In a hot and thirsty country like Australia, cool is now cool. As vignerons across the continent lament increasingly hot summers and earlier harvests, Tasmania holds most of the aces. Warmer regions like the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale were front and centre of our palates for most of the 20th century, but public taste and winemakers’ aspirations have both moved on. Few attempt to make fine white table and sparkling wines in hot regions any more. They’re now growing their grapes – or buying them – in higher altitudes or more southerly latitudes.
Global warming is a main reason the mainland winery Brown Brothers (tastings) paid A$32 million for Tasmania’s Tamar Ridge (tastings) four years ago. In 2001 Kreglinger (tastings), a Belgian family company with a long interest in Australian primary industry, bought the 1974-established Pipers Brook Vineyard (tastings), one of Tasmania’s most important wine producers, with 185 hectares of vineyards and a world-famous brand. And a smaller but also highly significant purchase was Adelaide Hills winery Shaw + Smith (tastings) buying the Tolpuddle Vineyard (tastings) in 2011. It released an impressive first pair of wines, a chardonnay and pinot noir, in 2013.
These purchases have given a moral fillip to Tasmania’s tiny wine industry, although its size in terms of hectares planted and tonnes crushed has barely changed in recent times. Tasmania has for several years been the one Australian wine region where demand for grapes exceeds supply.
The island state has 1,320 hectares of planted vineyards, which is less than 1% of Australia’s total. Both wine quality and prices are relatively high, however, the economics of production ensuring that only premium-priced wine is produced.
Vines are grown from the northern coastline all the way down to the lower Huon Valley a couple of hours’ drive south of the capital Hobart, and from the east coast across to the foothills of the central highlands. Virtually all of the densely forested western half of the state is as uninhabited by vines as it is by humans, its cold, wet and windy climate being inhospitable to both.
The wines are exciting, and they suit today’s tastes and food fashions. Delicate, refreshing white wines are what people want to slurp with their seafood, not the heavy, oaky whites of yesteryear. They’re drinking more bubbly, and more up-market bubbly, and these wines have to be smart to compete with keenly discounted Champagnes. Only a few places in Australia can grow these kinds of grapes, and Tasmania leads the way. Red-wine tastes have seen the biggest shift. Where once, heavy hot-climate shirazes and cabernets were the staple diet of barbecued steak-eating Aussies, we now also want light to medium-bodied reds with lower alcohol and tannin levels. There’s been a pinot-led renaissance, and Tasmania has rushed to fill our glasses.
Tasmania is cool, but contrary to popular belief it is not wet, assuming we leave out the western half. Indeed, it surprises many visitors that Hobart is Australia’s second-driest capital city. The combination of cool and dry is a winner. Summer drought is more of a problem than wet weather during ripening and harvest. Water for irrigation is reasonably available and widely used.
Tassie wine is easy to understand, too. There’s no baffling proliferation of regional and sub-regional names. Most labels just say ‘Tasmania’.
When the Geographic Indications (GI) legislation was drawn up, Tasmania sensibly opted to gazette just one region, comprising the entire island. Just as Champagne has a single appellation, so does Tasmania.
In practical terms, however, the state can be divided into three sectors: northern, southern and eastern. In the north, Tamar Valley and Pipers River are well established, with Relbia (near Launceston) increasingly significant. The north coast has a smattering of tiny vineyards. The south has the well established regions Derwent Valley, Coal River Valley and Huon Valley, while the East Coast region runs from Bream Creek in the south up to St Helen’s, and includes the major centres of Swansea and Bicheno.
Broadly speaking, Pipers River has a humid climate whose dampness can pose problems (aggravated by high-vigour red volcanic soils); Tamar and central Tasmania have the hottest sites, and the Huon is the coolest region, while the Derwent and Coal Valleys have a good combination of cool temperatures, mild humidity and soils of moderate vigour. The East Coast has perhaps the best combination of temperature and dry weather at the critical times, although irrigation water is less readily available.
Tasmania’s modern wine industry began in the early-1960s when Moorilla Estate (tastings) was planted by the Alcorso family. Among the mistakes made, cabernet sauvignon was widely planted; there is little remaining today. Paradoxically, shiraz is making a minor comeback: Moorilla, Waterton (tastings) and Glaetzer-Dixon (tastings) have all made some startlingly good spicy, medium-bodied but deliciously ripe shirazes this century. But this shouldn’t distract from the main game, which is elegant grapefruity chardonnay, fragrant light-bodied pinot noir, well structured sparkling wines and some of Australia’s most refined and aromatic rieslings.
There are 112 producers, most of them tiny, and a multitude of brands.
