When it comes to hot cool climate Australian wine regions, there’s one name that seems to be on everybody’s lips: Tasmania. Tasmanian Cool. This most southerly of Australia’s Geographical Indications (GI) has found itself in the glare of publicity in recent years as more and more sublime, elegant, complex wines from grapes including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling emerge from this small, yet fantastically high quality region. Tasmania is an area of contrasts and challenges, but above all else it is a region that is loaded with opportunities for wine producers and wine merchants alike.
Tasmania: A Cool Climate Classic
As you might expect from an island laying at 41˚south, Tasmania’s climate is dominated by its latitude and its proximity to water. The climate is temperate with a distinct maritime influence provided by the Tasman Sea to the west, the Bass Straits to the north and the Indian Ocean to the east. All these bodies of water are capable of delivering powerful winds and rain storms which, when added to the threat from frosts and botrytis, make vineyard siting of paramount importance.
The climate is generally cool though there are distinct seasons. Summer runs from December to February and has an average temperature of between 21˚C to 25˚C, though in the hotter areas around Hobart, temperatures of over 40˚C can occur. In winter snow is common in the central uplands, but owing the ameliorating influence of the oceans, the coastal winter temperatures are higher than those of main Australia. Unlike much of mainland Australia, water is not an issue as the region receives around 630mm of rainfall annually.
Tasmanian wine: Fall & rise
Winemaking is not new to Tasmania and by the early 19th century wines sparkling wines were being produced and marketed by innovators such as Matthew Broughton and his ‘grape wine made in imitation of Champagne’. As with so much of the embryonic Australian wine industry the first few decades of the 20th century were lean times and the industry slowly ground to a halt, only to see a resurgence in the 1950s. The revitalisation was driven by immigrants who found the soils and climate to be similar to their native lands.
Modern Tasmanian wine is largely a product of the export boom in the ‘80s and ‘90s and as the potential of the region became apparent so plantings flourished. In 1986 Tasmania had just 47 hectares under vine. Twenty years later that figure had risen to 999 hectares and by 2011 there were 1,400 hectares. Today there are over 1,750 hectares and more are planned. Despite demand for fruit now more than outstripping supply there is an air of caution pervading the industry when it comes to new plantings. Whilst available land is relatively plentiful – unlike in some other cool climate regions such as Mornington Peninsula – vineyard owners seem wary of either creating the over-supply issues or diluting their reputation for quality by developing sites that are anything other than outstanding. The present lack of supply has sent prices steadily upwards so that fruit now costs around $3,000 AUSD per tonne.
Tasmanian cool: Vineyards, vines & wines
Tasmania’s wine regions are located toward the eastern half of the island – away from the often ferocious ocean winds that batter the west coast – and are almost exclusively clustered on the north and south of the island, the exception being the East Coast region which runs down the eastern side from St Helens to Richmond. In the north are the North West, Tamar Valley (the largest in terms of production accounting for around 40%) and North East regions, while in the cooler south lies the Coal River Valley, Derwent Valley and Huon/Channel.
Tasmania is dominated by the dolerite-capped mountains that shelter the wine regions from high winds and rainfall. On the lower slopes, the vineyard soils are formed from ancient sandstones and mudstones (literally semi-hardened rocks) and also from more recent river sediments and igneous rocks of volcanic origin.
In terms of vines, Pinot Noir is the dominant variety and accounts for around 44% of the region’s plantings. With its cool climate, long growing season and mineral-rich soils, Pinot Noir thrives in Tasmania and produces excellent red wines as well as being a major component of the island’s world class sparkling wines.
Chardonnay comes in second in terms of area under vine and produces around 23% of the grapes. Again the combination of cool climate and excellent soils suit this noble vine and the resulting wines – be they still or sparking – can be the epitome of elegance, with clean acidity and wonderful minerality being notable signatures.
Around 12% of the vines are Sauvignon Blanc which produces wines that are typically tangy and fresh but which are far less aggressive than those from New Zealand. Some wineries, such as Domain A, oak their Sauvignon Blanc to produce a wine of stunning complexity that is every bit as fine and age-worthy as the best Graves. A controversial vine in Tasmania, Greg Melick of Pressing Matters describes it as ‘a weed that needs tearing out’.
