Australian wine’s outsider comes in from the cold

Until relatively recently Tasmania was the overlooked piece of the Australian wine puzzle. An outlier both physically and in terms of perception, Tasmania spent years quietly going about its business with only a few big name pioneers such as Pipers Brook and Tamar Ridge pricking the consciousness of the average wine lover. Oh, how things have changed… In a few short years Tasmania has gone from curio to centre-stage courtesy of its wonderful collection of cool climate wines that are proving themselves to be amongst the world’s finest.

Tiny island, big presence

For such a small island state, Tasmania is really rocking its cool-climate credentials. It’s home to some of Australia’s most diverse, unique wines and has built its reputation firmly on quality rather than quantity.

With almost 1750 hectares planted to grape vines and home to 160 producers, Tasmania’s output accounts for less than 1% of Australia’s total wine production yet it represents 10% of the premium wine segment (wines priced at $15 and over). And while classed as cool climate, Tasmania’s environment is more varied than it first appears with parts of the state – the Coal River ValleyRichmond, and Tamar Valley for example - being drier and warmer than southern Victoria.  Unlike Victoria, and although there is much sub-regional diversity in terms of soil, climate and wine styles, the entire state markets itself singularly as Tasmania rather than by defined sub-regions. This lack of sub-division is in part a testament to the youth of Tasmania as a wine region and also to the fact that to be officially classified as a region or sub-region, the land area must include at least five independently owned vineyards each covering a minimum of five hectares, collectively producing 500 tonnes or more. At this stage, only two districts in Tasmania produce more than that: Coal River Valley/Richmond and Pipers River. Sub-regional classification may be part of Tasmania’s future, but for now, the power of ‘brand Tasmania’ is enough to sustain the region’s fame and fortune.

Despite its abundant potential for vineyard expansion, Tasmania has taken a cautious approach to it thus far.  In 2010 viticulturist Dr Richard Smart published ‘The potential for growth of the Tasmanian wine sector – might it become the Pinot isle?’ Smart commented on similarities between New Zealand and Tasmania in terms of climate, environment and water resources and claimed that Tasmania had the capacity to increase to 4,000 hectares within the next 10 years.

Tasmania: birthplace of South Australia and Victoria's wine industries

Tasmania, known as Van Diemen’s Land until 1856, has been producing wine for longer than Victoria or South Australia. Vines first arrived in 1788 on the HMS Bounty, but early experimental plantings were fruitless. The first significant vineyard in Tasmania was planted by ex-convict Bartholomew Broughton who in 1823 advertised wine for sale from the 1826 vintage as ‘made in imitation of Champagne’. A decade later in 1834, settler William Henty sailed from Launceston, in the north of the island, taking grapevine cuttings and plants to Portland, Victoria. These became the source of Victoria and South Australia’s first vineyards. Tasmania’s initial wine industry success, however, was fleeting and faded into relative obscurity when the gold rush drove large numbers of the population to the mainland in search of their fortunes.

The hand of providence

Although there were many backyard winemakers in Tasmania (often using grapes imported from South Australia), the revival of Tasmania’s modern wine industry can be traced back to 1956 when French vintner Jean Miguet and his wife Cecile planted ‘La Provence’ vineyard near Lilydale in north-eastern Tasmania. Challenged at the time by Tasmania’s parochial community who treated Miguet with suspicion, and at times outright hostility, he persisted and expanded his plantings. Alas, after falling ill, Miguet returned to France where he died in 1976.

In an example of exasperating bureaucracy, in 1994 the French National Institute of Appellations of Origin sent La Provence vineyard’s new owner, Stuart Bryce, an order to change the name. They wanted to be sure, 36 years after the vineyard had been planted, that consumers wouldn’t misunderstand that the wines were from France or related to the wines of Provence. Although Bryce had a strong desire to retain the original name of Tasmania’s first commercial vineyard, he eventually capitulated and renamed the vineyard ‘Providence’. Miguet might have been amused by the end result, however, as all costs in the case were eventually awarded against the French. C’est la guerre!

