The flight from Melbourne takes less than one hour, bringing you to an almost mythical island that, beyond the whirling Devils of ‘Looney Tunes’ fame, is less well-known that much of the mainland. Lying 150 miles off the coast, Tasmania is big (the 26th-largest island in the world apparently), with a population of over half a million.
It’s also a mountainous island, half of it covered in forest, with big differences in climate caused by its latitude and topography. The big influence is the Tamar River in the north “It’s like a big hot water bottle,” says winemaker Ed Carr. The vineyards in the south are generally cooler, and some of the vineyards on the east coast the earliest to ripen. There are no vineyards on the blustery and cold west coast, but otherwise the main regions can usefully be divided into three groups: the north around the city of Launceston (the Tamar Valley and surrounding regions); the east coast, and the southern vineyards around Hobart (including the Coal River and Derwent Valley).
My visit started in the north, landing in Launceston and heading straight to the Tamar Ridge winery, surrounded by a lush green landscape hugging the broad river. My first tasting session on the island was, appropriately, of sparkling wines, as Tasmania produces more sparkling wine than any other Australian wine region, and there to lead the tasting was sparkling wine legend, Ed Carr. Ed is Australia’s most awarded sparkling winemaker, with more than 100 trophies under his belt from major wine shows.
Ed (left) explained that Tasmania’s climate is hugely variable. In 2014 they harvested just 6,000 tons in a drought year, whereas in 2016 the harvest was 16,000 tons. “It’s a challenge to plan ahead and build markets,” he says, “2014 was the perfect proof of that.” Overall plantings are led by Pinot with 45%, and Chardonnay at around 20%. Forty percent of Tasmanian wine is sparkling, and as Ed Carr says “Australia is still the world’s ninth biggest importer of Champagne, so there’s a market for quality sparkling wine for sure”.
Ed also confesses that a lot of people involved in the early days of the Tasmanian wine industry were “basically amateurs,” but then Andrew Pirrie arrived at Tamar Ridge in the 1970s with real knowledge, convinced that it was the perfect place for Pinot and Chardonnay. “He really put science into the local industry,” says Ed, “The professionalism that’s come into the area in the last 30 years is amazing.”
(2017) Fine, fruit-forward stuff with a Prosecco-like charm and easy drinkability. The delicacy of the wine is lovely, the fresh acids gleaming in the finish of a simple but fine first wine of the tasting.
(2017) The largest brand in the UK at present. A much more appley nose than the Devil's Corner, the hint of toffee and more richness, but stays pretty bright despite the sour lemon dry juiciness of the finish.
(2017) A slightly more Champagne-like quality, a touch of oxidation, with a touch of mushroom. More leesy, with fine, bold and bright citrus - lemon and orange. Again feels a touch sweeter than Brut, but could be the pure ripeness of the fruit.
(2017) A blend of 65% Pinot and 35% Chardonnay made by Ed Carr, based on the 2009 harvest. Not the most aromatic of the wines so far, but a racing freshness, and fine sour lemon length and just a little creaminess to the texture, though freshly focused and long and tight.
(2017) Brighter, but also more leesy than the Bream Creek, a combination of some nettle and herbs, nougat and bright apple fruit. The palate has a lovely softly foaming mousse, with again a sweeter finish, but delightful balance and length.
(2017) Pipers River fruit, from cold south-sloping estate vineyards. Lovely nose, a hint of brioche development, sweetness too, a little peachy note. The palate is rather sweet and straightforward, though the acidity is good and comes through nicely into an easy finish.
(2017) A lot of Champagne-like autolysis, with plenty of yeasty character. The creaminess of apples comes through. On the palate the wine has lovely depth and breadth, a soft mousse, and elegant finish with zesty lemon and a touch of fat lemon waxiness, hints of minerality.
(2017) Very attractive, with a bit of slaty, flinty character, delightfully snappy and vibrant citrus and fresh, crunchy apple. Very racy, with a fine sweet confectionery character and zippy into the finish in lovely style.
(2017) The blend contains 77% Chardonnay, which is higher than usual. Lovely struck match complex sulphides on the nose, a little toffee, and the orchard fruits have delicious juiciness and length, fine, long, tapering acids in a lovely wine. The sweet fruit so nicely balanced against the creamy acidity. Note that online retailer Justincases is offering a six pack of this for £139.50 inc VAT at time of writing: £23.95 per bottle.
