The Grower-Winemakers Redefining Tasmania with Cool-Climate Sparklers, Riesling and More

A vineyard at Mewstone in Tasmania
A vineyard at Mewstone in Tasmania / Photo courtesy of Mewstone

Its isolation is what makes Tasmania so special. The rugged island state, roughly the size of Ohio and 150 miles off the southeast coast of Australia, is a food and wine lover’s paradise.

In fact, wine is the jewel in Tasmania’s crown. Australia’s coolest-climate winegrowing region, Tassie can produce precise, complex traditional-method bubbly; slinky, sappy Pinot Noir; exuberant, saline Chardonnay; and fleshy yet delicate Riesling. For more than four decades, the island has attracted investment from large-scale wine businesses around the globe, as well as an increasing number of small, quality-focused grower-winemakers.

In recent years, with climate change at the doorstep of Australia’s mainland regions, interest in Tas has exploded. Twenty years ago, 1,255 acres were planted to vines; that figure has soared to 5,189 acres planted today. Growth on a small island comes with challenges, but one thing is certain: Tasmanian wine has never been better.

Tasmania's Bream Creek Vineyard
Tasmania’s Bream Creek Vineyard / Photo courtesy of Bream Creek Vineyard

The Early Pioneers

Aboriginal people in Tasmania have made fermented beverages since precolonial times. They used sap from Eucalyptus gunnii trees in the Central Highlands to to create a drink called way-a-linah, which has a flavor akin to cider. But wine grapes weren’t planted on the island until European colonists arrived.

In 1788, William Bligh planted some cuttings on Bruny Island, only to find them dead four years later.

More attempts were made in the early to mid-1800s, and many cuttings from those early Tasmanian vineyards ended up in South Australia and Victoria, where they helped build successful industries.

But wine grown and made on the island itself wouldn’t take off for another century, when two men, unbeknownst to one another, ignored the predominant view that Tasmania was too cold for vine growing and kickstarted its modern wine industry.

The first was a Frenchman, Jean Miguet. In 1956, he planted Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Chasselas and Grenache near Launceston in the northern part of the island at Providence Vineyard.

The second, Claudio Alcorso, an Italian, planted Riesling near the state’s capital city, Hobart, in the southeast in 1958. He retained the land’s Aboriginal name, “Moorilla.”

Both vineyards still produce today. Moorilla Estate now houses the Willy Wonka-esque Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), which draws millions of tourists and has almost single-handedly revitalized Hobart.

It boasts some of the state’s most celebrated vines and wines.

Emboldened by those successes, the latter half of the 20th century saw a string of pioneers take Tasmanian wine to the next level.

Graham Wiltshire’s 1966 Heemskerk vineyard plantings led him 20 years later to cofound one of the island’s best known sparkling brands, Jansz, with Champagne house Louis Roederer. Today, Jansz is owned by Yalumba’s Hill-Smith family, who purchased the winery in 1997.

Another pioneer, Andrew Pirie, developed Pipers Brook Vineyard in 1974, now owned by European wine group Kreglinger Wine Estates. It helped put Tassie wine on the map.

Pirie, Australia’s first Ph.D in viticulture, is one of Tasmania’s most knowledgeable growers and sparkling producers. Pirie’s “retirement project,” as he calls his current label, Apogee, is a love letter to the pocket of northeastern Tasmania he knows best.

“I came into this area without fully understanding [it] like I do now,” says Pirie. “We planted close plantings, but didn’t have limestone. Close planting doesn’t work here because the soils are too vigorous.”

Jansz Vineyard
A vineyard at Jansz / Photo by Lawrence Furzey Jansz

Quality Over Quantity

Tasmania may not have limestone, but its soils vary vastly, from ancient sandstones and mudstones to river sediments and igneous volcanic rock. This variety is due to the dolerite-capped mountains which run along the island’s western side and provide rain and wind shelter to the east.

Subsequently, vineyards are planted solely on Tasmania’s eastern half. Unlike many mainland wine regions, Tasmania’s cool climes are due to its latitude, not altitude. Even though the three oceans and Bass Strait that surround the island moderate its climate, it remains variable. Growers can struggle with frosts in the winter and wildfires during summer.

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Viticulture areas are drier than one would expect from this comparatively lush place, so much so that a sophisticated irrigation system runs across the whole state. The growing season is long and labor intensive, and it produces low fruit yields. Add to this the high cost of production brought by Tasmania’s isolation, and most producers focus firmly on quality over quantity.

“We often, only half-jokingly, say that Tasmania is not the place you come to make a quick buck,” says Sheralee Davies, CEO of the trade group Wine Tasmania. “If your goal is to make value wines of large volumes, it would be easier, more reliable and cheaper in other Australian wine regions.”

