Bay of Fires — the little winery that could

This is the story of the little winery that weathered the storm of the great, shrinking, Hardy empire – and emerged as one of Australia’s leading producers of chardonnay and pinots noir and gris.

Bay of Fires, at Pipers River Tasmania, grew out of BRL Hardy’s quest for great sparkling wine. Sparkling specialist, Ed Carr, searched all the likely cool growing sites in south-eastern Australia – including nearby Tumbarumba, the Adelaide Hills, the coldest reaches of the Yarra Valley and further south, in Tasmania.

All of those places produced pinot noir and chardonnay, and even small amounts of pinot meunier, suited to delicate, flavoursome sparkling wines. But nothing equalled the fruit from Tasmania.

This was a period of great expansion for BRL Hardy, buoyed by booming exports, and, for a time, a shortage of suitable grapes. During the boom, the price of wine assets ballooned, peaking in 2003 when Constellation Brands USA bought publicly listed Hardys for $1.9 billion.

As wine assets deflated later in the decade, Constellation offloaded assets, including the historic Leasingham Winery and several vineyards in the Clare Valley and the massive Stonehaven winery on the Limestone Coast. Finally, in February 2011 it sold an 80 per cent stake in the business to Champ Private Equity for $290 million – crystallising a massive loss on its original investment.

Winemaker Fran Austin and the crew at Bay of Fires (founded 2002) kept their heads down during the crisis. They retained their 22-hectare vineyard adjacent to the winery. And under Ed Carr’s supervision they continued making table and sparkling wine components from across Tasmania.

The network of Tasmanian vineyards established by Carr, originally for sparkling wine, had pretty quickly contributed to the company’s best multi-region table wines – notably Hardy’s flagship white, Eileen Hardy Chardonnay. That Tasmania  contributed the major component to one of Australia’s finest whites remained virtually unknown.

The Bay of Fires label, however, provided a face for the Tasmanian wines. And the release of the magnificent 2009 pinot noir, a trophy winner at Canberra’s 2010 National Wine Show of Australia, left no doubt about where the state’s strength lay.

By this time, little known even in the trade, the company had developed a flagship pinot noir under the Eileen Hardy label – made at Bay of Fires but transferred to headquarters in Reynella, South Australia. It was lost in the turmoil of Constellation’s final years. But we’ll see it before too long.

Fran Austin recently left Bay of Fires, handing the winemaking over to Peter Dredge and his assistant, Karl Schultz. They work closely with Ed Carr and Carr’s boss, Paul Lapsley, chief winemaker for the Accolade group.

Accolade’s presence in Tasmania – driven by a wide search for Australia’s best chardonnay and pinot noir (whether for table or sparkling wine) – lends practical support to the contentious argument that high latitude, near sea level, delivers better wine quality than high altitude. Dr John Gladstone reaches a similar conclusion in Wine, Terroir and Climate Change (Wakefield Press, South Australia, 2011).

Whatever the merits of the argument, the current Bay of Fires wines reveal just how at home chardonnay and pinots noir and gris are in a variety of sites around Tasmania. They also reveal an emerging mastery of winemaking that brings out the best in these varieties. That these remain largely undiscovered wines is reflected in the comparatively modest prices for wines of this calibre.

Bay of Fires Pinot Gris 2011 $24.69–$36.50
Fruit source: Lower Derwent 40 per cent; Coal River Valley 39 per cent; Upper Derwent 21 per cent.
This is the best Australian pinot gris I’ve tasted – lively and fresh with intense pear-like varietal aroma and flavour, backed by a rich, silky texture. Winemaker Peter Dredge attributes the rich texture to a component of the wine undergoing wild-yeast ferment in older oak barrels.

Bay of Fires Chardonnay 2009 $29.95–$40.50
Fruit source: Pipers River 31 per cent; East Coast 29 per cent; Coal River Valley 40 per cent.
The age reflects slow sales rather than a marketing plan. But it’s a plus in this sensational wine. Succulent, racy, lemony acidity pulls the many flavour components together in this full-bodied, taut, deeply layered, richly textured, barrel-fermented dry white wine. Should develop well for many more years.

Bay of Fires Pinot Noir 2010 $29.45–$42.99
Fruit source: Derwent Valley 55 per cent; East Coast 30 per cent; Coal River Valley 15 per cent.
This fairly deeply coloured pinot reveals quite a lot of the pinot flavour and aroma spectrum. A light, “stalky” overlay suggests whole bunches, including stems, in the ferment. Behind that comes aromatic waves of varietal fruit characters, ranging from strawberry to plum – adding up to what can only be called “pinosity”. The rich, supple, elegant, tightly structured palate reflects the aroma.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2012
First published 15 February 2012 in The Canberra Times