They were the Hunter’s ‘accidental vignerons’, a Sydney couple who made a spur-of-the-moment decision to buy a block of land in Pokolbin and grow their own vines. But more than two decades later, the award-winning single vineyard varieties on offer from Jean and Thomas Degen’s family-run vineyard and cellar door are firm favourites among wine connoisseurs, while their luxury, larger group accommodation attracts five-star reviews from guests blown away by what’s on offer across the picturesque 54-acre property.
Tell me a little about your background - how did you come to be in the Hunter?
Jean: My husband Tom and I have two children, and for most of our lives, Sydney was home and working on our vineyard was our weekend passion. Tom is a Sydney boy and spent most of his career at sea in the merchant navy as an engineer. I’m originally from India and arrived in Australia in 1968. I worked for a global IT company, specialising in organisational behaviour.
If you had asked me as a young girl in Bangalore if life would see me growing grapes and producing wine in Australia, I would have thought you were mad. For Tom and I, buying a property in Pokolbin with the idea of developing a vineyard was rather a spur-of-the-moment decision back in 1997. But we’ve always loved the Hunter Valley, and I think our little block of land just spoke to us. We could see our future here, and we thought, ‘Why not? Let’s give this idea a go’.
Our daughter Sasha followed us to the Hunter, and with her partner, John, runs Hunter Valley Stays, so the Hunter Valley is very much home now.
How did you become involved in the wine industry?
Jean: You might say we’re accidental vignerons. It was on a day trip to the Hunter that we chanced upon a block of land for sale in Pokolbin and became owners of a small 11ha, heavily-wooded bush block. And with that, our lives changed.
We would work our jobs during the week, and then every Friday evening drive to Pokolbin and swap our city shoes for boots to work on our block over the weekend. That was our weekly routine for nearly 20 years.
Somehow, while doing all that, we studied viticulture. In fact, in our course, we were the only two students who had land to put theory into practice. It took a few years to carefully plan and prepare the soil for planting vines, and in late 2001 we planted 10,000 Chardonnay, Shiraz and Semillon vines. We’re one of the smallest commercial vineyards in the Hunter Valley.
I see a lot of our guests looking around at what we’ve created, perhaps trying to picture themselves doing something similar, and often they’ll ask, ‘How did we do it?’ I tell them, follow your passion, but setting up and running a vineyard is a lot of hard work.
How did Degen Wines begin?
Jean: We were so very proud of having planted our vines in late 2001. We had cleared the land, built a dam, installed trellises and irrigation and done everything to make sure our young vines would thrive.
Looking back, this was the easy part. For us, our paddock full of newly-planted vines were like children. Each one needed to be nurtured, cared for and protected. You could say we didn’t rest until they were able to walk and reach the wire. But over time, we saw they were thriving, and our crazy idea of creating a vineyard was working. We picked our first crop of Chardonnay and Shiraz by hand in 2004.
Our first winemaker was Max Patton at neighbouring Rothvale Wines. I can’t tell you how we felt tasting our own wine for the first time; the fruits of our labour. Incredible! That was an important milestone in the history of our little vineyard.
In 2005 and 2006 our Chardonnays were made by Dan Dineen at Len Evans’ The Tower, and we knew what we were doing was working. In those early years, our plan was to build up our stock of premium aged wines and work closely with talented winemakers.
You have to remember, for just the two of us, the three blocks of vines (13 acres) were what we could manage to do on our own on the weekend. We’d hire some wonderful local vineyard workers in winter to help us with pruning, but for the most part, what you see is what two people could manage in their spare time, and we’ve bootstrapped our business along the way as we grew.
As we started to look ahead to the future, Tom and I began our plans to move from Sydney and make the vineyard our home. We built a small cellar door, as an annexe to our house, that overlooks the vineyard. I think that’s what people see when they visit Degen, that you’re visiting a family-run vineyard and you are guests in our home. With the considerable help of my daughter Sasha, and her partner John, we opened for cellar door tastings in 2013. Selling our own wine, from our own cellar door, was something that was only dreamt about when we started.
From our original block of land, we expanded to purchase the neighbouring property in 2014 and to offer luxury vine stay accommodation in three houses for up to 20 people.
Why do Degen Wines only produce single-vineyard wines, and what is your overall winemaking philosophy?
Jean: I think you can summarise it neatly as ‘we’re good at being small, and we’ve grown at the pace that feels right to us.’ That’s been our approach from the beginning. We’re proud of what we produce and how we do it, and that’s reflected in each bottle of wine.
I think there was no question that we’d focus on producing wine that is of our own vines and labour. Being small is our advantage. We’re nimble, and we can quickly adapt. Our family name ‘Degen’ means ‘fencing sword’ in German. Hence, the image of the fencer lunging forward with his sword aligns our family name with agility, skill and precision - qualities we embrace as a small producer.
