Nick Farr wins Gourmet Traveller WINE Winemaker of the Year 2020

Nick Farr was selected out of a field of eight finalists in the competition. James Broadway

Nick Farr of By Farr Wines, Geelong, is the 2020 Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine Winemaker of the Year.

Farr was selected out of a field of eight finalists in the competition. It was the second time he had been nominated and the first time in the award’s 23 years that a winemaker of the year is the son of a former winemaker of the year. Nick’s father Gary won the title in 2001.

While the By Farr wines are inspired by the old-world benchmarks, they are distinctively Australian, and that is exactly how Nick would want it.

Farr plies his trade in the Moorabool Valley, just north of Geelong. He has been in the game for 21 years and he and his wife Cassie have gradually taken over the By Farr business from Nick’s parents Gary and Robyn.

There are advantages in standing on the shoulders of a talented and visionary father like Gary, but it’s equally true Nick has talent and vision of his own – in spadefuls.

In the seven years since he was previously nominated for this award, Nick Farr lists the changes at By Farr as more fine-tuning than anything radical. The Farr family continues to plant more vines, just an acre or half-acre a year, and they’re now focusing on east and north-east facing slopes, avoiding the hot late afternoon sun of west-facing sites. They’ve homed in on the rootstocks and clones that best suit their property, and are trialling new varieties.

“This year we harvested our first vintage of nebbiolo, we have some garganega, and we’ve planted more gamay, which is a fantastic performer here,” he said.

In the vineyard, the big change is the transition to native grasses and a continuing move towards organic viticulture.

“We are one step away from being organic,” he said. “We just have to figure out the mulch. We are using imported straw and we need to eliminate the grain seed (which grows out of it).”

Mulch is a big thing at By Farr.

“We have 700 bales of straw for mulching in spring. Mulch gives us cooler soil which leads to greater retention of soil moisture, and this leads to better retention of natural acidity. We’re not sure why that happens, but it does.”

Finding a stable ecosystem in the vineyards is central to Farr’s concerns.

Native grassing between rows means less fertiliser, and the plants’ deeper root system draws more moisture into the soil.

“We don’t till the soil at all. We burn the grasses to create charcoal which is also good for the soil.”

The Farr vineyards consist of five sites, all on the one property, totalling about 16 hectares. The only outside vineyard they make wine from is Irrewarra, which is near Colac in the Otway hinterland, an hour’s drive from the winery.

Perhaps the most obvious difference at By Farr since 2013 is that today, the top wines are the Côte Vineyard chardonnay and pinot noir, which did not exist then. The chardonnay is initialled GC (his father’s initials) and the pinot RP, his mother’s. The Côte is a single site with several exposures: north, north-east and east, with three different soil profiles.

It was planted progressively from 2008 to 2012, with a major setback in 2011 when torrential rain washed some of the vines down the hill. The first wines released were 2015 pinot noir and 2016 chardonnay – which Nick admits were very young-vine wines, but “I think it’s our best site”.

Over many years of experience, the Farrs have worked out the trellising, planting density, clones and rootstocks that best suit the Moorabool Valley. Gary and Robyn, although retired, are still involved, and with the social distancing problems and difficulty finding labour during the 2020 harvest, Gary and Robyn were press-ganged into picking grapes.

There are challenges in the Geelong region.

“It’s a windswept place; there are no trees. It stresses the vines: our canopies are half of what you’d expect to see in the Yarra Valley.”

The region’s vineyard area has shrunk.

“More vineyards have been pushed out than have been planted,” he said.

Seven years ago, we quoted Nick as saying the challenge was “finding the elegance in Geelong”, and “harnessing the strength of the tannin profile we have.”

He doesn’t resile from those comments today.

“Concentration is not what we are after. We are chasing texture, savouriness and natural acidity.” They still occasionally add acid in some years. “It’s a challenge to get maturity of fruit without adding acid.”

In such a dry, windy climate, it’s all the more miraculous that Farr makes chardonnay – and viognier – that possess such finesse. Hard work, attention to detail, and intimate knowledge of the world’s great wines are the keys.

Like many great artists, the Farrs don’t take too much notice of what others are doing. Nick doesn’t get distracted by industry politics or social media. Like his father, he moves to the beat of his own drum.

“We, the Farr family (direct or indirect), love what we do together and what we drink together from our piece of dirt. That means l sleep well at night. If great wine was easy to make, I would drink more Australian!”

While the By Farr wines are inspired by the old-world benchmarks, they are distinctively Australian, and that is exactly how Nick would want it. Nick’s chardonnays are masterpieces of refinement and fruit purity, his shirazes elegant and spicy, his viognier simply one of the three greatest in Australia, and his pinot noirs – for which the Farrs are most famous – have an uncommon depth of flavour and richness without losing their essential pinosity.

By Farr is very much a family business and one gets the impression Nick would prefer to share the glory with his family, but I have no doubt that under his stewardship the wines have gone to the next level. Bravo, Nick Farr!

The awards, including the following, were announced on October 1:

(A version of the Nick Farr profile first appeared in Gourmet Traveller WINE magazine June-July 2010 issue.)

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