Australia 2017 – 5. Tasmania

Late in 2016 Tom Cannavan spent 10 days touring several of Australia’s most important wine regions for this report which is published in five parts.


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.”

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Riesling Tasmania

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.

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…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.

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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.

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Return to Part I Introduction and New South Wales

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