(2017) A small volume of Grand Vintage is held back for at least 10 years. A little bit of depth to the colour, fabulous nose with some exotic aromas among the developed, honeycomb and buttery brioche notes, a nice yeastiness. The palate has a lovely oyster shell, saline touch, but then it broadens significantly with a creamy depth of ripe fruit. Long, tight in the finish, drinking beautifully. At time of writing Justincases offers a six-pack for equivalent £49.95 per bottle.
(2017) A hint of buttered popcorn, invitingly nutty and toasty, the mousse creamy and full, then a fine apple sweetness but dry, apple core acidity, a long structured finish, good acids and intensity of fruit.
(2017) A little note of something almost like fish oil (?), again complex sulphides at play I think, with a slightly softer finish than the Pirie, a lovely juicy Mandarin orange and lime ripeness to the acidity. Excellent, if not the sumptuous depth of the Grand Vintage '07.
(2017) A more sweetie, bubblegummy character, with decent balance but a slightly sweet and soapy style for my liking. Good acid in the finish mind, maybe a bit of earthy breadth just to improve the picture.
(2017) Another saignée method wine where the colour comes from a short extraction of Pinot Noir rather than blending. More yeasty and autolytic than the Pirie, again dry and the small red fruits, rosy apples, a slightly softer finish given its long bottle age, but good balance and a touch more complexity for sure.
My next visit was to the Josef Chromy winery near Launceston in the north. There to greet me was Chief Winemaker Jeremy Dineen, but also Josef Chromy himself, a remarkable 86-year-old who fled his war-torn Czech village in 1950 as a penniless 19-year-old, made his fortune, then came out of retirement to start this business at the age of 76. Right: Josef keeps a watchful eye on Jeremy as he pours.
“We’re at the same latitude as Marlborough in New Zealand,” Jeremy tells me, “with no land to the west until you hit Argentina. The southwest of the island is more or less uninhabitable because of the climate – there’s only one international flight from Hobart – to Antartica, which is three hours away. There’s great surfing off of the southwest coast, but only after a three-day walk or you helicopter in.”
Tasmania produces only 0.5% of Australia’s wine grapes, and although many mainland wineries are looking to invest or buy Tasmanian fruit, “there just isn’t any for sale,” says Jeremy. “it’s seen as such a premium and in-demand area. 1,750 hectares are planted currently, that’s up from 1,400 hectares in 2011 and only 47 hectares in 1986. With irrigation schemes there’s potential for massive expansion, though Jeremy hopes it doesn’t happen: “The existing smaller growers have to get a good return because it is very expensive to grow fruit here. When we get $3,000 per ton, people from the Clare Valley are amazed, where top quality might be $1200.”
Talk of the Clare Valley is apt, because we moved on to a tasting of 20 Tasmanian Rieslings, spanning 2016 – 2003, and a selection of dry and dessert styles.
(2017) Has a creaminess and nutty apple character, a little floral lift, a touch of wax. Really nice texture and waxiness, some sweetness but finishes pretty dry, with a lemony fruit quality, but a lovely balance to this.
(2017) 600 cases produced. Not the most aromatic wine, the palate dry and sherbetty, a cool apple and fresh zesty citrus flavour, lime, but sharply focused, a little spice into the finish. Delicate and actually rather delicious and dry in the finish.
(2017) Flinty, sulphide note, gives an Epsom salty edge, broadening to a ripe fruitiness. Pleasing palate, just a hint of sugar to soften the picture with quite sweet, peachy fruit moving into a pithy grapefruit finish. Price and stockist quoted at time of review is for the 2015 vintage.
(2017) From the warmer east coast. Nice waxy and herbal quality, a touch tanky and pear-droppy from fermentation at this stage which makes it more difficult to really assess. A dry, citrus pithy quality, a touch of mineral salts, very tangy and may well be worth a higher score.
(2017) From the southern Derwent Valley, inland north of Hobart and vineyards at altitude. A refined mineral quality, some talcum notes, tight and elegantly aromatic, with a pithy quality to the fruit, and a juiciness of citrus pulp. Long and tight, a real tight apple finish.
