Viticulturist at Swinney in Frankland River for six years, Lee Haselgrove’s career has been marked by growing the best possible fruit to aid his winemakers.
The name Haselgrove is firmly etched in the history of Australian wine with Lee’s great-uncles – Colin at Reynella and Ron at Mildara – prominent in earlier times. His own pathway has been anything but traditional.
While studying science at Flinders University, Haselgrove worked on a friend’s farm in the Riverland and helped pull out old-vine trebbiano, palomino and doradillo and replant it to shiraz and chardonnay. Haselgrove says that at that time, his viticultural spark was ignited. Completing a Masters in Viticulture at Adelaide University before being satisfied with his studies suggested a determination to be thoroughly prepared.
Perhaps the key to the way that Haselgrove works as a viticulturist is that since establishing Mure Viticulture in 2006, he has worked with a single principal client while supporting a number of longer-term clients. This tends to give him a more detailed, longer-term perspective on a region and specific wineries than he would otherwise have. He first gave advice to Swinney in 2003 during the four years that he worked for the South Australian-based Davidson Viticultural Consulting Service.
Paramount to being awarded Viticulturist of the Year has been the incredible quality of the Swinney wines.
He and his then wife, Clemence, moved to Forest Hill in Mount Barker where she was chief winemaker and the winery was his principal client. Together they revitalised the region’s oldest label and made outstanding riesling, cabernet and, surprisingly, chardonnay. An important factor for his success at Forest Hill came from observing the 45-year-old dry-grown cabernet sauvignon. Those vines never looked stressed because, Haselgrove believes, they had had the opportunity to develop a deep and expansive root system. This was helped no doubt by viticulturist Bruce Pearse removing any weed he saw during their first 25 years.
Haselgrove and Clemence, a native of Bordeaux, made annual trips to Europe, especially from 2002 to 2006, visiting many of the key viticultural regions, tasting their finest, and developing a healthy respect for the European view of viticulture, especially the respect for the soil and the attitude to irrigation.
Paramount to Haselgrove being awarded this year’s Viticulturist of the Year has been the incredible quality of the Swinney wines from 2018 onward and especially their achievement with the sublime Farvie Grenache. Haselgrove is at pains to make clear that this involved a collaborative process in which Matt Swinney and winemaker Rob Mann were central to all that happened.
Having a history of collaborating with Swinney meant that when he started with the winery in 2013, they were able to hit the ground running. Haselgrove says that meant “getting rid of sauvignon blanc and semillon, planting vermentino and pinot gris”. As a company that sold its fruit to other wineries, it needed to have a strong economic base, to understand risks and cost in order to maximise profitability.
Aware that over the next 10 years prices would rise, they determined that the best strategy was to get their prices up, which meant producing outstanding fruit. Haselgrove uses a metaphor drawn from Australian Rules Football to make a point. He likens Swinney to full-forward, Jason Dunstall, “the best finisher in the game”. “In a weak position, he’s not too bad. In a strong position, he’s unstoppable.”
Haselgrove saw his job as producing the best possible fruit so that Swinney was placed at an advantage when selling fruit to customers. And he was delighted that the money that Swinney made was reinvested in producing top-end fruit: on compost, soil fertility and soil management. They needed to discover the best sites, enable the vines to build their root systems by gradually reducing their dependence on irrigation and enable them to connect more intimately with the soil.
In about 2014, the pair set themselves a target of producing a wine that would sell for $150 a bottle to enable them to build their reputation for growing excellent fruit. They spent the money, worked at it but didn’t succeed with the 2016 or 2017 vintage. With the 2018 vintage came the breakthrough with the release of the 2018 Swinney Farvie Grenache and 2018 Swinney Farvie Syrah. And the 2019 wines were even better.
When Haselgrove left Swinney in July this year to be closer to his young children, the customer base had grown from three to 40, the vineyards were humming and the reputation of their grapes and the wines under the Swinney and Farvie labels were assured.
Photography by Frances Andderlich