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Monday 8 September 2014

Local heroes: the rise and rise of Tasmanian wine

Tasmania may account for less than half of one percent of Australian wine production (an average of 7,800 tonnes annually against 1,530,000 tonnes), but it punches well above its weight when it comes to quality.

And at a time when many segments of the wine industry are doing it tough, Tasmania is booming, albeit from a very small base.

Best known for its sparkling wines, the island state has been described as “the new Champagne” and with cool-climate wines very much in vogue, it doesn’t get much cooler than Australia’s southernmost state.
Dalrymple Vineyards Tamar Valley 

The cooler the climate the better the grapes for sparkling wine, so that’s why we focus on Tasmania,” says Ed Carr of Accolade Wines, the man behind House of Arras, Australia's most expensive sparkling wine range.

While getting the grapes ripe is important, it’s also about not getting grapes too exposed to the sun. You have to protect the finest fruit characters during ripening and that can be done in Tasmania.”

While it is wines made from pinot noir and chardonnay that have made the wine world sit up and take notice, other varieties including unlikely candidates shiraz and cabernet sauvignon, have also been successful.

Today there are around 1,400 hectares of vines planted in the state (56% white, 44% red) with pinot noir (44%) leading the way from chardonnay (23%), sauvignon blanc (12%), pinot gris (11%) and riesling (5%).

Tasmania has for several years now been the one Australian wine region where demand for grapes exceeds supply – and prices are high given the state's isolation and lack of cheap labour.

While 93% of all wine produced in Australia sells for over $15 a bottle, Tasmania has no cheap wine and 100% of production sells for over that $15 price point.

Options for expansion do exist, but are limited, with much of the state cold, wet and windy and unsuitable for viticulture.

There is so much in the Tasmanian wine sector that is positive – and that has been the case for several years now,” says wine industry veteran Sheralee Davies (left), chief executive of the industry umbrella body Wine Tasmania.

There have been years of slow steady growth across vineyards, quality, investment and global interest – which was boosted by hosting the Cool-Climate Wine Symposium in 2013.”

Tasmania is, in fact, the one state in Australia where demand almost always outstrips supply.

The vast majority of the Tasmanian producers are small family-owned companies (some producing just a few hundred cases a year). Of the 160 within the state only around 60 export to the mainland and less than half of that have overseas markets.

The major companies, however, are here in force.

Treasury Wine Estates has the Heemskerk and Abel's Tempest ranges and recently purchased one of the state's largest vineyards, at White Hills outside Launceston, to provide additional fruit for the Abel's Tempest range.

Accolade Wines has enjoyed immense success with its House of Arras sparkling wines, regular wine show winners, and the Bay of Fires range, and recently added the new mid-price Eddystone Point range to its portfolio.

Brown Brothers owns labels including Devil's Corner, Pirie and Tamar Ridge while the Hill-Smith family, owner of Yalumba, controls Jansz and Dalrymple.

Shaw + Smith bought into Tasmania by purchasing the Tolpuddle Vineyard in the Coal River Valley and released its first wines, a chardonnay and pinot noir, late last year while Derwent Estate sells chardonnay to Penfolds for its iconic Yattarna and many mainland companies, including Domaine Chandon, covet the sparkling base material grown in both the north and south of the island.

Leading sparkling wine producers include the Arras, Jansz, Clover Hill (owned by Taltarni) and Kreglinger, controlled by the Belgian conglomerate that also has the Pipers Brook and Ninth Island labels.

Davies says the only blot on the landscape is the 2014 vintage, in which total production dropped from a record 11,000 tonnes in 2013 to around 5,500 tonnes.

The only thing you can't control is production variability and by its very definition making wine in a cool-climate region is high-risk, high-reward viticulture,” she says. “The quality is great – and is just about every year – but you have no control over volume.

People may love the end result, but there is nothing easy about making wine in Tasmania.”

The majority of grapes are grown in the north of this dramatically beautiful island, much of which remains wilderness and the Tamar Valley, an unofficial sub-region as the entire island is one appellation, takes in Pipers River to the east, and Relbia to the south, almost on the fringes of Launceston Airport.

Among the pre-eminent locally-owned producers are Josef Chromy, Delamere, Holm Oak, Stoney Rise, Moores Hill, Goaty Hill and Velo.

Hobart, the capital and largest city, is in the south of Tasmania, and is surrounded by three wine regions; the Derwent Valley to the north, Coal River Valley to the east and the sleepy Huon Valley to the south.

All three wine regions are within a 30-40 minute drive; albeit in different directions. Key names to look out for include Pooley, Clemens Hill, Frogmore Creek, Domaine A, Coal Valley Vineyard, Home Hill, Hartzview, Panorama, Stefano Lubiana, Derwent Estate, Moorilla Estate, Pressing Matters, Puddleduck and Two Bud Spur.

Moorilla is part of the $A175 million Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) complex built by local gambling multi-millionaire David Walsh – and recently launched a trio of premium wines adorned with the cloth labels that the winery used 50 years earlier.

Tamar Valley vineyards
Shiraz is very site-specific in Tasmania with Moorilla and Glaetzer-Dixon the two major producers at around 500 cases each annually. Cabernet sauvignon is even more problematic, although Peter Althaus at Domaine A has proved very successful with Bordeaux red varieties, albeit in very small quantities.

There are also several smaller wine regions: The road to the historic settlement of Port Arthur boasts a handful of wineries, including Bream Creek, Australia’s major producer of the German grape variety schönburger, and Cape Bernier. North of Hobart, just off the main road to Launceston, you’ll discover pinot noir specialist Winstead in the hamlet of Bagdad, while the East Coast’s most prominent producers include Spring Vale, Freycinet and Milton.

There is no shortage of alternative varieties, either, with Joe Holyman at Stoney Rise tinkering with gruner veltliner and White Rock in the north-west of the state enjoying success with the German red variety dornfelder.

# This is an abbreviated version of a story that first appeared in Drinks Trade magazine

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