In Tasmania, Marion’s Vineyard sits on the west bank of the Tamar, some 35 km north of Launceston. It’s a picturesque spot, with the vines arrayed on a healthy slope leading to a broad expanse river, a row of Tuscan cypress standing to attention in front of the stone winery in the middle of the vineyard. Marion and Mark Semmens bought the site in 1979 after a life-changing holiday, leaving their San Francisco home behind and planting vines a year later. Today, their daughter, Cynthea, runs the operation, with a decade of hard work leading to biodynamic certification being granted in 2022. The site predictably favours chardonnay and pinot noir, but it also has the capacity to mature later-ripening grapes, such as syrah and cabernets sauvignon and franc.
Marion and Mark Semmens were hobby winemakers at the time of their trip, and the mothballed apple orchard seemed a good opportunity to plant a vineyard, with what looked like an ideal aspect for grapevines. Initially, 4 hectares were planted with chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and müller thurgau going in the ground. Today there are 7.8 hectares under vine, with cabernet franc, syrah, pinot gris, muscat, mavrodaphne, zinfandel, gewürztraminer, tempranillo and cascade (an uncommon hybrid grape) joining the fray, with the last vines planted in 2003.
“The Kanamaluka [Tamar] River sits at the base of our amphitheatre-shaped property and allows refractive light to wake up the vines as the sun rises each day, giving them a head start for photosynthesis and a spot warm enough to ripen reds other than pinot noir.”
Marion and Mark’s daughter, Cynthea Semmens, grew up on the vineyard, even helping to plant some of those early vines as a child. Studying wine marketing at Roseworthy in the early 90s, a winemaking degree followed at the end of that decade. In 2010, Semmens returned after a global winemaking stint, with winemaker husband Dave Feldheim on board to take the reins at the family farm in 2010, with the pair taking on ownership a few years ago.
“Not a day goes by where we are all very thankful for where we have set down our roots,” says Semmens. “In fact, its sheer beauty helps us get through the days and the difficulties of the rocks and boulders that the vines are planted between. The Kanamaluka [Tamar] River sits at the base of our amphitheatre-shaped property and allows refractive light to wake up the vines as the sun rises each day, giving them a head start for photosynthesis and a spot warm enough to ripen reds other than pinot noir.”
“From the start, the wines we’ve made from this property have always had minimal external inputs. Dry grown, native yeast, no additions but sulphur post malo, or before bottling, and no fining. Because of this, the consumer is tasting site expression as though they were standing onsite and looking at the same view that we are.”
Committed to farming more sympathetically, Semmens embarked on a biodynamic path, with the vineyard receiving its certification in 2022 – only the second on the Apple Isle. “I have never been a religious person, but I feel like my vineyard and property is my church, and I hold utmost reverence for mother nature. So, in this context, my connection to nature and how I integrate into nature is key.” She also notes that organic/biodynamic certification is critical for staff, visitors and family. “To be held accountable and responsible for what they are consuming, and that where they are living and working is safe, clean and nutritious from our farming perspective.”
It has not been an entirely easy road, with Semmens pulling the vineyard back from conventional methods requiring a good deal of hard labour, but her approach was always part of bigger picture. “I am but a glorified drug lord growing a monoculture,” she says. “This is not how I want to leave this planet, so everything and anything I can do to have a greater positive impact will be considered for my children’s future and theirs. With a very small budget we are proving that it is not prohibitive to change your farming from conventional to organic.”
The farming has certainly paid off in a very direct way, too. “The vineyard has responded to the reduction in synthetic chemical inputs with great smiles,” says Semmens. “Life is abundant in worms, fungi/mycorrhizae and also in native insect life. It has been a personal challenge to maintain a vineyard which resembles a Wall Street banker and then convert to one which is more like a Rastafarian busker. I used to see a mess, and now I see habitat. You tell me the last time mother nature grew plants in rows.”
And while that shift from a tidy-vineyard mindset to a biodiverse and wild one took some time, Semmens now cherishes the abundance of life. “I can feel a change,” she says. “There is greater life in the vine trunks when touching them. There are smaller but more pert leaves with a deeper green. There is more life on the property – so many more birds, more beetles, ladybirds and dragonflies, and noise. The native grasses are coming back, and we are learning to leave them until they have seeded themselves before mowing. There is greater under-vine biodiversity, and it feels like we are all living in harmony.”
“It won’t be wet down here forever, and water will be the next future currency. We need to keep as much of it in the soil as possible. Testing is critical to understanding our soil improvements and our best test is a shovel, and a microscope. Adaptation to climate change will be our greatest test.”
Biodynamic preparations are supplemented with compost made on site, worm castings, mulch and various organic teas. Native grasses and flowering plants are encouraged throughout the property, with the midrows mowed to return organic matter to the soil and increase carbon sequestration. All re-trellising is done on metal stakes, while the tractor is on tracks to reduce compaction. There are also front and rear mounts so that two actions, such as slashing and spraying, can be performed at the same time. The plans for a new gravity-fed, solar-powered winery are also being drawn up.
“We aim to provide a product with the smallest footprint that we can, on every level, while still maintaining a living and lifestyle for multiple generations,” says Semmens. To that end, she is switching to Australian part-recycled lightweight glass, while also contemplating a return to cork, which are carbon negative from the best sources. Recycled cardboard is used for packaging, and much is reused at the cellar door. Biodegradable pallet wrap is replacing regular plastic, and Semmens is investigating refilling bottles at their local farmer’s market.
“Our aim is to have a closed loop system, putting all of our waste back into the land,” she adds. “This currently includes human waste, winery waste and cardboard, but we would like to include glass and plastics.” This self-reliance is very much environmentally motivated, but it also provides some level of future-proofing, with the focus on soil health also helping to secure a commodity that could be precious even in their high-rainfall location.
“It won’t be wet down here forever, and water will be the next future currency,” says Semmens. “We need to keep as much of it in the soil as possible. Testing is critical to understanding our soil improvements and our best test is a shovel, and a microscope. Adaptation to climate change will be our greatest test.”
For now, water is not a problem, and indeed Seemens describes their site as one of the most difficult areas in Australia for organic certification due to disease pressure. “It’s basically a fungal party zone,” she says. “We couldn’t be just organic which completely reduces synthetic chemical inputs. We need to incorporate regenerative agriculture, and biodynamics to secure the future of the soil and the wines.”
That was never going to be a barrier, of course, with the goals of environmental health, wine quality and terroir expression worth any amount of hard work. “From the start, the wines we’ve made from this property have always had minimal external inputs,” says Semmens. “Dry grown, native yeast, no additions but sulphur post malo, or before bottling, and no fining. Because of this, the consumer is tasting site expression as though they were standing onsite and looking at the same view that we are.”