Brown Brothers: fresh adventures in Tasmania & Yarra Valley
As we have seen either side of the pond lately, manifesto commitments are not as easy to keep as they are to make. But one big fish in a small pond – Brown Brothers in Tasmania – has come good on its pledge to pitch a generous and flavoursome Pinot Noir at a price point (AUS $20-25/c. £12+) which engages a broad range of consumers.
Said pledge was made in 2012 at the 8th International Cool Climate Symposium in Hobart by then CEO Ross Brown. It followed in the wake of Brown Brothers’ acquisition of 150ha of prime Tasmanian land under vine and a cluster of Tasmanian brands, including Tamar Ridge and Devil’s Corner. As he then observed, achieving this goal was all about critical mass.
When I visited Tasmania in November, Will Adkins (Brown’s right hand man in Tasmania) confirmed that, with production at 600,000 bottles/year, Devil’s Corner Pinot Noir is now Australia’s biggest selling Pinot Noir by value. The company’s entry level Pinot from the drier, sunnier East Coast retails for around AUS $18 and, in the UK, has an RRP of £17 (which reflects rising duty and exchange rates).
What’s more, Brown’s masterplan to put Pinot Noir in more consumers’ glasses to “build a bigger pie” has seen Devil’s Corner introduce two new upper tier Pinots. Having tempted consumers up Devil’s Corner’s quality rungs, it is a short step to cross over to Tamar Ridge, Brown Brother’s more structured Tamar Valley Pinots from the Kayena vineyard with, as winemaker Tom Wallace puts it, “more intense tannins.” Now that’s clever.
Incidentally, I didn’t make it up the East Coast last year but, since I visited the Devil’s Corner vineyard in 2012, an arresting new cellar door has emerged. With spectacular views over ‘The Hazards’ on the Freycinet Peninsular (after which the vineyard is now named) and Moulting Lagoon, it also has a restaurant with fresh shellfish and seafood from Freycinet Marine Farm (where I dined rather deliciously last time) and wood-fired pizza oven.
It is not the only cellar door in which Brown Brothers have recently invested. Last year, the company acquired the Innocent Bystander brand in the Yarra Valley; the existing cellar door stayed with Phil Sexton and has been re-badged Giant Steps. Innocent Bystander now has its own cellar door in Healesville at the old “White Rabbit” brewery site. On the other side of the balance sheet, since my last 2012 visit (reported here), Brown Brothers has sold off a couple of its Tasmanian vineyards – Coombend to neighbours Freycinet Wines and White Hill (Tamar Valley) to Treasury Wine Estates.
Here are my picks of the bunch from Brown Bros’ current range of Tasmanian brands, Devil’s Corner, Tamar Ridge and Pirie; all three brands are imported into the UK by Awin Barratt Siegel Wine Agencies.
