A big fish in a small pond? Catching up with Brown Brothers’ Tasmanian Estates

I’m no gambler, but I reckon it’s a safe bet that Ross and Judy Brown will be hot-footing it to the movies to see “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.”

Tickled by Tasmania

Over a lunch of fresh caught rock lobster at Freycinet Marine Farm on Tasmania’s scenic east coast, Brown Brothers’ former CEO tells me “I’d fish in a puddle.” It’s why, just a little sheepishly, he admits the board banned him from visiting Brown Brothers’ recent acquisitions on the island until, he says, “cooler minds had a business model that’d stack up!”  

When Coombend vineyards hoves into view (pictured), you can well understand the board’s decision.  While the older section of the vineyard (established in 1985) lies just below Freycinet Wines to the west of the Tasman highway, more recent plantings (2006-2008) on its eastern side extend several kilometres, almost to the shore of Moulting Lagoon, which overlooks Freycinet Bay.

It’s a glorious location and, according to Brand Manager Will Adkins, at 160ha, Coombend vineyard is Tasmania’s largest.  That it represents less than half of Brown Brothers’ Tassie holdings says something about the scope of their ambition for their new island outposts, which they acquired in 2010 from Gunns Limited, Australia’s largest forest products company.

Aside from Coombend, Brown Brothers’ new umbrella brand, Tasmanian Estates, encompasses Tamar Ridge, Devil’s Corner, Pirie Tasmania, including Pirie Sparkling, SOUTH by Pirie and Rosevears.  As for land, the acquisition included a further 220ha  (the 137ha Kayena vineyard in the Lower Tamar Valley and 83ha White Hills Vineyard in the Upper Tamar Valley). All up, Adkins estimates that Tasmanian Estates’ annual production stands at around 80,000 cases – a similar figure, he reckons, to Pipers Brook and Jansz.

The business model

So what persuaded the “cool minds” at Brown Brothers that these brands stacked up as a business model?  In summary, as Brown outlined at the 8th International Cool Climate Symposium in Hobart earlier this year, it’s about a commitment to cool climate viticulture, as well as recognition of the exponential market growth of Pinot Noir and sparkling wine.  Brown is convinced that critical mass is required if Brown Brothers is to make hay where the sun doesn’t necessarily shine and capitalise on this growth.

As he puts it, you need a critical mass – sizeable, machine harvestable vineyards –  because a cool climate involves higher risk and higher costs (yields were down 50% last at Coombend year).  And you need a critical mass to pitch a Pinot Noir at a price point which engages a broad range of consumers (AUS $20-25/c. £12+).  In short, there’s a chance to create a category which Brown says doesn’t yet exist – generous and flavoursome Pinot Noir with mass appeal.

What of the Pinot Noir purists who’d say the idea is heresy?  Brown’s ready retort is that“consumers can learn and expand” and, bottom line, “if Pinot Noir is not on their taste buds, it’s not going to work.”  It’s a fair point and, of course, Pipers Brook’s Ninth Island brand is proof positive that you can make good value Pinot Noir in Tasmania.  Apparently it’s still Australia’s biggest selling Pinot Noir, which suggests that Brown is right when he says Tasmania’s producers can “build a bigger pie” (the island currently accounts for less than 1% of Australian production) and Pinot Noir is the best way to do it.

But why Tasmania?  After all, Brown Brothers has extensive holdings in Victoria, which state produces among the country’s top Pinot Noirs.  Brown is quick to admit that the company’s plans to make Pinot Noir table wines from its elevated King Valley Whitlands vineyard didn’t work out.  He says “the tannins pervaded the fruit structure – we only got two good wines in five years.”  Today, the Whitlands’ fruit is dedicated to sparkling wine production (including the excellent Brown Brothers Patricia Sparkling).

On the other hand, he points out every Tasmanian producer makes Pinot Noir which, at 620ha, represents a little under 50% of land under vine (150ha of which are owned by Tasmanian Estates).  There’s also, he says, an unusual focus between winemakers about what needs to be done where Pinot Noir has the opportunity to be the next wine fashion and Tasmania the opportunity to be the southern hemisphere’s pre-eminent producer of the variety.

