Keira O’Brien started Rivulet Wines in part to attempt save Tasmania’s oldest commercial riesling planting and in part to express her sense of creativity, which was being stifled in her contract-winemaking day job. Over the four vintages released, the portfolio has ebbed and flowed, with availability of the right fruit a key driver in her range. From 2021, O’Brien made a barrel-fermented sauvignon blanc, a skinsy sylvaner, a pinot meunier and pinot noir blend, and a classically styled varietal pinot.
“Rivulet Tasmania is an opportunity to work with fruit that I see as a bit special and tilt the winemaking a little more playfully,” says O’Brien. “It’s small-scale stuff, and the name is a bit of a riff on that – tiny trickles of wine, rivulets of sweat on the brow. As I drove around the vineyards in Tasmania, I noticed there are no creeks signposted here, but so many rivulets. I liked the shape of the word and the fittingness of their meanderings with my own journey to wine.”
O’Brien grew up in North East Victoria, with a wealth of wine regions around her. “An appreciation for food and wine led to food writing and teaching wine classes as a side hustle,” she says. “Looking for something more tactile and creative, I worked in wine buying, distribution, sales and working vintages, while undertaking formal studies in winemaking and viticulture.”
Experience in McLaren Vale, the Yarra Valley, Hunter Valley and finally Tasmania led to five years with Tasmania’s largest contract winemaking facility, working with growers from all areas of the state. O’Brien primarily worked with pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling, pinot gris, sauvignon blanc and sparkling wine. An opportunity to work with a couple of tonnes of fruit from Tasmania’s oldest commercial riesling vineyard led to her launching her own label in 2019, with a wine from the 2018 vintage.
“What finally pushed me to make my own wines for Rivulet was hearing a grower talk about pulling out old riesling vines because they weren’t paying their way,” says O’Brien. “Anxious to ensure this didn’t happen, I convinced them to sell me half the fruit from the block, and I adopted some techniques used by noted producers in Rheinhessen, Germany. This allowed me to turn the spotlight on the provenance and quality of the fruit.”
That opportunity was not just about saving those vines, ether. The strictures of contract winemaking can be suffocating for those more creatively minded. “When I started Rivulet, I was looking for an outlet to express my own ideas about winemaking, particularly around building layers of texture in wine and retaining transparency of place and time,” says O’Brien. “I’d built relationships with excellent growers who continue to be wonderfully supportive of what I am doing with Rivulet.”
In 2020, O’Brien decided to shift her focus to growing Rivulet to becoming a meaningful business rather than a side project, while still making wine for a small group of established Tasmanian vineyards. “2022 will see me begin working with Freycinet Vineyard, one of the pioneers of Tasmanian wine,” she says. “I’m hoping to steadily grow Rivulet over the coming years. Ideally, I’d love to find a vineyard site where I can add varieties like trousseau, savagnin, friulano, Rhône whites and syrah to the mix, and be hands on with every aspect from vineyard to bottle.”
For now, while O’Brien has excellent contacts, she is at the mercy of fruit supply in any given vintage, with the cost of Tasmanian fruit spiralling upwards, and the availability spiralling down with ever-increasing demand. “Sourcing fruit can be a challenge as larger players move into Tassie, so relationships and respect for growers is key, as well as a willingness to be flexible,” she says. “Realising at the outset that this would be the reality for Rivulet for the foreseeable future, I have designed a brand and packaging that plays on the diversity of places my wines are sourced from, celebrating what could otherwise be seen as a negative.”
For O’Brien, the way a wine feels in the mouth is just important as how it tastes. “Texture informs my approach, often more than flavour,” she says “I believe that phenolics can be important and positive structural and textural elements within a wine. They need to be balanced by flavour and overall mouthfeel. I am often drawn towards parcels of fruit where I can create wines which lean into savoury flavours and texture.”
The aim with Rivulet, says O’Brien, is to create playful and expressive wines of place. “To do this, I focus on making good picking decisions, keeping the winemaking simple and unforced. Fruit purity, texture and balance are the guiding lights in my winemaking decisions. Tasmania provides many opportunities to create wines from varieties that I enjoy, and I get a kick out of taking varieties that others dismiss. Rivulet allows me the opportunity to engage in a creative, iterative process where the results are tangible and tactile. The blend of connection, science and instinct is highly stimulating for me. Creating wines that bring people pleasure and are part of their happy moments is deeply satisfying.”