Two decades ago, when winemaker’s suggested planting grapes on Australia’s island state, they were made the laughing stock. Nobody’s laughing now, as Tasmania’s zesty Pinot Noirs and Rieslings take their places amongst the world’s best cold climate wines.

 

 

Twenty years ago, when vigneron Andrew Hood walked into Tasmania’s Department of Primary Industry requesting assistance to grow wine grapes, he was scoffed at. “Plant maize,” he was told. “Tasmania has no future in wine.” But Hood knew better. Sitting 42 degrees south of the equator, the rugged, windswept island of Tasmania, Australia’s smallest state, has a climate almost identical to that of Champagne province in France. Neither was winemaking unknown in these parts. Tasmania’s first vineyard was founded in the 1820s by ex-convict Bartholomew Broughton; wine from his vines won a coveted award at the Paris Exhibition in 1848.

Hood persevered, opening a winery, Hood Wines, in 1990 and the island’s first organic vineyard, Frogmore Creek, six years later. He’s not alone. Though Tasmania produces less than one percent of Australia’s wine, there are now more than 140 boutique wineries on the island, and the number is growing. Tasmania is also garnering a reputation for having some of the country’s finest wines, which, thanks to a slow ripening season and cool climate, have intensely crisp and complex characters. These days, Hood has trouble producing enough.

“Picking, pruning… we do it all by hand here,” he says. “That’s what it takes to make the highest quality wine possible.”

I’m sitting with Hood and his Californian business partner, Tony Scherer, in the lunchroom of their winery, a 20-minute drive from the state capital Hobart. Half a dozen of their best labels are arrayed on the table before us. One by one we pour the selection, stick our noses deep into the glasses, and rattle off the names of flowers and fruits that metamorphose with every lungful: peach, cherry, lime, rose petal. Hood produces 21 wines here; my favorite is the zesty 2004 Frogmore Creek Riesling, whose fresh, spicy top notes, Hood tells me, make it an ideal accompaniment for Southeast Asian cuisine.

Outside, a gust of wind is shaking the vines—Tasmania is hounded by Roaring Forties winds that blow all the way from Patagonia. Despite the island’s transcendent beauty—and some of the world’s cleanest water and air—volatile weather means winemaking is anything but easy.

“You’re living on the edge all the time, scared out of your wits with what nature might bring next,” Rosemary Bennett tells me a few days later as she sits outside her stunning rammed-earth cellar door and restaurant, Home Hill. The weather is a perfectly sunny 26 degrees Celsius, yet the night before the temperature had dipped below zero, sending sensor alarms ringing throughout the vineyard and her husband, Terry, racing out in his pajamas to turn the sprinklers on (water droplets stop frost from settling on the vines).

In 2001 the Bennetts lost all their fruit to frost; a year later, the harvest was ruined by insistent rain. But in 2005 they got lucky: their sensational Pinot Noir, mellow with overtones of black cherry, won a string of national awards. It was a big feat for a tiny vineyard that only a decade ago comprised little more than 10 rows of Chardonnay vines.

These days, the weather isn’t the industry’s only threat. The napalm used to incinerate logging concessions every autumn has been wreaking havoc on ripening grapes, tainting wine with a smoky residue. The wine and hospitality industries are also understandably up in arms about a pulp mill proposed for the scenic Tamar Valley, the island’s premier wine-growing region.

And yet—happily for the rest of us—the island’s winemakers persist, though few anticipate the industry ever becoming large scale. The growing conditions are too precarious for that, and production, by dint of the hilly terrain, is too labor intensive; vines are pruned and picked by hand. Which is fine by Tony Scherer. “Tasmania will always be a boutique wine market,” he says. “We don’t make Holdens or Toyotas in Tasmania. Here, we only make Ferraris and Porches.”

That metaphor might be a stretch, but it’s also apt, as the best way for travelers to explore this compact island’s vineyards and cellar doors (not to mention some of its better restaurants and lodgings) is by self-drive tour. For those looking to discover an emerging destination for wine lovers, the following recommendations will steer you in the right direction.

The South

Start your road trip with a lunch at Home Hill (38 Nairn St., Ranelagh; 61-3/6264-1200; www.homehillwines.com.au) in the Huon Valley, a sweeping gorge flanked by forested mountains half an hour’s drive from Hobart. Soak up the country atmosphere with a glass of Home Hill’s stunning 2005 Pinot Noir and a local goat’s cheese soufflé with toasted hazelnuts, watercress, and beetroot emulsion. Or try the fruity Sylvaner with smoked trout, fennel slaw, and trout pearls. On the way back to Hobart, keep an eye out for the roadside stalls selling plump local cherries, fresh apple juice, and rosy apricots straight from the orchard.

