Jackson Brooke is making wines that are a joy to drink.

This year heralds the first instalment of the Australian Organic Wine Awards, supported by Gourmet Traveller WINE. An organic wine show, open to any certified winemakers from Australia, was held at Brisbane’s City Winery in early 2021. The judging panel was chaired by Ramon Arnavas, alongside judges Ken Gargett and Alex McPherson, with associate judge Josh Martin also at the bench.

The inaugural Australian Organic Wine Award goes to Steve and Monique Lubiana of Stefano Lubiana Wines, and his winemaking team of Marco Lubiana, Lauren Hodgeman and Christopher Chen. Lubiana’s 2018 Estate Chardonnay was awarded the Cullen Wines Trophy for Wine of Show, the culmination of farming biodynamically for a decade. Congratulations to Steve and the crew; it is well-deserved recognition for pioneers
of biodynamic wine in Tasmania.  

Second place was awarded to the winemaking team at Foxeys Hangout, brothers Tony and Michael Lee and good mate Christopher Strickland. It has been a stellar rise for
the small team from the Mornington Peninsula, who came to winemaking later in life and are working with some young vines. Their 2019 Scotsworth Farm Pinot Noir was crowned Red Wine of Show. A fine achievement.  

Stefano Lubiana Wines – 2020 Winner

Steve Lubiana is a fifth-generation winemaker who has embraced organics and, for the past 10 years, biodynamics. That hard work is paying off in spades, with Stefano Lubiana Wines recognised with the 2020 Australian Organic Wine Award. Lubiana is a hard man to catch. Every time I try to get a hold of him, he can’t be found. But he’s not on holidays or putting his feet up somewhere; he’s out in the vineyard, meticulously watching his organic grapes, and putting his heart and soul into the next wine. “We do it for the environment, it is our duty as temporary custodians to respect the land we use,” he says. “Consumers also benefit with chemical-free wine that has a refined and expressive sense of purpose and place.”

Father and son Steve, left, and Marco Lubiana.

It has been a long journey for Lubiana, who was brought up in a winery in South Australia’s Riverland region, which was started by his grandfather, Andrea in 1953, after fleeing Istria post World War II. Andrea’s son Mario took over from him, then Steve took the reins in the late 1980s.

“I did a vintage in Champagne in 1985, and wanted to make fine quality wine and sparkling,” he says. “Then I came to Tasmania and thought this is it, drop dead obvious.”

Lubiana and his family moved to Tasmania’s Derwent Valley in 1990.

“But it was tough, interest rates were 18% and there was no wine equalisation tax rebate. We had no money, and lived and raised three children for 12 years in a second-hand house I bought for $5,000.”

While it’s been a long game, the effort has paid off, with the Lubiana winery evolving into a family success story. Steve’s son Marco is involved in winemaking and viticulture, while Steve’s wife Monique helps prune.

The family operation is rounded out by Lauren Hodgeman, who joined the winemaking team last year, and Christopher Chen, who spends most of his time in the vineyard.

Stefano Lubiana Wines is home to the only certified biodynamic vineyard in Tasmania.

As testament to their dedication to the environment, all their vineyards are certified organic and since 2013, they have overseen the only certified biodynamic vineyard in Tasmania. To gain certified organic status takes three years, and winemakers must follow stringent processes and auditing to ensure no chemicals or synthetic pesticides are used.

Biodynamic certification takes this philosophy a step further; only approved natural sprays are used at prescribed times of the year according to the lunar cycle.

Like all good wine, the quality begins with love and care in the vineyard. For Lubiana, this includes hand-tending the vines throughout the year, shoot removal and crop thinning for high quality grapes.

The team oversees 25ha along the Derwent River, with another 10ha in the Huon Valley. Their main varieties are pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling, sauvignon blanc and pinot gris, along with small amounts of syrah, merlot, malbec, blaufränkisch and malvasia.  

Lubiana says his focus on organic and biodynamic comes from a mix of deep purpose and family influence.

“Our intention was organic from day one,” he says. “I saw a Four Corners program years ago and thought this is exactly what we want to do. We went to a biodynamic conference at Pipers Brook in 2010 and that relit the spark to get certified. My great-grandfather Giuseppe made wine by the moon. He had his own chart … which I bloody lost.”

Lubiana says organic practices “absolutely” make better wine.

“The impact is happier, healthier vines, and soil with more diversity and resilience, not to mention purity of expression of terroir,” he says. “It is satisfying knowing we are not letting the planet down and that we will leave the land in a better condition than in which we found it.”

The proof is in the tasting, with Lubiana’s 2018 Estate Chardonnay taking the Cullen Wines Trophy for Wine of Show.

“The work is in the vineyard, the winemaking is almost inconsequential,” Lubiana says. “We focus on lower yields, obviously certified biodynamic fruit, cluster thinned, handpicked and whole-bunch pressed.

“We ferment and age the wine in small French oak barrels. We also have quality soils, with gravel and silt over clay.”

Looking to the future, Lubiana says son Marco has his mind firmly focused on quality and organic principles.

“We’ll continue as before. We can’t think of a better way to achieve our focus on protecting the environment,” he sums up. “It’s up to Marco where he wants to take it, no pressure from us. The way Marco talks, [he believes] small is better, and biodynamics are absolutely essential.”

From left: Monique, Marco and Steven Lubiana
From left: Monique, Marco and Steve Lubiana.

Foxeys Hangout – 2020 Runner-Up

The relentless pursuit of excellence from the winemaking team at Foxeys Hangout has resulted in some of the finest pinot noir in the country. The road to living the winemaking dream has not been a typical one for brothers Tony and Michael Lee. They both studied economics, did corporate stints in financial services, and ran cafes, restaurants and pubs in Melbourne before leaving it all behind to create Foxeys Hangout.

