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Regional profile: Tasmania and Tasmanian Wine

This island state has less than 1% of Australia’s vineyards and just 0.1% of wine is exported, but that hasn’t muffled the huge buzz surrounding its cool-climate potential. Huon Hooke finds very good things come in small packages...

Tasmania at a glance

Vineyards 1,320ha (56% white, 44% red)
Main varieties (in order of importance) Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling
Average yield white – 4.6 tonnes/ha, red – 4.2 tonnes/ha

In a hot and thirsty country like Australia, cool is now cool. As grape growers 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 major reason the mainland winery Brown Brothers paid A$32 million for Tasmania’s Tamar Ridge four years ago. In 2001 Kreglinger, a Belgian family company with a long interest in Australian primary industry, bought the 1974-established Pipers Brook Vineyard, 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 buying the Tolpuddle Vineyard 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 1,320ha 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 whites are what people want with their seafood, not the heavy, oaky whites of yesteryear. They’re drinking more bubbly, and more upmarket 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 Shiraz and Cabernet was the staple diet of barbecued steak-eating Aussies, we now also want light to mid-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. This 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. Champagne has a single appellation and so does Tasmania.

But in practical terms 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) becoming more significant. The north coast has a smattering of tiny vineyards. The south has the well-established regions of 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 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 and Glaetzer-Dixon have all made startlingly good spicy, mid-bodied but deliciously ripe Shiraz this century. But this shouldn’t distract from the main game, which is fragrant, light-bodied Pinot Noir, elegant, grapefruity Chardonnay, structured sparkling wines and some of Australia’s most refined and aromatic Rieslings. Some observers puzzle why Tasmania produces so little interesting Sauvignon Blanc, when Marlborough appears to be so closely related (the 42° 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.

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 export to the UK.

The major players are Brown Brothers, Kreglinger, the Hill Smith family with Jansz and Dalrymple, Moorilla Estate which has added the Mona art museum to its vineyard, winery, restaurant and brewery complex; the Taltarni– owned Clover Hill; Frogmore Creek which is also a notable contract winemaker; Josef Chromy; and the Accolade-owned former Hardy’s Bay of Fires winery and associated Arras brand. Heemskerk is now just a brand owned by Treasury Wine Estates, 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 in 1974, and has 40 years’ experience in Tasmanian wine. Now, establishing his new vineyard and brand Apogee, 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: know your vintages

2013 A very good warm, dry year that should favour Pinot Noir. Rieslings are aromatic and powerful

2012 Excellent season. Chardonnay and Riesling are outstanding and Pinot Noir lush and imposing

2011 Wet vintage. Whites very good in a lighter style, but Pinot Noirs are patchy

2010 Very successful year all round, especially reds

2009 Cool, late vintage of high quality but low yields

2008 Warm, dry year – an outstanding Pinot Noir vintage

Author, judge and educator, Australia’s Huon Hooke has been writing about wine for more than 30 years

Written by Huon Hooke

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