The Coal River Valley in the south of Tasmania has developed a worldwide reputation, and is ideally suited, for the production of cool-climate wines such as Pinot, Riesling and Chardonnay. Today, the fold of hills around Mount Dismal, The Quoin and Dews Hill in the Tea Tree branch of the valley are emerging as the most concentrated centre of quality small vineyards in the Tasmania.
One of the largest vineyards in the area is Drew Wines, owned by Robert Drew, whose family has farmed around Tea Tree for more than 100 years. Robert’s grandfather and father were both farming contractors and chaff cutters. He started work as a crane and skidder driver in logging coupes, worked at the Renison Bell zinc mine for a while, sold tractors, became a firewood contractor and, for 10 years, designed and built firewood splitters. In between, he hunted and fished for his supper.
Then, in the mid-1980s, Drew had his first ever glass of wine, poured for him at a dinner at Prospect House in Richmond. That was the start.
A few years later, he sold his house, bought a perfectly sited property sloping down to the Merrieworth Rivulet in Tea Tree and planted 1ha of pinot noir and chardonnay vines, followed two seasons later by 1,200 riesling vines.
Today he has 6ha planted, harvests around 50 tonnes of pinot, chardonnay, riesling, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz each year, has self-built a beautiful new family home and is making his own wines, as well as those for five other small local producers. By year’s end, will have hand-built a fully equipped new winery.
“That glass of wine was the best thing I ever tasted,” he says. “And starting a vineyard the best thing I ever did. I paid for things as I went along, never borrowed money, did most of the work myself and expanded when I could afford it. Now the vineyard pays for everything we have and provides us with a very healthy income.”
In an industry dominated by corporate big boys, cashed-up professionals and hobby life-stylers, and where they say to make a small fortune you need to start with a big one, Drew’s is a refreshing story. His success is due in no short measure to the typical bushman’s can-do, give-me-a-piece-of-wire-and-I’ll-fix-anything attitude, meticulous attention to detail, common sense and a lot of hard work.
Drew’s early wines were made by Alain Rousseau, then winemaker at Moorilla Estate, and are still drinking superbly. The last few vintages, Robert has made the wines himself in a Heath Robinson set-up of second-hand tanks and presses, hoses, new and old barrels, knock-up cold rooms and domestic radiators. Rousseau, now head winemaker at Hood Wines, continues to provide advice and technical assistance.
The wonder is the quality of the wines that Drew is producing with his untrained efforts and make-do facilities. His intense, spicy and peppery Shirazes are on a par with the best ever produced in Tasmania. His Rieslings often start life as colourless, mean, lean drops before taking colour and opening up to become crisply dry, fabulously focused stunners. The 1998 Riesling is still drinking superbly.
Put Drew’s pinots alongside those from Morningside and the national trophy-winning ones from Crosswinds and you can understand why the French strategists from Taltarni are planting their vineyard at Tea Tree and why a leading New Zealand producer was recently nosing around the area looking for a site to grow sauvignon blanc.