Well known for its award-winning sparkling wines, Tasmania is growing in stature as a producer of top-quality still whites and Pinot Noirs. Sarah Ahmed follows the latest developments on this ‘cool’ island state
The cool Aussie region is fast gaining a reputation for its Pinot Noirs and characterful whites, reports Sarah Ahmed
Cast Adrift 240km south of mainland Australia, across Bass strait, Tasmania was quickly spotted by colonial explorers as a natural fit for Europe’s cool-climate-loving crops. in 1788, the first of them, Lieutenant William ( Mutiny on the Bounty) Bligh, recorded planting three apple trees and nine vines ‘to do good the most in our power to the Natives or those who may come after us’.
Tasmania, the Apple isle, went on to become Australia’s most productive apple-growing state. Today, it’s the apple of the wine industry’s eye – a zero-surplus zone, whose grapes are conservatively estimated to be worth almost six times the national average and whose entire production (about 0.5% of Australia’s total) retails at above $15/£9.18 a bottle.
Nailing its colours so firmly to the superpremium mast is not this enviable wine state’s sole point of difference. Tasmania is also charting fresh territory as Australia’s coolest wine region. With a climate not dissimilar to that of Champagne (but, crucially for still wines, significantly drier), it is Australia’s
undisputed capital of traditional method sparkling wine. Made from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and sometimes Pinot Meunier, this style of fizz accounts for about 35% of the island’s production. With ‘a suppleness of structure’, which Ed Carr, Accolade’s sparkling winemaker, identifies as Tasmania’s signature note, demand is seemingly insatiable.
When I visited last year, traditional method specialist Fran Austin of Delamere Estate told me: ‘Sparkling has gone berserk… we can’t keep up.’ Oddbins head buyer Ana Sapungiu MW echoes her comments, reporting of Jansz Rosé (see p80): ‘Customers can’t get enough of it.’ My top-scoring fizz from House of Arras is imported to the UK by Liberty Wines; its managing director David Gleave MW observes sanguinely that demand will naturally exceed supply ‘if, like Arras, the wines taste better than Champagne at the same price’.
Carr, Australia’s most awarded sparkling winemaker and Arras craftsman, is renowned for his commitment to lengthy ageing of wines on their yeasts in bottle; the Grand Vintage 2007 was disgorged after several years to build complexity, while his flagship cuvée, EJ Carr, spends a decade on its lees.
If fizz is firing on all cylinders, what about the other two-thirds of Tasmanian production – the still wines? Mainland producer Hardys (owned by Accolade), then Penfolds were quick to siphon off top-notch Chardonnay for respective multi-regional blends Eileen Hardy and Yattarna, even if, joked Hardys’ Tom Newton, he initially ‘picked up the crumbs’ from Carr’s sparklings. Although both wines now include a hefty percentage of Tasmanian Chardonnay, competition for fruit is hotting up, especially now freshness (which Tasmania so reliably delivers) is prized over sheer power.
Take Tolpuddle Vineyard, historically a key source for Eileen Hardy and Arras. It was acquired in 2011 by Martin Shaw and Michael Hill Smith MW (owners of Shaw & Smith in the Adelaide Hills) and the pair now make a stunning single-vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from this mature Coal River Valley site. Although Coal River Valley is in Tasmania’s warmer, drier south, its distinctive raciness is, for Hill Smith, a product of the fact that, while ‘the Adelaide Hills are cool, southern Tasmania is cold’, plus his belief that Tolpuddle Vineyard is ‘one of the great single vineyards of Australia’.
With unusual limestone sub-soil, southern Tasmania’s Derwent Estate in the Derwent Valley is another. In 2013, this long-term supplier to Penfolds’ Yattarna Chardonnay partnered up with winemaker John Schuts, building a winery to increase the quantity and
Tasmania is ‘embryonic – the last frontier of premium winemaking in Australia’ Nav Singh, Domaine Simha (below)
quality of wines Schuts previously made for Derwent Estate at Winemaking Tasmania, a leading contract winemaker. Derwent’s new flagship Chardonnay and Pinot Noir label Calcaire highlights the more exacting terroirfocused approach, especially for Pinot Noir. It is now harvested by block or clone over two to three weeks in 20 picks. Such developments are a win-win for Tasmania. Gleave praises ‘a new breed of small independent wineries aiming for the very top of the tree’, whom it is exciting to see refocusing pedigree sites on ambitious 100% Tasmanian wines.
Meanwhile, the big players push to find the great sites of the future, such as the Central Highlands’ only vineyard (Tasmania’s highest at 250m) which, says Penfolds’ Kym Schroeter, ‘walked into Yattarna’ in the 2014 blend: a shoo-in. As for Tasmania’s biggest vineyard, the 175ha Hazards on the East Coast’s Freycinet Peninsula (known for its fruit density), it was bought by Victoria-based Brown Brothers in 2010. Approving of Ross Brown’s pledge to create a category he said did not yet exist, a generous and flavoursome Pinot Noir with mass appeal, The Wine Society’s Sarah Knowles MW says: ‘It really is fantastic to see Devil’s Corner open up such a great potential market given its price point, style and appeal.’
Because so much of the island’s typically small-scale production has either gone to contract winemakers or been blended on the mainland, I can understand why rising star Domaine Simha’s Nav Singh (who honed his skills at Burgundy’s Domaine de l’Arlot and Bordeaux’s Château Le Pin) describes Tasmania as ‘embryonic… the last frontier of premium winemaking in Australia’ when it comes to showcasing the island’s individuality. However, since my 2012 visit, I have noticed a growth spurt (in both number and maturity) of small independent wineries and winemaker-led labels, which, by cultivating a closer relationship with the land, are building on the work of boutique pioneers such as Domaine A, Freycinet Vineyards, Josef Chromy and Stefano Lubiana.
Diversity of style
Tasmanian wine is fast growing up in terms of sub-regional and terroir expression, stylistic diversity and innovation, as well as quality. Drawing on five years’ chairing the Hobart Wine Show plus overseeing production of Yalumba’s mushrooming Tasmanian portfolio ( Jansz, Dalrymple, Parish Vineyard), winemaker Louisa Rose confirms: ‘The general quality is lifting so much; we are starting to see great sites emerge, and understand the
Below: Brown Brothers’ Hazards vineyard, in Tasmania’s East Coast region, is Australia’s biggest at 175ha and is named for the Hazards mountain range
Below: Moorilla Estate, outside Hobart, has a picturesque view of the Derwent River, and Mt Wellington in the distance