They were two very different years. Well, 2020 was a year like no other anyway, but the vintage conditions were ice and fire – though not necessarily in that order.
Nick Farr’s vintage reports below detail the rollercoaster rides perfectly, so there’s no need to labour the point in the preamble. In short, 2019 saw the heatwaves – culminating in the purchase of 35 headlamps for pre-dawn harvesting to get the grapes in fast and cool. 2020 didn’t need headlamps – and even if it did there was only Nick, his sidekick Joel, mum, dad and a handful of backpackers thanks to Covid-19. But even so, the warm, dry conditions of the previous year had given way to a watch-and-wait scenario as the small and socially distanced crew wondered if the fruit would ever get ripe.
Spoiler alert: It did. Not only that but people have long since lapped up the 2019 Viognier and Chardonnay, and thus know that the wines were as driven and precise as ever. These are resilient vineyards, and cool, experienced heads rule the By Farr roost.
Nick reminisces on picking in the dark in 2019, flashes of light and snatches of chit-chat drifting through the leaves, with a calmness that seemed surreal. Then came 2020 – now that was surreal (if not calm). As Nick acknowledges, lockdown life on the farm was in some ways a dream. And then there’s the exceptional good fortune, in a year of fire, smoke and frost, of having any sort of harvest at all.
To cap it off, 2020 was the year when the By Farr family celebrated its second Gourmet Traveller WINE Winemaker of the Year award, with Nick winning the crown some 20 years after his father earnt it.
As Nick says, we should take the time to reflect with wonder on the backdrop against which these remarkable wines came about. We should always do that, really; take time, think back and enjoy the moment. For there is so much to admire – tenacity, conviction, skill, foresight – in the story of By Farr. And so much to love about these wines.
2020 was a year we thought would never end. Winter rains kickstarted the season, making it possible to achieve ample soil moisture leading into spring. However, we were then dealt a different hand from what we were expecting. The constantly evolving environment, be it natural, social or economic, set the scene for the great unknown of 2020.
There’s too much for us to reminisce about in a year that saw a world in pain. Somehow our line of work – agriculture – was considered “an essential service”, and with that came a life on the farm that l loved. We also housed five international backpackers that l began to know a little too well…
Spring was harsh, with early season frosts causing a 15% loss across the Côte vineyards. Conditions quickly dried out, with strong, cold strong winds destroying the canopy and leaving shoots all over the ground. Those winds hampered fruit set, and then we had hail across the original house site.
In summer, hot, dry winds swept across the Victorian landscape with unthinkable bushfires across the state. The vineyard was not at the forefront of our minds. Then in the New Year, the wind settled and rain appeared on the horizon. Finally, the vines found relief before a very cool end to summer.
In autumn the vines looked battered yet verdant due to the mid-summer rain. Covid-19 was upon us, which begged the question: Who was going to help pick the fruit? Then the grapes ripened very slowly, making us wonder if we’d reach the desired flavour and sugar. We tentatively started picking on 15th March – but the fruit wasn’t ready.
We resumed harvest on 20th March in the Sangreal vineyard, which showed that there is always great sweet-fruit expression in this site, even in cooler years. As we ventured into other parcels for picking, we realised it was a year for less whole bunch in the ferments than is typical. We found there already to be a lightness and length to the juice, which is what whole-bunch fermentation generally brings to the wines.
We finished picking on 23rd April with some excitement, yet it had been a hard slog. My parents Gary and Robyn picked in a separate vineyard from the five backpackers, who in turn picked separately from our two permanent staff, in order to socially distance. The saving grace was that the fruit ripened extremely slowly, placing time on our side where in regular years we would have had 25 pickers a day helping.
The bottled wines are precise and fine. The reds to be released in 2022 have poise about their structure. The whites are complex and approachable. As light and fresh wines, they are perfectly balanced. All we can ask of our vineyards is that they speak and express their soil, the growing conditions of that particular year, and classic varietal characteristics.
We’re very fortunate to have had the opportunity to harvest our fruit, as there were many that where hugely impacted by fire, smoke or frost. During the coming years these wines will need to be tasted in a quiet corner to reflect how they came about. And there’s so much to reflect on, and all in the same year that the family secured our second ‘Winemaker of the Year’ award. – Nick Farr
There was great resilience shown this year by vineyard and vigneron. The vineyard and earth’s surface had never looked this dry, yet the performance of the vines this vintage was remarkable. We learn so much about our soil and vine health each vintage. To still see an abundance of foliage on the vine at this stage of the year shows us that the continual aeration, moisture penetration and general biological approach to viticulture is working in our unique and harsh Australian site.
With little to no rain during the spring months, the vineyards were very reliant on the (lower-than-average) sub-soil moisture from lower winter rainfall. Moving through the months of November and December, it was apparent that we were in for lower-than-average yields, and as we started to irrigate some vineyards in mid-December, we were conscious not to give the vines false hope, which might have led to unsustainable canopy and fruit load on the vines. When irrigating in years like this, we find it best only to help maintain the natural progression of the vines, regardless of the potential yields further irrigation can bring.
