Of Wizards & Hot Shots: a visit with Holm Oak, Tasmania

Tasmanian winemaker Rebecca (Bec) Duffy told me she was lucky” that, having taken on Holm Oak in 2006, the brand and seven hectares of vineyard were already established.  First planted in 1983, Holm Oak is home to among the island’s oldest Pinot Noir vines. But as we chatted during my November visit, I reckon plucky, not lucky, best describes her. 

It has been quite a journey since leaving Capel Vale in Geographe, Western Australia.  Aside from rising to the challenge of making her own wines at the Tamar Valley property in Rowella, she has also established herself as a Pinot Noir player.  Not bad for the King Islander who had not made a Pinot Noir before.  It was, she recalls, “daunting” to put wines out there alongside those from Tasmania’s first generation icons, Andrew Pirie, Andrew Hood and Stefano Lubiana.

Together with her husband Tim, who is Holm Oak’s viticulturist, she has expanded the area under vine (now 15ha), leased another seven hectare vineyard at Rosevears called Martins (also in the Tamar Valley) and substantially revamped the wine range, winery and cellar door operations.  All pretty much between the two of them, whilst juggling a young family.

Tim and Bec,; new Pinot Noir site behind.

With not a little feeling, Duffy tells me “we’re trying to get into a consolidation phase” which, she elaborates, “means not tripling production in three years!”   Sales, she reports, are growing in all markets.  But ideally, she adds, “we’ll stay the size we are, but increase our margins via more direct sales and price increases.”  Vis a vis direct sales, Duffy is nothing if not client focused – an approach which shines through in the cellar door (open 7 days a week with nine wines on tasting), the website (neat food matches with locovore supplier reccos) and, of course, the wines.  It sounds silly, but they are made for drinking, by which I mean they offer texture and interest, but have great approachability too.

As for price increases, Holm Oak have already introduced new tiers to the Pinot Noir range (for seven years, there was just one Pinot).  “It’s about getting the right fruit into the right wine and getting (price) recognition for all the attention to detail that goes into the top tier wines,”she explains.  It helps, Duffy observes, that ever since she made her first Pinot in 2009, Tasmania’s quality potential is no longer being questioned thanks to big mainland companies having instilled confidence in the product.  Looking ahead, Duffy reckons that they will drop the baby Pinot which was first introduced in 2011.  Though it has been good for cashflow, the aim is to get the fruit quality up to the next level.

Off the beaten track, on a striking peninsula

So there is no downing of tools at this pretty unique, out on a limb site.  A warm one too, being both on the valley floor and on a peninsula (pictured), which sticks out into the (estuarine) Tamar River.  Tim was out in the vineyard planting Pinot Noir (new clones have been planted, the latest being Abel and Dijon clone 667) where he had pulled out Sauvignon Blanc.  Plus, where Duffy acknowledges “securing fruit is the big issue for future growth” (and for coping with “tiny” vintages like 2014, which prompted the couple to lease the Rosevear property), vine rows are being extended where possible to make the most of the existing footprint.

More free-draining and rockier down by the river, heavier clay loam towards the top of the slope.

Although there is not a lot of scope to plant more land at Holm Oak, the couple are keeping under review the possibility of extending the newer plantings which overlook the river (pictured).  Because of the site’s rockiness, it would be an expensive exercise but, there and again, fruit prices are going up faster than wine prices and, says Duffy, “our aim is to become self-sufficient.”

All the wines are available to buy via Holm Oak’s website.  They are imported into the UK by Single Vineyard Wines.

Holm Oak Arneis 2016 (Tamar Valley, Tasmania)

The couple planted Arneis in 2007.  Duffy says it’s good to offer something different for Wine Club members and vistors to the cellar door given it is off the beaten track.  But there’s heart as well as head in this example.  It is very true to both cool climate and the variety, being pale and taut with a splash of sea spray and aniseed, the latter lingering on a crisp finish.  Duffy wild ferments it in tank and concrete egg (20%) with some tangy solids to build a little texture. It’s good for 5-7 years she told me.  11.5%

Holm Oak Riesling 2016 (Tamar Valley, Tasmania)

A palate tickler.  Lively, crunchy acidity is deftly balanced with 7g/l residual sugar, making for a fruity, appley Riesling with delicate sweet lemon and talc riffs.  Ready to go and quite delicious. 12% £23.90 at The Sampler

Holm Oak Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Tamar Valley, Tasmania)

Steely grapefruit to the core with a bit funk and lift – apple skin bloom and apple blossom – and a hint of blackcurrant bud and smoke.  Duffy  adds bags containing blocks of new oak to the ferment to give the wine texture and enhance its smoky pungency.  Well done; a singular take on Sauvignon.  12%

Holm Oak Pinot Gris 2016 (Tamar Valley, Tasmania)

This Pinot Gris sees 20% wild ferment (in tank), a bit of skin contact and hyper-oxidative pressing all of which makes for a neat Pinot Gris style with texture and interest to its aniseed-licked pear, waxy apricot and honeysuckle palate.  Nicely done.  12.5%

Holm Oak Chardonnay 2015 (Tamar Valley, Tasmania)

