Standing in the eastern corner of Two Metre Tall farm and brewery in Tasmania’s Derwent Valley, looking west towards a rocky, snow-capped shard of Mount Field, over and beyond verdant green rolling hills, I ask farmers Ashley and Jane Huntington, “How many Heartbeat episodes were filmed here?”
Beginning at Lake St Clair in the Central Highlands, the River Derwent flows southeast, carving a path through small towns and villages such as Ouse, Glenora and Plenty. After the town of New Norfolk it opens up into a tidal estuary before flowing through Hobart and into the Tasman Sea. Climatically, the Derwent Valley is mostly dry and cool due to a rain shadow effect, partly caused by Mount Field, and the region’s southerly latitude (42˚S). Like a vein of fresh water, the River Derwent carries life through the valley, providing essential water to the farmers, growers and people who live and make their livelihood along its banks.
“We’re in a remarkable part of the world,” says farmer-brewer Ashley Huntington of Two Metre Tall. “We have the natural advantage of being able to grow our own hops to make beer, barley to make whisky (and beer, too), and grapes to make wine. And we have access to this incredible source of life and energy we call the River Derwent. You’ll struggle to grow better flavoured food anywhere in the country.”
It may well be true. For, hidden amongst these rolling hills and the sleepy shadows of the stringybark, swirling along the rapids and the white caps of the life-giving river, wedged between the white clouds overhead and the lush green grass underfoot is something unique. Something which gives these farmers and artisans the ability to grow hops, grapes and grains along the Derwent.
Showcasing place is much easier for a wine producer than a brewer. Soils, climate and often culture conspire with the grapevine to influence how a wine will be discerned in the glass.
“People can get a real sense of place when they try wine while seeing the landscape around them. You can feel where the wines are grown,” says Conor van der Reest, winemaker for Moorilla Estate (moorilla.com.au), first planted in 1958 at Berriedale along the Derwent, before MONA and Hobart’s suburban expansion.
“The light is spectacular and there’s almost always some breeze or wind. Between the river and hills with their forests and cliffs and rocks you can plug into the landscape and get the feeling of being on the edge of the world.”
In regards to wine, Tasmania is a single geographical indication with seven unofficial but distinct subregions, including the Derwent Valley.
“Our wines get their unique characteristics from the relationship the vines develop with the naturally high calcium in our soil,” says John Schuts, the winemaker at Derwent Estate (derwentestate.com.au). “In fact, our vineyard shares a similar calcareous soil type as places like Champagne, the Loire, and Burgundy.”
Derwent Estate grows cool-climate heroes riesling and pinot noir, but look out for the chardonnay. A richness of fruit fleshes out its firm backbone, expressed as a persistent fresh lime acidity and flinty tension, thanks to the calcareous fault line in this old lime quarry-cum-vineyard.
“Some of our chardonnay fruit is purchased by Penfolds to go into their premium chardonnay, Yattarna, affectionately known as White Grange,” Schuts says. “We also keep some fruit for ourselves to make chardonnay.”
The Derwent Estate Boat Label Chardonnay is an excellent way to experience the fusion of soil, climate and culture without the hefty Penfolds price tag, while the Calcaire label takes a more parcelled approach to showing off this vineyard’s penchant for making beautiful wine from chardonnay grapes.
Next door at Stefano Lubiana Wines (slw.com.au), biodynamic producer Steve Lubiana has spent three decades making world-class sparkling. Lately he’s been exploring the dynamic duality between pinot noir and terroir. Pinot noir is often considered the greatest grape for articulating a vineyard’s environment, and Lubiana’s latest single-block pinot noirs are the most demonstrable expression of this site so far.
“2016 was a warm vintage with all the fruit picked two weeks earlier than normal, but the quality was apparent from the start,” Lubiana says. “It’s the first vintage where we’ve released all three as single-block wines – Ruscello, Il Giardino and La Roccia, which really showcase the quality of the wine from our vineyard.”
All three wines are gorgeously finessed expressions of pinot noir. La Roccia (the rock) displays power and strength with firm tannins, while Il Giardino (the garden) is pretty with a delicate raspberry heart. Ruscello (creek) has a texture like rainwater, soft and ethereal. Each speak of a time and a place along the Derwent.
“I think, ultimately, we’re at the river’s mercy,” says Lubiana. “We like to think we’re in charge, but we’re really just the puppet. Nature is holding the strings and we just sort of mould and bend along with her, trying to make wines that show her personalities and moods, which is what we call a vintage.”
Further up the river, Meadowbank (meadowbank.com.au) sprawls across the foothills of Mount Bethune. Like Lubiana, Alex Deane sees the river’s water as the life-force of the property.