While it has no official “geographical indication” (GI) status, Tasmania’s wine zones are divided into seven subregions, delineated more by rainfall levels and humidity than temperature or even soil composition.

The northern subregions of North West, Tamar Valley and Pipers River, known as the heartbeat of sparkling wine production, are wetter and more humid than the East Coast, Coal River and Derwent Valley. The latter two regions, just outside Hobart, are known for stellar Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and even some Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

Driest of all, the pastoral Huon Valley, in the far south, is an emerging region full of promise.

Pipers Brook's Cellar
Pipers Brook’s Cellar / Photo by Amanda Davenport

The Next Wave

While a large number of Tassie wines are made by a single contract winemaking facility, an expanding number of creative grower-winemakers­ have contributed to the island’s diversity.

Among the most longstanding and innovative of them is Stefano Lubiana, a fifth-generation winemaker who left his family’s large winery and distillery in South Australia for Derwent Valley.

“I decided I didn’t want to make thousands of tons of bulk wines,” he says. “I looked all around Australia and thought that Tasmania was the obvious place if you want to make fine sparkling wine. That was back in 1989. We were the first winery from the mainland to come down here to do sparkling.”

Today, Tasmania’s only certified biodynamic winery offers a vibrant, cellarworthy Pinot Noir with no added sulfur; an amphorae-aged amber wine from Malvasia Istriana (a tribute to Lubiana’s Istrian roots) that exudes wild fennel, kumquat, salt and honey; and a range of laser-focused sparkling wines with extended time on lees.

Ed Carr of House of Arras
Ed Carr of House of Arras / Photo courtesy of Ed Carr

In 1995, Lubiana was followed by another firm believer in long lees time, Ed Carr, at the helm of House of Arras, owned by the Carlyle Group/Accolade Wines. Much of its fruit is bought from growers around the island, but the operation is hailed frequently as one of the world’s greatest sparkling producers.

“[Our lengthy lees aging] is relatively unique with Australian sparkling wine brands,” says Carr. It ranges from four to 10 years, which results in extraordinarily multifaceted fizz.

“Tasmanian bubbles are top three in the world in my sparkling opinion,” says wine writer Curly Haslam Coates, who moved to Tasmania 10 years ago from England and founded educational events company Vintage Tasmania. “Bubbles are what drew me here. Every year I’ve been here, they just get better and better.”

But Tassie isn’t just sparkling wine territory. Still wines play an important role, too.

Riesling thrives on the island. One of its greatest cheerleaders, Pooley Wines, is Tasmania’s lone third generation winery. The late Margaret and Denis Pooley planted Riesling in the Coal River Valley in 1985. Margaret spent her life amongst the vines.

“[She] had a passion for Riesling,” says John Pooley. “At 95, she was probably the oldest [vigneron] in Australia.”

John’s son, Matthew, is the viticulturist at Pooley, and his daughter, Anna, is the winemaker. From its heritage-listed Georgian winery, Anna crafts delicate, mineral-driven Riesling that’s gorgeous both in its youth and with age, in addition to sumptuous Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, an ethereal skin-contact Gewürztraminer and a spicy, nervy Syrah.

Just three miles from Pooley, Tolpuddle is a more recent addition, but it has emerged as one of Australia’s most prized single vineyards.

Planted in 1988, the property received a new lease on life when Martin Shaw and Michael Hill Smith, MW, of Shaw & Smith winery in South Australia’s Adelaide Hills, purchased it in 2011. The meticulously farmed vineyard produces pristine, long-lived Chardonnay and Pinot that nod vigorously toward Burgundy, yet with a distinctly Tassie beat.

Other beautiful wines can be found around the state from Josef Chromy, Delamere, Dalrymple, Stargazer, Stoney Rise, Glaetzer-Dixon and Sinapius, to name a few. However, the Huon Valley has emerged as a hotbed of talent.

Nestled in the rolling hills above the Huon River or perched at the edge the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, producers like Chatto Wines, Mewstone and Sailor Seeks Horse make elegant, saline, acid-driven Chardonnay and supple-yet-structured Pinot Noir from vineyards at the edge of where viticulture is possible.

“We believe greatness lies at the [cusp] of ripeness, and the Huon balances on that edge,” says Paul Lipscombe, who founded Sailor Seeks Horse with his partner, Gilli, in 2010.

Stoney Rise winery
Stoney Rise / Photo by Nat Mendham

The Future

The Huon and Tasmania won’t be at viticulture’s fringes forever, though. The region’s unique landscape is fragile, and climate change is a real concern.

Fred Peacock, whose Bream Creek Vineyard was the first established on the East Coast, is one of Tasmania’s longstanding viticulturists. He sees it up close.

