The Australian Winemaker of the Year knows a couple of things about wine: first, it’s a way of life and second, harmony is everything.
Nick Farr has taken out the 2020 award for Australian Winemaker of the Year, having been previously nominated back in 2013.
When I interviewed him then, he was already 14 years into his career. At that time he was a serious interviewee, deliberative and considered, clearly absorbed in his craft, with a confidence that comes from immersion, experience, practise and contemplation. Now, seven years later, he has at last taken top honours, an accolade he earned with the growing and making of detailed and vibrant wines that have a magical quality about them.
Farr began his apprenticeship under his father, the redoubtable Gary Farr. From 1978, Gary Farr raised Bannockburn Vineyards to great acclaim before establishing By Farr Estate in 1994, where he continued to make ethereal wines with a rare ability to age. That pedigree might have made for a distinct advantage you might think, yet for Nick it has been no easy feat to reach this point; it has been a hard-fought journey of self-realisation, determination and tough love. It was by no means the future he saw for himself as a young man.
For a long time, he considered the work laborious, but ... it became his own labour of love.
“All I wanted to do as a teenager was play tennis in America, then all of a sudden Dad made me go out and hoe weeds”, he told me back then. For a long time, he considered the work laborious, but with time he yielded to what was perhaps the inevitable and began to embrace a vigneron’s way of life. Slowly it became his own labour of love. By the age of 21, replete with an agricultural science degree, he set about making text-book pinot noir from a newly acquired vineyard, aptly named Farr Rising. His father, and mother Robyn, encouraged him to jump in, and with free rein he produced his first vintage in 2001. Over the next couple of years, however, Farr discovered that nothing about making pinot was a text-book endeavour.
With this realisation came the understanding that if he was to successfully follow in his father’s footsteps, it would require a commitment, patience, listening and hard work. And that’s how it played out. Throughout, the family endlessly discussed rootstocks, clones, density, vineyard orientation and trellising, ultimately making determinations for each soil type. Likewise, they tackled the dry, windswept conditions of Moorabool Valley, Geelong, and began working with mulch to help cool the soils and retain moisture, all underpinned by a conversion and commitment to organics.
There has also been a gradual expansion of plantings, based on this meticulous analysis, which now includes the Côte Vineyard for chardonnay and pinot, as well as their first trial crops of nebbiolo and garganega. Meanwhile Farr has been making gamay, which has proven so successful that it actually informs how he now makes his pinot.
A great deal has happened since he was first nominated seven years ago, but he considers those developments to be the subtle honing of a craft already well in hand – “more fine tuning than anything radical”. Now, more than 20 years in the industry, he’s observed that the key to it all is to get the vines to the point where they are harmony with where they are planted. They become naturally more expressive and complex, allowing him to be more hands-off. Not that he’s working any less. Nowadays Gary and Robyn have stepped back, and Farr is running the day-to-day business of the farm with wife Cassie and their kids.
Two decades on, the apprentice has found his own mastery. Yet, all technique aside, there is one overarching philosophy that adds meaning to the work that gets him up in the morning: that wine is a part of life, a way of living. It accompanies everything he does, and to perfect it, you have to play the long game. Something Nick Farr knows all about.
Photography by James Broadway.