Italian immigrant Claudio Alcorso bought a piece of land in Tasmania in Berriedale and called it Moorilla, meaning ‘rock by the water’ in the Tasmanian Aboriginal language. He planted vines in 1958 and released the first vintage in 1962. Since then Moorilla has evolved to become one of Tasmania’s most revered, enduring wine brands.

Tasmania: land of plenty

Tasmania is rightly famous for Pinot NoirChardonnayRiesling and sparkling wines from producers such as Jansz. In some parts of the state, growing conditions can be favourable for late-ripening varietals such as ShirazCabernet Sauvignon (Domaine A’s is exceptional) and even Zinfandel.

Most grapevines in Tasmania are planted in the north of the state, around the districts of Pipers Brook and Tamar Valley, surrounding Bicheno on the East Coast, and in the south across the Lower and Upper DerwentCoal River ValleyRichmond and south of the Huon Valley.

As one of Australia’s leading tourist destinations, trading off its pristine environment, cool climate and fine food scene, the Tasmanian wine industry has the advantage of a receptive inbound market as well as a strong mainland retail and on-premise reputation and profitable export markets. Along with international and domestic trade shows and tastings across Australia, attracting visitors to the state is one of the most effective ways of promoting Tasmanian wine.

While the lush, green forests and cool temperatures might suggest that Tasmania is constantly wet, the majority of rain falls only in the growing season when grapevines need it most. Because of the diversity in climates across the state, harvests can occur over several months, with parts of the state picking in March and others as late as May.

A global warming winner

Tasmania is in a good position to capitalise on its natural resources and environment to ensure a strong future both domestically and internationally – the only bar to its growth at the moment is a lack of supply. Tasmanian wines are grown in one of the most comfortable and picturesque locations in Australia, a place renowned for inspiring art, fresh food, immersive history and its strong environmental credentials. As other regions prepare for a future impacted by global warming, Tasmania will suffer less owing to the ameliorating influences of water and latitude, making it an attractive proposition for winemakers from mainland Australia looking for insurance against rising temperatures and climate changes.

With the security of a long-term cool-climate future, Tasmania’s most prominent varietals Pinot Noir and Chardonnay will continue to form the basis of the state’s wine industry. Site-specific experimentation opens up potential for new varietals and winemakers are already turning their hands to Nebbiolo (Stefano Lubiana), Tempranillo (Clarence House), Albarino (Tamar Ridge), Viognier and Merlot (Grey Sands), Schonburger (Bream CreekKraanwoodBarringwood) and Grüner Veltliner (Stoney Rise).

Sparkling wines to challenge the word's finest

When it comes to sparkling wine, Tasmania is one of the very few regions globally that can challenge Champagne.  Tasmania produces Australia’s finest sparkling wines, reflecting high-levels of winemaking expertise and the advantages of a naturally pristine, cool environment. Led by Hardys’ winemaker Ed Carr (House of Arras, Hardys Sir James), winemakers are creating sparkling wines of impeccable structure and style, including Andrew Pirie with Apogee, and Louisa Rose at Jansz, whose wines are labelled ‘Methode Tasmanoise’ in a humorous response to France banning the use of the term ‘Methode Champenoise’.

Will increased output affect authenticity?

Underpinned by established by long-standing wineries such as MoorillaPipers BrookTamar RidgeDomaine A and Bay of Fires, Tasmanian winemakers are branching out to meet the market head-on with new techniques and approaches that include natural and experimental winemaking techniques and new varietals.

The past decade has seen a 25% increase in vineyard plantings in Tasmania. As more producers recognise the region’s potential for high returns along with the reassurance of protection against the effects of global warming, further development seems inevitable, but as we have said before their approach is a measured one; one that is rooted in caution and brand protection.  Increasing demand for premium, cool-climate wines is encouraging Tasmanian winemakers to forge a new path without losing sight of existing traditions and core styles.

