VintageTasmania – the Complete Book of Tasmanian Wine by wine writer and historian Tony Walker »
If you’ve got beauty, just raise ’em up...
By Robyn Lewis
Tasmanian wine is considered to be one of the jewels in the crown of Australian wine – not least because of its consistently high quality, but also because it’s (mostly) profitable, and hence sustainable economically as well as environmentally.
Plantings are expanding, producers are optimistic, grape prices are up, wines are selling out, and overall, the ‘industry’ is upbeat.
Besides, who doesn't want a piece of Tasmania right now? Once out on an overlooked limb, Tasmania is now hot, if not in terms of climate then as a must-do on bucket lists from New York to Melbourne. Lonely Planet, the NY Times, TripAdvisor, the World Boutique Hotel Awards…. all say get to Australia’s Gourmet State. Now.
Brand Tasmania’s cred is reaching beyond Australia. The world class gallery MONA has played a large part in the turnaround of Tasmanian tourism*, combined with the ongoing appeal of the State’s natural beauty, the relaxing pace, manageable scale, and the ability to escape the city life and rejuvenate your soul in a weekend.
Not to mention the food and wine. Wherever you go in Tasmania, you’ll find someone doing creative, tasty, healthy things with the fresh and flavoursome local produce (other pluses: clean air and sea).
And with around 170 vineyards dotted about, you’re never far from a perfect match with a local drop.
However, it’s not like parts of Italy, France or Napa where vineyards are almost wall to wall, or some other areas of Australia where vines seem to stretch to the horizon. In Tasmania, the vinous gems are often well hidden – scattered here and there like flecks of gold in a river bed, often up dirt roads and laneways, sometimes less that ideally signposted – which makes their discovery so much more fun**.
But what are you looking for, and what’s behind all this optimism and activity, when some other parts of the wine world are gloom and doom?
Ultimately, to paraphrase Meghan Trainor***, it’s all about the taste. Tasmanian wines can shake it like they’re supposed to, have the boom boom that all the boys (and girls) chase, and many are indeed perfect from the bottom to the top. Especially (for me) Tasmanian pinot noir, riesling and sparkling whites.
So where to start? If like most people you head to the nearest bottleshop, you’re likely to be disappointed – unless you live in Tasmania – for many of its wines (especially the better ones) don't make it to ‘the mainland’, or if they do they are only found in indie wine stores in Melbourne. And if you’re in the USA or the UK, they’ll be like hen’s teeth.
Fortunately, many Tasmanian wines are sold online, either direct or through Tasmanian retailers, so for those happy to take a punt on wines untasted (or can get to the annual Tasmania Unbottled tastings in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne each year) and to cop the $18 postage fee that AustraliaPost charges to get a case of wine across Bass Straight – let alone further – there’s plenty of choice.
Many wine lovers will be aware by now that the excellent reputation of Tasmanian wines stems from its genuine cool climate and thus its lengthy ripening period for all fruits, not just grapes. Bite into just about any food from Tasmania – apricots, strawberries, peaches – and your tastebuds will be dancing.
It's because the flavours develop slowly over time, and picking grapes in late March, April and even in May gives them two or three months longer that many mainland regions have for those all-important flavours to develop and become more complex and alluring. Not for Tasmania any fast-blossoming but short-lived teenaged beauties.
Tassie’s cold nights are important, too, because they stop the grapes’ sugar levels getting too high and turning the wines into alcoholic bombs.
In a nutshell, Tasmanian wines enjoy the best of both worlds: intense, refined flavours, and medium levels of alcohol (which if too high can also mask the fruit and other desirable characteristics). Perfect from the bottom to the top, indeed.
Add some of the best viticulturalists and makers of pinot noir, sparkling and other varieties in the country, and it’s a recipe for success.
Where did this all start? Wine writer and historian Tony Walker has the answers – he’s just spent two years doing a Master’s degree on the topic, the results of which have now published for the general audience in VintageTasmania.
It’s a very thorough and impressive book, as you would expect from someone who spent more than a decade tasting and writing about Tasmanian wine for the Launceston newspaper The Examiner. 280 pages, well illustrated with lots of photos…. let’s dive in.
The first five chapters deal with the early days of the Tasmanian wine industry, from the introduction of grapevines in the early 1800s and sale of the first bottled wines (ambitiously, they were sparkling) in 1826, through to the birth of its renaissance in the 1950s, led by French couple Jean and Cecile Miguet in the north, and Italian Claudio Alcorso and his wife Lesley in the south.
They are far from boring history however; in his introduction, James Halliday describes VintageTasmania as a ‘page-turner’, a rarity for non-fiction indeed.
He also goes on to say “this is only the beginning of what will be a golden period for and of Tasmania”, as evidenced by “Brown Brothers acquisition of Tamar Ridge for a reported $30 million, the purchase of White Hills Vineyard… by Treasury Wine Estate; the House of Arras/Bay of Fires ownership by Accolade; and the purchase of the Parish Vineyard by the Hill-Smith Family Vineyards/Yalumba demonstrate the arrival of the Big End of town in the Tasmanian industry”.
