Tasmania lies 150 miles off the south-east coast of Australia, but in terms of winemaking, it’s always been light years away from the mainland’s booming industry. That could all be about to change, as STEPHEN BROOK finds out
A burly man stands on a windswept hillside, digging into the black clay soil. He plunges a fledgling vine into the hole. One down, around 750,000 to go.
The man in question is renowned viticulturalist Dr Richard Smart, and he is planting a new vineyard in Tasmania with the latest clones of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. For Tasmania, this is an extraordinary development. This remote island boasts some 180 labels, but grows only 1,000 hectares of vines. This new, 150-hectare vineyard, White Hills, and others being planted by the Tamar Ridge winery, will dramatically increase the area under vine.
‘The goal,’ says Smart, ‘is to produce the best Sauvignon and Pinot in Australia, and I believe we can do it. What’s more, we can do it without very low yields.’
This is a typically robust statement from the man who has been responsible for vineyard development at Tamar Ridge since 2003. Smart explains that the White Hills vineyard is on the same latitude as Marlborough in New Zealand, and that both islands enjoy similar ocean currents and climatic conditions.
‘New Zealand is our model,’ he explains. ‘Its wine industry is extremely successful, and there’s no reason why we can’t do as well. But the industry here is too fragmented. We need large vineyards and well-equipped wineries.’
Indeed, at a tasting organised near Hobart the previous day, growers arrived clutching bottles. Their wines were of high quality, but they are being made in tiny quantities on estates that are often no more than a single hectare in size.
Present at this tasting was Andrew Hood. It was he who had made most of the wines I was tasting, and most of the rest had been vinified by Julian Alcorso, the island’s other leading contract winemaker. It would be false to suggest that Hood or Alcorso are producing a series of identical wines, but inevitably there are similarities of style from each oenologist. Their experience at least ensures that the overall quality of the wines for which they are responsible is high. Having visited some Tasmanian wineries five years ago that, being polite, I would call rustic, their influence on quality is surely benign.
Tasmania’s best wines fall into four categories: sparkling wine, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Certain regions, such as Coal River Valley, can produce, in most vintages, passable and sometimes excellent Cabernet Sauvignon, but that is likely to remain the exception rather than the rule. Peter Althaus’s Domaine A remains the leading producer of Bordeaux-style wines – not just his costly Cabernet, but a barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc that is surely the best on Tasmania. Dalrymple in the Tamar Valley region also releases dependably racy Sauvignon Blanc.
Tasmania’s wine regions are dispersed, with a handful, such as the Derwent, Coal River and Huon valleys, close to Hobart; the Tamar Valley north of Launceston in the north of the island; and a handful of good wineries, such as Freycinet and Spring Vale, on the east coast. Microclimates tend to be localised and influenced by proximity to the ocean, so it is difficult to generalise about which area is best for which variety. Pinot Noir and Riesling seem to flourish almost everywhere. Most of the best sparkling wines hail from the Tamar Valley.
Despite the suitability of the distinctly cool Tasmanian climate for Pinot Noir, most producers acknowledge there is still a long way to go. There are too many variables – site, density, clonal selection – yet to be fully explored. If Tasmanian Pinot Noir is among Australia’s finest, there may well be some spectacular wines emerging ten years from now, when all those variables are better understood.
The island’s best bet at present is sparkling wine. Bay of Fires produces a rich, if slightly earthy, Chardonnay-dominated blend called Arras. Clover Hills’ vintage wines, aged three years on the lees, are yeasty, lemony and bracing. Other than the excellent but pricy vintages from Pirie and Kreglinger, Tasmania’s best fizzes are from Jansz, which is owned by Yalumba. The vintage releases have a citric tanginess similar to the Clover Hill cuvées, while the 1996 Late Disgorged is more toasty.
If the dramatic expansion of Tamar Ridge winery is the most newsworthy of Tasmania’s vineyard developments, it is not the only one. Pipers Brook, the vineyard and winery founded by Dr Andrew Pirie, was bought a few years ago by the Belgian Kreglinger company. Pirie left the company in fairly acrimonious circumstances, but his assistant, René Bezemer, stays on, ensuring a degree of continuity, and quality remains high.
Pirie, meanwhile, is not sitting idly by. He has leased the Rosevears winery in Tamar Valley, making both the wines for that label and his own range, shortly to be released under the Pirie label. At Pipers Brook, he had developed the Ninth Island range of simple but finely crafted wines issued at a lower price.
He is continuing this approach with his Pirie South label, which shows how tasty an unoaked Pinot Noir can be. Meanwhile, more complex wines will be released under the Pirie label, and barrel samples of the 2004 vintage show promise.
And there’s another promising development, this time in the Coal Valley, where Californian Tony Scherer has set up Frogmore Creek, an organic property that is also flirting with biodynamism. The ubiquitous Andrew Hood is the winemaker, and the 2002 Pinot Noir Reserve is easily in the top tier of Tasmanian Pinots. An even larger vineyard in Coal Valley, the 45-hectare Roslyn estate, is being developed with advice from Peter Althaus.
This all adds up to a sea change within the island. While tiny boutique wineries continue to proliferate, there is more commercial realism in the gradual development of larger, economically viable vineyards and wineries. Dr Smart is probably right: if Tasmanian wines are to be more than curiosities, they need to be produced on a large scale, without losing their typicity. In five years, we could be hearing a lot more of, and drinking a lot more, wines from Tasmania.
WINERIES TO WATCH
Craigow, Coal River
Some of Tasmania’s top Rieslings come from this waterside estate.
Domaine A, Coal River
Peter Althaus focuses on Bordeaux varieties. Some Cabernets don’t escape herbaceousness, but vintages such as 1998 and 2000 are highly successful.
Frogmore Creek, Coal River
It’s early days for this expanding estate, but first releases of Pinot Noir have been both succulent and flamboyant.
Jansz, Pipers River
A sparkling-wine specialist, offering dependable non-vintage, plus more exciting cuvées.
Moorilla, Derwent Valley
A Tasmanian classic, Moorilla is still among Australia’s best Pinot producers, and the Riesling is rich but not flabby.
Pipers Brook, Pipers River
Fine Chardonnay and botrytised Riesling. But Pinot Noir, produced
in up to four bottlings, is the star.
Providence, Pipers River
Providence’s Pinot Noir is right up there with the island’s finest.
Stefano Lubiana, Derwent Valley
Renowned for its sparkling wine, but
its still wines are even better: oaky, cherryish Merlot, weighty, concentrated Pinot Noir, and firm, dry Rieslings.
Tamar Ridge, Tamar Valley
Sound and dependable rather than exciting wines but, if Richard Smart
is right, quality is about to soar.
Written by Stephen Brook