Tasmania's new guard - a 'hands off' future

With what has to be one of the most intriguing winery names, at Sailor Seeks HorsePaul and Gilli Lipscombe make Huon Valley Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that express the vagaries of site and vintage. In something of a daring move, in 2010 they took over a vineyard that had been abandoned and left to the elements for five years. With a lot of perseverance (and some might say madness) they proceeded to rescue the vines that were salvageable and replant those that weren’t. Their tiny production sells out each year and is testament to their tenacity and vision.

‘Small parcels, big love’ is the ethos behind Two Tonne Tasmania (TTT), founded by Ricky Evans in 2013, finalist in the 2016 ‘Young Guns of Wine’ and recipient of the ‘People’s Choice’ award. Evans’ aim is to express the intrinsic qualities of both site and varietal. TTT creates Tamar Valley wines with a fresh, fruit-driven character using techniques such as partial whole bunch fermentation and carbonic maceration with lees contact, no fining and minimal sulphur dioxide.

Another Tamar Valley devotee, Joe Holyman and wife Lou pounced on the perfect site to establish Stoney Rise in 2004. Their wines are fermented with natural yeasts and minimal sulphur addition. This ‘hands-off’ approach has seen Stoney Rise Chardonnay, Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Noir win accolades and fans.

Industry veterans and cousins Michael Hill-Smith MW and Martin Shaw were blessed with luck when they discovered the Coal River Valley’s Tolpuddle vineyard in 2011. Originally planted in 1988, Tolpuddle wines are lauded by critics and judges for having a Burgundian-style Chardonnay that was praised for its creamy, spiced aromas and clean-cut clarity, and a Pinot Noir that delivers seemingly endless layers of spice, smoke and fruit.

Drawing on knowledge gained from work in Oregon, Italy, Spain and across Australia, winemaker Samantha Connew creates Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay at her southern Tasmanian winery, Stargazer. The textural, complex range of wild-fermented wines reflect Connew’s intelligent, considered approach to winemaking and shows the rewards of taking a risk and ‘gazing toward the stars’.

Star Len Evans scholar and senior wine show judge, Jim Chatto, was the inaugural winemaker for Rosevears Estate in the Tamar Valley. Now based in the Hunter Valley as chief winemaker for McWilliam’s, Chatto continues to nourish his passion for Tasmanian wines, creating focused, elegant Pinot Noir from low-cropping north-facing vines in the Cygnet District.

In 2012 Andrew and Prue O’Shanesy followed their dreams and moved from Queensland to Tasmania where they bought a farm called Glendale. Together they are the driving force behind Wines for Joanie (named after Andrew’s mother) driven by whatever the seasons bring. They let the fruit do the talking, making wines that are highly vintage-specific: Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and a racy vintage sparkling.

When the 2010 Glaetzer-Dixon ‘Mon Pere’ Shiraz won the 2011 Jimmy Watson Trophy it was the first Tasmanian winner since the competition’s inception in 1962. With his wife Sally, winemaker Nick applies his experience from regions as diverse as Languedoc, Burgundy, The Pfalz, Barossa Valley, Margaret River and Hunter Valley to create refined, pristine Pinot Noir, Riesling and Shiraz. The lasting effect of a Jimmy Watson Trophy wine ensures that demand outstrips supply with frustrating regularity - frustratingly for the consumer, that is. (In 2015 a second Tasmanian wine won the Jimmy Watson trophy: 2014 Home Hill Kelly’s Reserve Pinot Noir.)

Tasmania: Australia’s new wine superstar?

Driven by a new frontier of intrepid winemakers, Tasmania’s future will capitalise on its popularity, uncompromising reputation for quality and showcase new varietals and styles that will carry the unmistakable stamp of Tasmanian identity. The wines are as beautiful as the land from which they hail, and with so much untapped potential and winemakers learning more about their climates with each passing vintage, the future for this long-time outsider could hardly be brighter.

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