Join the conversation between Richard Leask, our vigneron & winemaker and Juliette Sirieys, our cellar door manager. Learn about his career path, his philosophy, regenerative agriculture and much more!
Here is the script if you'd prefer to read :)
Juliette: Hi everyone, I’m Juliette, I’m the cellar door manager at Hither & Yon and today I’m with Richard and we’re going to chat about his path and what made him want to become a winemaker and viticulturist.
Richard: G’day everyone, my name is Richard Leask. Along with Malcolm my brother, I’m part owner of Hither & Yon and I do the operations side of the business: the winemaking and the viticulture. I’m the outdoors bloke!
J: Alright, let’s start with what made you want to become a winemaker
R: It’s a tough question! My family has always been in the vineyard industry, so like most children I tried to avoid doing exactly what my parents did for a while. But the love of the industry sort of came along naturally and I like being outdoors, I like agriculture, so this was a natural way to end up.
J: Did you study a particular field?
R: I did, I started off studying a general agriculture degree but then I transferred over to do vineyards specifically, as in viticulture as a science.
J: Where are we now, what are the varieties around us?
R: We’re standing in our White Frontignac AKA Petit Blanc block. It’s the start of November so we’ve just started the flowering period. Fingers crossed, we get nice weather and a nice fruit set – it would be a good start! The vines are looking fantastic, it’s been a great start of the season with some great winter rains and some warmer weather at the start of Spring.
J: It does look good here! So, this is White Frontignac and we have other alternative varieties like Aglianico, Touriga – what made you want to plant these different varieties?
R: It was two-fold Juliette. One, we had a lot of French varieties here originally and they were quite segregated into lots of different small parcels. Essentially, the market decided that a lot of these varieties became unsellable – as we were selling the fruit back then. So, we were looking for new varieties to replace and, obviously also had an eye towards what was happening climatically – we were starting to get a lot more hot weather and long periods of heat in spikes. I started looking around areas of the world that were dealing with those [conditions] on a regular basis and I looked at varietals that would be able to cope with that. Coupled with that, we were also looking for varieties that were slightly more medium-bodied and a little bit more food-friendly. That’s what led us towards Mediterranean varieties and that’s what we started planting.
J: Is there any alternative methods or pioneer ways of growing grapes that you’re looking for instead of following traditional paths?
R: There is, we’re always mindful about our surrounds and changing climates so that’s the main drive. Water for us is a key limiting factor: we’ve only got so much and we have to make it stretch a lot longer in the season these days because the hot weather comes in earlier and lasts longer and winter rainfalls are a little bit less than what it used to be. Our whole vineyard system now is designed around making our soil as healthy and as water-receptive as possible. That includes a lot of mouldy species cover crops, we don’t do any herbicide any more, we’re doing limited cultivation. We’re trying to build soil structure, and soil biology because that helps deliver nutrients naturally to the vine rather than us having to add nutrient. It also makes the soil much more receptive to rainfall: it means the water goes into the ground rather than running across it and hopefully that means we can store it for longer so that the vines can access it throughout the season. We’re developing our own little system, basing it around some regenerative agriculture principles that incorporate livestock. It means that in general sense, our vineyard look like what you would call ‘unkept’, a little bit untidy but that’s also part of the plan as we try to mimic nature, not control it. We’re allowing things to grow out a lot further and remain in an unkept state a lot longer but it’s all part of the plan to make soil health the priority.
J: This philosophy is kind of new in the industry, isn’t it?
R: It is to a degree. Certainly, in the industry there’s been a focus around alternative practices like organics & biodynamics but this is taking that one step further, really concentrating on soil carbon and soil biology. What drives that is living plants and a variety of different plants – we have up to 10 species of plants in our mid-rows. We’ve got lots of diversity there and hopefully that then is driving diverse biology in the soil and releasing nutrients out of the soil to the vineyards. That’s the path that we’re on. We’re 3 or 4 years into it, and we’re seeing interesting results, but these things take time – they’re not one night fixes.
J: In terms of varieties again, was there ever a variety that you wanted to try and then planted but weren’t very happy with how it went, or it went a way you didn’t expect?
R: So far, everything we’ve planted we picked pretty well. The one that we found difficult, and that was really from a market sense, was Tannat. It grew well and coped with the weather well here. It was quite a large bunched variety so we needed to be a bit careful around wet summers but generally, we found it to be a really robust variety. We just found that market forces made it a difficult variety to sell. In terms of Hither & Yon, it was also probably a much heavier and larger style wine, whereas we’ve probably become better known for medium-bodied and quite easy-drinking wine. It wasn’t the fact that the wine wasn’t any good but at the end of the day you need to be able to sell and that one probably didn’t quite fit the mix. That’s the one variety we decided to change over and replaced it with Greco di Tufo – a new white variety which we’re pretty excited about.
J: If you had to pick something that you would call your ‘masterpiece’, what would it be? What’s your greatest achievement?