Meadowbank’s vines were first planted in the 1970s, when the official advice from Tasmania’s Department of Agriculture was, “Rip them out and put lucerne in for your sheep, because you can’t grow grapes in Tassie.” Thankfully, Meadowbank founder Gerald Ellis didn’t listen – although, initially, he did plant only a few rows of cabernet sauvignon. Today Meadowbank is regarded as one of the best sites for quality riesling, chardonnay, gamay and pinot noir. Ellis’ daughter Mardi, with her husband Alex, recently revived the Meadowbank brand by enlisting the winemaking talents of Peter Dredge, who instantly recognised two rows of gamay – pinot’s distant cousin, planted by Ellis in 1987 – as having the potential to make an outstanding Derwent Valley red wine.
“Gerald was way ahead of the curve, planting gamay. It’s quite popular right now,” says Dredge. “We pick it on flavour at fairly low alcohols, typically around 12%, which retains an incredible amount of acidity and displays a super bright purple colour. We’re aiming for freshness, brightness and easy drinking; a bit like what a white wine should be, only red.”
Recognising the quality of the Derwent Valley’s wines has been a relatively recent phenomenon. Perhaps it’s because of Tasmania’s relative isolation and the problems of luring skilful and talented workers across the Bass Strait.
“Tassie has had its own little niche for quite a long time, where everything we need seems to grow quite well here,” says Moo Brew’s (moobrew.com.au) head brewer Dave Macgill. “That probably made us a little insular in the past, but it’s also led to that certain quality people like to talk about.”
“We’re quite lucky,” he continues. “The hop fields are only half an hour’s drive from us, which means we can get up there and see them in full swing. We can talk to the growers about what we want to try, in terms of brewing, and really just develop that good relationship with the blokes giving us the raw material.”
Bushy Park, about half an hour’s drive from Hobart, is one of those tiny, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it towns, but if you’re a beer fan – don’t. “Ebenezer Shoobridge was the son of a hop grower in Kent (England), and he was the first to plant hops here in 1867,” says Oliver Ward of Hop Products Australia (hops.com.au) at Bushy Park. “There’s a famous story of him coming out here, looking down, seeing the river and the soil and knowing this was a great place to grow hops.”
Bushy Park has now clocked up more than 150 years harvesting hops in the Derwent Valley. “We’ve developed our own unique varieties, which deliver a lot of flavour and aroma impact for brewers to use,” says Ward. “With the trend towards hyper-local consumption and paddock-to-pint, it’s great to see all the amazing brewers in this part of the world making fantastic beers with our hops.”
One hyper-local brew is Single Hop beer from the Moo Brew team. It’s made using only Tasmanian barley and a single Derwent Valley hop, Enigma. “The Single Hop beer we made came about after talking with Bushy Park,” says Macgill. “I love wine, and their Enigma hop has a sort-of white wine character to it, so I thought the simplest way to showcase the quality here was to brew a beer that really highlights these raw elements.”
Taking raw elements from the landscape and transforming them into beer is something Two Metre Tall’s (2mt.com.au) Ashley Huntington does best. Situated on the Derwent at Hayes, Huntington brews his beers with local ingredients in a converted former shearing shed.
“When you first come to the Derwent, you’re quickly exposed to its history of hop growing. There’s barley grown not too far away, and of course using water from the Derwent is a no-brainer,” explains Huntington. “Across the road they grow these gorgeous morello cherries, and plums, and there’s pumpkins a little further on up the road, and you just think, why not put these things that seem to grow so well here into a beer, and just see what they taste like?”
Most famous for supplying restaurant Noma with their version of a Snakebite (a cider-beer blend) when they popped up in Sydney in 2016, Two Metre Tall has a line-up of wild and sour ales clearly inspired by the imposing landscape.
“Our brewery is on the farm where there’s life everywhere. I’m out here in a shearing shed with the doors wide open,” Huntington says. “In spring, when the wattle’s done flowering, the wind will pick up and breeze through the brewery, depositing all manner of things throughout the place, which some people say infects my beers with things that aren’t supposed to be in a brewery. Well, maybe they do get infected – but in a good way, I reckon. That’s the beauty of wild fermentation.”
Huntington’s beers are wild and confronting at first. It’s the location, the landscape, the place imposing itself upon them – complementing them and animating them with a distinction that is characteristically and uniquely Tasmanian.
“We’re making a beer for Kylie Kwong, which is brewed with no hops at all. Instead, we’re using four different native herbs that only grow in Tasmania,” reveals Huntington. “It’s an exciting time to be brewing in the Derwent Valley.”
Jethro Havenhand agrees. Behind New Norfolk in the hills of Lachlan, he brews beer before a magnificent view looking west towards the Derwent and its enfolding hills. “Just look – the Derwent Valley is an awesome place to be a brewer,” he says. “It seems to attract a lot of out-of-the box thinking. There’s a lot of interesting and artistic people doing things in the region, bringing a unique quality and style to the place.”
The Eleventh Order (theeleventhorder.com.au) is Havenhand’s brewing company located in the Derwent Valley. “I try to highlight the Derwent on all my beers, because it’s such an inspiring place,” Havenhand says. “Inspiration can come from anywhere – a locally grown ingredient, a conversation. Even the weather can inspire the birth of a new beer.”
