Mewstone has appeared comet-like in its success. The wines – hailing from the banks of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel in Tasmania’s viticultural deep south – have been accorded a rapid series of accolades, but though that ascension may seem quick, it was laboriously built from the ground up. Although the vineyard is just over a decade old, an intensely thoughtful process has underpinned the processes of owners Jonathan and Matthew Hughes, with the site meticulously tended and progressively planted to optimise its potential. Today, viticulturist Luke Andree works with Jonathan Hughes to manage the 3.6-hectare vineyard, farming pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling and shiraz vines, with the formal process of organic certification having begun this year.
In 2011, brothers Jonathan and Matthew Hughes set up their vineyard in the tiny hamlet of Flowerpot in Tasmania’s D’Entrecasteaux Channel subregion, south of Hobart. Jonathan has worked as a winemaker around the world, but he had been moored at Moorilla Estate for seven years when Matthew’s suggestion to tip in and buy an old cherry orchard was eagerly taken up, with 2 hectares of vines planted that same year.
Those first plantings included five clones of pinot noir, four of chardonnay, four of riesling and a third of a hectare of shiraz, which was solely planted to the old Tahbilk clone. On north-facing slopes on sandy loam over a clay subsoil, the vineyard was structured in a way to make the most informed future judgements about how clones and varieties performed across different aspects, elevations and variations in soil.
“Mewstone is a unique site and a learning curve. Starting from scratch, the quest has always been to figure out what works best on our patch. We can’t really be guided by what works elsewhere due to our climate and soil, which we don’t share with other regions.”
In 2017/18, additional clones of pinot noir and riesling were planted based on some of the findings, as well as to further investigate suitability. Today, there are about 3.6 hectares under vine, with individual parcels of clones vinified separately to make definitive judgements about what works, and what doesn’t. Pinot noir’s fabled Abel clone was added in ’18, while the new ENTAV-INRA 828 and 943 clones were planted along with the more familiar 667. A further, and yet to be formalised, vineyard addition is scheduled for ’21/22.
Viticulturist Luke Andree works with Jonny (as he is known) Hughes to manage the farming, with the pair working to tailor their approach to the specific nuances of the site. “There is no dogma attached to the way we farm,” says Andree. “We are happy to make mistakes in the name of learning, and hope to be a source of knowledge and information for the other growers in our small region.
“Mewstone is a unique site and a learning curve. Starting from scratch, the quest has always been to figure out what works best on our patch. We can’t really be guided by what works elsewhere due to our climate and soil, which we don’t share with other regions. We’ve recently taken the first steps on the organic certification pathway and are converting the vineyard in a physical and structural sense to withstand new under-vine mowing equipment.”
The site has irrigation, but seasonal rains are typically sufficient, with a dam as backup in drier years. Along with embarking on the process of organic certification this year, a cellar door and winery were also built onsite, adding a layer of control and economic stability. That economic viability is also built around working closely with neighbouring vineyards, producers and business “to add to the epicurean experience of the region”, with the aim of making it a tourism destination of varied appeal and depth.
While 2020 marks the beginning of officially converting to organics, Mewstone was already well on the way with their farming practices, working with a neighbouring soil microbiologist for a number of years prior. “We have been working with the ‘soil food web’ principles to improve soil fungal populations with the use of composts, mulches and compost teas,” says Andree. “We have moved to a fully organic pest and disease management program and have invested in new equipment and labour to replace synthetic chemicals. Permanent ground cover improves soil structure, remedies compaction, cycles nutrients and nurtures soil microbiology.”
That process is not simply about farming the vines organically, either, with Andree putting the emphasis on the broader management of the land. “It’s more important to me than growing the vines,” he says. “I firmly believe that if you look after what’s below your feet, the vines will mostly look after themselves. We leave grasses and flowers to attract beneficial insects and create a thriving ecosystem around the farm.
“The soil life feeding the vines seems to be building a resilience that I feel is allowing us to continually reduce the amount of inputs from outside the gates… The ultimate goal is to fully close this loop on the property and create as much of the vineyard’s nutritional inputs as possible from ingredients sourced on site.”
“The soil life feeding the vines seems to be building a resilience that I feel is allowing us to continually reduce the amount of inputs from outside the gates... The ultimate goal is to fully close this loop on the property and create as much of the vineyard’s nutritional inputs as possible from ingredients sourced on site.”
Andree sees this closed-loop approach as a critical factor in managing larger issues, too. “Climate change is huge, probably the biggest problem we’re faced with. Everything that is green is a solar panel. Growing more means putting more carbon in the ground. Healthy, living soils sequester more carbon, and minimising both cultivation and areas of bare earth keeps it in.”
The continual learning curve of running a vineyard with a quest to improve the land is something Andree constantly refers to, but he’s quick to stress the level of practical support amongst the wine community, as well as the importance of the ever-blurring line between farming and making.
“Australia has a very diverse and interesting winegrowing community. The learning and practice never stop, and growers and winemakers can and should learn a lot from each other and their processes. As a young grower in a young business, I am lucky to have a whole bank of knowledge to call on behind the scenes.”
And while Mewstone will no doubt reveal more and more of its site character over time, Andree already sees a palpable thread in the wines. “A lace that is woven through the reds especially over the years has been a kind of steely reductive character. Reduction can manifest itself in many different ways, but to me this is always the same. Call it Jonny’s hand in the shed or the fruit and yeast expressing the site. I think it’s the latter. 2020 was a pretty lean vintage crop and ripeness-wise, however if you put that wine in a lineup of 50 samples, I think I’d pick it. Don’t try to fix it – that’s just the place speaking, I think.”