We are greeted by Brad Hickey, AKA Brash Higgins outside the winery. There is no commercial cellar door here as there are with several of the other McLaren vale Behemoth wineries. We feel very special to be getting a personal tour with the big friendly giant of Manhattan.
McLaren Vale deals in an eclectic mix of international varieties like cabernet, shiraz and chardonnay along with a galaxy of obscure varieties from Europe. Established giants like Clarendon Hills and D'arenberg sit alongside emerging giants such as Decanter winemaker of the year SC Pannell. McLaren Vale is often described as Australia's best kept secret.
Brad Hickey gave up a job as a top Sommelier in Manhattan to make wine in Australia. Brash Higgins was just one of the aliases he used on paper to outstay his visa and continue to work. He eventually met the love of his life Nicole, who owned a vineyard called the Omensetter. Ten years on Brad and Nicole produce some of the most fascinating and food friendly wines in the vale, dressed in unquestionably the best packaging in all of Australia!
We dive straight into the unconventional as we are given a Riesling/Semillon blend. An incredibly successful wine for him over the past few years, this years release is on point. I cannot recall trying this particular blend from anyone else but boy does it work! Next we move to the Chenin Blanc. Deep in colour and with a certain creaminess due to a little skin contact, the texture and complexity is fabulous. We are led to a small group of Amphora clay pots and things start to get even more interesting. Brad tells us about his fascination with the old Roman method of vinifying in clay and his many pilgrimages to Sicily to learn the craft. The grape is Zibibbo and it is the most interesting of the whites. The amphora and a degree of skin contact have imparted some haunting aromas and flavours but as with the others, interesting does not mean it is not gluggable! We are about to start the reds when he leads us over to a barrel labelled 'Jura'. In it he explains, is chardonnay that has been maturing for 8 years under a veil of flor, a biological aging technique used in Sherry (I helpfully add to the group). "Not exactly, more like the Jura region of France", says Brad cheerfully to chuckles from my companions. Deep amber in colour it is not like anything I have ever encountered. So complex is it that there passes several minutes of descriptors from Springbank Whiskey to Granny’s left over Christmas cake (but after New Year's). Most conspicuously though it has a zest and fresh energy that is startling. (Brad would eventually name it 'Bloom' and with less than 30 cases produced, it was near impossible to get a hold of upon release).
Heads spinning, we move to the reds. First up is the Cabernet Franc, a wine I am very familiar with. Incredibly juicy and delicious it is one of the most compulsive wines I have ever encountered. Next up is the co-fermented Grenache/Mataro made from biodynamic grapes from a Yangarra vineyard. Putting us on more familiar ground I realise that this is the first wine I would varietally expect to see from the area. Although a very strong wine I am slightly disappointed by its conventionality! Next he pours us all a large glass of wine and asks us would we like to go and eat Nero D'Avola off the vine. Brad and Nicole planted the first commercial block of Nero in 2009 and their fruits are paying dividends. Like its compatriot Zibibbo it is matured in amphora and the result is a spicy complexity that you would not expect on your holidays in Italy, this is a different beast. Everybody's wine of the day is next, resoundingly the Merlot is the winner. Amphora again, this wine should be given to everyone who has bagged Merlot unfairly (which is all of us!). It is detailed, long and completely unique. We finish with 'The Omensetter', from the family vineyard. A decidedly old-school blend of Shiraz and Cabernet. This is a powerhouse, and very much in tune with what one expects from the Vale at large.
To know Brad is to like the man so I wonder momentarily if we have enjoyed ourselves more because of his gentle charms or even the mammoth tasting pours he is giving us. The wines are the stars of the show here though. Captivating and eccentric in equal measure, Brad's mad professor instincts are kept in check somewhat by a clear natural ability in winemaking. Although I prefer it when he gets weird, demonstrable raw talent in doing the basics well acts as a currency to get away with other things.
Truly wonderful wines.