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The Wine Farm, Gippsland Neil Hawkins

Top Vineyards

It’s all in the name really. The Wine Farm in Koonwarra, South Gippsland, is a vineyard-centric operation, where Neil and Anna Hawkins lovingly tend their 3 hectares of vines according to Demeter biodynamic methods (in conversion). Making varietal wines from pinot noir, shiraz, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot gris and gewürztraminer, as well as a rosé and pét-nat, the style is lithe and mineral forward, with a mission to reflect the land and how it’s farmed in the glass – a feature that is becoming ever clearer as the years pass.

Neil and Anna Hawkins bought South Gippsland’s old Lyre Bird Hill vineyard in 2014, which had been progressively established from 1989 to 1995, with pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling, shiraz, pinot gris, sauvignon blanc, gewürztraminer and cabernet sauvignon planted to 3 hectares of land.

Neil Hawkins had worked as a winemaker around the world, as well as in his native South Africa, where the pair met, before landing in Sydney (Anna’s home), and finally Gippsland. The region neatly fit the bill for the pair’s passion for cool climate varieties, and an established dry-grown vineyard on own roots that was small enough to essentially manage themselves was too good a prospect to pass up.

“There is a common thread through all the wines we grow and produce that wasn’t present in the wines prior to our stewardship, when the vineyard was farmed conventionally. Exactly what that’s down to – picking decisions, our negligible use of sulphur or letting the indigenous yeasts from the vineyard do all the work in the cellar – we can never know for sure, but my gut tells me it’s the life in the soil that’s doing the lion’s share.”

Hawkins worked with all the varieties through a few vintages, playing with different styles and giving each a fair chance to show their potential after having moved away from the conventional agricultural approach of the previous owners. However, the gewürztraminer and cabernet sauvignon were eventually grafted over to more pinot noir and chardonnay respectively, while the sauvignon blanc has recently been removed. Since taking over the site, no synthetic chemicals have been used, but 2019 saw the official start of the biodynamic conversion process.

“The Demeter biodynamic method is the most elegant way I’ve come across of ensuring a healthy population of microbes,” says Hawkins. “I don’t think you can talk about any agricultural produce reflecting a specific place if it’s not grown organically at a minimum. A plant needs microbes, fungi and earthworms to transfer the minerals and nutrients from the soil into the humus …for the plant to take them up. If you’re using herbicides under your vines, you are killing the very things capable of delivering the specific qualities of your site into the glass.”

While this focus on reflecting the terroir in the glass is essential, the mission runs deeper than that, with Hawkins very conscious of the bigger picture and very aware of wine’s place in it. “We make a luxury product no-one really needs, so we should do something good for the planet while we’re at it!” he declares.

“As farmers, we should be using only regenerative practices that help the soil sink carbon. As consumers, we should be pushing for regeneration, supporting those farmers who are actively improving the soils under their care, which means no systemic chemicals, no artificial fertilisers, and a lot more life.”

Above: Hawkins shows the rich humus which forms the vineyard's topsoil (in hand on the left); further apparent by comparing to Demeter's 500P manure (in hand on the right). Opposite: Neil Hawkins.

Hawkins says they take this a step further, with a focus on education that the couple address at a grassroots level, detailing the growing rather than the making. “When people visit our cellar door, we like to open their eyes about the way we farm and encourage them to seek out other producers doing their bit for the planet, too. It would be wonderful if consumers were more mindful of the work that good farmers… are doing not only to improve the quality of the food and drinks on their table, but to help our species weather the storm of an impending climate disaster through large-scale carbon sequestration.”

Listing his biggest challenge in the vineyard as managing under-vine weeds, Hawkins still walks the vines to slash them. “I have a new under-vine mechanical tool that’s supposed to finally free me from the brush cutter, but so far, after a wet spring, I haven’t been able to get it into the vineyard without risking damaging the soft spongy humus on the farm. So, it’s still shiny and clean and sitting in the shed while the brush cutter and my back wreak havoc on the perpetually growing grass.”

While the processes are exhaustively manual – and with no contract labour ever used – Hawkins lists another piece of machinery as critical to the regeneration of the soil. “I use a rehabilitator plough to gently aerate the soil, with tines that don’t cut or smear, to boost microbial activity deeper into the profile. The high rainfall in South Gippsland and the mulching of grass and vine clippings, together with timely applications of biodynamic preparation 500 to turn all that organic matter into humus, have really amped up my soil.”

Hawkins uses rehabilitator plough to aerate the soil, to boost microbial activity. “The high rainfall in South Gippsland and the mulching of grass and vine clippings, together with timely applications of biodynamic preparation 500 to turn all that organic matter into humus, have really amped up my soil.”

Hawkins notes that he always has an open mind to ideas that are new to him, but he’s wary of them affecting his winemaking, lest his wines take on the shape of those of his peers. Rather, he credits the inspiration for his wines with the work amongst the vines.

“No-one knows your vineyard site like you; go with your gut and beat your own drum,” says Hawkins. “It’s a very rewarding form of creativity. When it comes to soil management, which for me is the most important part of winemaking, I learn a lot from the experiences shared by Demeter Australia market gardeners. Making wine is nowhere near as impressive as being a soil farmer”

While the wines made at The Wine Farm are worlds apart from those made by the previous owners, Hawkins believes he is seeing an enhanced sense of terroir in the glass, and he largely credits the focus on site and vines as amplifying that sense of place.

“There is a common thread through all the wines we grow and produce that wasn’t present in the wines prior to our stewardship, when the vineyard was farmed conventionally. Exactly what that’s down to – picking decisions, our negligible use of sulphur or letting the indigenous yeasts from the vineyard do all the work in the cellar – we can never know for sure, but my gut tells me it’s the life in the soil that’s doing the lion’s share.”