Tasmania on the rise

In vintage 2000, Tasmania harvested 3263 tonnes of grapes, a little under 0.3 per cent of the nation’s 1.147 million tonne total.

Amongst the grape statistics, one little gem sparkles most. And that’s the relative volume of pinot noir being produced. The apple isle’s 1036 tonne pinot crush in 2000 represented 6.4% of the Australian total – disproportionately large after we’ve seen that Tassie makes less than 0.3 per cent of all Australian wine. And pinot noir accounts for 32 per cent of Tassie’s grape crush but makes up only 1.4 per cent of Australia’s.

Shiraz, the mainland’s red hero barely gets a look in. Even cabernet sauvignon, riesling and sauvignon blanc languish at 5, 9, and 8 per cent respectively of the island’s wine grape output.

In 2000 pinot noir’s sparkling wine sibling, chardonnay, weighed in at 1224 tonnes, representing 38 per cent of Tassie production. Australia’s 224,546 tonnes of chardonnay made up 20 per cent of the national crush.

The disparity between the national figures and Tasmania’s simply highlight a narrower focus on top-shelf table wines, and perhaps even more so, on the exquisitely-delicate top-shelf bubblies made only in truly cool climates.

Nobody seems to know exactly what proportion of Tasmania’s pinot noir and chardonnay goes to sparkling wine production. But local guesstimates expect the figure to be around sixty per cent in the coming, even larger vintage.

Certainly a couple of all-Tasmania sparkling blends – Jansz Vintage, Pipers Brook Pirie and Taltarni Clover Hill – may be found relatively easily on the mainland. And virtually every high-quality bubbly producer now acknowledges the importance of Tasmanian fruit.

Southcorp, BRL Hardy and Chandon all ship significant quantities across Bass Straight. Ed Carr, BRL Hardy’s talented bubbly maker, and the latest darling of wine shows, rates Tasmanian fruit as a key to the success of ‘Arras’, the company’s $55 sparkling flagship.

Tom Stevenson, Britain’s well-known sparkling wine aficionado, wrote that Pirie 1995 was the best sparkling wine yet produced in the southern hemisphere.

And, through the mists of time, I recall a dinner party held in about 1979 in Manly, Sydney by former Canberran, Jack Brilliant. Brian Croser was there. We discussed at length the emergent Petaluma’s strategy of sourcing each wine style from the most appropriate region: Clare Valley for riesling, Coonawarra for cabernet sauvignon and, one compromise, the Piccadilly Valley, in the Adelaide Hills, for sparkling wine.

I well recall Croser’s view of Tassie as the site most suited climatically for sparkling wine production. But the expense of running wine across Bass Straight ruled out that option, in his opinion. And so the Adelaide Hills it was – and still is, making it perhaps the only second-best call of one of our most percipient and most successful winemaker/marketers.

If sparkling wine is Tasmania’s biggest contribution to wine quality it is not the only one, as superb table wines across a spectrum of styles continues to emerge between latitudes 41 and 43 degrees south along the north, east and south east coast and hinterlands.

Volumes may be small, but to taste finely-crafted wines like Freycinet Pinot Noir, Lubiana Chardonnay, Pipers Brook Pinot Gris, Tamar Ridge Riesling and tens of others from the state’s 66 winemakers – is to see the unique, if small, place Tasmania occupies on Australia’s wine map.

Taking into account vines planted but not yet yielding in 2000, potential production, without further vineyard development, appears to be in the vicinity of 5000 tonnes – about fifty per cent more than was produced in 2000.

Five hundred and eight hectares in the far north, all within a short drive of Launceston, account for 70 per cent of Tasmania’s vineyard area. The remaining two hundred and twenty three hectares are sprinkled around the East Coast (Bicheno), Coal Valley, Derwent Valley and the Huon/Channel areas, the southernmost being in the vicinity of Cygnet, just below the forty-third parallel.

Vineyard ownership is anything but concentrated. Just eighteen growers own more than ten hectares, twenty three have between five and ten hectares and ninety one hold five or less.

At last count, sixty-six winemakers, including subsidiary brands of larger producers, actively make wine. Of these, just two — Moorilla Estate (1958) and Providence Vineyards (1956) – existed prior to 1960.

Eight commenced operations in the 1970’s, thirty-four in the 1980’s and twenty-one in the 1990’s. (I know, that adds up to sixty-five, not sixty-six. Brian Franklin of Apsley Gorge Vineyard, Bicheno, when did you set up shop?)

Clearly this is all deserves checking out in more detail. I’ll report back on a little Tassie tasting tour over the next few weeks.

With Tassie shaping up to be the pinot noir capital of Australia, both as sparkling wine star and as the southern hemisphere’s Burgundy, what better place to start than with two delicious red versions from the two producers set to take the style to larger audiences than have ever seen it before.

Tamar Ridge Tasmania Pinot Noir 1999, about $20
Although Tamar Ridge was founded by Joseph Chromy just two years ago, he brought to it 22 hectares of established vineyard on the west Tamar, his own wealth of experience as former owner of Heemskerk and Rochecombe – and the formidable talents of veteran Tasmanian winemaker, Julian Alcorso. Under the attractive Barbara-Harkness-designed package lies a mid-weight, delightfully pinot-scented red with a tasty but fine-boned palate. It captures the elusive and elegant character of pinot with touches of the variety’s gamey character, albeit in a lighter vein. This is a great start to the line, but after tasting several barrel samples of the 2000 vintage with Julian Alcorso this week, there is even better to come. I see this as a seminal wine – one to bring high-quality, complex pinot noir to the market at a comparatively modest price. If you can’t find it in Canberra, call the winery on 03 6334 6208..

Ninth Island Tasmania Pinot Noir 2000, about $22
The recent expansion of publicly listed Pipers Brook, through acquisition and planting, to 224 hectares, makes it the Tassie giant. The expansion will see the company’s second label, Ninth Island, grow considerably in both volume and quality, thanks to Dr Andrew Pirie’s clear vision. Using fruit from the slightly warmer West Tamar region (about thirty kilometres west of Pipers Brook), Andrew’s winemaker Andre Bezemer fashioned in vintage 2000 a wine of exceptionally good aroma and fruit sweetness. It’s easy to drink, but has convincing fine tannins and should develop gamey pinot character if aged for just a year or two. Although a comparative newcomer to the scene, a wine of this character and sophistication could not have been created without Dr Pirie’s quarter century of winemaking and viticultural experience in the Pipers Brook/Tamar regions.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007