On the southern cusp of Tasmania, just south of Birchs Bay, lies Mewstone Wines, at the extreme edge of Australian cool climate wine production. Brothers Jonny and Matt Hughes craft their wines under the Mewstone label alongside their unique Hughes&Hughes collection, which includes the ‘Living Wines’ label.
Journalist Samuel Squire caught up with the brothers to chat about their life in wine and how they get on working as brothers in an often challenging and competitive industry.
A reflective Jonny Hughes opened up about the moment that sparked his current life in wine: a walk in Tasmania’s Freycinet National Park with his father. On that walk, he said he asked what he should be doing, given that at the time he was fresh out of a graduate job with little idea of which direction to head.
“My father suggested that I should pick an industry I was interested in and take my time to discover exactly what to do,” Jonny said.
“I knew I wanted to travel; I knew I didn’t want to wear a tie; and, I knew I liked all things food and wine. It wasn’t long before I picked wine and started my journey.”
Jonny said that the decision to choose a career in wine developed slowly but that it fit perfectly with his desire to work creatively and without “being tied to a desk”.
He added that working in wine initially hadn’t been “something I had ever imagined growing up, but it started sneaking into my thoughts after I started uni”.
“If I hadn’t jumped into wine, I guess I’d be using my economics degree in an office somewhere, which is becoming very hard for me to even imagine doing these days,” he continued.
“I make the wine and look after the selling. In the early years I tended the vines too but as my brother and I have grown, it’s been essential to play to our strengths.”
Brother Matt’s journey toward a career in wine started after being “called back to Tasmania” while he was working in an unrelated profession in Sydney. He describes his time since entering the winemaking world as “enjoyable but with a learning curve”.
Called back to Tasmania
“I was happily working in Sydney but was looking for a way to get back to Tasmania once I had kids,” Matt said.
“We found the old cherry farm in 2010 and decided it was a worthy site to have a crack. It’s been a steep learning curve ever since.”
Matt mentioned that wine was never something he would have wanted to get into solo. Once he had his brother to work out the nitty-gritty of starting a wine business, all that remained was taking the dive.
“I definitely never considered working in the wine industry until Jonny became involved. Once I knew we had a potential winemaker in the family, I started looking at what might work,” he said.
“We grew up in country Tasmania, so the lure of escaping life in the office became very strong, but working out how to do it was the hard bit.
“But in my time in the wine industry so far, I have become a ‘jack of all trades’. My current role reads: business manager, website administrator, wine club manager, delivery driver, warehouse manager, vineyard labourer and kid’s soccer coach.”
Jonny said Matt had initially asked him about growing winegrapes on the former cherry farmland, and that he did not hesitate to say yes.
Their newly acquired property’s winegrowing potential soon became apparent to the brothers.
“We planted our first two hectares of vines in the summer of 2010 and released our first vintage in 2016,” Jonny said.
The brothers’ brand started as Mewstone Wines after they planted their first vines on their newly purchased site, but a later decision was made to also source external fruit to use alongside their homegrown grapes, albeit for a separate label.
“It had become obvious that it was a high quality but low yielding site and so we decided to expand the business with some sourced fruit. In 2016, we sourced 10 tonnes and started Hughes&Hughes.
“Hughes&Hughes wines incorporate a wide range of varieties and styles,” Jonny continued, “It’s a place we’re happy to experiment and play around a bit more with the wine, but we also want the wines to be more accessible.”
Matt, jokingly let the Grapegrower & Winemaker in on a secret of their expansion ‘plans’.
“When Jonny says we decided to expand the business, it sounds like we had a plan,” he said.
“In reality, Jonny called me on holidays and said ‘do you mind if I buy 10 tonnes of fruit?’ I said yes and off we went”.
“It’s all been a little random since then, but it certainly keeps things interesting.”
Working with family is often thought to produce a interesting dynamic, one which Jonny and Matt seem to have figured out in their own way.
