With row upon row of vines now basking in the summer sunshine, it's not hard to see why anyone would want to plant a vineyard on Tasmania's East Coast.
Why someone would want to plant a vineyard remote from critical infrastructure isn't quite so easily explained. What do you do for power and water when you're apart from the electricity grid?
"Belbrook certainly is an interesting project," Rod Roberts says of the 18.5ha vineyard he and his family have developed midway between Swansea and Cranbrook, east of the Lost Falls Forest Reserve.
"Tasmania has strong agricultural expertise and many contractors played crucial roles in the site's development. A key to its success was the work done by Mode Electrical in developing our off-grid power station. Without a reliable on-site supply of electricity to power up our irrigation pumps, a 20ha vineyard just wouldn't be a viable operation."
Roberts speaks with the voice of experience. Two decades ago, the former Webster Ltd managing director and chairman oversaw the development of the East Coast's walnut orchards. Today, Stahmann-Webster's investments at Swansea and in New South Wales' Riverina district account for 90 per cent of Australia's annual walnut production.
Completion of Tasmanian Irrigation's Swan Valley Irrigation Scheme in 2017 provided the spark that ignited preliminary project planning. Site works began in mid-2018.
Belbrook lies on a parcel of land Webster Ltd once earmarked for orchard development.
The agribusiness ended up selling it to a local farmer, who subsequently retired and put it back on the market some 15 years later.
Following site preparation by Hall Earthmoving, Northern Vineyard Services and Absolute Viticulture, a smorgasbord of grape varieties were planted. Roberts hopes they will reveal future development potential. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris account for most of the plantings. Shiraz, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and the Austrian white grape, Grner Veltliner, are also represented.
"I know the East Coast pretty well," Roberts says.
"It's a good deal warmer than much of the rest of the state. There's also a significant rain shadow effect. The district seldom gets the prolonged, debilitating rain periods that can make farming difficult.
"I'd always liked Belbrook for its generally easterly aspect and its particular microclimate, nestled in the Wye River Valley. The mix of ironstone and sandstone in its soils makes it a really interesting proposition for intensive horticulture or viticulture."
Roberts understood from the outset his vines would require only one third of the volume of irrigation usually required by walnut trees. The challenge was finding a reliable and cost-effective means of supplying water to the site.
By mid-2019, Launceston's Mode Electrical had the solution. It comprised in-house design and installation of a fully autonomous, off-grid solar power station. The 100kW system supplies three-phase power for irrigation and can be remotely monitored and controlled. It's also networked across the property to include transmission to state-of-the-art site facilities, an electrified vermin fence, a workshop and a family residence.
A total of 256 solar panels are incorporated into the design, along with 120 battery cells.
"The project was a really exciting one," says Mode Electrical co-owner and director, Martin Dingemanse.
"Many similar developments use solar for augmenting off grid supply. But Belbrook is the first to be able to fully supply all of its needs, both farm and domestic. It really stretched the boundaries of what can be done with solar power on a commercial site."
MORE LIFE AND STYLE
Dingemanse says his system design specifically takes into account seasonal variability in load and solar generation. To balance power generation with grid load over winter, the company installed electric floor heating. That allows the owners to take full advantage of surplus power being generated while there is no need for vineyard irrigation.
Matching load to power generation also enables the system to run with practically zero generator backup.
"The pumps we've installed are carefully sized, enabling sufficient water to be pumped quickly to vines or centre pivots during the daytime," Dingemanse explains.
"That allows power to be provided directly by the solar array, eliminating the need to pump overnight and drain power from on-site storage batteries."
"For aesthetic reasons, we've spent quite some money eliminating power poles and putting all wires underground," Roberts adds.
"But if we're going to be doing anything significant in the ag space, we want to be sure it's sustainable. Here, being off-grid and carefully managing chemical inputs are signals of that.
"We're not getting too excited just yet. Time will tell. The vineyard is still a few weeks away from its first harvest."
PICK OF THE CROP
2016 Kreglinger Brut de Blancs $75
Wow, what a wonderful Kreglinger pigeon pair Natalie Fryar created for the Pipers Brook company in 2016 - this 100% Chardonnay wine; a Vintage Rosé made from 100% Pinot Noir. Both are superb, and the difference between them perhaps has more to do with how and where they're consumed rather than absolute wine quality. This delightful number has few peers if freshly shucked oysters are on the menu. It's elegant and refined, with real drive across the palate. Then there's the texture - round, creamy and oh-so-silky smooth. Uncomplicated in its making, it's a complete package in the glass.
2018 Pressing Matters R0 Riesling $39
Pressing Matters has an extraordinary wine show record when it comes to the company's razor-sharp Rieslings from Tasmania's Coal River Valley. The list of gold medals exceeds 100. This trophy winner from the recent Tasmanian Wine Show is a ripper - displaying extraordinary freshness and vibrancy in its third year of life, and with nary of hint of bottle age to avert attention from its pristine lemon/citrus fruit. R0 denotes the absence of residual sugar. That's hard to believe given the wine's juicy finish and well balanced acidity. See for yourself - it's a freak of nature, and a very good one at that.
2019 Gala Estate White Label Pinot Noir $32
Gala Estate at Cranbrook is a relative newcomer on the East Coast when compared to many neighbouring vineyards. That noted, the quality-driven family operation has been in catch-up mode since releasing its first wines a decade ago. This Pinot from the excellent 2019 vintage is an exercise in fruit purity and length of flavour. Neatly medium weight, it's a simply delicious drink, free from winemaking artifice, high acidity or assertive tannins. Attractive red cherry and dark plum notes make it the 'go to' wine for lightly spiced duck courses at your local Asian eatery. Multi-gold medal winner and excellent value.
- Mark Smith wrote his first weekly Tasmanian wine column back in 1994. He continues to chart the successes of the state's small scale, cool climate wine industry with contributions to some of Australia's leading industry publications