It’s not surprising then, that Tasmania exports very little: only 0.13% of Australia’s total. Very few of the island’s wines even make it across Bass Strait to the mainland markets: the wines are mainly sold direct to visitors and through Tasmania’s restaurants and retail outlets. In researching this article, I contacted 40 of the top producers and found only 10 exported to the UK.
Some observers puzzle why Tasmania produces so little interesting sauvignon blanc, when Marlborough appears to be so closely related (the 42 degrees South parallel runs through both Marlborough and central Tasmania). But Tasmania’s soils, climates and geological history are very different to anything in New Zealand.
The major players are Brown Brothers (tastings), Kreglinger (tastings), the Hill Smith family with Jansz and Dalrymple, Moorilla Estate (tastings) which has added the Mona art museum to its vineyard, winery, restaurant and brewery complex; the Taltarni–owned Clover Hill (tastings); Frogmore Creek (tastings) which is also a notable contract winemaker; Josef Chromy (tastings); and the Accolade-owned former Hardy’s Bay of Fires winery (tastings) and associated Arras brand (tastings). Heemskerk (tastings) is now just a brand owned by Treasury Wine Estates (tastings), but the wines – both sparkling and still – are outstanding. Neither Treasury nor Accolade own any vineyards in Tasmania but their presence is important.
Dr Andrew Pirie is a pioneer who founded Pipers Brook Vineyard (tastings) in 1974, and has 40 years experience in Tasmanian wine. Now, establishing his new vineyard and brand Apogee (tastings), he “remains passionate about the cool climate wine potential of Tasmania”. So do many other people. The wines are exciting, they’re improving year by year, and the future looks rosy for the ‘Apple Isle’.
Tasmania at a glance
- 1,320 hectares
- Red 44%, white 56%
Main varieties in order of importance
- Pinot noir
- Sauvignon blanc
- Pinot gris
- Red: 4.2 tonnes/hectare
- White: 4.6 tonnes/hectare
- 2013 – very good warm, dry year; rieslings aromatic, powerful. Should favour pinot noir
- 2012 – excellent season; chardonnay and riesling outstanding; pinot noir deep, lush, imposing
- 2011 – wet vintage; whites very good in a lighter style; pinot noir patchy
- 2010 – very successful year all-round, especially reds
- 2009 – cool, late vintage; high quality, low yields
- 2008 – warm dry year, outstanding pinot noir vintage
Six featured producers
The 7-hectare vineyard was established in 2002 at Middle Tea Tree in the Coal Valley by Hobart barrister Greg Melick. He planted only riesling and pinot noir, thereby doggedly declaring his personal preferences. Since the first vintage, 2007, the rieslings – at three sweetness levels declared on labels as R0, R9, R69 and R139 – have been prolific show award winners. The pinot noir is getting there more slowly. All are vinified by highly influential custom-crush winery Winemaking Tasmania. – view on huonhooke.com
Established in the Cambridge district of the Coal Valley in 1991, under the shadow of a giant radio telescope, this meticulously managed vineyard with water frontage is owned by Hobart lawyer Ian Roberts. There are 20 hectares of vines and a large olive grove. The wines are made in the Barossa Valley at Cellarmasters, which buys a proportion of the grapes for its own wines. The Crater Chardonnay is a crystal-pure, hauntingly perfumed iteration of Tasmanian finesse, and a multiple trophy winner. Pinot noir and riesling also impress. – view on huonhooke.com
Enterprising Czech migrant Joe Chromy has owned three successful winemaking ventures, this latest having 60 hectares of vines at Relbia, south of Launceston. A modern winery, restaurant, cellar door sales and function centre are all thriving. The main varieties are pinot noir and chardonnay, the latter a DWWA international chardonnay winner in 2013. Sparkling wines, riesling and fumé-style sauvignon blanc are all successful, the wine style idiosyncratic within the Tasmanian gamut; more mineral than fruity. – view on huonhooke.com
The Bull family fortuitously chose a bowl-shaped sun-trap site for their 9-hectare vineyard planted in 1980, near Bicheno on the central East Coast. The relatively warm and dry climate enables remarkable year-to-year consistency of quality in riesling, chardonnay and pinot noir. Winemaker Claudio Radenti married the owners’ daughter Lindy, hence continuity of direction has been a key advantage. Both are trained winemakers. Pinot noir achieved greater flavour depth, colour and structure more consistently and earlier than other Tasmanian wineries. – view on huonhooke.com
Bay of Fires / Arras (Accolade Wines)
Arras (tastings) is the premium sparkling wine brand of Accolade, formerly Hardy’s (tastings). Since becoming purely Tasmanian (with 10 years on lees for the Grand Vintage; 12 for the E.J. Carr Late Disgorged vintage, named after the winemaker) in the late ‘90s, they’re Australia’s leading bubblies. Derwent Valley and East Coast are Carr’s favoured regions, chardonnay and pinot noir the grapes. Bay of Fires (tastings) and Eddystone Point are the Tasmanian table-wine brands, vinified in the company’s Pipers River winery but sourced throughout the island. Riesling, pinot gris, chardonnay and pinot noir all excel.
