Cool Sips From Down Under

Tasmania is set to entertain palates with its stereotype-busting wines.


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Picture Australia. If you are like most Americans, you probably visualize nearly endless brush lands, where the heat shimmers and the dust hangs in the air behind your Land Rover. Now picture Australian wine, and the first thing that pops into your head is probably an inky glass of berry-laden Shiraz. Tasmania and Tasmanian wines break those stereotypes, with cool-climate wines made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay—even sparkling wines and aromatic whites with naturally racy acidities. These are wines that turn Down Under upside down.

Separated from mainland Australia by Bass Strait, the island of Tasmania lies at a similar southerly latitude as New Zealand. Hobart's average daily maximum temperature in January—the hottest month of the year—is only about 71°F. Although there are growing regions located in warmer pockets—south of Launceston on the Tamar River and the Coal River area to the east of Hobart—the climate generally favors cool-climate varieties; none of the wines tasted for this report are made from Rhône or Bordeaux grapes.

The origins of Tasmanian viticulture date back to the convict settlement days of the early 19th century. Bartholomew Broughton established the first vineyard less than 20 years after the founding of Hobart in 1804. By 1866, enough wines were being produced that eight were entered in the Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition. But shortly thereafter, the industry declined. Not only were winemakers not accorded the same level of social status as brewers, they also came under fire by the temperance movement.

 
Virtually no Tasmanian wines were produced in the 20th century until the 1960s, making the modern-day wine industry on the island less than 40 years old. Like the initial wave of interest, the rebirth of the Tasmanian wine industry was spurred by new arrivals—Jean Miguet, a Frenchman, and Claudio Alcorso, an Italian. Miguet's vineyard, established in 1959 in the Tamar River Valley north of Launceston and now known as Providence, is still in existence, although its wines are not seen in the United States. Alcorso's winery, Moorilla Estate, on the Derwent River north of Hobart, remains one of Tasmania's top producers despite being under different ownership.

Most of Tasmania's 81 wine producers are tiny and privately held, although a recent wave of consolidations and outside investment has shaken things up a little. Andrew Pirie started Pipers Brook in just 1974, and it is perhaps the island's best-known brand. Owned since 2001 by the Belgian company Kreglinger, Pipers Brook owns more than 500 acres of vineyards, making it one of the two largest wineries on the island. Pipers Brook also makes Ninth Island, the best-selling Tasmanian wine in the United States. Meanwhile, Pirie has linked up with Tamar Ridge, Tasmania's other big producer, as CEO and chief winemaker, while still producing an eponymous sparkler of his own.

For this report, we eventually came up with 27 wines that persistent shoppers should be able to find here in the United States. They may not be easy to track down, but the hunt can be part of the fun in discovering a relatively underrepresented wine region. On the plus side, choosy importers seem to have weeded out any poor wines; all of the wines sampled rated at least Good (83-86) on the Wine Enthusiast Magazine's 100-point scale, with many garnering Very Good (87-89) and even some Excellent (90-93) ratings (see chart).

Because of its generally cool climate, sparkling wines account for a large share of the island's production. Several Champagne houses invested in Tasmanian vineyards, but after the mid- 1990s pull-out of Deutz and Roederer, Chandon is the remaining big name, putting a portion of Tassie fruit in its Green Point sparkling wines. Dr. Tony Jordan, the company's CEO, explains that the Coal River region, where they source their fruit, delivers "good varietal expression at moderate sugars and fairly high acids." Hardys produces its best sparklers at its Bay of Fires winery in Pipers River, and its top-of-the-line bottling, Arras, is 100% Tasmanian. Unfortunately, like so many Tasmanian wines, it's not available in the U.S. market.

The three sparkling wines currently available in the U.S. all performed well. Jansz, now owned by Yalumba, offers two nonvintage wines. The Premium Cuvée (90 points; $20) slightly edges out the Premium Rosé (89 points; $20) in terms
 Tasmania
of complexity, while the Rosé offers a slightly richer, creamier mouthfeel. Taltarni grows the fruit for its Clover Hill brand (88 points; $30) in Tasmania overlooking Bass Strait, then ships the base wine to its facilities in Victoria for secondary fermentation and bottle-aging. A fourth, from Stefano Lubiana, should be available soon.

But for all the quality and early acclaim of the island's sparklers, because of the current craze for Pinot Noir it is the easiest Tasmanian wine to find in the U.S. Overall, the quality of offerings from the 2003 and 2005 vintages was impressive; the 2004 vintage—a cooler one—was less successful. Although some of the wines were marked by overly aggressive oak flavors, the Tasmanian Pinots in this tasting generally showed a pleasant mix of savory and fruity character, with a fair amount of mushroomy, humus-like complexity.

Alcohol levels are lower and acidities higher than in California Pinot Noirs, making them more akin to Oregon Pinot Noir in style. When comparing them to New Zealand Pinots, grown at similar southerly latitudes, they're perhaps closest in character to Martinborough, lacking the bold fruit of Otago and the supple tannins of Marlborough, but compensating with additional complexity.

Moorilla was a clear standout, blending ripe fruit with earthy complexity and soft tannins in both the 2003 and 2005 vintages (90 points; $35). Drawn from relatively old (over 20 years) vineyards and dry-farmed, the resultant low yields may have more than a little to do with the wines' ultimate quality. Ninth Island (88 points; $18), a second label of Pipers Brook, and Tamar Ridge Devil's Corner (88 points; $15) are affordable and widely available introductions to the Tasmanian style, while the big, ripe Spring Vale 2005 (88 points; $55) shows more power and weight in a fruit-driven wine.

Among aromatic whites—a category that should be Tasmania's strong suit but which lacks good representation in the United States—top-scorers included Tamar Ridge's 2004 Riesling (90 points; $20) and Spring Vale's 2005 Gewürztraminer (89 points; $35). The Riesling is dry and lime-driven, but with surprising elegance, while the Gewürztraminer is plump and sweet, balanced by taut acidity.

None of the Tasmanian wines tasted for this report conform to popular U.S. perceptions of what Australian wines are like, and that's a good thing. Americans should move beyond thinking of "Australian" wine and begin to understand the regionality that Australian winemakers themselves often blur in putting together multiregional blends. Australia is home to dozens of distinct winegrowing regions that should be celebrated for their diversity, and while other regions also differ from the warm-climate stereotype, Tasmania is a cool place to start.

For complete reviews visit our Buying Guide.

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