R: Goodness! It’s a good question Ju. There’s 2 parts to that:
I think , what we’re trying to do with the health of the vineyard and the soil of the vineyard is leave a legacy piece. We need to improve on some of the stuff we’ve done in the past, and as farmers, it’s ok to admit that some of the stuff that you thought were the right way to do things actually wasn’t. So we think we’re correcting that and we’re working hard to leave something that is very sustainable and in a really good place for whoever comes next – whether it be a generational change or a change in business.
And in terms of wine, we really enjoy being part of the evolution of some of the Australian landscape, away from very traditional core varieties which predominate the wine landscape in Australia. [We enjoy] introducing people to some alternatives that we think fit our climate. We think of climatically responsible varieties to grow because they use a little bit less water but we also want them to fit our food, our culture, our style and the way we entertain each other. We’d like to be in the conversation that we were one of the pioneers of alternative varieties, certainly in McLaren Vale and in the country. It’s just nice to try and improve on everything we do each day.
J: And to lead the way!
R: Well hopefully!
J: Actually, do you think that eventually in Australia, everybody will be doing organic or biodynamic grape-growing and winemaking?
R: To a degree, I think organic and biodynamic are very specific ways of farming. I’d like to think that with the advent of the new sustainability program that Wine Australia is running and a greater understanding of soils and the way we treat them and how we can get the most of them, there will be a much bigger focus on regenerative styles of farming. I think Australia is pretty good at reducing their reliance on chemicals and pesticides – I think as a country we’re really good at that. I think we can do more to improve the way we treat our soils, and how we build the capacity in our soils. That will come in time. Some of that will be around how things look: we have to get used to vineyards not looking like golf courses and looking a little bit more natural. I’d like to be part of the evolution of the way we do this in Australia. Hopefully we can show that it can be done and we can make some fantastic wines that way!
J: Another achievement was Hither & Yon winning the Bushing King Award last year – was this something you ever expected to achieve?
R: To be honest, no! It was a really fun time for the whole gang. As you know, we’re a very small run company and it was fantastic for everyone to be involved. I’d be lying if I didn’t think it would be nice one day to perhaps do it, but I didn’t think we would. It’s a great reward for a lot of perseverance and hard work from everyone that’s involved. It was nice that it was one of these new emerging varieties. I think Nero d’Avola is such an exciting variety for McLaren Vale and the region is an awesome place for it. There’s so much to like around these new varieties that to give them a bit of impetus by winning major awards with them, we’re really excited by that.
J: For a customer who’s not used to alternative varieties, what would you recommend them to start with, and why?
R: I think the Nero is a really good starting point: it has a nice structure to it but it has a nice acid line as well so it’s quite crisp and refreshing to drink. I think it works well in either warm or cool climate so you can drink it at either time of the year. It’s a really interesting wine to start with, very aromatic as well.
There’s also a few blends that we’re playing with at the moment: Grenache Touriga is a really interesting wine. Same thing, it has a nice structure but also is very lifted, floral and approachable wine; I’m really enjoying drinking it at the moment. They’ve all got their nuances! I think the Carignan is a really interesting summer wine for Australia: it’s a red wine that you can chill a bit but it’s got a really tangy, late finish on the palate which you might find quite refreshing in summer. Then, my favourite winter wine is the Grenache Mataro: it’s a really great example of what McLaren Vale can do in the medium style where the Grenache plays a really uplifting role and the Mataro brings in the structure and the palate weight and carries it through. The beauty with our stuff is that there’s something for everyone! It’s a bit like anywhere too: if people come across alternative varieties, they’re worth checking out because the people that are making them are doing it with real care and love and are really passionate about showcasing them. Don’t be scared about them, it’s a great opportunity to try new things and expand everyone’s knowledge of what’s out there.
J: Finally, is there any other winery or wine region that you’d like to recommend? Obviously we know Hither & Yon and Old Jarvie are your favourites, but please tell us about your 3 top wineries of Australia, or the world!
R: There’s so much fantastic wine out there, it’s hard to nail it down! We’re incredibly biased about where we live and work: McLaren Vale is an incredible region. It’s so close to the coast and it’s a very dynamic place, there’s a lot of young people (I put myself in the “young” category) that are really driving innovation, wine style and varietal choice. I just think it’s a fantastic place to live and work. There’s a few wineries around here that are doing really good stuff: SC Pannell has been a pioneer with some of these Italian style wines; but most certainly with the Portuguese style around the Touriga Nacional and Tempranillo and the way that they do Syrah is a really interesting take for modernising the way that Shiraz is done in Australia.
There’ also a couple of good wineries just down the road: Lino Ramble are doing fantastic stuff with extended contact in wine and again, around alternative varieties that we don’t have either - Andy has got a great range of different things to try so I like having a bit of a look through that.
There’s another slitghly off-beat one which is called Dodgy Brothers: Wes Pearson and a couple of other guys are doing a great job selecting great parcels of Grenache and playing around with them. Also, they’ve played around with a bit of alternative varieties. It’s one that’s not necessarily well-known but they’re making some fantastic wines. All McLaren Vale ones unfortunately! But I think we’re doing a good job here so may as well talk about what puts you on the map :D