Devil’s Corner Chardonnay Pinot Noir Cuvee NV (Tasmania)
In fact this is a single vintage (2016) fizz, comprising 70% East Coast Chardonnay, the balance being Pinot Noir from the Kayena vineyard (all machine harvested). It was tank fermented. Generous Chardonnay fruit – creamy fruit salad flavours, soft pear – is wed to crunchy acidity. Well made and a good choice if you are after primary fruit. But for the same money, even a few quid less, Jansz Premium Cuvee offers more autolytic complexity (it is a non-vintage blend, base wines see a bit of oak and it undergoes the second ferment in bottle and spends more time on lies). 12% Devil’s Corner is £17.75 at Worth Bros
Pirie NV (Tasmania)
This is always a scintillatingly focused, fine fizz. Adkins reckons this release is probably based around the 2011, which he rates highly for bubbles. It is a blend of 55% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir grown in Tasmania’s Tamar Valley with a small percentage from the East Coast. Free run juice and light pressings (max 0.2 bar) are oxidatively handled. 5% of the blend was fermented and matured in puncheons (500 Litre) French barrels for between 2 and 6 months. Tirage and secondary ferment in bottle (Traditional Method) was followed by three and a half years on lees before disgorging. A complex autolytic nose and palate with distinct sea spray/ozone, oyster shell and mushroom notes. Good acid drive and a very persistent but fine bead make for an energetic fizz, with a tight, very long, mouth-watering finish with a lick of strawberry ice cream. Terrific. 12.5% £28.95 at Halifax Wine Company
Pirie Blanc de Blancs 2009 (Tasmania)
Made from 100% northern Tasmanian Chardonnay which was aged on the lies for 4.5 years prior to disgorging and dosage. With a few years under its belt and from a single year this is a wine of substance, with yellow and white peach, buttery shortbread biscuit and hints of marzipan and honey. A firm backbone of acidity leaves you in little doubt about its cool climate credentials, keeping the fruit intense, not dense, deep, never broad. Great line and length with kiss of sea spray to the finish. Very good. 12.5%
Pirie Vintage 2009 (Tasmania)
A 50:50 blend of northern Tasmanian Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which spent 4.5 years on lees prior to disgorging and dosage. The Pinot Noir, barrel-aged base wine and reserve blending make for a spicier, more savoury sparkling wine, with strawberry ice cream (creamy) and firmer citrus notes. Good length and bead.
Pirie Rosé 2009 (Tasmania)
This is a sophisticated 100% Pinot Noir rosé – delicate, yet firm, fruity, yet dry, with spicy, crunchy cranberry, a hint of red cherry flesh and lifted rose petals. A firm backbone of acidity makes for great poise and persistence. Very good. 12%
Tamar Ridge Riesling 2015 (Tasmania)
Displays classic lime, lime blossom and talc, with just a touch of soapiness (lees ageing?) But the finish is well-focused, slatey and mineral. Dry and long. 12.5% £15.99 at Rude Wines, £16.50 at Hennings.
Tamar Ridge Sauvignon Blanc 2016 (Tasmania)
Sauvignon Blanc was very much out of favour last time I was in Tasmania, but it seems to have redeemed itself. At any rate, this is a lovely example, with a wild ferment/seasoned oak component (20% was fermented in old French oak puncheons) for subtle structure and complexity. It has a trim blackcurrant bud nose and palate with pretty bay leaf lift and more exotic hints of kaffir lime. Crunchy acidity makes for a persistent finish. Nicely done. 12.5%
Devil’s Corner Chardonnay 2015 (Tasmania)
Made from predominantly East Coast fruit (83%), with the balance from the Tamar Valley. With an element fermented on solids (not settled) and 30% fermented/aged in old oak, this delivers the fruit you would expect from an entry level Chardonnay (a nice concentration of tangerine, peach and creamy fruit salad), together with a touch of complexing woolly stone fruit and savoury lees. Well done. 12.5%
Devil’s Corner Resolution Chardonnay 2013 (Tasmania)
The rather more ambitious big sister undergoes 100% barrel ferment (mostly natural) and is aged in oak (30% new) for nine months. This vintage was 100% Tamar Valley fruit and shows nicely concentrated peach and juicier nectarine. The oak is a firm hand on the tiller. Ideally it would be a little more integrated, but it brings push to the pull of mineral, slatey acidity which lends tension to the palate. Finishes tangy and savoury. A good first effort at the next rung on the ladder. 13.5%
Devil’s Corner Pinot Noir 2016 (Tasmania)