Earlier this year, a storm hit while Jethro was brewing a New England IPA (NEIPA), a cloudy beer known for its tropical, hoppy aromatics and juicy textures.
“The whole brewery was shaking. I was sure it was going to collapse and blow down the hill. It was surreal. But I had to keep brewing, because once you start you can’t stop. I ended up calling it Tropical Funk Storm as an homage to the crazy storm that night (and Gareth Liddiard’s band, by almost the same name).”
The result is a turbulent rendition of NEIPA, replete with tropical flavours and super juicy textures – another testament to the innovative creativity of Derwent Valley beer folk.
Distilling is a relatively recent enterprise in the Derwent Valley. Bill Lark resurrected distillation in 1992, more than 150 years after it was prohibited by the colonial government in 1838. Tasmania soon garnered a reputation for quality spirits and whisky. And the climate and landscape of the Derwent Valley lends itself to these high standards.
“Bill Lark encouraged us to build a distillery here,” says Joe Dinsmoor, head distiller at Lawrenny Estate (lawrenny.com). “The river flows right past our door. We have the space to grow barley as well as malt it ourselves, so we’re focusing on a truly local, paddock-to-bottle product.”
Dinsmoor has harvested two lots of Westminster malting barley. While waiting for the first whisky batches to mature (two years, minimum), he’s been distilling exquisite vodkas and gins with ingredients from Lawrenny Estate.
“Our vodka is named for Lake St Clair, the start of the Derwent and Australia’s deepest freshwater lake. Its water runs right past us,” says Dinsmoor. “It’s such a pure source of water, which we use with small batch distillations of rose petals, thyme, and lemons from the garden. Our Van Diemen’s Gin is inspired by summer here. It’s got more of a fruity and floral note to it. We also use whole, fresh strawberries that we source from a farm up the road, plus a bit of wild fennel and other things we find locally.”
In 2018, only a year or so after commencing, Lawrenny won gold, silver and bronze medals at the Australian Distilled Spirits Awards for Van Diemen’s Gin, Settlers Gin, and Saint Clair Vodka respectively.
Downriver towards Hobart is the contemporary birthplace of Tasmanian whisky.
“Look around,” says Chris Thomson, head distiller for Lark Distillery (larkdistillery.com). “We live in a pretty special place. We’ve got peat bogs we can mine to burn and smoke to flavour the malted barley that grows just up the road. We’ve got good water from the river too. Why wouldn’t you try to make whisky here?”
After 26 years, Lark Distillery finally has time on its side. Yet Thomson says it feels like they’ve only just begun.
“Our single malts have some of the longest fermentations of grain in the world – seven days,” says Thomson. “Lark whisky has become famous for the butterscotch characters in our spirits. This is because, in the early days, it was a convenience thing. Bill Lark could only work on making whisky one day a week. Over time it’s developed into a stylistic thing, which we’re only just now starting to understand.”
You might say something similar about most of the producers of grape and grain who live and work along the Derwent. Nature remains the greatest wielder of influence, which is illustrated most clearly with the valley’s brewers, wine producers and distillers. The place imposes itself, regardless of whether its beer, wine, gin or whisky.
It’s all there, waiting for you, the gateway to this beautiful Apple Isle at the edge of the world. Go forth and explore.
Fly to Hobart, hire a car, and follow the River Derwent to Ouse and back.
Lark Distillery Cellar Door
14 Davey St, Hobart (waterfront).
Moorilla Estate Cellar Door
651-655 Main Rd, Berriedale (at MONA).
Moo Brew Cellar Door
655 Main Rd, Berriedale (at MONA).
Derwent Estate Cellar Door
329 Lyell Hwy, Granton.
Two Metre Tall Farm Bar
2862 Lyell Hwy, Hayes.
The Eleventh Order Cellar Door and Bar
7 High St, New Norfolk.
Lawrenny Estate Distillery
6485 Lyell Hwy, Ouse.
Meadowbank Rd, Meadowbank (book ahead).
Stefano Lubiana Wines Cellar Door
60 Rowbottoms Rd, Granton.
Hotel with views of the harbour located on the old site of the Macquarie One wharf.
18 Hunter St, Hobart, macq01.com.au
This 4.5-star hotel is in the heart of Hobart.
10 Gladstone St, Hobart, salamancainn.com.au
Secluded, deluxe farm-stay.
5831 Lyell Hwy, Hamilton, curringafarm.com.au
A great experience all round.
30 Argyle St, Hobart, franklinhobart.com.au
Great local wine, excellent meals and ambience.
100 Elizabeth St, Hobart, etties.com.au
The Cake Lady
Best chocolate milkshake in New Norfolk.
33 High St, New Norfolk, (03) 6261 3878.
Tom McHugo’s Hobart Hotel
Remarkable food menu, outstanding beers on tap and wines by the glass.
87 Macquarie St, Hobart, (03) 6231 4916.