It takes a heck of lot of people to make a great Australian wine. Research has shown that the Australian wine community supports 172,736 full and part-time jobs, most of which are in regional Australia. While the winemakers enjoy much of the limelight, there are many people behind-the-scenes that make the Australian wine industry tick.
Nicki Robins is one of these people. Her work as Viticultural Development Officer at the Barossa Grape and Wine Association (BGWA) in the Barossa won’t get her on the front page of a newspaper like a Wolf Blass or Peter Gago from Penfolds. Nonetheless, she has made a huge contribution in improving the quality of the grape growing and winemaking in the Barossa.
From innovative communication models to helping growers farm sustainably, Nicki is helping the Barossa to maintain and extend its reputation as one of the world’s greatest fine wine regions.
From New Zealand to Australia – A familiar journey in Australian wine
In 2002, Nicki was heading home to New Zealand after completing a vintage in Sonoma, California when she decided to stop over. Thanks to the cool 2002 vintage she had some time to kill waiting for harvest to kick off and, having some friends working the vintage in the Barossa, she saw the perfect opportunity to experience another great wine region at first hand.
2002 wasn’t Nicki’s first time at the wine rodeo - she’d already worked vintages around the world - but from the very beginning the Barossa felt different. Indeed, with its green rolling hills, farming families, grape vines and wonderful community feel, it felt a lot like her home in Hawkes Bay. Now while the warm, dry summers in the Barossa ultimately lead to a lack of green grass, the rest of her description is pretty much perfect and Nicki knew she had landed somewhere special.
A time of discovery in the Barossa
When Nicki arrived the region was gaining a global reputation for quality. Tireless years of building the Barossa name by legends like Robert O’Callaghan at Rockford, Wolf Blass, Penfolds and Charlie Melton had finally borne fruit. Grape prices were high and the 100 point reviews were rolling in.
As well as being a time of abundance for the Barossa, it was also a time of discovery. Fifth-generation grape growers had known about the best vineyards and sub-regions for over a hundred years, but many winemakers were newer to the game and had only just started exploring the possibilities of the region’s myriad soils, microclimates and site nuances.
Winemakers were talking more to grape growers and learning more about producing wines with a taste of place. They were discovering which varieties worked best in which sub-regions, learning more about the different microclimates, soils and elevations that make up the patchwork of amazing vineyard sites that bless the Barossa.
These discoveries were undoubtedly helping to improve the quality of the wines, but they weren’t being documented properly or being shared effectively with a wide audience. This is where Nicki comes in. Over the past 15 years, she has helped to change the understanding of the sense of place across the Barossa.
‘Through the Barossa Grounds project, we’ve been putting down on paper what people have had in their heads for years and years, for generations and generations. Looking at the different soil types, the climatic influences, elevation and their impact on the wine styles produced from these places. A lot of work is going into looking at the influence of terroir and its influence on wine styles.’
Ensuring the legacy of a historic Australian wine region
Some of the oldest vines in the world reside in the Barossa, vines that lend a unique character to some of the world’s finest wineries. With its special food and wine culture shaped by migration and fertile soils, the region has developed strong traditions that are fiercely guarded.
The winemakers of the Barossa are a diverse group, there are those who stick to the traditions that have given the region much of its charm and others that explore innovative choices of grape varieties and experiment with viticultural and vinicultural techniques. Some are just doing what they’ve always done a more efficient or quality driven manner. These are the people that Nicki has helped in her role as Viticultural Development Officer for the BWGA.
So how do you explore something as diffuse as terroir in a practical and methodical manner? Demonstration vineyard sites is one method that has worked exceptionally well for Nicki in the Barossa. Sites in Ebenezer, Krondorf and Eden Valley showcase a range of modern viticultural techniques that can improve soil health to produce more consistent yields. Grape growers are shown how to reduce reliance on traditional inputs such as fertilisers and chemicals and so potentially improve fruit and wine quality. All this is helping to create resilient landscapes in the Barossa for generations to come.
Communication the key to shaping the future of the region
Nicki has been successful in driving improvements in the Barossa thanks to her understanding of the value of communication. Nicki’s core philosophy in her work in the Barossa is to ‘show not tell’.
Would it be fair to expect a grape grower with five generations of ingrained knowledge to listen to an outsider telling them what they’ve been doing is wrong? Not at all. Nicki understands this, allowing her to connect and engage with those that might otherwise thumb their noses at any advice.
Nicki has also used a wide variety of tools and media to share research and knowledge with the community in the Barossa. Videos filmed with peers and experts demonstrating environmental best practise in the Barossa. Harnessing the ‘Barossa’s Next Crop’ regional leadership programs to pass the knowledge and skills on to the next generation.
Nicki’s passion for her adopted home and for the Barossa community has meant she has had a tremendous impact on the people and the place. Some in the Barossa have taken one hundred and fifty years or more to shape their legacy, Nicki Robins has done a damn fine job in shaping her Barossa legacy in just fifteen years.
There’s no doubting that the winemakers get the fame. They’ll always be the ones that get their names on the bottles. They’ll always be the ones that get the glory and the glittering prizes at wine shows and awards from around the world. But behind-the-scenes people like Nicki are helping them to do what they do and do it better. Helping them to make fine Australian wines from exceptional grapes. Helping them understand more about their sense of place. Helping them to ensure the great legacy of those that came before them is assured for generations to come. The best results come from a good team.
That is something that we can all be truly grateful for. Thanks, Nicki.
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