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Tasmania is best known for its world-class wines: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were first grown in the island state, and wineries there are a thriving industry today. But while Tasmania’s grapes have an international reputation, its winemakers are beginning to carve out a reputation of their own. In the last decade, the island has seen an explosion of cool-climate wines: sparkling whites, sweet wines, and even—Albiet, slowly—Riesling.
Tasmania is known for its pinot noir, but winemakers there are experimenting with other grape varietals. The island state has a cooler climate than its mainland counterparts, which makes growing riesling and other grapes possible. For example, the Cloudy Bay winery in the Freycinet national park is best known for its sauvignon blanc, but it also produces crisp rieslings and sparkling wines. Share This: Comments:
Its remote location is what makes Tasmania so special. This rugged island country, the size of Ohio and located 150 miles off the southeast coast of Australia, is a paradise for food and wine lovers.
Wine is indeed the jewel in Tasmania’s crown. As Australia’s wine region with the coldest climate, Tassie can produce a precise and complex sparkling wine in the traditional way, a syrupy and soft Pinot Noir, a lush and brackish Chardonnay and a fleshy but delicate Riesling. For more than four decades, the island has attracted investment from major wineries from around the world, as well as a growing number of small, quality-conscious winemakers.
In recent years, with climate change on the doorstep of mainland Australia, interest in the Tas has increased dramatically. Twenty years ago the vineyards were planted on 1,255 hectares; today there are 5,189 hectares. Growing up on a small island has its challenges, but one thing is certain: Tasmanian wine has never tasted so good.
Bream Creek Vineyard, Tasmania / Photo courtesy of Bream Creek Vineyard
Tasmanian Aborigines have been making fermented drinks since pre-colonial times. They used the sap of the Eucalyptus gunnii trees in the central highlands to make a drink called way-a-linah, which tastes like apple cider. But the vine was not cultivated on the island before the arrival of the European settlers.
In 1788 William Bly planted some cuttings on Bruny Island, but four years later he found them dead.
Further trials were conducted in the early and mid-19th century and many cuttings from these early Tasmanian vineyards found their way to South Australia and Victoria, where they contributed to successful production.
But wine grown and made on the island itself wouldn’t see the light of day until a century later, when two men who didn’t know each other at all ignored the prevailing view that Tasmania was too cold to grow grapes and founded the modern wine industry.
The first was the Frenchman Jean Miguet. In 1956 he planted vineyards of pinot noir, chardonnay, chasselas and grenache near Launceston in the northern part of the island on the Providence Vineyard.
The second, Italian Claudio Alcorzo, planted a Riesling in 1958 near the state capital, Hobart, in the southeast. It has retained the name of the native of the land, Murilla.
Both wineries still produce wine today. Murilla Manor now houses the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), which attracts millions of tourists and has almost single-handedly revitalised Hobart.
It is home to some of the state’s most famous vineyards and wines.
Encouraged by these successes, a number of pioneers took Tasmanian wine to the next level in the second half of the 20th century.
The planting of the Heemskerk vineyards in 1966 led to Graham Wiltshire founding, 20 years later, one of the island’s best-known sparkling wine brands, Jansz, in partnership with champagne house Louis Roederer. Today Jansz is owned by the Hill-Smith family from Yalumba, who bought the winery in 1997.
Another pioneer, Andrew Peery, founded Piper’s Brook Vineyard in 1974, which today belongs to the European wine group Kreglinger Wine Estates. He put Tassi’s wine on the menu.
Dr Peery, Australia’s first promoted winemaker, is one of Tasmania’s most skilled winemakers and producers of sparkling wine. Piri’s retirement project, as he calls his current label Apogee, is a love letter to the region of north-east Tasmania he knows best.
I went into this profession not understanding it the way I do now, Peary says. We planted close, but we had no limestone. Dense planting does not work here because the soil is too uneven.
Jansz Weinberg / Photo by Lawrence Furzey Jansz
Quality over quantity
Limestone does not occur in Tasmania, but soils vary from ancient sandstone and mudstone to fluvial and volcanic deposits. This diversity is due to the dolerite mountains that stretch along the western side of the island and provide shelter from the rain and wind in the east.
The vineyards are therefore planted exclusively in the eastern half of Tasmania. Unlike many wine regions on the mainland, Tasmania’s cool climate is due to latitude rather than altitude. Although the three oceans and Bass Strait that surround the island moderate the climate, it remains variable. Farmers may have to deal with frost in the winter and forest fires in the summer.