In the late-1990s, Tony, who is also a chef, studied winemaking at Charles Sturt University while Michael simultaneously studied wine marketing. Tony makes the still wines while Michael focuses on the production of sparkling wines.

The brothers share the winemaking and viticultural duties with Christopher Strickland, who worked at Foxeys Hangout while on a gap year from science at Monash University 11 years ago. He also went on to study winemaking at Charles Sturt and has become a vital part of the team.  

It is impressive that a team with such young vines can produce wines of such purity, complexity and elegance. Get Tony talking about organic and biodynamic production and he becomes very expressive about the value of these practices.

“One thing I can say with total confidence is that soils that do not get [sprayed with a weed killer] have higher levels of organic matter; they are healthier soils,” he says.

“It doesn’t just kill plants, it kills fungus and bacteria, which are a fundamental part of the living structure of the soil. The more life and biodiversity in your soil, the healthier your farming is going to be.”

Tony says he’s not religious about biodynamics but feels a strong obligation to leave the vineyard in better condition than he found it. “We are destroying our soils at an amazing speed. We are cutting things down. I am looking out at this beautiful area, which is hundreds of thousands of years old – we are just passing through,” he says.

He does concede that it takes more effort and focus to maintain a biodynamic vineyard.

“It’s more expensive, it’s more time-consuming. With the softer organic sprays, you can be more susceptible to mildew. We do a lot of other things as well: we keep yields down, we keep shoots down, we leaf-pluck for sunlight on our grapes and airflow through the canopy.”

Foxeys’ Tony Lee lets the grape and site dictate terms.
Foxeys’ Tony Lee lets the grape and site dictate terms.

He can’t imagine ever going back from organic farming to spraying with chemicals, particularly after seeing the benefit in the wines they produce at Foxeys.

“I’d like to think that biodynamic farming produces healthy vines with healthy fruit, that are disease resistant, that are full of colour, good acidity and are going to make better wine.”

The Scotsworth patch that produced the award-winning Red Wine of Show is their most consistent vineyard and was certified biodynamic in 2007.

“I had a picture of how I wanted to make pinot noir,” Tony says. “Tannic, gritty, a Burgundian, charry thing, which I attempted to make for about five years. That was until we went biodynamic in 2007 and I thought, ‘Why don’t I stop telling the wine what I want it to be and listen to what kind of wine it is and what the site wants to produce?’

“The wine is really intense, perfumed, red berried fruit, spices, it sucks up a lot of new oak.”

The sense of family is another integral ingredient for the success of the winery. Tony lives on-site and cooks in the restaurant, as well as making wine, while Tony’s wife, journalist Cathy Gowdie has written a cookbook about the winery and the area. Michael lives nearby on the peninsula, as does Chris, along with his wife and their two children.

There will be no stopping this small and principled winemaking team – a well-deserved second place and gong for Red Wine of Show.

Although young, the vines at Foxeys produce complex and elegant wines.
Although young, the vines at Foxeys produce complex and elegant wines.

Cullen Wines Trophy Wine of Show

2018 Stefano Lubiana Estate Chardonnay, Tasmania, A$58

A classy wine of elegance, texture and poise. Stone fruits, grapefruit and lemon acidity sit in perfect harmony with spicy oak and mineral notes. Nice length and finish, this will age gracefully. 96 points

Red Wine of Show

2019 Foxeys Hangout Scotsworth Farm Pinot Noir, Mornington Peninsula, A$65

A clean and fresh wine of excellent drive, with red fruit and bramble neatly laced around savoury tannins and spice. Earthy and herbal notes add extra complexity. A wine of beautiful balance with the acid and oak playing their rightful part. 96 points

Honourable Mentions

2019 Angove Naturalis Organic Cabernet Sauvignon, McLaren Vale, A$18

This is modern cabernet at its best. An enticing bouquet of violets, dark fruit and dried leaf greeted by a palate of cassis, chocolate and fine-grained tannin. Incredibly well made, this could be the best-value red wine in Australia. 95 points

2008 Robinvale Wines Demeter Kerner, Murray Darling, A$30

Kerner is not widely grown in Australia, but going on Robinvale’s interpretation, it should be. A wine that beguiles with its age, the acid still showing through with notes of nougat, honey, lanolin, ripe apple and pineapple gradually coming to the fore. 95 points

2019 Kalleske Old Vine Grenache, Barossa, A$50

A big, bold and rich wine that has gained complexity from ageing in American and French oak. An array of juicy red and purple fruit, herbs, spices, vanilla and chocolate. It’s all there, very well crafted. 92 points

2020 Yalumba Organic Viognier, Barossa, A$22

Viognier appears to be on the way up. This has a perfumed bouquet of white flowers, chalk and spice. On the palate, tropical notes, citrus and yellow stone fruit. Absolute bargain. 91 points

2019 Rosily Cabernet Sauvignon, Margaret River, A$28

A generous wine of vibrancy, with black and purple fruit compote, dried herbs and fine tannin. Vanilla and chocolate notes round out this fine example of Margaret River cabernet. 91 points

2020 See Saw Sauvignon Blanc Marsanne, Orange, A$35

One for the new school, made with skin contact and carbonic maceration, golden, cloudy, tropical and textural. It’s saline and savoury with notes of charcuterie and salami. Demands food to soak up its funkiness. 90 points

To find out more about the judging criteria, see: austorganic.com/industry/events-campaigns/australian-organic-wine-awards-2020/