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Penley Estate, Coonawarra Hans Loder

Top Vineyards

Founded in 1988, Penley Estate is not Coonawarra’s oldest name, but it is one of its most celebrated. Focusing on the classic offerings of cabernet blends and shiraz, Penley is a traditional icon of the region, but Ang and Bec Tolley were determined to take their estate in a different direction, which has been visibly led in the winery but firmly anchored in the vineyard. Under the viticultural direction of Hans Loder, the estate has embraced technology to target the deployment of resources and better assess fruit ripeness and health, resulting in wines with brighter profiles, while more experimental offerings have also been possible through the enhanced ability to select small parcels from the 80-hectare vineyard.

The Penley Estate Vineyard was progressively planted from 1989 to 2000, with it now occupying 80 hectares under vine. The site is divided into 15 blocks, which are devoted to cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, merlot and cabernet franc. All vines are planted on own roots.

When viticulturist Hans Loder started at the estate, Ang and Bec Tolley were very much in the process of rethinking their entire operation after the retirement of their winemaker brother, Kym Tolley. When the sisters appointed Kate Goodman as their winemaker in 2016, then Loder the following year, a new approach was being ushered into one of Australia’s more conservative wine regions. This was not to abandon Coonawarra’s established strengths, though, but rather to reframe and enhance them.

“I’m very proud of what has been achieved in only a matter of a few years since I commenced in 2017,” says Loder. “Bringing together the owner vision with the team’s technical ideas and ability, it’s been possible to deliver a fresh and new perspective on the vineyard. A key aspect of the owners’ vision has been to become hands on, nurturing and truly sustainable. And their way to achieving this has been through giving back and working differently.”

“In my role, there’s no ‘business as usual’, with winemakers Kate and Lauren [Hansen] pushing me to identify and deliver small parcels of fruit with which they can experiment,” says Loder.

Loder is a second-generation viticulturist, influenced as much by his upbringing as he is by the latest developments in precision agriculture, with a raft of Agtech initiatives – as well as a cloud-based OHS platform – employed across the estate. “My production methodology has evolved over many years, from what I learnt growing up with my viticulturist father as a mentor, to my studies, hard-won lessons learnt on the job and fruitful discussions with peers.”

After Loder began his role, an extensive survey was conducted to learn more about the nuances of the site. “In the vineyard, we’ve had to be smarter in the way we go about things. So, while the goal is to be more hands on, we’ve used aerial imagery paired with soil mapping to provide the focus, from picking individual rows and panels, right down to individual vines.”

That information returned a better understanding of soil and various pressures affecting quality and yield, including identifying areas more readily damaged by frost. Additionally, three distinct soil types were catalogued, with Loder nuancing the farming to respond to each, including a specialised irrigation plan, which has had positive effects on both increasing yield of high-quality fruit as well as reducing water consumption. This program is further informed by soil monitoring probes that feed data back to direct even more targeted water application.

There have also been significant insectary plantings established, which attract beneficial insects that aid in pollination as well as prey on harmful bugs. Mid-row vegetation, which include cover crops and native grasses, are now present throughout the vineyard, and the use of herbicides and fungicides has been cut by two-thirds.

Three distinct soil types were catalogued, with Loder nuancing the farming to respond to each, including a specialised irrigation plan, which has had positive effects on both increasing yield of high-quality fruit as well as reducing water consumption.
There have also been significant insectary plantings established, which attract beneficial insects that aid in pollination as well as prey on harmful bugs.

As with the irrigation program, key to Loder’s approach is targeting the team’s actions by using information logged in cloud-based systems – which relates to everything from spraying to manage disease to the application of compost – which is based on satellite images and data collected by drones. It’s a needs-based system, rather than a blanket approach.

“I’m continually striving to get to a point where I’m managing the vineyard to the individual vine level,” says Loder. “This is an area where I believe technology can make a difference in achieving a detailed level of management, within the constraints of finite resources of time and people.”

With only three fulltime staff on the viticulture team, working across 80 hectares in this kind of detail would be impossible without technology to accurately gather, log and compile data. And the benefits are not just felt by reducing the use of resources – such as water and treatments to manage disease – but are apparent in the finished wines, too.

“The winemaking focus has been on harvesting earlier, to make fresher wines that are all about the fruit,” notes Loder. Being able to monitor and pick small sections at precise times means that the style brief is readily achievable, with brightness and clarity of flavour now a Penley signature. “Flavours shouldn’t be lost through overripe or cooked characters.”

“The winemaking focus has been on harvesting earlier, to make fresher wines that are all about the fruit,” notes Loder. Being able to monitor and pick small sections at precise times means that the style brief is readily achievable, with brightness and clarity of flavour now a Penley signature. “Flavours shouldn’t be lost through overripe or cooked characters.”

Returning fruit of higher and more consistent quality is the most obvious benefit of the advances, but it has also meant that individual parcels are more readily recognised. “In my role, there’s no ‘business as usual’, with winemakers Kate and Lauren [Hansen] pushing me to identify and deliver small parcels of fruit with which they can experiment,” says Loder.

“Efficiencies have allowed us to achieve our goal of becoming hands on, with an example being the vineyard team’s involvement from pruning to picking of the 2019 ‘Project Cabernet’ wine. This wine provided fruit aplenty, generous mouthfeel and balance, coming as a result of obsessive focus on understanding site, vine balance and then selective hand-picking of a small parcel of fruit.”

This hand-in-hand relationship between the viticulture and winemaking teams is one that Loder believes is critical to the ongoing success and advancement of the estate’s wines. “Changes in the vineyard combined with our vision for Penley Estate are delivering wines which are given the opportunity to reflect the character of the estate, Coonawarra’s climate and its soils. …Flavours are generous and fruit-ripe, in spite of being picked earlier and at lower Baume. …The season is better reflected, with vineyard management working to the vintage and not a calendar.”