The vineyards are drier than one would expect from this relatively lush area, so much so that there is a complex irrigation system that runs throughout the state. The growing season is long and labour intensive, with low fruit yields. Add to this the high cost of production due to Tasmania’s remoteness, and most producers prefer quality over quantity.
We often say, half-jokingly, that Tasmania is not a place to make quick money, says Sherali Davies, CEO of Wine Tasmania Trade Group. If your goal is to produce high quality wines in large quantities, it will be easier, more reliable and cheaper in other Australian wine regions.
Despite lacking official Geographical Indication (GI) status, Tasmania’s wine growing regions are divided into seven sub-regions, delineated more by rainfall and humidity than by temperature or even soil characteristics.
The northwest subregions, Tamar Valley and Pipers River, known as the heart of sparkling wine production, are wetter than the east coast subregions, Coal River and Derwent Valley. The latter two regions, close to Hobart, are known for their excellent Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and even Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
The driest of the regions, the pastoral Huon Valley in the far south, is a promising development region.
Pipers Brooks Keller / Photo: Amanda Davenport
Although many of Tassi’s wines are produced by a single winery, a growing number of creative winemakers contribute to the island’s diversity.
One of the oldest and most innovative is Stefano Lubiana, a fifth-generation winemaker who moved from his family’s large winery and distillery in South Australia to the Derwent Valley.
I decided I didn’t want to produce thousands of tons of wine in bulk, he says. I travelled around Australia and decided Tasmania was the place to be if you wanted to make good sparkling wine. That was in 1989. We were the first winery on the continent to come here to make sparkling wine.
Today Tasmania’s only certified biodynamic winery offers a bright, wine-worthy Pinot Noir with no added sulphur, an amber Malvasia Istriana (a tribute to Lubiana’s Istrian roots) amphora wine with aromas of wild fennel, kumquat, salt and honey, and a range of sparkling wines with a laser-focused approach to long drying.
Ed Carr of the House of Arras / Photo courtesy of Ed Carr
In 1995, another proponent of long aging, Ed Carr, took over House of Arras, which was owned by the Carlyle/Accolade Wines Group. Most of the fruit is purchased from farmers on the island, but the company is often considered one of the largest producers of sparkling wine in the world.
Our long commitment to pressing is relatively unique to Australian sparkling wine brands, says Carr. Its shelf life varies from four to ten years, making it an exceptionally versatile sparkling wine.
In my opinion, Tasmanian bubbles are among the top three in the world, says wine writer Curley Haslam Coates, who moved to Tasmania from England a decade ago and founded the educational events company Vintage Tasmania. The bubbles pulled me here. Every year I’m here, they get better and better.
But Tassi is not just a sectarian area. Wines also play an important role.
Riesling thrives on the island. Pooley Wines is Tasmania’s only third-generation winery. The late Margaret and Dennis Pooley planted Riesling in the Coal River Valley in 1985. Margaret has spent her entire life among the vines.
She had a passion for Riesling, says John Pooley. At 95, she was probably the oldest [female winemaker] in Australia.
John’s son Matthew is a winemaker in Pooley and his daughter Anna is a winemaker. In her Georgian vineyard, Anne produces a delicate, mineral-rich Riesling that is excellent both in its youth and in later life, as well as lush Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, delicate Gewürztraminer and spicy, sharp Syrah.
Tolpuddle Vineyard, located just three miles from Pooley, is a new development but is already one of Australia’s most sought after vineyards.
Planted in 1988, the vineyard was given new life when it was purchased in 2011 by Martin Shaw and Michael Hill Smith, MW, owners of Shaw & Smith Winery in the Adelaide Hills, South Australia. The carefully tended vineyard produces a pure, long-lasting Chardonnay and Pinot strongly reminiscent of Burgundy, but with a typical Tassan rhythm.
Other delicious wines are available throughout the state: Josef Chromy, Delamere, Dalrymple, Stargazer, Stoney Rise, Glaetzer-Dixon, Sinapius, etc. However, the Huon Valley has become a hotbed of talent.
Situated in the hills above the Huon River or on the banks of the D’Entrecasto Canal, producers such as Chatto Wines, Mewstone and Sailor Seeks Horse produce elegant, salty, acidic chardonnays and sweet but structured pinot noirs from vineyards on the edge of the possibilities.
We think greatness is on the cusp of maturity, and Huon is right there, says Paul Lipscomb, who founded Sailor Seeks Horse with his partner Gilley in 2010.
Stoney Rise / Photo: Nat Mendham
Huon and Tasmania won’t be out of the wine business forever, however. The region’s unique landscape is fragile, and climate change is a real problem.