A barrel-fermented blend of two clones – the citrussy 95 (used for sparkling) and Q223 (a Canadian clone which Duffy says is quite floral and, when it gets ripe, pineappley, which is why she picks it early at around 11.5 baume).   Pale, with green glints, it sports creamy custard apple, a touch of smoky oak, hints of cashew, angelica and a honeyed note to the finish –  nice texture (it underwent 30% malo).  A firm backbone of acidity brings length and persistence.   12.5%

Holm Oak The Wizard Chardonnay 2015 (Tamar Valley, Tasmania)

Holm Oak is named after the splendid oak trees dotted around the farm and which were its original raison d’ être.  Although the wood didn’t make the cut for Alexander Patent Racquet Co.’s tennis racquets, the top Chardonnay (first made in 2010 and the penultimate Pinot) takes its name from ‘The Wizard’ – the racquet Jack Crawford used when he won Wimbledon in 1933.  Duffy tells me she loves making Chardonnay and is still trying to settle on a style.  Currently this wine is a barrel selection but, going forward, she reckons that the block of Chardonnay (clone 95) down by the river will probably be the source. In 2015 (this wine had just been bottled), The Wizard was fermented and aged in 100% new oak and saw 100% malo.  Who wants milk when you can have cream, I thought, thinking of the consumers who miss the love handles on Chardonnay….But actually, this wine retains impressive rapier-like acidity and, despite a touch of sweet citrus (tangerine) on entry, is citric and mineral with lifted powder puff florals, lemon puff biscuits (a childhood favourite), steely grapefruity and smoky flint.  Very good. Around 13%.  £27.90 at The Sampler

Holm Oak The Wizard Chardonnay 2014 (Tamar Valley, Tasmania)

From the tiny, cool vintage (poor flowering and fruit set scythed production down to 6,000 cases versus 15,000 in 2015 and 17,000 in 2016), this comprises a barrel of each clone – the best two barrels of the vintage.  It’s quite funky and energetic on the nose with flinty sulphides and fresh grated lime zest, with lingering sweet citrus and silky creamy lees in the mouth – nice mouthfeel – and well-integrated, insinuating acidity. It was wild fermented and aged on lees with monthly batonnage; 50% of the wine underwent malolactic fermentation and 50% saw new oak.   13%

Holm Oak Ilex Pinot Noir 2016 (Tamar Valley, Tasmania)

Since 2011 when “I learned to pick earlier at 12.5-13.2 baume” (before baumes were up to 13.7), Duffy reckons she “gets much more clarity of flavour.” Ilex is the botanical name for holm oak.  The 2016 had just been bottled and the smoky bacon notes of the oak blocks sat a little proud of its soft red fruits – fleshy strawberry and plum.  Duffy expects the fruit to bounce back and take the lead.  Half the fruit is from Holm Oak (Champagne clone), the other half (clone 114,115) from Martins.  An easy-going Pinot. 13%

Holm Oak Pinot Noir 2013 (Tamar Valley, Tasmania)

I wonder if I noted the vintage incorrectly.  I suspect this is the 2015 vintage.  At any rate, this Pinot is a clonal blend of D5V12 (60% ) 115, 777, D4V2 and MV6; it had some whole bunch.  Duffy vinifies each clone separately (apparently you have to work D5V12 hard or you get nothing).  You’d not know it from this wine.  It tastes un-pushed, with a creamy melange (lovely mouthfeel) of fleshy red berry and plum fruit, more vivid flashes of smaller red/black currant and a touch of mushroom.  Unobtrusive tannins go with the flow, lending silky support and impetus.  Nice length.  Very good. 13%  A nice buy – £19.95 at Noel Young, £21.65 at Prohibition Wines (both 2015 vintage).

Holm Oak The Wizard Pinot Noir 2014 (Tamar Valley, Tasmania)

The Wizard comes from 6 rows from one Pinot block. Duffy made the first in 2009 and it was released as a three year old.  Not any more – it sold out quickly and, she says “I knew we onto something here…now I know where the fruit is coming from for each of our four Pinots.”  The Wizard 2014 was fermented (30% whole bunch) in small open top fermenters and hand plunged up to 5 times a day, then basket-pressed to barrel. Of five barrels, four saw new oak for 15 months. It is deeply coloured and concentrated, quite oaky too, yet there is no heaviness.  Rather it is vinous and intense, with a softness of structure – an amenability – despite its dark brooding fruits.  Mint and charcuterie notes add lift and complexity.  Duffy aptly describes it as “a Shiraz drinker’s Pinot Noir.”  14%

Holm Oak Hot Shot Pinot Noir 2014 (Tamar Valley, Tasmania)

Named after another tennis racquet, Hotshot is a barrel selection – just 2 barrels, one of which saw 100% whole bunch ferment, the other 50% whole bunch.  This is the first vintage.  The oak – Troncais, medium toast – was selected for its structure enhancing (line and length) properties (while, Duffy said, the oak in The Wizard is “more about roundness”).  It is a very silky Pinot with slinky tannins, ripe, sweet strawberry, succulent plum and black cherry, incipient savoury leather and riffs of whole bunch texture and spice.  She describes it as “not as obvious as The Wizard…a Pinot Noir drinker’s Pinot.” Its generosity with structure put me in mind of Central Otago Pinots.  As for Duffy’s hallmark softness of texture, it is, she says, a style she likes, but also a quality which the vineyard naturally delivers.  13.5%

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