Pinot Gris takes up 11% of the vineyards. Typically, this is made in the proper style and has an unctuous, rose and pepper styling that is balanced by cleansing acidity to give wines that are full-flavoured and complex.
Riesling shines on Tasmania, and although it currently only accounts for around 5% of the total plantings this figure looks set to increase. Made in all styles - from sparkling to dry to sweet - the wines have a classically high acidity, good fruit and a glorious minerality that makes them both distinguished and capable of ageing. Some wineries make the increasingly popular off-dry style such as Pressing Matters R9 Riesling which have a ripeness, richness and delicacy that is quite lovely.
Other vines of note include small quantities of Cabernet Sauvignon – which tends to be leafy, currant and cherry-driven. Some examples, such as Domain A’s, have won international acclaim from the likes of James Halliday and Robert Parker. Merlot shows promise, potentially more so than in the rest of Australia where it remains as one Australian winemaker waggishly put it, ‘an idea’. Gewürztraminer also has good potential. Given the success of Pinot Gris this is quite understandable, and the wines show both spice and fragrance but have the acidity to keep them fresh, dry and food-friendly.
Tasmanian cool: Winemaking talent in-depth
Of course the greatest natural resources don’t equate to great wines by themselves, the human factor is key. Again this is an area in which Tasmania is blessed. Winemakers such as Peter Althaus at Domaine A, Ed Carr at House of Arras and Lindy Bull at Freycinet all make wines of real distinction. Anna Pooley from Pooley Wines, was probably destined to become one of Australian Wine’s most celebrated winemakers. She was just eight years of age when she experienced her first vintage at her family’s new vineyard in the Coal River Valley in southern Tasmania. Today it’s still a family affair at Pooley Wines, with her brother Matt managing the vineyards and husband Justin working alongside her in the winery. They are proudly the first third generation wine family in Tasmania, making deliciously elegant wines that have seen Anna nominated at Winemaker of the Year in the upcoming Australian Women in Wine Awards.
Tasmanian wine: A sparkling opportunity
No talk of Tasmanian wine would be complete without a mention of sparkling wine. Sparkling wine made the region famous and over 40% of the wines produced end up as sparklers. Stylistically the wines are diverse; ranging from the dry, fruit-driven style of Janz to the more serious, autolytic and profound wines that populate the upper echelons of producers such as House of Arras, Delamere and Pirie. These are wines of breed and complexity: age-worthy wines that take the classic Champagne blend and add a certain minerality and sweetness of fruit that makes them unique.
Tasmanian cool: Producers of note
Quality is a universal given in Tasmania. With production costs high and demand for the wines strong, it’s not a region for producers who are faint hearted or dilettantes. Contract growing is rare and many producers are small. Rating producer is obviously a matter of taste, but the following are wineries whose commitment to excellence is undeniable:
The future: A premium opportunity
Tasmanian wine is in a very good place at the moment and one gets the feeling that it’s only just beginning to realise its winemaking potential. As the vines age and, if as predicted, climate change continues to add warmth to the region so wines – especially the Shiraz and Pinot Noir – will continue to improve.
Tasmanian production is likely to remain below supply and this is a good thing for all concerned. Tasmania is a premium wine region and should remain so. The temptation to sacrifice quality in the pursuit of quantity must be avoided and Tasmanian wine should be seen, and priced, as a premium product. Given the prevailing attitude of winery owners at present a dramatic increase in production does seem unlikely, and as word spreads of the brilliance of their wines so prices will continue to rise facilitating greater winery investment that will drive quality levels ever higher.
From an off and on-trade perspective, having Tasmanian wines on your list makes great commercial sense. The wines are sough-after, food-friendly and offer a value quotient that puts equivalent quality Burgundy or Champagne in the shade. While much of the wine is (and will almost certainly remain) sold domestically and at cellar door, the little that does find outlets farther afield is likely to find a receptive audience.
The future for Tasmanian wine could hardly be brighter and it will be fascinating to see quite how good the wines will become.
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