Tamar Ridge / Devil’s Corner
Brown Brothers’ (tastings) purchase of Tamar Ridge (tastings) in 2010 was the biggest investment yet in Tasmanian wine. Sub-brands include Pirie (tastings) and Devil’s Corner (tastings): the last has since become the focus of a major push for volume in the A$20 market. Brown Brothers sees its future in Tasmania. Devil’s Corner riesling is outstanding value. Tamar Ridge dry and sweet botrytised rieslings have been exceptional, and Tamar Ridge reserve pinot noir was often superb in pre-Brown days. The takeover dust is still settling but a luscious, profound A$65 Devil’s Corner Mt Amos 2012 Pinot Noir (tastings) is an exciting harbinger.
Ten top wines
Tolpuddle Chardonnay, Coal Valley 2012 96
Very restrained in all respects. The bouquet has great subtlety and harmony, with elements of creamy lees, cashew and white peach. Tremendously fine and long, with seamless acidity. Drink 2014-2020 Alc: 13% A$65 Liberty Wines. – view on huonhooke.com
Heemskerk Chardonnay 2012 97
Shy, restrained aroma hinting at malt, flowers and honey. Delicate, refined, restrained palate of great intensity, line and length, holding a lot in reserve. A great wine of class and finesse. Drink 2014–2022 Alc: 13% A$50. – view on huonhooke.com
Dawson & James Chardonnay, Derwent Valley 2011 95
‘Smoky bacon’ oak hints, toast and grapefruit, discreet and subtle yet has great length. Very finely poised and balanced, building intensity along the palate. Drink 2014-2020 Alc: 12.7% A$50 Liberty Wines. – view on huonhooke.com
Bay of Fires Riesling 2013 95
Pale straw colour; very fresh, bright floral and struck-flint mineral aromas. Delicate in the mouth, fresh and taut, delivering a lot of fruit flavour. Superb; will reward cellaring. Drink 2014–2033 Alc: 12.5% A$35. – view on huonhooke.com
Domaine A Lady A Fume Blanc, Coal Valley 2010 94
Bright, medium yellow; rich, powerful oaky bouquet, with concentrated sweetly ripe fruit. A ‘worked’ wine, barrel-fermented, very long on palate, focused and powerful, needing time. Drink 2014-2020 Alc: 14% A$72 Alliance Wines. – view on huonhooke.com
Freycinet Vineyard Pinot Noir, East Coast 2012 95
Discreet dark cherry, violet, blueberry aromas, with a little humus. A powerful pinot of wonderful flavour: tight, firm and full in the mouth with density and gravitas. Drink 2014-2027 Alc: 13.5% A$70. – view on huonhooke.com
Pooley Butcher’s Hill Pinot Noir, Coal Valley 2012 95
Spicy, dark cherry, ripe fruit aromas; attractive supporting oak. A stylish wine, full and flavoursome, elegant and balanced, with good structure and texture. Rich, satisfying finish. Drink 2014-2024 Alc: 13.5% A$45. – view on huonhooke.com
Home Hill Kelly’s Reserve Pinot Noir, Huon Valley 2012 96
Bright and youthful all-round: red cherry, spice and coconut aromas, clean and vibrant. Elegant medium-weight palate, succulent, fruit-sweet and utterly delicious. Will be long-lived. Drink 2014-2027 Alc: 13.8% A$60. – view on huonhooke.com
Jansz Vintage Cuvee, Pipers River 2007 94
Lemon-citrus and honey aromas with bready, toasty and nutty overtones. Complex and subtle, refined and very attractive with a delicate, refined, beautifully proportioned palate. Drink 2014-2017 Alc: 12% A$45 Negociants UK. – view on huonhooke.com
Clover Hill Vintage Brut, Pipers River 2008 95
Toasty, bready bouquet with lots of cracked yeast and bottle-aged character. Vibrant in the mouth; very complex with layers of flavour, intensity and drive. Clean, dry finish. Drink 2014-2017 Alc: 12.5% A$47 Alliance Wines. – view on huonhooke.com
First published in Decanter Magazine – Jun 2014.