After an extremely warm month of January, we thought that the season had moderated until the forecast showed one final sizzling for the summer, starting on 26th February. The sugar levels rose substantially during the first two days of the heat wave, and therefore it was now game-on to harvest all the younger and weaker vineyards. Some 35 headlamps were purchased, and night harvesting commenced. The surreal calmness in the vineyard was quite breathtaking, as you could see light and hear voices without faces. – Nick Farr
2020 Viognier by Farr RRP $100
Viognier by Farr is a blend of two vineyards. One is the original house block planted in 1994, which has friable red soil over limestone leading to sandstone – similar soils to the Sangreal Pinot Noir and Chardonnay by Farr. The second vineyard is a younger planting of unknown clones in red ironstone soil. The Viognier is a difficult variety to manage, with the tendency to grow horizontally rather than vertically, being very thirsty and having a tendency to become sunburnt easily. This prompted Nick’s decision to pick the fruit earlier to retain natural acidity while maintaining varietal character, creating a more delicate and refined drink.
Viognier is foot-stomped and left for two or more hours on its skins, to extract phenolics, flavour and texture. The fruit is then pressed, cooled and put straight into barrel with all solids for a natural fermentation. Malolactic conversion is e Quintessential fresh apricots with lovely barrel spice and cream. This Viognier walks the tightrope of richness and freshness, showing the hallmark DNA of the grape while dialing in the perceived weight that Viognier can at times attain. This wine is about fruit expression with freshness and just the right amount of complexity. MLF is encouraged with gentle stirring during the end of autumn. The wine is then racked, fined, filtered and bottled 11 months after harvest.
The 2020 Viognier shows quintessential fresh apricots with lovely barrel spice and cream. This Viognier walks the tightrope of richness and freshness, showing the hallmark DNA of the grape while dialling in the perceived weight that Viognier can at times attain. This wine is about fruit expression with freshness and just the right amount of complexity. – The Farr family
2020 Chardonnay by Farr RRP $100
The Chardonnay by Farr comes from the same site as the Sangreal Pinot Noir. It’s an exposed, hungry north-facing slope of red soil over limestone, planted in 1994. The Chardonnay vines are a mixture of Dijon clones and P58.
The fruit is picked by hand and whole-bunch pressed. All the solids are collected and chilled before being put to French oak barrels (30% new). A natural fermentation occurs over the next two to three weeks at cool temperatures. After fermentation, a bit of stirring helps start malolactic fermentation, which is usually completed by mid-spring. The wine is then racked, fined and lightly filtered before bottling 11 months after picking.
This 2020 Chardonnay shows the house style of complexity and restraint. Barrel spice and fruit woven together with lovely acidity and filled out with complexity. There is stone fruit and citrus, and a limestone quality that sits effortlessly in the wine. It has a wonderful density of flavour and finesse. – The Farr family
2019 Farrside by Farr RRP $100
The Farrside vineyard consists of black volcanic soil over limestone on a northeast-facing slope. The vine rows run east to west to shade the fruit from over exposure. It’s a mixture of 114, 115, 777, 667 and MV6 clones. Although the Farrside and Sangreal vineyards are only 300m apart, the differing conditions mean that this vineyard is picked 10 to 12 days later. The darker soils and cooler growing conditions give a more masculine and edgy wine.
The fruit is hand-picked and sorted in the vineyard, then fermented in an open-top fermenter. Roughly 50% of the fruit will be destemmed and then cold soaked for four days. Nick uses only the natural yeast for the fermentation process, which takes roughly 12 days. Grape-stomping (known as pigeage) will occur two to three times a day depending on the amount of extraction required, and the wine is then placed in 50 to 60% new Allier barrels by gravity. It is racked by gas after secondary fermentation, then again at 18 months to be bottled.
From the black soils of the Farrside vineyard, this Pinot Noir is powerful, with notes of red meat, dark spice and black cherries. These flavours work alongside decadent spice and tannin, creating a wine of significant presence, exquisite balance and length. – The Farr family
2019 Sangreal by Farr RRP $120
The Sangreal Vineyard is the oldest planting (1994) on a north-facing slope of red ironstone on the surface going to limestone to bluestone below. The rows run north to south, gaining full sun exposure throughout the day and resulting in prettier, more perfumed wines. It’s always the first vineyard to be harvested.
Sangreal is consistently made with 60 to 70% whole bunch and aged in new oak. It is fermented in a five-tonne oak barrel with an open-top fermenter, and cold soaked for four days before a natural fermentation of seven to nine days. Once the cap falls, the tank is pressed. The wine is racked only once after malolactic fermentation, then sulphured and bottled, the entire process taking a total of 18 months. The wine is unfined and unfiltered in order to retain its natural flavour and bouquet. Sangreal is the most seamless and perfumed of the three single-vineyard Pinots.
The original By Farr Pinot Noir site, this is the epitome of Pinot Noir perfume and complexity. It’s an ethereal Pinot, heavily scented, rich and multifaceted. Dark, ripe cherries meet comforting barrel spice, whole-bunch crunchiness and earth. The Sangreal Pinot Noir excites all the senses with its wonderful aroma and silky palate weight. – The Farr family
2019 Shiraz by Farr RRP $100
Shiraz fruit comes from the original By Farr vineyard, planted in 1994. It lies on a north-facing slope, and the red volcanic soil has a base of limestone with deep-set sandstone. All fruit is hand-picked from the VSP trellising, with about 15% left as whole bunches in the fermentation. Most years we co-ferment between 2 and 4% Viognier with the Shiraz, the date determining whether or not the former is co-fermented and bleed back. It is a natural fermentation, with the fruit remaining in the tank for 19 days before pressing. Shiraz sees 18 months in French oak, about 20% being new, and is bottled under vacuum.
Supple, hugely complex and spicy; black olive tapenade, graphite, ripe plums and cocoa. It has an open weave, not defined by oak, nor over-extracted. You might say this has been clearly guided by a Pinot Noir winemaker. It’s a seductive, wondrous Shiraz. – The Farr family