“One of the big changes is that the picking has now become really compressed,” he says. “Rainfall since 1990 has dropped by 21% at Bream Creek. That is massive. There’s a warmth in our sea breeze that we haven’t seen before.”

As large, out-of-state wine companies snap up hundreds of acres, Tasmania’s artisanal reputation could come under threat. So could the island’s limited natural resources.

Fifth-Generation Winemaker Stefano Lubiana
Fifth-Generation Winemaker Stefano Lubiana / Photo courtesy of Stefano Lubiana

“Much of the contribution from the arriving companies has been positive because they bring professional training and skills,” says Pirie. “Not all of it is going to be positive. We’ve got some signs of opportunists coming along and looking to make cheap wine… That’s happened more than once with mainland firms.

Occasionally, they arrive with their mainland viticulturists. We do the learning and then people just turn their back on it. So let’s say it’s a mixed bag, but mostly positive.”

For the most part, the focus on sustainability and quality remains strong. And Tasmanians seem thrilled to be in the spotlight.

“Everyone wants to move to Tasmania,” says Louise Radman, director of Hobart wine bar and kitchen Institut Polaire, and co-owner at Domaine Simha. “It’s like the last frontier. The vineyards that are being planted are going to be world famous.”

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Six Tassie Wines to Try

Clover Hill 2014 Vintage Brut (Tasmania); $40, 94 points. Clover Hill’s range of bubbly demonstrates Tasmania’s ability to make traditional method sparklers that give Champagne a run for its money. The Vintage 2014 Brut is honeycomb hued with a heady, floral perfume reminiscent of jasmine and backed by subtler butterscotch and baked apple notes. The palate is opulent in flavor and mousse but is restrained, dry and refreshing, with the floral and apple notes lingering long on the finish. Editors’ Choice.

Tolpuddle 2018 Chardonnay (Tasmania); $60, 94 points. The Chardonnay from this single-vineyard, southern Tasmanian site is a rich, polished bottling that will please many a Burghound. The nose leads with notes of roasted nuts, toasty oak, struck match and saline amid lemon curd and pineapple rind. The palate is opulent but focused. Oak and saline characters dominate flavorwise, but there’s balance, structure and fruit purity, too. A fair amount of highfalutin winemaking here but should age with grace. Drink 2021–2030. Cellar Selection.

Sailor Seeks Horse 2018 Pinot Noir (Tasmania); $45, 93 points. This small-batch label is from Paul and Gilli Lipscombe, who have been instrumental in putting Tasmania’s Huon Valley on the map. A vibrant, translucent cherry hue, this is an ethereal Pinot that pulses with energy; smashable (as the Aussies say) and serious all at once. The nose is delicately aromatic, reeling you in gently. Notes of wild blueberry and strawberry, dried flowers and a whiff of baking spice and an olive grove at harvest float from the glass. The palate crackles with acidity, bouncy bright fruit and spice, and a cocktail bitters-like bite at the finish. A buzzy wine with heart and soul. Editors’ Choice.

Stargazer 2019 Coal River Valley Single Vineyard Riesling (Tasmania); $46, 93 points. Tasmanian Riesling is underrated and under made. Those who do focus on it have a passion for the variety. Samantha Connew’s version, from the Coal River Valley, is mouthwatering, with its refreshment belying its volume and layers. It weaves flavors of fresh lime, green apple, lavender, honey and beeswax into a chalky texture, crunchy acidity and just a touch of residual sugar. Ultra-food-friendly, this would be at home beside young, creamy cheeses or popped in the cellar for a few years to gain more textural weight and honeyed complexity.

Tamar Ridge 2018 Pinot Noir (Tasmania); $30, 93 points. Tamar Ridge is one of Tasmania’s biggest wineries (relative compared with some of Oz’s mainland giants) yet it rarely skimps on quality. This Pinot is an excellent example, showcasing the density yet elegance of Tassie’s north. It is a well of flavor: tangy red currant and blueberry fruit underpinned by earthy, savory notes like cured meat, five-spice powder and graphite. The elegance arrives on the medium-weight palate thanks to its rapier acidity. It feels porous, like it’s running through granules of sand, but also focused: a dance between acidity and unique tannin structure. A distinctly Tassie wine to drink now until 2028.

Jansz 2015 Vintage Rosé (Tasmania); $56, 92 points. From Tasmania’s best known bubbles brand, this ballerina pink-hued Vintage Rosé opens with delicate aromas of watermelon and red berries, underscored by floral, herbal nuances. That herbal edge can be seen on the finish, too, which is long and lingering. Dry and slippery, with soft but persistent bubbles, this is a quaffing sparkler with an easygoing nature but that has the complexity to pair happily with a variety of fresh, summery dishes.

Published on April 26, 2021
Topics: Wine and Ratings