“We’ve managed working together quite well so far – honesty and understanding are crucial in any working relationship and that comes pretty naturally for us,” Jonny said.
Jonny mentioned that all up he has been working in the wine industry for the better part of two decades, well before Mewstone Wines made its first release, learning the tricks of the trade along the way.
“I spent 15 years in various roles before we released our first wine. I’d made wine, grown grapes, distributed wines and spent many nights behind a bar,” he said.
“The broad range of experiences and conversations has been crucial, and Matt’s strength in business and finance has added another critical dimension to our business.”
Growing the brand
Growing from the soil at Mewstone Wines are Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah varieties.
Jonny revealed that, “Riesling has been the surprise packet for us, as it seems to love the D’Entrecasteaux Channel waterway and, as a result, there is plenty in the new plantings”.
He mentioned that Mewstone has lots of qualities that “you’ll find in a textbook”, but the intangibles that “make it a special site are hard to put into words”.
“I can say that within seconds of walking onto the property in 2010, I was convinced it was the right place for us. Thankfully, the results have matched our expectations.”
For the pair, 2020 is all about building their planned winery and cellar door at their vineyard.
“It’s a massive step and will keep Matthew particularly busy this year,” jested Jonny.
“We are hoping to open the doors to the cellar door later this year. I’m really looking forward to sharing our incredible site with visitors,” said Matt.
So far, the brothers observed that they have “had a great response” to their wines with some critical success “no doubt helping us spread the word”.
Matt said he is happy with how Mewstone’s and Hughes&Hughes’ wine is performing as it is “doing much better than I could have hoped for”.
The challenges of Tasmanian wine production
Matt Hughes explained that Tasmania can be a particularly challenging environment for producers, although being an active member of the state’s wine industry has led to new skills being shared, learned and developed.
“From my perspective, the vineyard is our greatest challenge. We are going fully organic over the next 12 months and still trialling new clones in the Pinot styles,” he detailed.
“I think we need another 10 years to get it close to where we’d like. Having to wait a full season to see the results of what you’ve done is teaching me a new level of patience as well.”
Jonny agreed that Tasmania presents its fair share of challenges, including knowing which varietals can work and are viable to grow.
Yet he says that these such challenges allow the pair to work differently.
“Tasmania will never be the easiest or cheapest place to grow grapes, so we have to concentrate on delivering exceptional quality,” he said.
“However, in our favour is our unique climate. We can do things a little differently down here and people the world over seem to be enjoying it too.”
With that, the brothers remarked that keeping up with demand has required some careful planning and trialling, and they retain that taking their time will make that a reality.
“We have an additional five acres set aside for the future. I’m in no rush to plant them until we see the results of the new clones that have gone in recently,” Matt said.
“We’ve planted an additional 1.6 hectares at Mewstone which will start coming online in 2021. Not sure that it will fully meet the seemingly higher demand for our wines, but it will certainly help,” Jonny remarked.
“It sounds clichéd, but we’re genuinely learning every day,” Jonny continued. “We’re always looking for ways to improve our vineyard”.
“The second planting improved on the first, and the third will hopefully improve on that further.
“In the winery we’ll always trial new ideas, some will work and be incorporated, and some will fail but will be remembered.”
Advice for new winemakers
Starting up a new wine business, vineyard and winery can be a daunting process for many newcomers to the industry. However, this young gun pair believe that teamwork is the key.
Ultimately, though, Jonny said learning about the region you want to produce wine in should allow you to play to its strength.
“Hope for the best but plan for the worst. In our short time we’ve already had some big highs and equally low lows. We work with nature and that makes wine inherently uncertain,” he said.
“We’ve always had a plan but have been willing to adapt it quickly to respond to opportunity or deal with adversity.
“Play to the strengths of your local region, place is so important in wine, people want to hear your story and locals will always be your biggest supporters.”
This article was originally published in the April issue of The Australian & New Zealand Grapegrower & Winemaker. To find out more about our monthly magazine, or to subscribe, click here!