An interview with Neil Hawkins, The Wine Farm (Gippsland, Vic)
Tell us who you are and where we are.
I’m Neil Hawkins, I’m from South Africa, originally. Grew up there, trained there, made wine there. Then met my wife Anna over there, and then was living here a few months later. We got married, yesterday, to the day, eight years ago.
And we bought this place in … Four years ago. Around about then. And it’s called The Wine Farm. And we called it that because in South Africa it’s the generic term for vineyards or wineries, or wine farms, so you’ll call it Kanonkop Wine Farm. So Anna thought it was a good idea to call it The Wine Farm, because we farm wine.
So what drew you to Gippsland?
Cold. If you go to New Zealand, everything, all flavours there are on steroids pretty much. The fruit preservation and the fruit intensity is always a lot more when it’s cold, so I was just after that. You’re quite a lot further south than where I was in South Africa, and you can see the difference in the fruit.
What do you think makes Gippsland so special?
It’s unfound yet. It’s a bit of a sleeping giant, really. You got … I don’t think I want it to happen, but the big guys like Treasury, they’re pumping, building, getting money, and going down to Tassie. But there’s so much land you could plant up here and make a big project, like a big Pinot project. It’s just easy to do here. Everything is cleared. What I love about it is that it’s cleared for grazing land, so you don’t have these big tracts of trees and fire hazards and it’s already there. You just need to turn up the soil and plant.
So you’ve taken this farm over four years ago. What changes have you made in your approach to winemaking or farming?
Yeah. So, it was just a matter of only farming with two inputs, which are contact inputs on the leaf, for your fungicides, copper and sulfur. And you just get on to it regularly and then you can combat your disease pressure. Because you’ve got high disease pressure in this area. And the other big one is getting rid of the herbicides under the vine and in the whole vineyard and that allows the microbes to live, which brings the terroir through, helps bring the terroir through. So that was the big change, and then in the winery it was the same philosophy as well, just get rid of all the packets of yeast and nutrients and enzymes and fining agents and filters and pumps and … Go back to basics a bit.
Make it simple indeed. So what do you grow here?
Sauvignon, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Syrah.
All one acre of each, pretty much. So only a thousand bottles of each of those.
So, let’s talk about Pinot for a second. How would you describe your Pinot and also Gippsland Pinot in general?
What I like in my wines is I like just a little bit of an edge to them. And just a slightly more rustic, kind of like a gritty textural thing on the palate. They don’t have this massive big fruit bomb. You’re not gonna get that here. Cause I use stems when I make the wine, but not carbonic, so I’m getting a bit geeky here. I hate carbonic, okay? It destroys everything that you’re trying to show from the soil. So put it in the tank, step on it, really break those berries up but with all the stems. And it’s interesting, the first two years I used all stems; this year I did an experiment to see if I was maybe making a mistake. And I’ve got a barrel of de-stemmed, a barrel of stems, we can try it if you want. It’s very interesting to see the difference. And I still prefer the stem. Without the stem it’s just a little bit too primary and just a little bit … It just doesn’t have an edge to it.
What do you listen to during vintage?
Singer-songwriter. Nothing that is gonna be too out there, cause I’m always listening out for stuff. Listening out for presses making odd noises and … Yeah. So if it’s too loud I can’t concentrate too much. Yeah.
What do you think it is about Pinot that gets people going?
Cause if you make a mistake you see it. And if you don’t make a mistake and you get it right, it just sings better than anything else. But it’s gotta be grown in a cool climate to begin with. Firstly, that. And we’ve got that in Gippsland. And then after that just try not to muck about too much with it, but you can’t just do nothing, cause at that point as well if you do nothing, totally, no sulfur, no nothing, nothing, it’s just the same as interfering as much as possible.
Can you remember your first time tasting Pinot?
Yeah. Properly was at … Oh, what’s that chap who was in Burgundy? Oh, he was very generous. Damn, and I forgot his name. But he took us in and he had a Grand Cru Échezeaux and he bought in pizza. It was pizza and Grand Cru Échezeaux and it was just awesome.
So aside from coming here, what’s the one thing people should do when they come to Gippsland to visit?
You gotta go to the Prom. It’s the southernmost point of mainland Australia and it’s a nature reserve. It’s protected. It’s squeaky clean. There’s beaches called Squeaky Beach. That’s the one thing. And fishing. The fishing here is great.
Where do you Pinot?
I like it, it’s a verb.
Favorite place to Pinot? It’ll be around my dinner table for sure. In the house, with people, not on my own. Definitely with people. And just make sure Anna’s cooked up something really great that’ll go with it. Yeah.