The Devil’s Corner Vineyard on Tasmania’s East Coast is the island’s largest, with over 190 hectares under vine. Named after a nearby nautical danger zone in the Hazards, the vineyard overlooks the Moulting Lagoon, with a classic varietal mix dominated by pinot noir, chardonnay and aromatic whites. Brett McClen oversees the viticultural operations, with a focus on soil health and water conservation, treating each block individually to maximise quality.
Devil’s Corner was first planted in 2005, with regular subsequent plantings boosting the holdings significantly over the years. The property now has 191.5 hectares of vines planted to the regional hero varieties: pinot noir, chardonnay, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc and riesling, along with shiraz, which is increasingly producing compelling wines from Tasmania’s best sites.
Owned by the Brown Family Wine Group (Brown Brothers), the vineyard is Tasmania’s largest, but the 35 blocks are managed individually, with a small vineyard mindset extrapolated over the large holding. The viticulture is tailored, with nutrition programs, irrigation, pruning and canopy management nuanced depending on the nature of individual blocks and the style of wines that they are best suited to. Overarching that is a vineyard-wide commitment that prizes soil health and microbial diversity. “Devil’s Corner is committed to sustainability through a strong focus on building soil health, as we recognise healthy soils equals healthy vines,” says Brett McClen, who oversees viticulture across the BFWG portfolio.
“The maritime warming influence reduces the frost risk and diurnal temperature variation, resulting in gradual acid decline at ripening and preservation of delicate fruit flavours in chardonnay, pinot gris and sauvignon blanc. The relatively cool conditions in late summer provide the ideal environment for pinot noir colour, tannin and flavour development. Temperatures rarely exceed 30°C in February and March, which is ideal for premium pinot noir fruit quality.”
The old viticultural model on this scale would see a lot of bare earth or closely mowed grass between the rows, but McClen does the opposite, with midrow and under-vine swards always present. “An under-vine area without vegetation is effectively a dead area for soil micro-organisms,” he says. Rotational grazing of sheep during the cooler months keeps the grasses to a manageable level, then in early summer a side-discharge mower spreads the cuttings under the vines to provide organic matter in the growing season and suppress weed growth. The grass then recovers to reduce soil temperature and enhance water-holding capacity.
The mulched grasses are also supplemented with compost made from winery waste of stems, skins and seeds. “Composted grape marc sourced from our winery is also spread under vine in blocks with low organic matter,” says McClen. “This improves soil health and improves soil nutrient levels of potassium and nitrogen, which tend to be low on the shallow dolerite soils in the area. These factors in combination help build a healthy under-vine environment for vines to flourish.”
The approach at Devils’ Corner also stretches to the area of the property not under vine, which dwarfs the significantly sized vineyard. “We’re promoting biodiversity areas on the property through participation in initiatives such as the Moulting Lagoon and Apsley Marshes conservation program which is part of the Australian Government’s Regional Land Partnership program and involves revegetation along the lagoon, fencing and weed management, which is aimed at improving the condition of the iconic wetland,” says McClen. “The Devil’s Corner property is 1,500 hectares, therefore there is plenty of scope to be involved in environmental projects that add value to the property and surrounding environment. BFWG have a keen responsibility to protect and enhance the local environment, while also producing premium wine grapes to keep pace with increasing demand for cool climate varieties.”
“We’re promoting biodiversity areas on the property through participation in initiatives such as the Moulting Lagoon and Apsley Marshes conservation program which is part of the Australian Government’s Regional Land Partnership program and involves revegetation along the lagoon, fencing and weed management, which is aimed at improving the condition of the iconic wetland.”
McClen notes that the focus on improving soil health and organic matter has positively impacted both yields and quality, with the vines proving more resilient to disease and other stressors. “Organic matter provides immediate benefits through soil moisture retention, nutrient storage and availability and reduced runoff,” he says. “In addition, soils high in organic matter are associated with beneficial soil microorganisms, which directly benefit the vines as the soils tend to be well aerated and better drained. Vines have a deeper, healthier root system and can withstand seasonal challenges such as high winds and prolonged drought, a common occurrence in the area. Healthy root systems tend to translate to healthy above ground canopy growth.”
One of the biggest challenges at the vineyard is managing water use, with the site receiving relatively low rainfall through the growing season. That is a bonus for disease pressure, but it makes water an even more precious commodity. McClen is working with Sustainable Winegrowing Australia to improve irrigation scheduling measures, as well as employing moisture monitoring probes and visual observations. The water deficit is also a potential handbrake for planned future plantings.
“This will require continuous improvements and innovation to ensure water is used as efficiently as possible,” he says. “We actively manage the expected challenges through on-site water storage, improved irrigation scheduling and soil management practices that conserve soil water storage and retention. In addition, by implementing improved soil moisture monitoring technologies, we have been able to act proactively rather than reactively by applying water in advance of predicted heat waves.”
The soils at Devil’s Corner are predominantly shallow silt loams and gravels with heavier clays overlaying. They provide conditions promoting moderate vigour, relatively open canopies and generally an optimal balance between canopy size and fruit yields, says McClen, while noting that the maritime environment also has benefits. “The maritime warming influence reduces the frost risk and diurnal temperature variation, resulting in gradual acid decline at ripening and preservation of delicate fruit flavours in chardonnay, pinot gris and sauvignon blanc. The relatively cool conditions in late summer provide the ideal environment for pinot noir colour, tannin and flavour development. Temperatures rarely exceed 30°C in February and March, which is ideal for premium pinot noir fruit quality.
“The wines tend to be well balanced in terms of sugar and acid development, requiring minimal winery interventions. We believe that the combination of moderate vine vigour, free-draining soils, the exposed nature of the site and cool summer ripening conditions directly translates to wines that truly express the uniqueness of the Devil’s Corner site.”