Brothers Malcolm and Richard Leask were born in the Hunter Valley, but grew up in McLaren Vale, with their parents buying a vineyard there in 1980. Those holdings expanded across many sites over the years, with the brothers taking the step from growers to vignerons with their Hither & Yon label in 2012. Their project works out of their Sand Road Vineyard – supplying 80 per cent of their needs – with nearly 20 hectares of vines that have been tweaked over the years to favour Mediterranean and Iberian varieties that perform well in warm conditions, producing mid-weight wines with food in mind. The site is managed with a focus on regenerative agriculture.
The Sand Road Vineyard was first planted in 1983. Frequent grafting to new varieties and further planting began in 2000, with the youngest vines planted in 2019. Today, there is shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, malbec, carignan, muscat blanc à petits grains, greco, montepulciano, nero d’avola, grenache, mataro, tempranillo, touriga and aglianico in the ground. The site now has 19.44 hectares under vine – with four more varieties planned for planting in 2021 – and is drip irrigated with a combination of bore and recycled water.
In restructuring the vineyard from a fairly classic Vale mix of French red varieties, Richard Leask – who manages the viticulture and winemaking, while his brother attends to the business and marketing side of things – pursued heat-tolerant varieties that would handle the changing climatic conditions, but he also targeted varieties that would return medium-weight wines that worked well with food.
This has very much become the style at Hither & Yon, with a focus on approachability linked with distinctive varietal character. “We think the wines show a real brightness and freshness, just like the vineyard, but also an earthiness and that the flavour profiles of each wine are true to the variety being grown,” says Leask, who notes that they replaced a trial planting of tannat not because it was unsuccessful, but because it made wines that sat outside the style that they were pursuing.
This kind of focused thinking very much characterises the Hither & Yon operation, from maintaining a clear direction across over a dozen varieties and about 15 wines, to long-term goals of ensuring sustainability for generations to come.
“Being environmentally and economically sustainable is an obvious goal, it should make our business multi-generational,” says Leask. “We feel the best way to achieve this is with landscape regeneration and production system transformation. Working within the natural ecosystems not against them. Our mission now is to develop a diverse, robust and ultimately resilient production system capable of rolling with these challenges.”
While working with a range of climate appropriate grape varieties was a founding principle of the project, and will be an enduring one, that focus on regenerative agriculture is the foundation of the operation. With 24 soil cores taken from across the vineyard to baseline their soil carbon level, Leask has also measured and classified the soil biology and will document any changes over time to direct further actions. “All vineyard operations are now considered after asking two questions,” he says. “‘Does this improve or degrade our soil carbon levels?’ and ‘What does it do to soil biology and its habitat?’ We are constantly re-evaluating how we manage and operate our system though this lens.”
The management and regeneration of the broader property is something that Leask puts on equal footing with the vineyard. “To me, it is especially important,” he says. “We need to reduce our impact and regenerate our production areas and utilise our non-production areas to be more synergistic, not separate from our vineyard systems. If we want to pass it on in better shape, then we need to do some restoration, not just hold our ground.”
Part of that process has seen nearly a kilometre of creekline rehabilitated, with weeds removed and over 2,000 insectary plants – that attract beneficial insects, which prey on pest species – have been planted instead, with plans to triple that concentration over the next three years.
Mid-row cover crops are part of Leask’s approach, with up to 10 species planted to increase biodiversity both above and below ground, along with the cooling properties and water retention it brings to the soil. Additionally, having roots – other than those of vines ¬– in the ground all year round provides an active microbial habitat. Livestock is also rotated through the vineyard “to help drive soil health outcomes through managed cell grazing”.
No synthetic sprays are used on the property, with Leask experimenting with alternative measure to tackle disease pressure, with the aim of “total removal of sulphur and copper from our system. We are developing a biological-based program that gives us multiple environmental and production benefits.”
A consistent theme with viticulturists across the country is the urgent need for long-term management to cope with an ever-warmer climate, and Leask also list it as his biggest hurdle. “The new climate and its extremes – heat, wind, erratic rainfall – are the biggest issues facing our industry. Our production systems have to change. We are working across multiple areas – improved soil health, state-of-the-art water management, varietal diversity, reduced energy inputs, biological diversity. It won’t be just changing one thing; it will be many new things.”
This approach to farming may be the most effective way to bolster the vineyard to handle a changing climate, but at its core, the methods are also simply key drivers of fruit and wine quality. And Leask believes the matrix of changes is resulting in wines of greater expression of both variety and place. “We really want the vineyard site and the variety to shine through, and we hope that the respectful and holistic way we farm does that,” he says. “We are dealing with many new varieties to Australia, and they are still developing their characteristics as they age, coupled with the soil health system we are implementing and still developing, we look forward to the journey and development of the wines.”
Like many McLaren Vale growers and makers, Leask emphasises that it “is a dynamic, collaborative, and environmentally conscious region,” and that vignerons “work together and feed off each other to help reduce our environmental impacts and produce world class wine.” But he goes further, too, being conscious of his viticultural peers nationwide, which are “a fantastic group of innovative and dedicated people.” And they’re not just enhancing future wines with better and more expressive fruit, he says. “They are shaping the future direction of Australian winegrowing, and ensuring its environmentally and economically sustainable for generations to come.”