Fred Peacock, whose Bream Creek vineyard was the first winery on the east coast, is one of Tasmania’s oldest winemakers. He can see it up close.
One of the biggest changes is that the selection is really compressed now, he says. Since 1990, precipitation on Brim Creek has decreased by 21%. That’s a lot. There is a warmth in the sea breeze that we have never experienced before.
With hundreds of hectares of land being bought up by large wineries from outside the state, Tasmania’s reputation as a craftsman could be in jeopardy. The same applies to the island’s limited natural resources.
Fifth generation winemaker Stefano Lubiana / Photo courtesy of Stefano Lubiana
The response from incoming companies has been mostly positive, as they bring education and skills, Piri says. Not everything will be positive. We have evidence of the rise of opportunists who want to make cheap wine….. This has happened more than once to companies on the continent.
Sometimes they come from the continent with their winemakers. We do the training and then people turn away from it. Let’s just say it’s a mixed bag, but mostly positive.
In general, the focus on sustainability and quality remains strong. And the Tasmanians seem happy to be in the spotlight.
Everyone wants to move to Tasmania, says Louise Radman, manager of the Polar Institute’s Hobart Wine Bar and Kitchen and co-owner of Simha Estate. It’s like the final frontier. The vineyards planted will become world famous.
Six Tassi wines to taste
Clover Hill 2014 Vintage Brut (Tasmania); $40, 94 points. Clover Hill’s sparkling wines show that Tasmania is capable of producing sparkling wines as good as Champagne using a traditional method. The Vintage 2014 Brut has a honeyed hue with an intoxicating floral aroma reminiscent of jasmine, supported by subtler notes of caramel and baked apple. The palate is rich in flavor and mousse, yet restrained, dry and refreshing, with floral and apple notes that linger on the finish. Editor’s Choice.
Tolpuddle 2018 Chardonnay (Tasmania); $60, 94 points. The Chardonnay from this unique southern Tasmanian vineyard is a rich, polished wine that many Burghound lovers will love. The nose has notes of toasted nuts, toasty oak, matches and saltiness on a background of lemon curd and pineapple peel. The mouth is rich but concentrated. The aroma is dominated by woody and salty notes, but there is also balance, structure and purity of fruit. A lot of high-end wine is made here, but it needs to age with finesse. Drinking 2021-2030. Selection in the basement.
Sailor Seeks Horse 2018 Pinot Noir (Tasmania); $45, 93 points. This is a small batch from Paul and Jilly Lipscomb, who helped create the Huon Valley in Tasmania. Bright, translucent cherry colour it’s an ethereal Pinot that pulsates with energy; both crisp (as the Australians say) and serious. A nose with an exquisite fragrance that gently draws you in. Tones of blueberries and wild strawberries, dried flowers and the aroma of baking spices and olive groves at harvest time float in the glass. In the mouth, it’s bursting with acidity, fruit and spice, and the finish has a bitter, cocktail-like bite. A sparkling wine with heart and soul. Editor’s Choice.
Stargazer 2019 Coal River Valley Single Vineyard Riesling (Tasmania); $46, 93 points. Tasmanian riesling is undervalued and underproduced. If you’re paying attention, you have a passion for variety. Samantha Conneu’s version of the Coal River Valley is seductive, its refreshing flavor unmatched by volume and layers. Aromas of fresh lime, green apple, lavender, honey and beeswax intertwine with a chalky texture, crisp acidity and a hint of residual sugar. This wine is very tasty and goes well with young fresh cheese. It can also be kept in the cellar for a few years to gain more texture and honeyed complexity.
Tamar Ridge 2018 Pinot Noir (Tasmania); $30, 93 points. Tamar Ridge is one of Tasmania’s largest wineries (compared to some of the giants on the mainland), but it has rarely skimped on quality. This Pinot is an excellent example of the density and elegance of northern Tassie. It’s a powerhouse of flavors: sour berry and blueberry fruit supported by earthy, savory notes like dried meat, five-spice powder and graphite. On the medium palate, the elegance is obvious thanks to the high acidity. It is porous, as if passing through grains of sand, but concentrated: a dance between acidity and a unique tannic structure. A characterful Tassit wine that can be drunk now until 2028.
Jansz 2015 Vintage Rosé (Tasmania); $56, 92 points. This vintage rosé wine from Tasmania’s most famous gum brand, with its ballerina pink hue, opens with delicate aromas of watermelon and red fruit, accented by floral and spicy nuances. This spicy side is also found in the aftertaste, which is long and persistent. Dry and slippery, with soft but persistent bubbles, this is a sparkling wine with a light character but complex structure that goes well with a variety of fresh, summer dishes.
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