Two Tasmanian producers — Pipers Brook and Tamar Ridge — between them own a little over half the island’s approximately 500 hectares of vines. Both are set to boost production significantly and, through the hard-learned lessons of twenty-five years viticultural and winemaking experience, mechanisation of new vineyards and efficient winemaking processes, bring Tasmanian wines to a broader global audience.
According to Jane Ross, Pipers Brook Production Coordination Manager, the company’s vineyard holdings now stand at 224 hectares on ten sites in the Pipers Brook, Pipers River and West Tamar regions in northern Tasmania.
Site variation gives Pipers Brook a considerable range of ripening conditions for its diversity of grape varieties: predominantly chardonnay and pinot noir for both table and sparkling wine, plus commercial quantities of riesling, pinot gris, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, merlot, cabernet franc, traminer and pinot meunier.
Founded by Dr Andrew Pirie in 1974, Pipers Brook later became a privately listed public company before listing on the Australian stock exchange in 1998, acquiring the Heemskerk and Rochecombe vineyards from Jo Chromy, and establishing new, efficient vineyards.
The Heemskerk winery, adjacent to the original Pipers Brook vineyard has been decommissioned and the fruit directed to the Pipers Brook and Ninth Island brands. And the Rochecombe winery, to the south of Pipers Brook, has been re-Christened ‘Ninth Island’. It is now the processing centre for Pipers Brook sparkling-wine grapes.
After a quarter of a century at Pipers Brook, Andrew Pirie understands the idiosyncrasies of the original vineyards. What to the casual eye looks like an homogenous long line of undulating vines is, in fact, an intricate patchwork of sites producing a surprising spectrum of wine aromas and flavours depending on grape variety and subtle variations in aspect, soil type, drainage, vine orientation and other factors.
This intimate understanding of the older vineyards and a growing understanding of the newer vineyards in warmer sites underpins Pipers Brook’s new four-tier branding structure. And, just as it does in Burgundy, the wines at the very peak of the pyramid come from quite small, favoured locations.
Look at the photograph, for example, and locate the shed towards the top right hand corner. To the left, a little plot of well-drained, naturally low-yielding vineyard in mid-slope consistently produces the estate’s finest pinot noir grapes.
From the 2000 vintage this fruit has been processed separately and will eventually be released as a single site wine – presumably at whatever price the market will bear. One taste of a barrel sample suggests it will be a ripper. But let’s hold our verdict until it’s blended, bottled and ready to go.
Similarly, Andrew Pirie streams fruit of various quality towards the appropriate brand: the ‘budget’ Ninth Island range (‘budget’ meaning a little over $20 in Tassie terms), Pipers Brook Estate, Pipers Brook Reserve and the new Pipers Brook single-site wines (the forthcoming 2000 vintage chardonnay, like the Pinot, is a knockout).
This fractionation of the vineyard resource – and its expansion into the warmer West Tamar area – points to a surge in quality across the Pipers Brook range. In particular, we can look forward to fuller, riper, more complex cabernet-based blends, with notable lifts in quality, too, to the traditional strengths: riesling, traminer, chardonnay, pinot gris and pinot noir.
The release of Pirie 1995, Pipers Brook’s superb sparkling wine, also demonstrated the sensational fruit quality of the region’s cooler sites. The current-release 1996 vintage continues in the same mould.
Sourced predominantly from the ‘Hills’ vineyard, a cooler site not far to the south of the Pipers Brook winery, this 70 per cent pinot noir, 30 per cent chardonnay blend presents the intense but fine-boned flavours unique to fruit grown in a genuinely cool climate, where grapes become physiologically ripe at a low sugar, high acid level.
For all the excitement of Pipers Brooks’ top reds, whites and sparkling wines, the company’s bread, butter and profit appears most likely to come from the Ninth Island range, now moving rapidly up the quality curve as the new and better vineyard resource comes on stream.
These are less complex, less intensely flavoured wines than the Pipers Brook range. But they are honest, beautifully crafted wines offering the ripe but delicate flavours of the cool climate. I particularly like the 2000 vintage pinot noir for its delicious, pure varietal flavour and velvety, fruit-sweet palate, and the 2000 vintage chardonnay for its rich fruit and racy, bracing structure.
These delicious $20-ish Ninth Island wines along with those from Jo Chromy’s 55 hectare West Tamar vineyards may never be household names, as production remains comparatively modest. Nevertheless, these wonderful wines are the first Tassies to go mainstream. As production reaches its full potential over the next few years, we will see these wines on the shelves of all major wine retailers. And the flavours really are worth experiencing.
Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2001 & 2007