And the word on the street?  The fact that Brown Brothers’ and more recently South Australia’s Shaw & Smith have acquired vineyards in Tasmania is seen as more than just good PR.  It’s also key to the investment of capital and professionalism that’s required if the island is to think big and realise its full potential.

The wines

Tamar Ridge/Devil’s Corner

Tamar Ridge is located in the north of Tasmania in the Tamar Valley, which accounts for the lion’s share of the island’s production (around 34%) and is home to the highest number of wineries.   Top of the range wines come from the Kayena vineyard while, more widely sourced, the entry level Devil’s Corner range includes Coombend fruit.

According to Adkins, rainfall here is reliable compared with other regions (though it’s significantly lower than Kayena at the White Hills vineyard just 40km away, hence its name).

The Tamar river, 58 kilometres of which meander through the valley, is a major influence.   It means that the frost risk is relatively low, while the river’s tempering influence helps ripen red wine grapes.  Morning mists enable Tamar Ridge to make a very good botrytis Riesling.

Bony ironstone soils at Tamar Ridge produce more open canopies than the deeper, loamier soils more typical of Pipers River in the north east or, for that matter, the water retentive black cracking clay soils at White Hills.  Hazards? Spring winds can be an issue during flowering.

From the off in 1994, the brand received heavy investment.  The Kayena vineyard was planted in consultancy with canopy management guru Dr Richard Smart.  Current research and development in which Smart is involved includes a Pinot Noir project which is jointly funded by the Tasmanian Department of Economic Development and Tamar Ridge Estates (click here for details).  As a result, I had the chance to assess how different Pinot Noir clones are performing in the company’s Tamar Valley vineyards (see below).

Tamar Ridge Kayena Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (sample) – Tamar Ridge has always produced a cracking Sauvignon and this is no exception – ripe but fresh with bright pea pod and passionfruit to nose and palate, an attractive spicy, bay leaf quality too.  Dry and tight without being skinny or austere, it’s very well done.

Even so, in common with other Tasmanian producers, Tamar are backing off the variety.  Adkins tells me “it’s a very tough climate in which to make and sell the grape…originally we’d been going harder at it, pitched at a Marlborough Sauvignon style, but Marlborough has gone into surplus…”  Shrugging “we can’t be all things to all people,” he agrees with Brown that, as a state, Tasmania has a common purpose behind Pinot Noir (and sparkling wines).  So while Tasmanian Wine Estates has a fair whack of Tasmania’s Sauvignon (80ha out of 170ha), the variety is being reduced – 10ha were recently  head-grafted over at Coombend.

Tamar Ridge Devils Corner Pinot Grigio 2011 – I was surprised to learn that this wine sees no lees or skin contact because it’s spicy, round and textured, with a richness and intensity to its white peach and banana fruit, a lick of fennel too.  Senior Winemaker Tom Ravech reckons that their Coombend fruit brings the fruit weight and generosity.

Tamar Ridge Kayena Riesling 2010 – an expressive Riesling, aromatic with hints of kerosene (attractive), orange peel and bath salts to the nose and more nip and tuck on the palate, which is dry, tight, pithy and spicy with great line and a salty kick to the finish.  Very good.  Adkins says it pretty much comes from the same two blocks every year.

Tamar Ridge Kayena Riesling 2006 – very classically structured, super dry, tight and mineral chiseled with mouthwatering, grapefruity, steely acidity, some kerosene lift and pithy line and length. Terrific.

Tamar Ridge Kayena Riesling 2004 – a delicious nose and palate, quite Germanic in its levity and flavor spectrum, shows orange and lime blossom, sweet and sour apple sauce and lively but well integrated ripe grapefruity acidity.  Lovely.

