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Quietly natural wine

Wine

Whitey reports on a visit to Basket Range Wine, the quiet pioneers of the modern Adelaide Hills wine industry.

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One good way of learning how a person regards their home patch is to notice which parts of it they really want you to know about. When Phillip Broderick showed me his view of Basket Range, where he’s been growing grapes with his wife Mary since 1980, he proudly showed me the school, the oval, the home of the local sculptor, and the fruit co-op cold store. All these are on hilltops.

And then, of course, there are his vineyards, which start on hilltops and plunge down into the deep, steep gullies of that bonnie upland fruit bowl, the traditional heart of Adelaide’s apple, pear, cherry and berry industries.

It’s a basket, really.

“I first planted down at the old place, down in the gully,” he told me as we wound around those hillbilly goat tracks. “I first bought it because I wanted to live there. I was talking to Steve George and Peter, Peta van Rood’s father. He’d put in a vineyard up around Clare. He said ‘this is the same height above sea level as Clare. You could get away with red here’. And the penny dropped and I thought oh well I’ll do that. He was really helpful, old Peter.”

The Broderick’s Basket Range brand now adorns some of Australia’s very best blends of the Bordeaux varieties: sublimely-perfumed, perfectly elegant red wines. They’re on a par with the beautiful Blue Poles blends from Margaret River.

“I put the grapes in just slowly,” he explained. “I put Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet, a bit of Cabernet franc and that was it. We gradually put in small patches of grapes until about 1987. That last bit was ’90: some Petit verdot. I thought if that ripens in Bordeaux, like Carmenere, it’ll work here. It’s a blender, a finisher for the good years. I like it. I’ve planted more of it.

“Not that I knew much about Bordeaux wine,” he chuckled. “I was so bone ignorant I remember they started a little bit of a wine show at Uraidla which has now evolved into the Adelaide Hills wine region. We used to go to the Uraidla Aristologist at the time of the show, and we were all standing ’round in a circle and we’d have dinner there with the Hillyers and the wines would come out and they’d have a guest judge.

“You were the guest judge one year,” he reminded me. “And you know, they were the days. Henschke was there. Croser was there. You’d stand around and you’d talk about the wines. Anyway one year one of the judges said … I think he was from Orlando or somewhere … and he said this wine’s … it was a 1989 or something … he said this wine almost tastes like a St. Emilion. And I thought who’s Sondra Millyon? No shit. His girlfriend?”

Peter van Rood was only part right in his daring presumption. Phillip found it tricky getting those first crops ripe in the depths of the gully.

“Down there the sun often didn’t get on them ’til nine o’colock in the morning it ripened really late. And so you were like a Blade Runner with ripening … it was the classic ‘Come on everybody, come and pick the grapes,’ over a weekend or a couple of weekends, and you know after a couple of years everybody’d got Tuscanned right out and it was a nightmare in the shed. But that was great. You know, family and friends and stuff.

“The first mob of vintages were from about 1986 which we won’t speak about. Barrel in the back room with Steve George [who by that stage was making wines at his Ashton Hills vineyard, just across the range]. 1988 was the first time we had stuff worth a label.”

Enough fear of those chill dark gullies eventually drove the Brodericks to buy their own hilltop, the closest one, smack in the middle of that fruit basket. They made a handsome home there, and during 2001 and 2002 planted more vineyard.

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Phillip Broderick’s hilltop at Basket Range. Photo: Philip White

“Up here … once the sun’s up at six it’s on all day. I’ve put in more Pinot, more Merlot … the first vintages from here were ’06. It just changed things. Everything ripened. The fruit set was better. You weren’t battling the cold. We finally got some good – well you can see what it’s like now. It’s good set and it just sits quietly and I’m really sparing with the water and I’ve always kept to the minimum with the sprays. Largely, if I can get away with sulphur and copper I will. If the shit’s gonna hit the fan, then I’ll take steps.”

While Phillip has been very quiet about his wines and the fruit he sells to highly appreciative rivals, one felt obliged to ask him about some of the young local winemakers who have earned much feverish praise for their so-called ‘natural’ wines.

He was reluctant to take that plunge. Eventually he did:

“Natural wine? I think it sort of goes into factional schools rather than your actual natural. I’m not quite sure what natural wine is. Or the natural wine movement. It’s a question. What I aspire to in actual farming is to bring it back to the farming practises of 1945. The basics. Before the chemicals came.

“For example: all the apple crops ’round here had rhubarb growing ’round them,” he explained. “So the cash crop was rhubarb, but the rhubarb also knocked off the Codling moth. The way you could work it was just a very nice balance. That’s the idea. You get horse poo and cow poo, you shove it in with your chooks. What do the chooks do? They eat every seed out of it so then when you spread it in your garden you don’t bring weeds in with it. That’s what you do. Very simple. That’s my idea of nice balanced farming. Use what you’ve got intelligently and to apply and interefere the least you can.

“I assume that’s what natural winemaking aspires to. But how they can get away with basically this ‘Shove it in the shed and walk away and come back and it’s all made’ mentality I’m not sure about. You do need to work it, and obviously you’ve gotta plunge it and that’s what we do here. I don’t use introduced yeast. I used to. I don’t anymore. So in one sense I suppose I’d call myself a natural winemaker but I’m classified as not by most people in that regard. I don’t know how you could be any more natural. I’m not using glyphosate this year for the first time. I’m gonna give that [abstinence] a good run and see what it does to the soils. I’d like to be able to stay away from it. These soils need to get more life back into them.”

The next tricky question concerned a more obvious problem: bushfire.

“Fire?” he retorted. “My favourite season has always been winter. Apart from autumn, which is just beautiful. But what’s summer? Summer in the Hills, and in lots of other places, is basically the fear of nuclear war, which can break out at any time. And snakes. Brownies. That’s what you’ve got to watch. They’re the kurdaitcha men. They’re there when you don’t expect them. And they scare the crap out of you. But you never go hunting them. They’ve been here a lot longer than I have.”

Next obvious question: how does he pay for it?

“I’m a magistrate,” he explained, “and I’m currently in the Youth Court. That can be pretty interesting. It gets a bit gothic in there sometimes. A bit of criminal; a bit of child protection.”

Before that, he’d worked for years with isolated Aboriginal communities. In a similar lifelong commitment to public service, Mary is a full-time nurse at the Stirling hospital. So how do they find the time to run a winery?

“We’re lucky because we’ve got this lovely team of Laos people who’ve been with me for 10 years,” he said.

“Always employ Buddhists. They do the pruning. Shoot-thinning they’ve just finished. They’re there on the knocker. They’re there rain hail or shine. Always smiling. Very generous, very honest. Very hard working. They’re adroit. Very fast pickers. I just have enormous respect for them. Without them I couldn’t do it. The country here is very steep. On a hot day, it’s no picnic.”

Tractor work? “I use local contractors. They do the slashing and the spraying. I’ve only got weekends. And you’ve got to have a life as well, so it gets a bit round-the-clock at vintage. You’ve gotta do pumping out and plunging and whatever. It just sucks your day. Mary’s been pretty bloody patient, frankly.”

Praise Bacchus and Pan for that.

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