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.

Vintage guide

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.

New faces: Six mini profiles

Fran Austin: Deservedly won the Gourmet Traveller WINE Young Winemaker of the Year two years ago, and has been responsible for a bevy of superb white wines under Hardys' Tasmanian labels, Bay of Fires and Tigress. She manages the company's Bay of Fires winery in the Pipers Brook sub-region and also has a hand in Hardys' Tasmanian sparkling wine components. Riesling is very Euro and pinot gris is arguably the state's finest.  www.hardywines.com.au 03 6382 7686

Peter Dunbavan: Trained as a mechanic rather than a winemaker, has been employed by the owners of the tiny 5-hectare Home Hill vineyard, in the Huon Valley, since its start in 1994. He's produced a succession of attention-grabbing pinot noirs under both the regular Home Hill and Kelly's Reserve labels. The style is bigger and more powerful than the Tasmanian norm, quite structured and ageworthy. "We try to make the wine in the vineyard. We get plenty of natural tannin and acid, so the structure comes from the vineyard."   www.homehillwines.com.au  03 6264 1200

Guy Wagner: A relatively new comer who created Bass Fine Wines as a negociant brand, taking parcels of grapes and wine in both barrel and bottle from various vineyards, but has recently built a winery and from 2006 is making the wine himself. His Bass Strait pinot noirs punch well above their weight, winning gold medals and trophies at the regional wine show and competing with wines several times their price (the '04 was A$21). 03 6331 0136

Derwent Estate: Winemaking Tasmania is the contract winemaker but proprietor Andrew Hanigan has a hand in the vats as well as running the 10-hectare vineyard at Granton, on the Derwent River.  The wines here have risen to the top of the pack in recent times, especially the pinot noir – '04 and '05 both won gold medals at the '07 Tasmanian Wine Show. They're a fuller, richer style with deep colours and spicy aromas. www.derwentestate.com.au 03 6263 5802

Jeremy Dineen: Talented young winemaker who worked for Andrew Hood at Hood Wines for several years before being lured away by Joe Chromy to kick off his new venture, Josef Chromy Wines. With a state-of-the-art new winery and Chromy's dollars and determination behind him, the world is truly Dineen's oyster.

Jim Chatto: Was winemaker at Rosevears Estate in the West Tamar before moving to the polar opposite terroir of the Hunter Valley, where he has made a big mark as a contract winemaker to many small vineyards at Monarch Winemaking Services, while producing his own Chatto label on the side – which has always included a top-notch Tasmanian pinot noir. Recently bought land in the Huon Valley near Elsewhere Vineyard and is a player to watch. 

Key Players

Andrew Hood: Contract winemaker whose Hood Wines makes wine for more than 20 small vineyards throughout Tasmania. Also has his own brand, Wellington Wines.  Sold the business (and Wellington and Roaring Forties brands) recently to Jack Kidwiler, whose organic vineyard Frogmore Creek in the Coal River Valley is new and highly promising, run by organic advocate Tony Scherer, the wines of course made by Hood (ably assisted by Alain Rousseau, who previously served time at Moorilla, and Nick Glaetzer). As a busy contract winemaker, Hood adopts a no-fuss approach to vinifying the more than 20 pinot noirs in his care. He uses no stems, and treats all batches of pinot the same way, ensuring that any differences between them are truly due to terroir. With chardonnay, he avoids the malolactic, believing it interferes with fruit and freshness, and depletes acidity unnecessarily. A key client is Gerald Ellis's Meadowbank. www.hoodwines.com.au 03 6248 5844

Julian Alcorso: Son of Claudio, the founder of Moorilla Estate, and since the family sold Moorilla (where he had been winemaker from 1978 to '96), Julian has established a second major contract winemaking business to complement Hood's: Winemaking Tasmania. This firm has no labels or brands of its own. Ably assisted by winemakers John Schutts and Greer Carland, Alcorso handles grapes from between 25 and 30 growers. An important client is The Wine Society, one of Australia's largest direct-marketing 'club'. He produces a superb dry riesling and increasingly interesting pinot noir which are marketed under The Wine Society label. Like Hood, it would be hard to over-state Alcorso's influence on Tasmania's wine scene. "It's all about the fruit," he says. "Our winemaking is very basic; very simple. There's no need to fiddle around with good fruit."

Andrew Pirie: Following site selection studies based on climate, Sydney-born Pirie pioneered north-eastern Tasmania when he established Pipers Brook Vineyard in 1974. He was edged out after the by-then public company was taken over by Kreglinger Wine Estates in 2001, moving to Rosevears Estate where he vinified his first releases under two new labels, Pirie South and Pirie Estate. Those labels continue but as of two years ago, Pirie is now the senior winemaker and public face of Tamar Ridge, which is owned by timber giant Gunns Ltd – also the biggest vineyard owner in Tasmania. He spends a lot of time travelling and waving the flag, while ex-Villa Maria winemaker Tom Ravech takes charge of the barrels. Pirie is one of the deep thinkers of the wine industry, with a keen eye for style and a truly global perspective. www.tamarridgewines.com.au www.pirietasmania.com.au 03 6394 1111 

Peter Althaus: A refugee of the computer industry in Switzerland, electronic engineer Peter Althaus with his wife Ruth bought the established Stoney Vineyard from its founder George Park in 1989, expanding the plantings to 11 hectares and building an impressive bunker-style winery. Peter Althaus created the Domaine A label for his flagship wines, which are price leaders in the state. Stoney Vineyard is the subsidiary label. In the best years there's a beautifully elegant, Bordeaux-styled cabernet sauvignon to go with the plump, minty pinot noir and superbly Graves-like Lady A Fume Blanc. Althaus is an opinionated man who doesn't believe in wine competitions, and sees himself as inspired by the Old World but using modern vineyard and winery methods to create wines of great subtlety and intensity. Vines are close-spaced at 6,000 per hectare. He releases his wines older than most wineries, especially the cabernet – which needs time and is the best cab in Tasmania. www.domaine-a.com.au 03 6260 4174

Joe Chromy: A dynamic Czech migrant who, while not a hard-core wine-man, has shrewd business sense and major influence on Tasmania's wine industry. Originally a producer of smallgoods and premium grass-fed export beef, Chromy's first foray into wine was buying Heemskerk, Jansz and Rochecombe in 1994, on-selling those brands and by 1998 starting afresh on his own vineyard at Kayena, in the Tamar Valley. This became Tamar Ridge which he sold to Gunns Ltd in 2003. He immediately bought a 60-hectare newly-planted vineyard at Relbia, just out of Launceston, where he's built a new $2.5 million winery and cellar door/café. At 76 and showing no sign of slowing despite a stroke, Chromy is about to build a $40 million resort, with accommodation, fly-fishing lake, equestrian centre and vineyard village (blocks of land for building houses and vineyards). With ex-Hood Wines winemaker Jeremy Dineen in charge, his current brands are Josef Chromy and Pepik. www.josefchromy.com.au 03 6334 6044

Pipers Brook Vineyard: Tasmania's first showpiece winery, with 183 hectares of vineyards in the Pipers Brook and West Tamar regions, founded and run for 30 years by Dr Andrew Pirie but owned since 2001 by Kreglinger Wine Estates. It's still the best-known winery, the most recognisable label and issues some of the best wines, although they are not always great value for money. Chief winemaker Rene Bezemer has a long tenure, stretching back well into the Pirie years. He capably maintains the style direction. The top pinot noir cuvees Lyre Trellis and Blackwood are sepecially interesting. The Kreglinger sparkling (the re-named Pirie) is very good in a developed, complex, hazelnutty style. Chardonnay style also leans towards the heavily-worked, while riesling is - as ever - the stand-out wine, aging superbly. www.kreglingerwineestates.com.au 03 6382 7527

Best new releases

Hardys Arras Pinot Noir Chardonnay Brut 2001 ★★★★★

Light yellow colour; toasty, biscuity development; rich yet fine; fills the mouth; soft but dry finish. Until 2010. (Imp: Constellation Europe, Guildford, Surrey)

Bay of Fires Pinot Gris 2006 ★★★

Clean, spicy, fragrant nose and a  rich, textural palate which carries a well-balanced lick of sweetness. Until 2010. (Imp: Constellation Europe)

Wellington Chardonnay 2005 ★★★★★

A delicate but intense, highly refined style with some oak and sur-lie characters in harmony with the fruit, and a long, clean, properly dry finish. Until 2011.

Freycinet Chardonnay 2005 ★★★★

Unusually delicate and restrained for this maker: smoky, flinty mineral notes; taut, high-acid palate: a decidedly Chablis-like style. Needs time. Until 2012.  (Imp; Reid Wines; Avery's) www.freycinetvineyard.com.au  03 6257 8574

Providence Madame Miguet Reserve Chardonnay 2005 ★★★★★

Again, at the Chablis end of the chardonnay spectrum: shy nose now but very refined; tight, linear palate, great extension and harmony. Needs time. 2008 to 2013. www.providence.com.au 03 6395 1290

Brook Eden Pinot Noir 2005 ★★★★★

Outstanding pinot with floral, spicy, meaty/gamy aromas of great complexity and a succulent, layered, sweet-fruit palate of lushness and completeness. Until 2014.  www.brookeden.com.au 6395 6244

Home Hill Kelly's Reserve Pinot Noir 2005 ★★★★★

Similar wine to the regular label, but darker of hue and with a touch more weight, power and succulence. Until 2016.

Derwent Estate Pinot Noir 2005 ★★★★★

Dark colour; big black-cherry aroma, beautifully ripe and classic varietal pinot. Generous palate, layered and complex with terrific flavour. Until 2015.

Barringwood Park Mill Block Pinot Noir 2005 ★★★★★

Deepish colour; sweetly fragrant cherry fruit aroma. Palate finely balanced and silky textured. Stylish; elegant. Until 2012. www.barringwoodpark.com.au 03 6492 3140

Domaine A Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 ★★★★★

Ultra-refined, classically elegant cabernet from a ripe year but of moderate alcohol and soft tannins. Raspberry, cassis and gently herbal aromas; seamless palate texture. Until 2015+. (Imp: Alliance Wine Co, Beith, Ayrshire) www.domaine-a.com.au

Moorilla Cloth Label Syrah 2005 ★★★★★

Undoubtedly the best shiraz ever made in Tasmania, this has a deep colour and pungent pepper/spice aromas with ripe plum background, and a soft, fleshy palate of ideal ripeness and length. A triumph. 2008 to 2020. www.moorilla.com.au 03 6277 9900

Tamar Ridge Botrytis Riesling 2005 ★★★★

Smoky, citrusy aromas with some malt and honey nuances. Tremendous intensity of fruit and botrytis with high, cleansing acidity - nonetheless soft and balanced. Until 2012. (Imp: Awin Barratt Siegel)

Best values

Pooley Riesling 2004 ★★★★★

Intensely pungent, almost Germanic, lime-juice aromas with a tremendously tangy, lively palate. Until 2017. A$20 www.pooleywines.com.au 03 6260 2895

Home Hill Pinot Noir 2005 ★★★★★

Very spicy, complex aromatics with some whole-bunch charcters. Sweet fruit, soft and balanced with great texture. Until 2014. A$26

Holm Oak Riesling 2005 ★★★★

Echoes of the Mosel in this intensely limy/citrusy perfumes and a thrilling combination of juicy sweet fruit and tart tangy acidity. Until 2013. A$20 Tel: 03 9394 7577

The Wine Society Riesling 2006 ★★★

Thrillingly tangy, slaty, limy, starting to build honey. Tangy, fresh, dry palate with a trace of hardness. Needs time. 2008 to 2014. A$17 www.winesociety.com.au 02 9431 4000

Moore's Hill Riesling 2006 ★★★★

A powerful wine by Tasmanian standards: rich and slightly firm with mineral and honeysuckle aromas. 2008 to 2014. A$19 www.mooreshill.com.au 03 6394 7649

Bass Strait Pinot Noir 2005 ★★★

Smooth, rich, fleshy, quite succulent and smooth, with slightly lighter weight and fine balance. Until 2012. A$21

The Wine Society Pinot Noir 2005 ★★★

Slightly stewed-plum aromas; slightly forward, loose-knit palate with soft, fleshy texture and some lightness. Until 2011. A$20

Devil's Corner Pinot Noir 2005 ★★★

From Tamar Ridge. Touches of toasty barrel; vanillan. Smooth, seductive palate. Until 2011. A$18 (Imp: Awin Barratt Siegel)

Roaring 40s Pinot Noir 2005 ★★★

Slightly lighter weight but very correct and technically A1, with properly ripe sweet cherry flavours. Till 2010. A$20 (see Wellington/Hood Wines)

Bass Strait Chardonnay 2006 ★★★

Delicate, fine, fruit-driven chardonnay, grapy, young and showing no oak influence. Until 2010. A$21

Pirie South Estelle 2006 ★★★

An 'Alsace blend' of riesling, gewurz and pinot gris, this is a light, fresh, clean dry white with floral and pot-pourri aromas. Until 2010. A$22 (Imp: Stratfords)