Cool climate wine tourisim in Tasmania

Friday, 4 October, 2013
Graham Howe
Graham Howe reports on his recent visit to Tasmania to meet with a few leading winemakers behind the cult cool climate wines of Australia’s smallest wine state. 
“Tasmania is the El Dorado … the epicentre of Australian Pinot Noir, and the best is yet to come” - James Halliday, Australian Wine Companion.

I went walking in some of the most southerly vineyards in the southern hemisphere - Tasmania in the roaring forties. You’d have to go to Christchurch or Patagonia to find vineyards this far south in the cool climate latitudes of Argentina and New Zealand. Size isn’t everything in Tasmania, Australia’s smallest wine state, whose cult Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and sparkling wine has attracted mainland winery and French bubbly investors in recent decades - doubling plantings since 2002. Acclaimed cellars such as Janz, Pipers Brook, Lubiana and Moorilla put Tasmania on the map.  

Moorilla in Greater Hobart was one of the wine pioneers of Tasmania in the 1960s. One of the wineries at the forefront of wine tourism today, MONA - the Museum of Old and New Art - has become one of the top tourist attractions in Australia since opening at the cellar in January 2011. Sheralee Davies, CEO of Wine Tasmania, likes to talk about “the Mona effect”. Tasmania has seen a 15% increase in wine tourism since one of the world’s most avant-garde art galleries, (built by owner David Walsh at a cost of R750m) opened here, attracting some 750 000 visitors since opening.

Some 170 000 visitors to Tasmania of one million tourists visited the cellar door in 2012 to experience food and wine tourism in Tasmania - an island the size of Ireland with 160 licensed wineries on seven boutique wine routes. The most planted varieties are Pinot Noir (42%), Chardonnay (25%), Sauvignon Blanc (10%) and Riesling (9%) - with 44% of a yield of 7366 tons in 2012 going into sparkling wine. Branded the providore island, Tasmania is marketed as a food and wine tourism destination from boutique wineries, breweries, ciders and whisky distilleries to “farm-gate” cheese, seafood and fruit on markets and gourmet routes from the Coal to Tamar valleys.

“Paddock to plate” is the rallying cry of artisanal growers of heirloom varieties from apples and carrots to beets and potatoes who sell their (“fresh picked in the last 24 hours”) produce at farmers markets and delis in town. “It’s why our tourism is so strong” explains Sheralee Davies of Wine Tasmania, “Tourists in Tasmania take a journey of exploration - and actually meet the producers of our food and wine”.  We’re talking over dinner at Ethos, one of Hobart’s chic wine bars which chalks up a daily menu of artisanal ingredients (not dishes) which inspire chef’s tasting platters.     

Andrew Hood, a legend among the island’s winemakers, was one of the organisers of the cool climate wine symposium in Tasmania in 2011. He talked to me about the changes he’s seen in the island’s burgeoning wine industry over the last two decades. A contract winemaker for 30 Tasmanian cellars (eg, Coal Valley, Frogmore Creek, Pooley Wines) since 1990, he comments, “We originally had a fruit salad of grape varieties. The focus varieties today are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling. We are seriously cool climate - and get great natural acidity and flavours in our fruit.”

Tasmanian wines express the tremendous range of terroir from Tamar Valley and Pipers Brook in the north to the east coast and Coal and Derwent Valley in the south. You can express such a wide variety of the flavours of grapes from a single terroir by using many more variations and winemaking techniques in the cellar today - through combining the use of wild and inoculated yeasts, whole berry and bunch pressing, different barrel, stainless steel and batch fermentations ...”

I learned more about cool climate wines on a Gourmania Food Tour led by chef Mary McNeill of Hobart’s charcuterie, bakery, cafes, cheesery and Tassal salmon smokehouse. Over a tasting of Tasmanian wine at Cool Wine, an independent wine shop which stocks a global selection of 450 craft beers and ciders, Tim Godard commented, “We’ve seen some fantastic Riesling come out of Tasmania in recent years. Pinot Noir loves the cool climate in Tasmania. The acidity and structure in Tasmania is great. A lot of Tassie fruit is shipped off to the mainland wineries.”    

Art, wine, beer and cuisine are the big drawcards at Moorilla which has attracted 750 000 visitors since opening its MONA art gallery in 2011. Winemaker Conor van der Reest came all the way from Canada to Tasmania six vintages ago to learn more about cool climate wine. Moorilla, like many wineries in Tasmania distributes 80% of its output (120 000 bottles) at the cellar door - and offers wine, own craft beer flights and food pairings. Conor says, “I work with the same varieties (Riesling, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc) as in Ontario. We get good natural acidity in our cool climate vineyards - the flavours tend to develop later. About 75% of grapes in Australia are picked before the harvest starts here. We only start crushing Pinot Noir in May!”

“We get a lot of guests who just want fruit expression. Pinot Gris is an important wine for us as it’s easy for consumers to approach without food. It’s become so popular in Australia, Pinot Grigio is no longer an alternative variety”. Over a fascinating barrel tasting of Pinot Noir from Moorilla’s north and south Tasmanian sites in his cellar, Conor demonstrates the role terroir plays in these rocky soils. He comments, “Making Pinot Noir has its own challenges. It’s not like other varieties that you just pick and turn into wine. I love making it. I put it on a pedestal like our Riesling and Gewurztraminer. We’re moving towards using wild yeast as I find it builds more mouth-feel and less alcohol. I used forty different ferments in one Pinot Noir!”

You’re in pinot country when the sommelier presents a wine-list with nine pages of 150 Pinot Noirs from Burgundy and Argentina to Tasmania and the USA. Over lunch with Conor, I spotted Reyneke Pinotage and Vin de Constance on the wine list at Source, the winery’s fine restaurant. Over a comparative tasting of Moorilla’s old world Muse and new world style Praxis ranges, we explored the two styles of wines.

Cellar door manager Dan McMahon explains the avant-garde ballet wine labels, “It’s easier to talk to visitors about wine styles than terroir. The art wine labels are part of the expression of our site. We didn’t have a chateau to put on the front label - and we don’t need show stickers to sell our wine. Consumers buy our wines because it reminds them of their experience here. We try to tell the Riesling story. We’re in a rocky place on a rocky hill like the Mosel. The tasting interface takes experience.”

To be continued …

* Graham Howe attended ATE 2013 as a guest of Qantas and Tourism Australia. To find out more see www.australia.com, www.qantas.com, www.discovertasmania.com and www.winetasmania.com.au

Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is possibly the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for the Intrepid Explorer and www.blog.getaway.co.za - and for the weekly travel show on SAFM radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over fifty countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra ."