Tasmania 'In Focus'
Tasmania is that funny little island off the southern coast of Australia, also known as "The Apple Isle" – not because it's shaped like one, but because it grows a lot of them. The best way to upset Tasmanians is to leave their state off a map, which happens all too often. Its population is a little over half a million, which means it's sparsely populated; indeed, half the island (the western half) is densely forested and for the most part uninhabited by humans. Much of Tasmania's appeal is its remoteness, tranquility, slower pace and largely unspoilt natural beauty. Its vineyard area is 1,254 hectares, which is 0.7 per cent of Australia's total grapevine plantings. That's a far more important 0.7% than the number alone suggests: it is all premium quality and aimed at discriminating wine drinkers, with no cask or jug wine, barely any fortified wine and almost no second-rate grape varieties.
It has 81 registered wine producers, 3.7% of Australia's total, and most are boutique to micro-boutique sized. Only 10 crush 100 tonnes of grapes or more, and 48 crush less than 20 tonnes! This gives a clue as to why most Australians – let alone the rest of the world – seldom get to drink Tasmanian wine. Most of it is consumed there or bought there and taken home in the luggage of tourists.
The biggest producers are Tamar Ridge, Pipers Brook Vineyard and Moorilla Estate, while two highly influential contract wineries, Hood Wines and Winemaking Tasmania, are also big in terms of tonnage crushed. Several mainland wineries are also deeply involved in Tasmania: Domaine Chandon and Hardys both grow and buy a lot of grapes for sparkling wine, and Hardys also for table wine. Its Bay of Fires and Tigress wines are produced in its own winery in the Pipers Brook area, while blended wines such as the flagship Eileen Hardy chardonnay is largely built on Tasmanian fruit. Hardys' Arras and, to a lesser extent, Vintage Sir James bubblies are based on Tasmanian grapes. Yalumba is also significant, with its Jansz winery and sparkling brand. The hot news is its recent purchase of Dalrymple, the vineyard, brand and cellar door sales outlet, also in the Pipers district. And in the same locality, Taltarni has its Clover Hill and Lalla Gully vineyards, the former for sparkling wines, the latter for still table wines.
The cool climate and dry, late-breaking autumns are ideal for delicate white table wines, sparkling base-wines from pinot noir and chardonnay, and pinot noir red table wines. Many believe it is potentially the best region in Australia for pinot noir. Fuller-bodied, later-ripening red varieties, though, are less suited, and cabernet sauvignon and merlot have been – with isolated exceptions – underperformers in Tasmania. Shiraz is virtually unknown, although occasionally in hot seasons Moorilla can produce a surprising shiraz, witness the stunning 2005 'cloth label'.
Of the white varieties, riesling, chardonnay, gewurztraminer, pinot gris and sauvignon blanc are all grown successfully. Surprisingly – for you would think the climate ideal - there have been few memorable sauvignon blancs. As everywhere now, pinot gris/grigio is suddenly being made in vast quantities and some examples are among the best in Australia, although the dull and boring are as common as anywhere. Gewurz can be excellent, and both Moorilla and Pipers Brook have distinguished histories of gewurz, but it languishes from want of interest from both producers and consumers. Riesling is the real shining light for Tasmanian white wine. It is arguably the best riesling source in Australia and would be world-renowned for it by now, had the fickle finger of fashion been kinder to this sorely under-valued grape. It is certainly Tasmania's most cellarworthy wine. Chardonnay can also be stellar, especially in later years as winemakers have held back on new oak, and been less inclined to give it a full malolactic.
While the rest of Australia got carried away with Geographic Indications and vigorously carved itself up into regions and sub-regions, Tassie sensibly opted to have just the one regional appellation. Sub-regions will be delineated later, and they will include Pipers Brook and Tamar Valley in the north; Coal River Valley and Huon Valley/Channel Country in the south; and East Coast about halfway down that seaboard. There are several other minor sub-regions scattered about the eastern and northern parts of the island.
It's a good time to be buying Tasmanian wine as the seasons have been kind of late (with the qualified exception of drought and frost-stricken 2007). The two vintages now on sale, 2005 and '06, are very successful, with '05 outstanding for all varieties and one of the best vintages in recent memory.
- 2010 ★★★★
Good rains throughout the season, broke the extended drought. Very good potential.
- 2009 ★★★★
A cool, dry season and late vintage. Low crops, some very low. Quality is very high.
- 2008 ★★★★
A warmer than usual summer and early vintage, with moderate crops of small berries, produced high quality wine.
- 2007 ★★★
Drought and frost took their toll of yields, but the hot, early conditions were more favourable in Tasmania than most regions. Big, dark, ripe wines; some reds tough and tannic.
- 2006 ★★★★
A warm, early vintage with low yields. Very good wines, some outstanding, especially among the whites.
- 2005 ★★★★★
Outstanding for pretty well everything. Pinot noir especially exciting: lush, ripe and elegant.
- 2004 ★★★
An average to good year, with whites doing better than reds, especially in the north of the state. Big yields.
- 2003 ★★
An okay year with some stress effects among the reds. Pinot noir in the south was quite good.
- 2002 ★★★★
An excellent year for both reds and whites throughout the state. Cooler conditions favoured whites and sparkling wines especially.
- 2001 ★★★★
Hot, dry, quite successful, but high alcohols.
- 2000 ★★★★★
Superb. Very even quality from a warm, dry season. Exceptional reds.
- 1999 ★★★
Some rain but elegant, lighter-weighted wines.
- 1998 ★★★★
excellent. Very warm, dry season: bigger wines than usual; deep colours and prominent tannins in reds.