A ‘new wave’ of Tasmanian winegrape producers explore cool-climate varietal options
By Mark Smith
Vaughn Dell and Linda Morice took over their Sinapius Vineyard more than a decade ago. Their four hectare site features Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and an array of other vines suited to the region’s cool conditions. Now, as Mark Smith reports, the vignerons are off to Europe in search of potential alternative cool-climate varieties, and wine styles, to establish in Tasmania.
Like many of his winemaking peers, Vaughn Dell’s journey into wine has included some memorable deviations from life’s straight and narrow.
He’s surfed breaks during vintage at Margaret River; shared Cru Fleurie with industry ‘young guns’ in Beaujolais; and has even had a wayward encounter with French gendarmarie.
But nothing will compare with the day Dell and his partner Linda Morice took up ownership of their Sinapius Vineyard at Pipers Brook back in February 2005.
The couple were then just 23 years of age, virtually ‘newbies’ with limited knowledge and practical experience of cool climate viticulture in north-east Tasmania.
Morice was a recent occupational therapy graduate; Dell was a former professional footballer and AFL schools development officer.
Their property had once belonged to the Richardson family – founders of Delamere Vineyard – and had been planted to 2.5ha of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the mid-1990s by owner Richard Crabtree, brother of Clare Valley winemaker Robert Crabtree.
Twelve years on, Sinapius lays claim to a small onsite winery and four hectares of vines, comprising 14 clonal selections of Pinot Noir, 11 clones of Chardonnay, nine clones of Riesling, together with a smattering of Pinot Gris, Gruner Veltliner, Pinot Blanc, Gewürztraminer and Gamay.
The arrival of the 2020s is likely to see further additions being made to the site.
Their identities are yet to be determined.
Dell is in planning mode right now, and will leave for Europe mid-year as the 2017 winner of the Dr Don Martin Sustainable Viticulture Fellowship.
Established in 2011, the Tasmanian award is an initiative of the Hobart-based Alcorso Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation set up in 2001 to provide support to the arts, environment and social justice in the State following the death of wine industry pioneer and Moorilla Estate founder, Claudio Alcorso. Industry peak body Wine Tasmania is a fellowship partner.
Martin and Alcorso crossed paths in the early 1960s when both men were involved with the CSIRO in Tasmania – Martin as its officer-in-charge; Alcorso as a member of its State management committee.
Their close personal friendship led Martin to become Moorilla Estate’s inaugural winemaker in 1965, a position he held until wines of the 1983 vintage were bottled.
Dell said he will use the Fellowship’s $10,000 bursary to travel to Europe post-vintage to investigate the potential for alternative cool-climate grape varieties and wine styles to be established in Tasmania.
For almost all of the industry’s brief history – 60 years – Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have been its dominant varieties. Promising new varieties may well add further strings to the island’s already impressive bow.
“My study will have a strong emphasis placed on organic and biodynamic viticultural practices, and minimal input or natural winemaking techniques,” Dell explained.
“Linda and I intend to visit producers in Austria, Germany, and France – growers and makers who work in low-impact ways – in order to learn more about their practices, and to assess their potential for viticulture in Tasmania. We also intend to visit a vineyard machinery manufacturer in Germany, Niko, that specialises in narrow, low-compaction, tracked vineyard tractors. We’ll also be going to Boisselet and Faupin, in France, to investigate mechanical soil cultivation equipment, particularly for providing under-vine weed management.”
Dell may have started as a vineyard novice back in 2005 but the knowledge and experience he has gained over the years will serve him well in Europe.
Sinapius has developed a small but intensely passionate following over the past decade, with their number including renowned UK author and Master of Wine, Jancis Robinson O.B.E.
“Wines produced by Vaughn Dell and Linda Morice from Sinapius have an intensity that transcends the norm,” Robinson observed back in 2012.
Consumers and industry peers close to the couple will not have been surprised by such a glowing accolade.
Dell’s modus operandi has transcended the norm from the moment their ambitious Sinapius project was first conceived.
The fledgling enterprise was initially funded through the sale of small parcels of estate grown Pinot Noir and Chardonnay before winery space and bottling arrangements for the 2006 vintage were secured at Holm Oak Vineyard in the Tamar Valley.
“We’re really excited by the performance of this block. It’s barely five years old and it’s already producing better wine than we’ve been able to make from our 20 year old vines”
Subsequent developments have turned the couple’s vineyard operation into a viticultural showpiece, underpinned by low-impact and environmentally sustainable work practices.
