Tasmania rolls Burgundy and Champagne into one

In the nineties as Australian wine regions agonised over their boundaries, Tasmania got smart. Its winemakers saw that as small, comparatively homogenous producers, their interests would be best served by promoting the island as a whole. In opting for ‘Tasmania’ as their only entry in the register of protected names they neatly avoided the distraction of formally defining the state’s widely spread wine producing areas.

In the ensuing decade, as other states with vastly more varied wine styles defined zones, regions within zones and even sub-regions within regions, Tasmania stuck to its guns and still has ‘Tasmania’ as its only official appellation. But this hasn’t hindered the emergence of regional identities within the state.

Indeed, as soon as you set foot in a Tassie winery you’ll be given a copy of the excellent Tasmania’s wine routes 2009–10 and see on the map four regions: North-West, Tamar Valley, East Coast and Southern. And if you happen to be Hobart based, you’ll see the Southern region further sub-divided into the Derwent Valley, Coal River Valley and Huon Valley/d’Entrecasteaux.

But the location of Bream Creek Vineyard in the East Coast region, for example, demonstrates the difficulty of formally defining boundaries. It’s just a spit from Coal River Valley or Hobart but more than two hours’ drive from the northern end of the East Coast.

With vineyards located between 41 and 43 degrees south, and surrounded by the Southern Ocean, Tasmania enjoys a moderate climate with an extended, cool ripening period. This suits the production of delicate wine styles, dominated by pinot noir and chardonnay, used in both sparkling and table wine making The two varieties accounted for 71 per cent of production in 2008.

While the split between sparkling and table wine production is anybody’s guess, it could be as high as fifty-fifty given increased Tasmanian sourcing from mainland sparkling-wine producers and a growing number of home-grown brands.

Talking to grape growers across Tasmania it becomes clear that Constellation Wines (formerly BRL Hardy) is a major buyer of grapes for both still and sparkling wine. And Foster’s, Australia’s largest winemaker, is on the scout, too, snapping up top quality fruit for its Heemskerk brand and multi-regional icon blends, including Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay.

In the latter, Foster’s has simply discovered, as Hardy’s did a decade earlier, that some of our greatest chardonnay grapes come from Tasmania. For example, Eileen Hardy Chardonnay, Constellation’s flagship white wine, has been predominantly Tasmanian for around ten years.

While the big producers, especially Constellation, exert a profound and positive impact on the Tasmanian wine scene, the view from the ground is of tens of small and medium sized independent makers sprinkled around the island.

The Australian Wine Industry Database lists 84 Tasmanian vignerons. But I suspect the number might have grown since it was compiled a year ago.

Tasmanian makers, focused at the top end of the bottled wine market, account for half a per cent of Australia’s wine grape output, contributing just 9,628 tonnes of the 1,827,647 tonnes crushed in 2008.

Pinot noir, at 4,355 tonnes, is the state’s most widely grown variety, accounting for 45 per cent of the crush in 2008 – highlighting the vast difference between this cool little Island and the mainland, where pinot accounts for only about two per cent of the harvest.

In 2008 Tasmanians harvested 2,501 tonnes of chardonnay, its second most important variety; 992 tonnes of sauvignon blanc; 732 tonnes of riesling; 452 tonnes of pinot gris and tiny quantities of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, gewürztraminer, shiraz and other niche varieties.

In effect, given the dominance of pinot noir and chardonnay, Tasmania is the equivalent of France’s Champagne and Burgundy regions rolled into one, albeit on a far smaller scale.

Tasmania’s first modern vineyards appeared near Launceston in 1956 (Jean Miguet’s La Provence, now Providence and owned by Stuart Bryce) and on the Derwent in 1958 (Claudio Alcorso’s Moorilla Estate, now owned by David Walsh and partners).

But growth was slow. Thirty years after Miguet planted his first vines, Tasmania had only 47 hectares of bearing vines, producing 154 tonnes of grapes – equivalent to about 11 thousand dozen bottles.

By 1999 the area under vine had grown almost tenfold to 463 hectares, producing 3,199 tonnes (224 thousand dozen bottles). And by 2008 vines covered 1,315 hectares, yielding 9,628 tonnes (674 thousand dozen bottles).

As we’ve seen, this accounts for only half a per cent of Australia’s wine production. But it’s all pitched at the top end of the market. While some of it may disappear anonymously into mainstream sparkling wine blends, the majority come to market under Tasmanian labels.

It’s far more than the Tasmanians themselves can drink, so producers look to the mainland, tourists and exports for sales in an increasingly competitive market.

Fortunately for them, they have something unique and delightful to offer, as we’ll see over the next few weeks.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009