Tamar Ridge Devils Corner Chardonnay 2011 (sample) – Ravech reckons the Chardonnay is an unsung hero.  Fruit shortages in 2011 meant that some Kayena oaked Chardonnay found its way into this vintage.  Picked quite early, it’s very fresh and tight despite undergoing almost 100% malo.  It shows bright grapefruity acidity with tight pear fruit and, no doubt, will open out with time in bottle.  A fresh, vibrant style, which showcases what Tassie is all about.

Tamar Ridge Kayena Chardonnay 2011 (sample) – this natural fermented Chardonnay saw lots of barrel ferment (30% new oak) and lees stirring, which lends texture and an attractive sour dough edge to the finish. Again, it’s very fresh with pretty melon as well as peach and cashew notes behind the smoky oak.  Zingy lemony,grapefruity acidity gives line and length.  Very promising.

Tamar Ridge Devils Corner Pinot Noir 2011 – Two “rain events” at Coombend put paid to a fair chunk of Tasmanian Estates’ Pinot Noir in this vintage. Picked earlier at Kayena, this Pinot Noir from the Tamar Valley survived and has been made very much in a Gamay style, with white pepper, peony, violet, gently pithy pomegranate and bright rhubarb notes.  It’s both forward and digestible – vin de soif territory.  Good; like the vibrancy and perfume.

Tamar Ridge Devils Corner Pinot Noir 2010 – more fruit depth here, with bright strawberry, red cherries and raspberry and silky tannins (Kavech says an air maceration technique – using a blast of oxygen to disturb the cap – allows for gentle extraction of colour and tannins).  Well done mass appeal style.

Tamar Ridge White Hills Clone 115 Pinot Noir, Block 15B 2011 - the first of the clonal trial wines.  The block was planted in 2004.  Clone 115 is an earlier ripening, thin skinned clone (so Kavech did a bit of saignee).  Apparently, White Hills generally produces higher alcohols by volume.  The wine was naturally fermented in 5 ton open vats and hand plunged 3 times a day before being basket pressed on dryness.  It shows violets (some carbonic lift), black cherry fruit and, with tight acidity and a bit of grip to its grainy tannins, is quite firmly structured.

Tamar Ridge White Hills Clone 777 Pinot Noir, Block 20 2011 – with its darker fruit, this wine underwent 10% whole bunch ferment.  It’s a more complex wine, with savoury charcuterie and spice notes to its darker, more generous cassis fruit.  Floral notes too.  Very different; darker with more depth and layer.

Tamar Ridge Kayena Clone D4V2/Pommard Pinot Noir, Block 12B 2011 – earthier, with a sous bois dried pine needle quality, (though it sees no whole bunch), the fruit is emphatically red, sweet but spicy too and well supported by ripe but present tannins.  Kavech says the fruit is harvested a bit earlier for perfume.  Well structured but prettier than the previous wine.

Tamar Ridge White Hills Clone D4V2/Pommard Pinot Noir, Block 39A 2011 – same clone as the previous wine but White Hills’ greater continentality shows through in this more firmly structured, meatier Pinot.  The tannins are grippier and while there’s some violet lift, overall it’s darker with meaty, peppery notes. Not on the charm offensive!  Needs time and/or a great bass note for a blend.

Tamar Ridge White Hills MV6 Pinot Noir, Block 14 2011 – planted in 2004 the MV6 clone is renowned for its sturdiness and this wine is no exception.  Deeply coloured, it’s spicy, peppery, firm and tight with a core of sweet fruit. Not giving away too much now – a solid player.

Tamar Ridge Kayena MV6 Pinot Noir Block 19 2011 – planted in 2000, this MV6 block at Kayena is consistently the top performer.  Like the White Hills’ MV6 wine, it’s firm but ripe – on the sturdy side rather than pretty and aromatic – but it’s a more refined sturdy, with deep seated, pure and precise red cherry fruit, fine tannins and a long, echoey finish.  Very complete.

