Jefford on Monday: The Tasmanian lighthouse

Summer was the second wettest on record for Australia as a whole. It would be a relief to report a faint light winking in the darkness. Maybe I can – from way down south...

Tasmania

Exuberance and optimism count as virtues in Australia, and the country’s thriving economy means that good-luck stories continue to outnumber the hard-luck versions. This is particularly true if your career has anything to do with digging large holes in desolate places, dragging out tonnes of iron ore, bauxite, manganese, zinc and uranium, and dumping them into slow boats to China.

Those serving wine at the party, by contrast, have looked unusually hang-dog over the last few years – and the spectacularly wet, cool, disease-ridden 2011 harvest piled on the misery. Summer was the second wettest on record for Australia as a whole. Not only did the lachrymose skies fail to ripen fruit, but the disease problems slashed production in many of the country’s greatest vineyards (while keeping bulk production depressingly high). It would be a relief to report a faint light winking in the darkness. Maybe I can – from way down south.

Victoria had its wettest summer ever, Western Australia its second wettest (though the major wine regions got off lightly) and South Australia its third wettest. In Tasmania, by contrast, it was only the seventeenth wettest. Phew!

The acquisitions trail has mostly run cold over the last year or two, but not in Tasmania. Last August, Brown Brothers bought Tamar Ridge Estates from the controversial forestry company Gunns, while at the beginning of this month Martin Shaw and Michael Hill-Smith MW splashed out ‘an undisclosed sum’ for the mature Tolpuddle Vineyard. (One of the Tolpuddle owners was Green Point pioneer Tony Jordan, who has recently been combing China itself for propitious sparkling vineyard sites on behalf of LVMH – building and planting starts soon at Ningxia.)

Brown Bros is rumoured to have got a very good price from Gunns (around half the original investment), and the purchase averted a grape surplus in Tasmania; the company has, moreover, subsequently put the Rosevears estate and its large restaurant back on the market, with the ever-entrepreneurial Josef Chromy said to be interested.

Tolpuddle was different. It’s a fine Coal Valley site producing top-quality sparkling-wine fruit – but to turn it to best account in the current market meant making and marketing a Tolpuddle wine, something that the owning consortium didn’t want to do. Shaw and Hill-Smith had been cannily prowling the island (“I thought something was up,” Claudio Radenti of Freycinet told me, “when they visited us a while back and asked probing viticultural questions”), and made a well-timed offer. Both sales are excellent news for Tasmania.

Much else is happening, too. In the East of the island, there are three promising new ventures, including one from David Llewellyn, the State’s former Deputy Premier, working with Brian Franklin of Apsley Gorge. Down in the south, professional gambler David Walsh’s ‘sex and death’ art collection housed at Morilla (which he also owns) has been a huge success, with most visitors needing a stiff glass of Gewurztraminer after viewing the exhibits. One of my favourite Tasmanian Estates, that of Stefano Lubiana, has just planted more Pinot – as well as Nebbiolo, the aim being to make a Valtellina-like sparkler.

I recently caught up with the 2009 vintage of the Chardonnay which Claudio Radenti at Freycinet makes for the Wine Society in the UK (“the Society’s Exhibition Tasmanian Chardonnay”, priced at £13.95 a bottle) and I found it hard in truth to imagine a better demonstration of what the island can offer: clean, refreshing, pungent and mouthwatering, yet creamy, close-textured and stylishly balanced, too. A perfect blind-tasting poser for your friends.

In 2010, Tasmania produced just 1 per cent of Australia’s wine; indeed the ‘big island’ dropped or left unpicked about nine times as many grapes as Tasmania harvested in 2009. You don’t need one of David Walsh’s gambling algorithms to work out in which direction those percentages will drift in the future.

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com