Most importantly, it’s the quality of our grapes that has impressed the winemakers we work with, and together our collaborations showcase exciting wines.
What do you think is the defining characteristic of your wines?
Jean: From a winemaking point of view, our goal of producing high-quality wines, which started by working with Max Patton, Len Evans and Dan Dineen, has continued with the hugely
talented Liz Jackson, Annabelle Holland, Rauri Donkin, Scott Stephens and Damien Stevens. Working with leading and up-and-coming winemakers who are looking to create different expression in wine from our fruit makes us attractive to wine lovers.
From a viticulture point of view, Tom and I literally know every vine on our vineyard. That knowledge of our vines and experience of nurturing them through whatever nature has in store, through drought or weighing up the right time to harvest, translates into quality. I think our wines are defined by the quality of the grapes we harvest.
Each of our varieties is hugely expressive, too, so it’s a constant learning experience. Our Semillon is so versatile. We produce a wildly popular dry, crisp, zesty Semillon, that begs for another glass, but we’ve also released low alcohol demi-sec style Semillons, which show such subtle sweet and floral tones that always wins hearts. Our Chardonnays established our reputation early on for aged single-vineyard wines, and have been awarded for their delicate balance of fruit and oak. Our range of Shiraz is rich in berries, full-bodied and quite ‘big reds’ as a result of drier growing conditions in recent years.
Our varieties have also allowed us to experiment. Again, our Semillon shines in our sparkling white wine, and we are thrilled to be exploring new ground with a soon-to-be-released Degen Rosé and a Sparkling Shiraz.
What can you expect from a cellar door experience at Degen Wines?
Jean: At Degen, you’re visiting a family-run vineyard, and you’re treated as a guest in our home. So, there’s no standing around at the bar waiting to taste, and there is always one of the family to chat with. We like to get to know our cellar door guests. It’s an opportunity for us to introduce our wines, explain our approach to winemaking and tell guests about our story. I dare say, long after people have visited our cellar door, they’ll remember our story about the small family vineyard they visited in Pokolbin where they met the vignerons, tasted premium single-vineyard wines matched with a platter of local produce, and experienced something very special.
Can you tell me a little about your luxury on-site accommodation?
Jean: We began offering our vine stay accommodation in 2016. There is a large main house with a swimming pool and two separate cottages. In total the whole property can comfortably accommodate 20 people, making it perfect for hosting large groups of family and friends, corporate retreats, milestone celebrations or wedding accommodation.
The main house is positioned with views overlooking our vineyard and across to Bimbadgen, and to the west towards Brokenback Mountain. It is set amongst manicured lawns, a fruit orchard and native trees, and is great for entertaining.
The two accompanying self-contained cottages each have two bedrooms. They feature luxury bedding, a modern bathroom, kitchen and open living space spilling out to a spacious verandah with private views of the vineyards.
What makes staying at Degen Estate so special?
Jean: We want our guests to have a luxurious stay. Whether it’s a weekend away with family and friends, a big celebration or a mid-week corporate retreat, there are inviting spaces across the property to explore, to enjoy and to feel at home. The beds are made for serious slumber and the lawns are perfect for greeting the day with yoga, while in the Summer House you can curl up on the comfy sofas with a book and a glass of wine and watch the sunset. And of course, there’s our award-winning swimming pool, ideal for a dip on hot days.
Dining is a huge part of staying at Degen, and the perfect place to gather is around our huge dining tables inside, or on the terrace beside the pool while taking in the stunning views. Guests can be as formal or as casual as they like, there’s a spot for every mood.
It's been a tough first half in 2020 - what are you looking forward to for the rest of the year and beyond?
Jean: Drought and bushfires were challenging at the beginning of the year, but we were pleased with the autumn rains, and our Winter pruning is going well. Of course, Coronavirus brought our cellar door tasting and accommodation to a halt. However, our online wine sales grew, and we are hugely thankful to our loyal customers who supported us during the weeks of lockdown.
Since regional travel restrictions were lifted, we’ve worked very hard to adapt to the new normal. It’s been wonderful to welcome guests back, and though these are still challenging times, we feel people are considerate of the extra steps we need to take to keep everyone COVID-safe. We’re working to keep the experience of cellar door tasting or staying at Degen Estate special. That’s always been important, but it’s even more important now.
We’re optimistic and if you can take away a positive, the challenges of this year have meant we’ve looked carefully at everything we do and are trying to find ways of doing what we do better.
Looking ahead, we’re excited about the release of our 2019 wines and offering something completely new with our Rosé and Sparkling Shiraz. It’s our third decade in the Hunter Valley, and we’re as excited as the first day we began our journey.
For more information on the estate, visit www.degenwines.com.au