A wine vignette of Tasmania’s Derwent Valley

A visit to Tasmania highlighted the huge contrasts in Australia’s wine industry. Just two weeks before Foster’s set a price of $150 tonne for Riverland chardonnay, Tasmanian growers were boasting prices of up $5,000 a tonne for theirs.

Assuming production of 70 dozen bottles a tonne, that’s a per-bottle grape cost of 18 cents for Riverland chardonnay versus $5.95 for top-end table and sparkling wines – the sort that after winemaking costs, producer and retailer mark-ups and tax fetch $50-plus a bottle retail.

That’s not the stuff, generally, of broad-acre farming. But it gives the flavour of Tasmania’s wine industry – craft based, with comparatively high production costs and correspondingly high bottle prices, though in the main more in the $20–$35 a bottle range than $50-plus.

While pinot noir and chardonnay constitute more than two thirds of the state’s grape plantings, that’s not the only game. Indeed, every winery tells a different story, offering more than the two main varieties and suggesting a far more varied future for Tasmania.

But beneath the outward confidence and high quality on display, profit margins are so tight, says vine consultant Fred Peacock, that even a small shock could prompt many growers to walk away from their vines.

The fragility that Fred sees, however, isn’t apparent at cellar doors we visit around Hobart – in the Derwent, Coal River and Huon Valleys and over on the east coast.

Along the Derwent, for example, we visit just three wineries and find three utterly different operations.

At Moorilla Estate, Hobart’s oldest vineyard, founded by Claudio Alcorso in 1958 and now owned by David Walsh and partners, recently reduced production by three quarters to boost quality. It’s a well-capitalised operation focusing more on fine art than wine.

The new winemaker, Connor van der Reest, oversees construction of a new winery geared to small batch production from Moorilla’s Derwent vineyards (now pressed by suburban Hobart) and extensive plantings in the Tamar Valley to the north. The Tamar vineyards vary by 200 metres in altitude and include pinot noir, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, riesling, gewürztraminer, pinot gris and even shiraz – with the reds planted on the lower, warmer slopes.

Conor emphasises the main game for the site – David Walsh’s extraordinary museum of modern and ancient art (MONA), due to be opened in 2011. Everything revolves around the art collection – the beautiful Ether building, housing the art collection, Source restaurant, cellar door and Moo Brew Brewery, with the new winery in its lee; and eight magnificent accommodation pavilions – four dedicated to artists Arthur Boyd, Brett Whiteley, Charles Blackman and Sidney Nola (their art on display in each) and four to architects Roy Grounds, Robin Boyd, Esmond Dorney and Walter Burley Griffin.

Conor’s new to Moorilla and charged with turning wine quality around. You can see it already in the whites and in the reds now maturing in barrel. It’s a bit early to get too excited, but it’s probably safe to predict Moorilla becoming one of Tasmania’s best producers very quickly, given its resources and will to excel.

It’s a must visit already and will only get better. Food at Source Restaurant is outstanding, up there with Hobart’s best.

At Stefano Lubiana Wines, Steve and Monique Lubiana make stunning, well-marketed table and sparkling wines from their 19-hectare estate. They moved here from Mildura in 1990.

Here the effort’s in fine-tuning already exemplary quality apparent in riesling, bottle-fermented sparkling wines, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir and merlot. The two pinot noirs, in particular, are beautiful wines: the fine and fruity 2008 Primavera ($27) and the sensational, taut and savoury 2007 Estate at $45. And Steve’s opulent, fine-boned 2005 Tasmania Chardonnay, at $39, is in the same league.

And at nearby Derwent Estate, Pat Hanigan established vines in 1993 on a sheep and cattle farm that’s been in her family since 1913. Pat produces superb chardonnay grapes, good enough for Penfolds $130 flagship, Yattarna. She praises the help she’s had from Foster’s (owner of Penfolds) in developing her own wines, available at cellar door.

Fred Peacock, one of Tasmania’s leading vine experts rates the Derwent Estate chardonnay vineyard as one of the best sites in the state. He helped Pat choose the site and attributes the outstanding fruit quality in large measure to the underlying limestone.

Now Fred has a theory about high calcium soil and chardonnay quality – something that grew from his earlier years managing apple orchards and the superior keeping quality of fruit from trees growing in calcareous soils. But we’ll return to Fred’s theory in a later article.

Let’s end, instead, with a question. If Tasmanian vineyards now underpin two of Australia’s greatest chardonnays – Hardys Eileen Hardy and Penfolds Yattarna, both multi-region blends – what value is there for Tasmania, or in the longer run Australian wine, in persisting with the blends?

We’re moving to regional marketing. It’s the international language of fine wine. So why don’t Foster’s (owner of Penfolds) and Constellation (owner of Eileen Hardy) commit their very best Tasmanian chardonnay to their Tasmanian brands — Heemskerk and Bay of Fires respectively. Why dilute their Tasmanian offerings by bolstering multi-region blends that few international consumers are likely to understand?

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010