Chapter 6 introduces us to the forebears of the new wave of Tasmanian wine: Andrew Pirie, George Park, Graham Wiltshire, Bill Casimaty, Peter McKay, Bob Menary, Fred Peacock, Graham Lynch, Peter Dodson and more (all men; it was a pretty blokey scene back in wine in the 70s, right across Australia).
These were people who were increasingly in the right place at the right time, for public wine tastes were gradually changing towards the styles that Tasmania could actually produce, away from fortifieds, heavy dry reds and sweet whites.
There’s even a photo of a prophetic newspaper clipping from 1980 where Max Schubert, ‘the man who makes Grange Hermitage’ said Tasmanian wine “can rate among the great”. Not all were thinking that at the time.
But lest you think it’s all about praising Tasmania, some of the early wines attracted a fair degree of criticism too, especially for under-ripe, ‘green’ characteristics, cabernet in particular.
Growers copped it on the chin, however, and turned their attention to the right variety selection, canopy management, leaf plucking and other viticultural advances that by 2015 have largely made these faults things of the past – although as in any other marginal wine region, there are always going to be challenging vintages.
And as with most wine books covering this era, the only early mentions or photos of women are as pickers, wives or decorative backdrops in wine advertisements. This changed too in the 1980s, when we see women like Dallas Richardson staking a claim along with her husband Richard at Delamere in Tasmania’s north, and Jette and Eric Phillips in the south. Margaret Pooley was another early female pioneer at Cooinda Vale, one of first four vineyards in the Coal River Valley, now a heartland of Tasmanian wines.
By chapters 9 and 10 we’re well into the modern era, and names on these pages are of labels you’ll be able to find online and in good wine stores today (some as far afield as China): Peter and Ruth Althaus of Domaine A; Brian Franklin of Apsley Gorge; Kerry Carland of Laurel Bank; Jeremy Dineen and Josef Chromy of the latter’s eponymous label; ditto Stefano Lubiana; Rebecca and Tim Duffy of Holm Oak; Darren and Jackie Brown of Puddleduck; Sally and Nick Glaetzer; plus many more too numerous to list here – not to mention names behind the scenes, including winemakers Andrew Hood, Alain Rousseau and Julian Alcorso.
In the world of sparkling, there’s ‘Australia’s master’, Ed Carr of the House of Arras; Fran Austin of Bay of Fires; Natalie Friar and Jen Doyle of Jansz…. Bring it on, they are some of the best sparklings outside Champagne.
Yes, the young guns of Tasmanian wine today include more than their fair share of women, as well they might, given that female consumers are leading the charge into lighter drinking wines that Tasmania is able to produce so well. This trend was cemented by the appointment of Sheralee Davies as CEO of Wine Tasmania in 2010, ushering Tasmania into a new era of wine marketing as well – focussing on connecting and engaging with potential consumers, and away from older mass marketing techniques, which Tasmania’s small, scattered producers could never afford.
The book ends with a brief overview so Tasmania’s wine (sub) regions – for officially Tasmania remains one wine region, despite climatic and taste differences between north, south, north-west and east – featuring wine producers on the official tourist guides (not all, as quite a few do not have cellar doors), with brief overviews, opening hours and contact details.
Recommendations? I have many, but as a Tasmanian resident and wine lover, married to a producer myself, I’m probably biased. I love pinot, sparklings and dry rieslings, so I find myself living (by choice) surrounded by many wines and foods I enjoy – we even have an oyster farm across the road for some in situ match-making.
So best to do as the online guides say, get to Tasmania and try them for yourself. Stock up, freight them home, share them with your friends and find out why the future of Tasmanian wines is looking so bright, despite (or perhaps because of) the long road it took to get to this fortuitous point.
Get a copy of Tony Walker’s excellent book before you visit, and you’ll have more choices than you can possibly manage in one trip. Even better, put your local wine merchant onto it, and get him or her to host a few Tasmanian wine tastings.
And if you’ve got some of the vinous beauties mentioned already – or can find some in a store near you – just raise 'em up. You won't be disappointed. Cheers!
* Disclaimer: I was the Inaugural Curator and Project Manager, so I’m delighted to see the evolution of MONA and what it means to Tasmania.
** Especially now most hire car companies let you drive ‘off the bitumen’ without penalty (although check with them first!)
VintageTasmania – the Complete Book of Tasmanian Wine by Tony Walker is published by Providore Island Tasmania (Dilston, Tasmania 2014; sc 280 pp) and retails for RRP A$49.95
It is available through Tasmanian outlets and cellar doors but has limited mainland distribution.
The book can be ordered direct from the author at www.providoretasmania.com.au at $49.95 freight free around Australia.
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- Tamar Valley (TAS)
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