(2017) From right down on south coast east of Hobart. Quite closed, a touch herbal, but a lovely juiciness and chalkiness to the acidity, with a sour lemon thrust. Please note price and stockist quoted at time of review are for the 2015 vintage.
(2017) From an elevated ridge above the Tamar River. A bit of complex flinty character here, a nicely stony character. The palate has lost of juiciness and a big thrust of juicy sour lemon, long and tapering.
(2017) A nice ripeness here, a lightly smoky overlay to juicy peach fruit and ripe red apple. There’s a touch of sweetness here, and a more dilute palate than the Tamar Ridge for example, but a balanced and tasty.
(2017) Lovely toffee note here, ripe with certainly a light mint and honey character. The palate is sweetly pitched and has a fat tropical character, but the acidity is good – waxy lime juice and skins, with fine, delicate sweetness into the finish.
(2017) This has a touch of honey too, but mostly sherbetty and bright with that waxiness. A big, dry, uncompromising palate, with streaking acidity, chalky and citrussy, that pushes through beautifully: not aggressive, but very firm. Note: stockist and price are for the 2015 vintage at time of review.
(2017) Named after the village Josef grew up in, top of the range made from eight rows of their best block in certain years. Delightful, light honey but also a bit of skinny grip, and attractive beeswax and florals. In the mouth a delicious dry apple core and wax, but the long, focused salt and gently smoky minerals joins the citrus and merest hint of sweetness in the finish.
(2017) Delightfully floral and peach downy, with such elegant aromas that are pristine but soft and refined. There's a little smoky and toffee development, but absolutely fresh, the pithy acidity still ripe and balancing beautifully. Quite rounded, juicy and delicious. Note stockist quoted is for the 2015 vintage: this library vintage is not for sale in the UK.
(2017) I like the tropical fruitiness that has hints of nettle and flint too, the palate cool, but has some honey and toast, and a lime butter hint of richness. The acid pulls this through very nicely, orangy and even a touch peachy in this 14-year-old wine.
(2017) With 30g/l residual sugar, this was sent straight to barrel for fermentation with ambient yeast. Wooly, lanolin quality and a little waxy, with nectarine and has lots of orange and peach, and nicely balanced.
(2017) Medium-sweet perhaps with 70g/l of sugar, a vineyard block is managed specifically for this. Picked early, fermentation is stopped leaving the sugar quite high. Gently smoky and apple-scented, with an absolutely delicious shimmering freshness and lightness. Kabinett in style, with lovely balance. Price quoted is per bottle equivalent, but sold by the 12-bottle case only.
(2017) Around 135g/l of residual sugar in this beautifully honeyed wine, with rich mint and barley sugar, but the lovely leaf tea delicacy. Long and has weight and texture, slippery and unctuous, but just such lovely balance, all the exotic fruit and balancing acidity for delicious complexity. 37.5cl bottle.
…and Pinot Noir
If sparkling wines and Riesling are cool Tassie’s aces in the pack, then Pinot Noir and Chardonnay follow close behind. Many mainland producers as well as islanders now see Tasmania as an absolutely prime spot for both varieties. I headed south to Hobart, and to Domaine A for a tasting of Tasmanian Pinot Noir. Domaine A’s vineyards lies on a north facing slope that enjoys a temperate maritime climate and the extended sunlight hours this region enjoys over a season that tends to be long and cool – some of the longest sunshine hours in Australia. Great Pinot quality was evident in an extensive tasting.
(2017) Really attractive spices and florals, light and fleet of foot, cherry and briar and lovely palate, cool and creamy with really fine, fruity cherry character with enough briar and a touch of coffee.
(2017) No added sulphur, quite a delicate character, cherry bright and feels as though it has no oak, a bright juicy Beaujolais-like character, with a lovely texture and soft, easy-drinking palate. Very well done.
(2017) From 30-year-old vines on the estate. Majority whole bunch, and 30% new oak. A bright and juicy character, with really dry, savoury acidity, buoyant and juicy on the palate, lots of cherry juiciness and tight, chewy tannins to lengthen the finish.