Tamar Ridge Kayena Pinot Noir 2010 – the finished article from 2010 is made from a blend of several clones and incorporates some White Hills fruit too.  Violet-scented, it shows a ripe core of red and black cherry and fleshy plum well supported by firm, ripe tannins.  The finish shows a touch of warmth and could be more precise but, overall, it’s very well made and, while drinkable now, will keep too.  14%

Tamar Ridge Kayena Pinot Noir 2009 – silkily, sappily fruity with red and black cherry and berry fruits, sweet oak and sleek but structuring tannins.  Fresh acidity lends definition and tautness.  Very good.  13%

Tamar Ridge Kayena Reserve Limited Release Pinot Noir 2007 – lots more oomph here, the still youthful Reserve Limited Release Pinot Noir shows very good concentration and depth of black cherry and berry fruit with more than a lick of five spice.  A firm thread of tannins keeps it tight, focused and long. Very good.  14%

Pirie

Under Tasmanian Estates leadership, Adkin says the Pirie brand will focus on sparkling wine.  Dr Andrew Pirie, its namesake and creator says he fell in love with the bready yeasty character of Champagne, “the Bolly style,” which he describes as big, rich, fairly soft but with a low dosage.  That’s what he has set out to achieve with Pirie.  Job well done.

Pirie NV – a rich but well balanced sparkler with a tight citric backbone (White Hills fruit) and fine, persistent bead to its creamy yet fresh, bright core of applely fruit.  Nougat and toasted sour dough notes add complexity to nose and palate.  Lovely and long, it spends 18 months on the lees.

Pirie 2006 – not yet released, this blend of 75% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Noir was disgorged 12 months previously.  Made exclusively from White Hills fruit, it’s super tight on nose and palate, with oyster shell austerity, a chalky minerality and richer spice and toast notes as yet in waiting.  With cut glass cheekbones, it’s got plenty of tension, verve and class.  To be released once it’s unwound a tad.  Tons of potential.

Coombend

As Kavech mentioned in relation to the Devil’s Corner Pinot Grigio, the Coombend site seems to offer more richness of fruit than the Tamar Valley sites.  I’d also say that neighbours Freycinet’s wines are characterised by their generosity and concentration of fruit.    Still, because nights are chilled (from the 20s to 10 degrees) by cooling sea breezes, the acid structure is very good too, making for powerful wines.

For Adkin, it reflects the east coast’s quite different weather pattern.  Because the prevailing weather comes from the north-west, it’s in a rain shadow, so normally it’s drier and sunnier than the Tamar Valley.  The fruit comes off this vineyard first.

I say normally, because the weather pattern is also less predictable.  For example, last year’s rainfall was disastrous – 200mm in one week, followed by 250mm two weeks later.  Six hundred tons of fruit were lost.

While it doesn’t rain much and bores have failed to reveal any underground water sources, heavy dews at night make life difficult for vineyard manager Rob Coffey, who undertakes a very tight spraying programme – every two weeks from October to February.  Botrytis and powdery mildew are major risks, as are the possums, which Coffey deters with an electric fence.

Coombend Sauvignon Blanc 2010 – apparently the fruit used in this wine is now being diverted to the Devil’s Corner range.  It’s a ripe style with fresh pea pod and good intensity and weight of ripe citrus and white peach fruit.  Natural acidity provides good balance and length. Quite powerful. 13.2%

Coombend Riesling 2010 – a fruity, rich, ripe and relatively round Riesling well endowed with sweet citrus flavours and a stony minerality.  Good. 13%

Coombend Pinot Noir 2009 – deeply coloured and generously endowed with lashings of sweet, ripe raspberry fruit and a dash of five spice.  While supple and open-faced through the mid-palate, the finish is firmer with tapering tannins – iron fist in velvet glove.



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  1. Mary Garland

    Just stumbled across this piece while checking on a few facts for a blog I’ve just written. I’m really glad to see the Tasmanian Estates Pinot Noir (formerly labelled Tamar Ridge) is back on sale in Marks and Spencer here in Hong Kong for an extraordinarily good price – probably better than you can buy it in Tasmania!

    It’s a classic cool climate Pinot and, at 13.5%, is very pleasant value for money!

    I look forward to reading more of your articles. (I’m originally from Tasmania, so I may be a bit sentimental about my pinots…..)
    Best regards
    Mary Garland


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