannins and lively acidity guiding it along. There’s a fair amount of heft in there, but the sheer, unflagging allure of the texture and aromas leaves you with the impression of gentle and welcome seduction.
Costs $37 from winery website – Alcohol 14.5% – Tasted 18/03/14