A large proportion of the property’s original plantings have either been removed and replaced by clonal selections intended to limit vine yields or have been subjected to re-trellising and significant changes to canopy management – or both.
In many parts of the vineyard, the changes have resulted in vine and row spacings being reduced, and row orientations being altered by 90 degrees.
“Our original terraced blocks of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were set at a planting density of 3636 vines/ha,” Dell said.
“In 2006, we removed 0.8ha of under-performing vines and began replanting new high quality, low yielding clones of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay varieties. This new block is planted at a high density of 1.3m x 1.0m (7700 vines/ha) with some sections planted at 1.3m x 0.75m (10250 vines/ha).
“Our aim is to achieve greater expression of our site within these blocks. Yields per vine are capable of being more carefully managed, with many currently averaging less than 500 grams per vine. Vintage usually occurs between late March and late April, depending on the season.”
Dell said another new block was commenced in 2010, and is shaped like an amphitheatre, wrapping around the property’s hillside from northeast to east.
In addition to being densely-planted with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, it has small amounts of Grüner Veltliner, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, and Gamay.
A white field blend created from this source is marketed each vintage as Sinapius Clem Blanc. Its fruit is all handpicked at the same time, with the site’s very low yields providing an intense concentration of flavours.
Winemaking techniques employed include whole bunch pressing, with some parcels being crushed instead and then left on skins for 48 hours.
Co-fermentation with indigenous yeasts, time on lees, maturation in used 500-litre puncheons, and malolactic fermentation are also used to varying degrees, with winemaking approaches being driven by wine grape composition and Dell’s desire to create wines that are complex and textural on the palate.
“The fact that this sheltered block has an advantage of greater protection from the prevailing wind when compared with the rest of the vineyard is a real bonus for us, as it gives us earlier ripeness and maturation and far greater flexibility in winemaking,” Dell added.
Field blends, by their very nature, reward producers with additional benefits. They provide a form of insurance in the face of adverse vintage conditions – factors that compromise the vineyard behaviour of one variety may just as easily enhance the performance of another variety planted nearby.
A red wine sibling – labelled Esme Rouge – is crafted from 100% estate grown Gamay.
Four clones of the variety were planted in 2011 to provide an early drinking wine style with moderate to low alcohol.
It also has the capacity to ripen ahead of Pinot Noir, a significant consideration given the increasing frequency of extreme weather events that are being predicted to accompany climate change as it takes place across the world’s wine regions.
“The joy of having Gamay is being able to take the fruit off when we want to, which is not always the case with Pinot Noir at Pipers Brook,” Dell mused.
Limited first-hand experience on site indicates the variety breaks bud around the same time as Chardonnay.
Sinapius’s top wine is a 100% estate-grown Pinot Noir that is labelled La Clairiére (‘the clearing’ in French).
Rather than being sourced from the vineyard’s oldest vines, this wine comes from seven clonal selections of Pinot Noir planted in 2010-2011. Vine density is 7700 vines/ha.
“The block is north facing and the soils there differ markedly from our other Pinot Noir blocks, as they are composed of a duplex soil with ironstone gravels over micaceous siltstone clay, together with plenty of quartz,” Dell said.
“We’re really excited by the performance of this block. It’s barely five years old and it’s already producing better wine than we’ve been able to make from our 20 year old vines.”
A second premium Pinot Noir wine takes the name Enclave.
This pays homage to a vineyard block that is positioned in what Dell believes is the prized northeast facing mid-slope of the property.
Vine density there varies between 7700 vines/ha and 10250 vines/ha, with 12 different clonal selections of Pinot Noir doing the heavy lifting.
Soils on the block are the ubiquitous red Ferrosols of the Pipers Brook region, and are derived from volcanic basalt deposits that are over 10 million years old.
Exactly what may result from the couple’s impending European sojourn only time will tell.
UK writer and wine critic Sarah Amed is but one observer already keen to find out:
“Having visited Sinapius in 2012 and 2016 on my third visit to Tasmania (the first in 2004), I was deeply impressed by Vaughn’s and Linda’s pursuit of excellence and innovation in the vineyard and the winery. They are at the vanguard of a new wave of Tasmanian born and bred artisanal grape to glass producers – an exciting, very newsworthy development,” she reported at the end of 2017.
Dell’s fellowship experiences and findings are to be presented at a Tasmanian wine industry field day to be held in late 2018.