Article by Max Allen in the Financial Review 1st July 2017
This could be a straightforward story. I taste some new wines and think they’re beautiful. I review them. You buy them. Job done. Easy.
But it’s not straightforward at all. The story behind these wines is complicated. Nuanced. Full of dilemma and difficulty. As it is for the many small Australian wine producers who are doing it tough at the moment. Especially those who have been in the game for two or three decades.
Let’s start with the easy bit. Thirty years ago, Californians Dennis and Bonnie Vice moved to South Australia’s famous Coonawarra wine region and established Highbank Wines. They planted two small vineyards to cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc, and started renting out cottage-style accommodation to wine tourists. The Vices did things differently to their neighbours. They farmed organically, kept the crops low, strove for quality rather than quantity.
Not having their own winery, the Vices employed the services of top winemakers outside the region, first taking their fruit to Trevor Mast at Mount Langi Ghiran, over the border in Victoria, and, since 2004, to Paul Drogemuller at Paracombe in the Adelaide Hills.
Dennis Vice is 71 and far from agile. His arthritic knees, he says, are buggered. He had one replaced recently but needs the other one done before he can get back on the road. And Bonnie, who’s 66 and has been running the accommodation for three decades, is exhausted. Age, says Dennis, has caught up with them.
Things might have been different. Dennis and Bonnie’s son, Morgan, showed a passion for working in the vineyards. Tragically, he died in a car accident in 2004, aged 22. As Bonnie says, bluntly, the one that was meant to take it on is gone. The couple’s other two grown-up children aren’t keen to come back to the business. And why should they be? Just because your parents lived their romantic dreams of making wine, there’s no reason why you should be obliged to share that vision.
As a result of all this, in late 2015 they put the accommodation and the larger of their two small vineyards on the market. The tricky bit here, of course, is that it’s the income from the accommodation that has kept the business afloat through this slump in wine sales. There has been some interest in the property, but no buyers yet.
There have been distractions, too. Dennis is heavily involved in organising opposition to gas mining in the region. This is a very tough dilemma, not just for the Vices, but for the broader wine community in Coonawarra. Most of the winegrowers oppose mining. They’re deeply concerned about the potentially disastrous impact of drilling and fracking on the aquifer, and they are appalled at the prospect of rigs scarring their famous wide-open landscape of vineyards, gum trees and wineries.
But while they want to raise awareness about the issue, especially among influential politicians, winegrowers like Dennis and Bonnie Vice don’t want to scare away the tourists or sully the region’s clean, green image by kicking up too much of a fuss.
Meanwhile, every year, the grapes ripen and wine needs to be made. The Vices are currently selling their terrific 2013 and 2014 vintage reds. The 2015 and 2016 wines (tasted recently at the vineyard, as pre-release in bottle, and barrel samples respectively) are waiting patiently in the cellar and are, if anything, even better. Because of this backlog, the Vices wanted to sell their grapes from the 2017 vintage – but ended up making a couple of hundred cases of Family Reserve cabernet sauvignon from their smaller, home block.
I have long admired the Highbank wines. But the current crop, reviewed here, and the next couple of vintages in the pipeline, are superb. You should buy them, drink them, put them in your cellar. They’re some of the best Coonawarra wines – and some of the best Australian cabernets – you can find.
I’m not the only one who thinks so. The wines have attracted much critical acclaim over the years, and are on the list in many top restaurants, particularly in Sydney.
Against the tide
This all sounds, on paper, like straightforward success. But Dennis says he’s having trouble selling the wines. He ships the occasional small amount to China, where he has spent a lot of time building relationships, but it’s not the salvation he and many others in the industry would dearly like it to be. He’d also lined up a US importer last year but that fell through after Trump was elected – a story other small, premium Australian producers have told me. And local retail sales, he says, are flatlining.
To a certain extent, Highbank is swimming against the tide of wine fashion. The wines may be beautiful and they may have a great track record. But it’s hard for them to stand up in a market where cabernet is seen as old hat – especially high-priced cabernet from a daggy region such as Coonawarra – and retailers and sommeliers (and critics) are obsessed with young producers and new labels. Long established, older vignerons need to be agile in this environment. They need to keep wearing out the shoe leather, reminding old customers they exist, forging relationships with new customers.
As I say, these are some of the best Coonawarra wines – and some of the best Australian cabernets – you can find. If only it were that simple.
Taste of Highbank – 2013s and 2014s
Highbank Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Cabernet Franc (Coonawarra, SA)
The 2013 vintage of this wine is gorgeous: pretty, floral cabernet fruit lift, fine and supple tannins. The 2014 is more savoury and reserved, with elegant dusty tannins, for lovers of old-fashioned claret. Both will age superbly well in the cellar. Highbank is offering magnums of the 2014 for $77 – a bargain for fans of age-worthy cabernet. $59
Highbank Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Coonawarra, SA)
Again, the 2013 is the more approachable and eager-to-please vintage: quite plush and voluptuous mulberry fruit framed by firm but yielding tannins. And the 2014 is more restrained and shy, with tight little blackcurrant fruit flavours and cedary, savoury tannin. It needs time in the cellar to reveal all its glorious complexity. $89