Discovering Australia’s Best Kept Secret: Tasmania
By Andy Myers
Looking back through a journal from my wine trip to Tasmania in September of 2015, I catch snippets scrawled between the lines of tasting notes and hastily drawn maps that immediately remind me that Tasmania is like no other wine region on earth… ’What the hell is a Bay Bug?’ ‘Wallabies eat grape leaves, but taste like big rodents’. ‘Paca Poo for Sale!’ ‘Unicorn Poo $5/bag’. ‘Penguin Crossing’. ‘Don’t hit a wombat with your car and do NOT make echidna jokes with the locals; neither will end well.’
Tasmania: A Land of Two Halves
Though technically divided into seven regions – Northwest, Pipers River, Tamar Valley, East Coast, Derwent Valley, Coal River and the Huon Valley – I find for the sake of a general climatic and stylistics conversation that Tasmania can really be broken down into the northern, eastern and southern regions. Wine producers are beginning to have conversations about solidifying the sub-regions, but at present, the winemakers I met felt it was better to get the idea of ‘Tasmanian wine’ as a brand in the minds of Australians than it is to get too hung up on differences between Tamar Valley and Coal River.
Thanks to the Central Highlands, the punishing winds of the Roaring Forties leave the eastern half of the island in relative peace. The locals refer to the mountains as the ‘Wine and Cheese Line’ with more sheep grazing on the windy, west side and wine production focused on the more tranquil and continental climate of the eastern side of Tasmania. Gifted with a long, cool growing season that runs from the early November bud breaks to the late March or early April harvests, a temperate climate that is drier in the south than the north and with delightful diurnal shifts, Tasmania has the hallmarks of a near-perfect vine growing environment.
Tasmanian Wines: Excellence Across the Board
If I were to generalize about Tasmanian wines, I would say that they make exceptional Rieslings when they opt to retain modest levels of residual sugar, and that their top Chardonnays kept making me ask if they were sneaking Old World examples into our tastings (I’m looking at you, Stony Rise). The sparkling wines are consistently crisp, focused and delicious, and the Pinot Noirs should be required drinking for anyone who wants to dip their French Pinot into a bit of Oregon or wishes Oregon checked its alcohol levels. In short, I can’t figure out what Tasmania doesn’t do well; but they certainly do Pinot Noir as well, if not better, than the rest of the New World.
I found the Pinots in the Tamar Valley in the North to be robust with stark acidity, cooling herbs and a nice meaty gameyness. The cooler southern regions of Derwent Valley and Coal River were elegant with a bit more sweet-and-sour fruit and refreshing acidity and the east coast Pinots – especially near Bicheno – were warmer and brought more green spice and ripe fruit to the party. Nowhere, however, did I find excessive alcohol – 14% is considered an anomaly – excessive oak or excessive extraction. In fact, it was hard to find any wine particularly out of balance anywhere, irrespective of the variety. ‘Goldilocks wines’ was a term I used repeatedly at the wineries I visited.
Tasmania: A New Firmament of Star Producers
For me, the stand out producers from Tasmania include, but are certainly not limited to, Pressing Matters and Pooley in Coal River (with a special shout out to Pooley’s ‘Butcher’s Hill’), Freycinet Vineyards on the east coast, Josef Chromy in Southern Tamar, where the ‘Zdar’ Pinot Noir will make you take a knee in wonder at the balance of fruit and structure, and Jeremy Dineen will overwhelm you with smoked Boar Fish and crush your palate with wild sloe berries. Holm Oak in the Upper Tamar for ‘Hot Shot’ and ‘The Wizard’ (not to mention the opportunity to meet Pinot the Pig and feed her apples), House of Arras for wonderful fizz, Dalrymple, Sinapius (where you can get a quick ‘sticky beak’, whatever the hell that means) and the aforementioned genius of Joe Holyman at Stony Rise whose ‘Project X’ Pinot got my highest marks of the trip and had me waxing on about the similarities to the great wines of Burgundy.
The Downside of These Wines From Down Under…
So, what’s the rub? Why haven’t you had more of these wines or seen them on more wine lists? This can be broken down into two simple answers. One, they just don’t make that much wine. There’s roughly 1,500 hectares under vine and around 160 producers that bring in fewer than 15,000 tons of grapes annually. Thirsty folks at cellar doors, in Melbourne and Sydney restaurants, wash down those Bay Bug things with most of what gets produced. And secondly, for as kind, gracious, hospitable and welcoming as literally every human I met in Tasmania was, they give exactly zero f^^cks about selling their wines in Europe or America. They sell out easily locally and everyone I met that had tried to sell abroad had been burned at least once by a distributor or an importer not paying them. And, as one winemaker told me, ‘it’s kind of fun to say no to Americans now and again!’
…But Things Are Looking Up
That is changing, however. More wines from Tasmania are starting to enter the US market, so now is the perfect chance to explore them. If you can, it is absolutely worth a trip to Tasmania or Australia to get the opportunity to taste the most exciting New World wines I have ever had and, if possible, bring a few back with you. Just remember that it’s not OK to try and ride the Shetland ponies, wombats will total your car, talk is cheap, but bags of livestock droppings are cheaper and Bay Bugs are really just strangely named Slipper Lobsters.
Andy Myers MS is Wine Director of José Andrés Think Food Group with concepts in Washington DC, Beverly Hills, Miami, Las Vegas, Mexico City, and Puerto Rico