Extend your vineyard experience into the night with a stay at Moorilla Estate (655 Main Rd., Berridale; 61-3/6277-9900; www.moorilla.com; doubles from US$290). Taking its name from the Aboriginal word meaning “rock by the water,” Moorilla, located riverside in Hobart’s northern suburbs, was founded as a winery in the 1950s; since then, it has added four gorgeous guest villas fitted with oversized tubs, overwater balconies, and well-stocked cellars of aged, young, premium, and standard wines from estate grapes. During the day, Moorilla’s tasting bar and restaurant buzz with patrons eager to pair Mod Oz fare like rib eye on polenta mash with the estate’s peppery Pinot Noir. If you fancy a change of beverage, order a bottle of Moo Brew beer, which is also produced on site.

On the outskirts of the Coal Valley, 20 minutes from Hobart, Meadowbank (699 Richmond Rd., Cambridge; 61-3/6248-4484; www.meadowbankwines.com.au) boasts a spacious restaurant and tasting station. Chef Simon West spins a riot of flavors using local produce, with mixed results. If in doubt, the smoked local eel with creamed horseradish matched by a glass of Meadowbank’s Pinot Gris is well worth the drive. And don’t miss the exhibition space upstairs. Designed by local artist Tom Samek and written by Graeme Phillips, A Flawed History is an entertaining chronicle of winemaking on the island, from the 1950s, when “blind bureaucrat boffins” thought the island had “a too cold a clime” for wine grapes, to more recent times, when “mother nature and wine pas de deuxed [and] grapes now blossom where apples once stood.”

Afterward, stock up on bottles of organic Frogmore Creek at nearby Hood Wines (208 Denholms Rd., 61-3/6248-5844; www.frogmorecreek.com.au). The cellar door also sells Wellington (the super-sweet iced Riesling is delicious), Storm Bay, and 42º South. Tastings are only available on weekends; just knock on the office door if you want to purchase bottles at any other time.

The North

“We don’t have signature dishes, only signature suppliers,” says Daniel Alps about his acclaimed cooking style—he only uses what the fishermen and farmers bring in each morning. Set on a vineyard just outside the pleasant city of Launceston, his restaurant, Daniel Alps at Strathlynn (95 Rosevears Dr., Rosevears; 61-3/6330-2388), is considered one of the best on the island; grab a window table for mesmerizing views of the Tamar River as it makes its way to the sea. A Pipers Brook and Ninth Island cellar door is attached.

Farther north along the banks of the Tamar is the rustic and fabulously eccentric Marions Vineyard (Foreshore Dr., Deviot; 61-3/6394-7434; www.marionsvineyard.com), whose aged Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlots and wooded Chardonnays are among the best-value wines on the island. Or buy “clean skins”—generically bottled wines—and stamp them with the vineyard’s mischievous Giggle Juice labels, like “Dr. Semmens’ Medicated Lung Syrup.”

On the other side of the river, set among rolling hills, is Jansz (1216B Pipers Brook Rd., Pipers Brook; 61-3/6382-7066; www.jansz.com.au). Australia’s premium sparkling wines are produced here, and a sleek interpretation center shows how they are made. There’s also a tasting station that allows you to sample the fruits of the winery’s labor with a platter of local cheeses.

Back in Launceston, be sure to have dinner at Stillwater (Ritchie’s Mill, Petterson St.; 61-3/6331-4153; www.stillwater.net.au). Housed in an 1830s flour mill overlooking the Tamar, this renowned restaurant also has an extensive cellar of Tasmanian wines. Dine on revamped bushman’s tucker like seared wallaby with mushrooms, roasted Jerusalem artichokes, and sourdough pudding—heaven with a glass of Dalrymple vineyard’s 2004 Pinot Noir.

More

For more information (and maps) about Tasmania’s wine industry, visit www.winetasmania.com.au. If you’d rather let someone else do the organizing, join one of Francis Wong’s Top 8 Wine Tours (61-8/8221-5722; www.encounter-australia.com.au). Wong, a well-heeled oenophile, has been instrumental in introducing Tasmanian wine to Southeast Asian, and has devised a series of insider tours originating in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Hong Kong.

This article appeared in the June/ July 2007 edition of DestinAsian Magazine.