Highbank wines
B&B accommodation at Highbank
B&B accommodation at Highbank

Dennis and Bonnie Vice have been pioneers of organic viticulture and farm based tourism in the Coonawarra, in the south east of South Australia.

Some superb red and white wines are produced on the terra rosa soils of the district. The red soils are spread over a limestone base which provides excellent drainage, deep rooting and protects deep soil moisture - ideal for grapes. The southerly location and cool ripening season allows for late picking and produces a better flavour and balance.

The area of true terra rosa soil is very small, a thin spine of elevated ground surrounded by land which, though considered prime quality grazing land, does not produce the same characteristic flavours. As the reputation of the region grows, so does the value of the land. The term "Coonawarra" is jealously guarded by those with access to the land or grapes and becoming a member of the select few is now a very expensive process.

Dennis and Bonnie Vice saw the potential in the Coonawarra when they visited the area in 1984 while holidaying from the USA. They returned in December 1985 to settle in Australia and hand planted the first vines in 1986. They had selected a 10 acre site known as Highbank. Another 2 acres are planted around their home, closer to the small village of Coonawarra.

The location of the different varieties they planted were selected carefully on the basis of a detailed soil survey, made with the assistance of a backhoe. Depending on subtle differences in the topsoil depth and limestone content, they planted four clones of Cabernet (50% area of reds), some Merlot (40%) and Cabernet Franc (10%). The Chardonnay which they originally planted has been grafted over to Marlot, as the Chardonnay proved too difficult in the high rainfall climate of the south east.

The name 'Highbank' comes from the famous strip of red ground - the high bank of ground which is the central spine of the Coonawarra wine district.

A varietal Merlot is oaked for 12 months prior to sale. They also produce an excellent red from a blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Cab Franc. The wine is sold from the cellar door outlet at Highbank and to a who's who list of top restaurants around the country and overseas. Only the two wines are made.

The perception of low input sustainable agriculture is an important part of the reason why many customers buy their wines (they do not claim organic status at present) but the hand made wines stand up very well on their own with fine flavours and finish.

Organic production fits very much into their concept of how high quality wines should be made. The intense varietal flavours are very much linked to subtle changes in the soil. Reduced output from the vine which may result from organic growing enables the vine to put all its effort into the fewer fruit and naturally opens up the canopy to allow sunlight in. They chose the Coonawarra partly because of reliable rainfall patterns, so there have been no horror years of excessive rainfall at harvest and they have little problem with Botrytis.

Dennis is the viticulture lecturer at the local TAFE College and he takes his grape growing very seriously. A heavy emphasis on monitoring, close inspection and detailed management is stressed. He believes that under an organic regime the canopy must be kept open and the grower must not be greedy for tonnage, concentrating only on quality berries.

The close detail they lavish on the operation leads Bonnie to refer to each vintage as "like having a child every year". Dennis will even drive behind the truck on the way to the crusher to ensure that no harm comes to the product, and they are always present at the bottling.

Detailed research into the biology and life cycle of the serious diseases of vine has resulted in good knowledge of conditions for their development. Monitoring allows chemical applications to be accurately timed and reduces the need for unnecessary preventative’s. For instance, primary infection with downy mildew will develop after periods of warm, moist weather in spring. At least 10mm of rain over a 24 hour period, when the temperature is over ten degrees, will result in outbreaks of downy. Botrytis occurs around harvest when berries split open. Berry rot will occur three to five days after rain

The interow area has been seeded down to the commercial mixes called "Blockout 1" and "Blockout 3", depending upon the soil type. The less vigorous varieties are used on the deeper soils. The number 1 mix has clovers and a native medic is naturalised through large areas of the vineyard. Cover crop management is essential. Apple moth feeds in the cover and remains on the ground. The cover crop is therefore maintained a little taller during the moth season. The cover crop can also be used to transpire more, pulling excess moisture off the vine, or can be cut very low when the vine needs moisture and for frost control. The main problem is with the longevity of the cover crop and in some years alternate rows need to be resown.

Clemens undervine weeder
Clemens undervine weeder

The Clemens under vine weeder saves a lot of work in the vineyard. Some modifications have been required, such as the tyne which protects the shaft (it costs $400 to replace if broken). Frost danger is too high in this area for undervine mulching to be considered.

The 1996 ‘Coonawarra’ Red Blend has been selected by a tasting panel from the Australian Wine Research Institute as one of 20 wines from a field of 6,000, for judging in the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation Export Trophy Awards.

About 300 cases of wines were sent to the USA this year, mainly for fine restaurant sales. Smaller quantities have been sent to Tokyo, Taiwan, Phom Pen and seven Pacific resorts.

Dennis and Bonnie have targeted five star restaurants for their product. In Sydney they can be bought at venues such as the Rockpool, Tetsuya, Bel Mondo and Blakes, in Adelaide at the Hilton Hotel and the Botanic Garden Restaurant and in Melbourne at Chinois, Madame Joe Joe, Est Est Est and Blakes.

The basket pressed Highbank Coonawarra Red sells for about $38.00 US. Robert Parker reviewed the wine for the ‘Wine Advocate’ and wrote:

“A very impressive wine, this Bordeaux blend (66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot and 12% Cabernet Franc) could easily pass for a classic Medoc in a blind tasting.”

“The organically farmed vineyard has produced a deep opaque purple-colored wine that has been aged in French oak (as evidenced in the high class cedar, spice and vanillin scents)”

“Full-bodied, with outstanding richness, a cherry, multi-layered texture, admirable purity, and superb equilibrium and palate presence, this is a beautifully knit, restrained yet intensely-flavored Cabernet Sauvignon based wine that is only hinting at its ultimate potential.”

The wine is expected to reach full maturity between 2001 and 2015.

John Lachie has included the wines in his Australian premium Wine Collection, a stable of exceptional national producers.

Light brown apple moth trap in vineyard
Light brown apple moth trap in vineyard

Production is still small although the vines are producing a little more as they mature and generally no grapes are sold to other producers any more. The exception to this was 1995 when no wines were made due to the lower quality in that year. Dennis told Acres “We produce an ultra premium wine and we will not jeopardise our reputation by putting out product which is not up to standard.

The accommodation units at Highbank are located right amongst the vines and offer luxury, views and a tranquil setting.

Dennis and Bonnie love the contact with people which the Bed and Breakfast bring. Dennis says “it is more than a passing contact, people love to come back to stay and the B & B and tastings advertise and promote each other. A lot of restaurateurs come here to stay because of the wines and we enjoy the experience of meeting with the people who sell and enjoy our wines.”

He continues “we are unrelenting about how we are going to do this, we recognise the vines are capable of producing the intensity of colour, aromas and flavour.”

“We think many conventional growers are too greedy for tonnage and miss quality altogether.”

“The real old-timers basically follow organic principles, except for their fetish about weeds. They are so paranoid about them.”

“Our wines are a good advertisement for what can be achieved with organic methods and we are very pleased to have the opportunity totalk to my students, visiting professionals and espacially our customers who enjoy our wines, about the methods we use.”

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