Brash Higgins, the man, doesn’t exist. In 2007, he was an idea, used to harbor and conceal an illegal alien from the prying eyes of the Australian authorities. An alias, an alter-ego, conceived in the mind of a man from New York City, so that he could buy himself more time amongst the grapevines of South Australia. Nowadays, Brash Higgins exists somewhere between a vineyard in the McLaren Vale, and a glass of wine (minus the vowels) in your nearest wine bar. His creator, Brad Hickey, is an American sommelier who transformed into a winegrower after arriving in Australia and falling in love.
“I first came to Australia in 2004, on a wine buying trip,” says Brad, “and I fell in love with South Australia and the McLaren Vale. The coast and the space and the clean elements here were so nice, compared to the urban jungle of New York.”
A decade before Brad Hickey landed in Australia, he worked as a wine director for some of New York’s finest restaurants, curating wine lists and talking to customers about this magical juice. Working at places like Union Square Cafe and Bouley, Brad was surrounded by talented humans, amazing food and great wine.
“It was fun to be able to write wine lists and educate people about wine,” says Brad. “I had access to a million dollar cellar and a massive amount of cool wines, especially at Test Kitchen in Tribeca… and it was all hands on, so I never went down the Master Sommelier or WSET path, because, in New York, I was living it, and the experience was so much more than the theory, because it was real.”
Enamored with the things he’d seen on his first trip to Australia, Brad made plans to go back and work vintage in the Barossa.
“I was feeling a little burnt out, back in New York, and didn’t want to stay” says Brad, “so when I was invited to return to South Australia and work vintage, I was happy to.”
Brad worked for 3 months with Chris Ringland in the Barossa Ranges until his visa ran out. So, he flew to Vietnam for a month and was inspired to farm. Brad returned to South Australia and met his future partner, Nicole Thorpe, during winter pruning work. Brad fell in love for the second time and decided to stay, so switched on stealth mode in order to continue working, under the radar. Brash was a nickname given to him by his vintage colleagues, and Higgins was an arbitrary name that Brad used to mask his true identity from the authorities. Eventually, after securing residency, Brad wanted to make some wine of his own and, without enrolling in any formal training, his alter ego, Brash Higgins, was reborn as a wine label.
“It took a while to get educated on how to make wine,” explains Brad, “and, in some ways, not being formally trained has been a godsend, because it’s allowed me to take risks and do things I might not have done if I had been trained.”
Nicole’s family already owned a vineyard, called ‘Omensetter’, which is where all of the fruit for the Brash Higgins reds – nero d’avola, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon – come from. The vineyard is managed sustainably, without being organic or biodynamic.
“The vineyard has been treated with an integrated pest management mentality,” explains Brad, “so it’s definitely not organic, but we only use a minimum amount of under vine spray (glyphosate aka round up) to control weed growth, which helps us preserve water.”
“Water,” Brad says, “is our biggest factor for vine health on our vineyard, and throughout most of the McLaren Vale. We have very little disease pressure here with our warm, dry climate, and winds off the Gulf… We’re interested in sustainability without going down the path of saying we’re organic or biodynamic, because for me, it’s too limiting.”
Brash Higgins is a participant of the McLaren Vale Sustainable Winegrowing Program, which, according to their website is, ‘the only viticulture sustainability program of its kind in Australia’ with ‘40% of McLaren Vale’s total vineyard area represented in the program.’ There is an emphasis on taking a balanced approach to viticulture that recognises the environmental, social and economic aspects to sustainable wine growing.
“We believe that the McLaren Vale Sustainable Winegrowing Program is the best way forward for the future,” says Brad, “by taking economic factors into the picture and also instituting ways of holding growers accountable for their results. We’re certainly a very green and very caring production here,” continues Brad. “The fruit is all hand picked and treated with respect, and we follow the fruit to create wines that are incredibly uncluttered, meaning that we make no additions to our wines… what you see is what you get.”
It’s a been a slow process of constant learning, experimenting and evolving since their first vintage in 2011, but Brad recognises that vineyard management and picking decisions play a huge role in getting the wine to be whatever it will be.
“We work really hard in the vineyard to get it right, so that we can let the fruit take the lead once we get it back into the winery. The biggest decision is when you pick, and from that point on things are allowed to take their time,” says Brad.
Brad is a big fan of extended skin contact fermentation, for both whites and reds, and he was first in the McLaren Vale to experiment using amphora (an egg shaped vessel made of clay) to make his wines in. He now has a small army of 22 amphora, which he uses to make Brash Higgins wines, including the ZBO, or zibbibo, which comes from a 75 year old dry grown vineyard in the Riverland.
“Zibbibo is like big aromatic cartoon fruit,” says Brad, “they’re table grapes and usually used for making sweet and dessert wines. We’re always looking to try something new by adding something different to the wine world, and when I heard about this grape and where it was grown, I thought we could do something different.”
The fruit was picked overnight and driven back to Brash Higgins base camp, where it was de-stemmed and dumped into the waiting clay amphora. Once the wild ferment kicked off, Brad plunged the fermenting juice a couple of times a day, before leaving it to sit on skins for five months. The result is an intriguing combination of flavours. Cinnamon and lemon cake, dried apricots and sunshine, to be drunk whilst sitting on green grass next to the ocean on a warm summers day. There’s no fining or filtration, and only 20ppm sulphur at bottling.
Brad Hickey is a man, and Brash Higgins is symbolic of a series of transformations that he has experienced in life. As Brad best explains, “My transformation from my sommelier to Aussie vinitor. Grape skins break and wine is born, and I hope to create wines that transform peoples’ thoughts about what is possible.”
D// – The Wine Idealist