Wallace confides that the secret to the success of this unoaked entry level wine is smooth tannins. He achieves it by using big fermenters and air maceration (four air jets located above the seed deposit zone help keep the skins in circulation with the juice) and finishing the ferment off skins (apparently East Coast fruit always has good colour so he doesn’t need to worry about extracting that). Initially this 2016 Pinot is a little disjointed, because it had just been bottled but, once you get past that, it has lovely freshness to its vivacious melange of red fruits – cranberry, red cherry and pomegranate. Very well done in a lighter style than the ’15, reflecting the vintage. 13%
Devil’s Corner Pinot Noir 2015 (Tasmania)
A riper, more expressive vintage with floral lift to its generous black cherry and ripe strawberry fruit, smooth tannins and nice freshness. I liked the complexing hint of savoury decay (petals) on the finish. Devil’s Corner Pinot Noir is principally sourced from sparkling Pinot clones and Burgundy clones 114 and 115. 13.5% £13.99 at Rude Wines, £15.99 at Fine Wines Direct, £16.50 at Hennings
Devil’s Corner Resolution Pinot Noir 2015 (Tasmania)
The next step on the new Devil’s Corner quality ladder is based around Burgundy clone 777 clone. Although the fruit is from the East Coast, the winemaking is similar to that used for sister brand, Tamar Ridge (i.e. more extractive). This wine is vinified in open fermenters after a cold soak; it was hand plunged in open top fermenters up to 6 times a day in the middle part of the ferment. Some whole bunches are included in the (natural) ferment. It is aged in 20-30% new French oak. Good fruit depth, freshness and focus with an emphasis on perfumed red cherry with firmer pomegranate and a subtle play of whole bunch pepperiness and oak spice around the edges. You can see the connection with the entry level wine in terms of this wine’s open knit, expressive quality and amenable tannins and yet this cuvee marks a definite step up in terms of concentration, complexity and structure. Very well done. Wallace told me plans are afoot to increase the range “to expand our Pinot story.” A limited release Pinot based around the Pommard clone (reviewed below together with one made under the Tamar Ridge label) sold out and there is scope to do the same with the MV6 clone. Nice idea to encourage a bit of exploration from a friendly base. 13% £19.99 at Davis Bell McCraith
Tamar Ridge Pinot Noir 2015 (Tasmania)
About 25% of this Tamar Valley Pinot Noir (clones 115, MV6) was matured for 10-12 months in new oak with the balance aged in a mixture of two to three year old barrels. While the Devil’s Corner Resolution is generous, this wine is deeper, more structured, drier and more savoury, with firmer tannins and charcuterie oak. Clasped to its core is lovely red cherry and cherry stone/almond notes which, in time will flesh out. The finish is fresh, clean and mineral. Young but very promising. 13.5%
Tamar Ridge Reserve Pinot Noir 2013 (Tasmania)
With a couple years’ more bottle age this is deliciously expressive with pretty floral notes of rose petal, even Turkish Delight, to its red berry and cherry fruit. Silky tannins make for a lingering, elegant finish. £21.95 (2014 vintage) at Oxford Wine Company
Tamar Ridge Single Block Pinot Noir 2014 (Tasmania)
This wine is made from 20 year old vines at block 28 on the Kayena vineyard, Tamar Valley, which is planted to the Pommard clone. I looked back at my notes from the last visit, when I tasted single clonal Pinots – trial bottlings. My notes on the Pommard clone from the 2011 vintage chime with this vintage in terms of this wine’s sweet red fruits (canned strawberry), but primarily spicy, earthy, savoury palate, which makes for a relatively dry profile (which is what I’d expect from the Pommard clone). I prefer a little more lift to my Pinots, but it is interesting to compare this wine with the next. Tamar Ridge Single Block 2014 was 100% de-stemmed and aged for 12 months in a combination of new to 4 year old French oak barriques (25% new). 12.8%
Devil’s Corner Mt Amos Pinot Noir 2014 (Tasmania)
This wine is also made from the Pommard clone but comes from the East Coast (Mount Amos is one of the ‘mountains’ in the Hazards). It was fermented with 20% whole bunches and saw a little more new oak (35%). True to the location, despite the whole bunch, it is a deeper colour than its Tamar Valley counterpart, with a fleshier, fruitier, softer profile. But it is similarly savoury and dry in profile, with earth, beetroot, and charcuterie notes to its blackcurrant fruit. 13.5%