(2017) Fruit from the Coal River Valley blended with fruit from their own vineyard. A touch of sappy character, a touch of menthol and coffee, and then a nice sweetness of plum flesh and cherry ripe fruit, the juicy acids giving a nice briar and sappy touch. UK stockist and price quoted at time of review is for the 2013 vintage.
(2017) A nice briary character, a high, incense and smoke character, with real floral lift. The palate has crunch and freshness, with a racy acidity and fine balance. UK stockist and price quoted at time of review is for the 2013 vintage
(2017) Lovely wine, with a delicate creamy oak vanilla and has really charming fruit, masses of creamy cherry and bright raspberry, then a firm dark liquorice core. The endive bittersweetness of the acid and tannin core giving lovely length. UK stockist and price quoted at time of review is for the 2012 vintage.
(2017) Very soft, elegant and approachable, light bodied and terribly pretty, the sweetness of the fruit, a touch of rosy red apple, and the framework yielding and elegant. A little hint of briary, damp undergrowth to add interest.
(2017) This has a real lift and perfume, a touch of Sandalwood but also a kirsch-like, floral and cherry brightness. Much firmer on the palate than the straight Holm Oak Pinot, more depth but does not lack finesse. Price and stockist quoted at time of review is for the 2014 vintage.
(2017) East coast fruit, and much more earthy and briary than the straight Devil's Corner 2015, twigs and bracken, and a soft but more solid red fruit. The palate has lots of creamy berry ripeness, a slick of vanilla, but it stays focused.
(2017) A touch of earthiness and hint of briar to solid berry fruits. A nice bite of cherry skin acidity, tight but silky chocolate tannins and spice, with firm juicy acidity, tight on the finish with an chicory bite.
(2017) Soft, sweet vanilla, tertiary development and good oak quality, a touch of roasted chestnut and sweet damp earth. The palate has a little stripe of red liquorice, firm and structured, but sweet fruit hangs from the framework.
(2017) A touch of smoke and ash, bright cherry and a little kirsch note, with rhubarb and beetroot flavours developing. A nice open Pinot, yet again it tightens and firms up in the finish very usefully and is long and impressive.
(2017) 30% whole bunch fruit, 40% wild yeast and 18 months in oak. A lovely briar and soft truffle and berry fruit, there's a touch of Chinese dried plum and flowers. There's plenty of weight, texture and sweetness, but it has structure with the spicy, chocolatey tannins and a firm plum skin acidity. My style of Pinot, and delicious. Note price and UK stockist quoted at time of review is for the 2013 vintage.
(2017) 10% whole bunch-pressed and 15% new oak used for maturation. A bit closed and slightly bound sulphur character, though really sweet fruit beneath, with lovely texture and breadth on the palate, nice bit of grip but good fruit sweetness to the end.
(2017) A tiny bit of vegetal complexity, with a very sweet palate, the level of berry and cherry sweetness is good, though it does seem fairly straightforward, finishing with a juicy, grapefruity dry acidity.
(2017) Aged in seasoned French oak for 18 months, 1.5 vines produces only one bottle, with drastically restricted yields. Nice touches of briar and sweet earth, but also a chocolate density and a bit of violet lift. There's a bright red fruit juice character on the palate, but plenty of grip: really tight and firm, great concentration, and feels as if it still needs time.
(2017) A little coffee and gravy browning character, with a lovely hint of roses and exotic spices, more briar and rhubarb and beetroot, and shows how beautifully these wines age, with fine balance and a ripe sweetness and good texture.
MONA and MOORILLA
I cannot end my short tour of Tasmanian wine without mentioning MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art sited within the Moorilla winery in Hobart. Owned by professional gambler, art collector and businessman David Walsh, a visit to the winery is rewarding, but the huge museum of visceral, often disturbing works, many of them architectural installations that the museum was purpose-built to accommodate, is a stunning creation and genuinely world class. Every aspect of the museum is challenging and brilliant and it is an essential destination if visiting the island.
Right, one of the smaller, more intimate works: Jan Fabre’s ‘Skull’, 2001, made from beetle carapaces and a taxidermied bird.
(2017) Cool, lightly creamy and oatmeally, with plenty of crisp apple acidity, the oak very deftly handled in a balanced and appealing wine. Rounded and textural, with enough peachy ripeness, but a feeling of natural acid balance.