ANDREW PIRIE HAS FOUND THE PERFECT PATCH OF TASMANIA FROM WHICH TO CHALLENGE THE BEST CHAMPAGNE.
There are few people who know more about making wine in Tasmania than Andrew Pirie. Having founded Pipers Brook, Ninth Island and Pirie wines after completing a PhD measuring Tasmania’s viticultural potential, there are few others who have spent as much time working with and researching its wines. For a winemaker 40 years into his career, you could be forgiven for thinking that planting another vineyard and launching a new wine from a scratch would be stretch. But not for Pirie, who reckons he has finally cracked the secret to great Australian sparkling wine.
Pirie has always taken a novel approach to matching the great wines of the world: imitation. That is, isolating what makes them great and trying to identify where in Australia he could replicate the conditions, although always with a local bent. The method began with Pipers Brook, which he founded with his brother, where Pirie was looking to match the great wines of Europe from a small patch of land north of Launceston, close to Bass Strait. In part it was trial and error – measuring results and then adapting to the conditions. The wines were at the time leaders in cool-climate Australian winemaking, and certainly helped to put Tasmania on the map. For many wine consumers Pipers Brook was their first foray into the viticultural paradise that is Tasmania.
But Pirie is not a man to stand still. He is driven by the academic literature, keeps up with the modern viticultural research and its ever-growing understanding of fine wine. Historically climates have been measured by temperature and grape quality by the heat of the season, as in Pirie’s early research. But over time our understanding of great wine has evolved, with not only temperature but also humidity taking a leading role in wine quality. Humidity in the air helps to maintain a grape skin’s integrity while cloud cover avoids sunburn and the formation of hard tannins. Great wine regions need not only a temperature range that matches their varietal mix, but also the right humidity settings and level of cloud cover during the growing season to protect grapes from the peak of summer. This is central to the Pirie philosophy in Tasmania and his newest winery, Apogee.
While Pirie’s main focus for Piper’s Brook were the great dry wines of Europe, his newest venture was conceived with a strong focus: to create sparkling wines that could match the fine wines of Champagne. And he did not need to go far to find the right property for sale, just 15 minutes’ drive further south and inland from Pipers Brook, and 100m higher in altitude. This would be the site for the new venture, only a stone’s throw from a well established leader in Tasmanian sparkling wines, Clover Hill.
Though it is only a short distance away from Pipers Brook, Apogees sits further away from the ocean and its higher altitude makes it a vastly different region for growing grapes. Here only the earliest-ripening grapes can reach maturity, and only just, making it ideal to create high-quality sparkling wines and, surprisingly, pinot gris.
Apogee exists not only as a place that closely imitates the climate of Champagne but also the historic region’s philosophy as a whole. Champagne is dominated by small wine growers, whose land size was limited to that which historically could be worked by a single family. And Pirie has chosen a similar model, a small two-hectare plot of land where he can oversee the growth of vines and development of fruit during the growing season. And of course it is only the classic Chamapagne grape varieties of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier that are planted, plus a small plot of pinot gris.
On the winemaking side Pirie also closely follows the top tier houses of Champagne. Encouraging high-yielding vines to retain characteristic fresh acidity, a traditional bottle ferment with over three years on lees (as found with the best vintage champagnes), oxidative juice handling and some barrel ferment of base wines, all to add countless layers of subtle complexity. At the heart of great champagne has always been fastidious work in the vineyard and incredibly detailed and nuanced winemaking, all of which Pirie clearly has under control at Apogee.