FT: Tasmanian devil of a puzzle

Financial Times writes about Tasmania wines this week; perfect timing. 😉

Tasmanian devil of a puzzle
By Andrew Jefford
Published: August 15 2009 02:53 | Last updated: August 15 2009 02:53
Every new vineyard is an enigma. Rock, soil, slope and climate change unceasingly our planet’s land masses; the farmer’s challenge is to turn that matrix to best use. What elevates wine growing to an agricultural art form is the fact that grapes, sensitively vinified, unravel the mysteries of place more articulately than any other crop.

But it takes time. Although vines have been planted in Tasmania since 1823, it was only in 1972 that efforts began to give its land a distinctive wine personality. That was the year that Andrew Pirie, Australia’s first viticultural PhD, climbed off a plane after a year in France, clutching temperature graphs for Dijon, Bordeaux and Epernay. Using European models to explore an island adrift in the Great Southern Ocean is understandable and even logical, but the past 37 years have shown the limits of the approach. Nowhere else is quite like this.

Climate, as always in the early stages of wine exploration, plays the key role. “We have the temperatures of the Loire, Burgundy or Alsace,” Pirie told me a few weeks ago, “but the sunshine of northern Spain.” If you add profoundly leached soils, capricious frosts, nail-bitingly high winds at flowering time and a colossal rainshadow effect (west drenched, east parched), spoiled once in a while by the tail end of a tropical storm spinning down from Queensland, you begin to realise why a definitive answer to the Tasmanian puzzle is some decades away.

Australia’s biggest wine companies know what they want from Tasmania: sparkling wine. One-third of the crop heads north each autumn to be turned into fizz on what Tasmanians call “the big island”. Many of the grapes for Hardy’s graceful Arras, for example, travel five hours from southern Tasmania to Pipers River to be pressed, after which the juice makes a three-hour tanker journey to Devonport before sailing nine hours to Melbourne, then being trucked another 12 dusty hours to Adelaide. Only then can the fermentation begin. That the journey is imperceptible in the finished product is a tribute to refrigerated transport and Australian technology.

Yalumba’s sappy Jansz is made further north still, in the Eden Valley, and Domaine Chandon’s deft Tasmanian Cuvée a little nearer to the ferry, in Victoria’s Yarra. Leading sparkling wines wholly made on the island include the challenging, cellar-seeking Kreglinger, textured Clover Hill and Andrew Pirie’s own finely sculpted Pirie.

Fruit flavours are the enemy in great sparkling wine, and Tasmanian producers have done a fine job keeping them in check via precision in harvesting, more use of oxygen in the fermentation process and the use of older reserve wines in non-vintage cuvées. The results are genuinely competitive with much champagne.

The subtlest site research, though, has been by smaller growers for their still wines. Swiss winemaker Peter Althaus of Domaine A sprung the biggest surprise by ripening Cabernet Sauvignon. He does so via a warm, sheltered site in the Coal River Valley, hard vineyard work, and an unwavering focus on the Bordeaux model (including the dispatch of less successful parcels into the “Stoney Vineyard” second wine). The best vintages (which for me include the 1998, 2000, 2001 and 2003) are shapely and textured, with poised, limpid fruits which subside gracefully into a rosy maturity. As in Bordeaux, though, there is substantial vintage variation.

Tasmania will one day produce some of Australia’s greatest Pinot Noir, though it won’t do so either regularly or easily. For me, the most accomplished so far are those of Steve Lubiana (structured and pure), Frogmore Creek (whose reserve level is made via Amarone-style techniques) and the single-minded Brian Franklin at Apsley Gorge. Ex-abalone diver Franklin’s courageously restrained winemaking combined with a warm, dry east coast site results in Pinot of unusual breadth but subtlety and allusiveness too.

Tasmania’s east is also the source of some of its best Chardonnay and Riesling, in particular from the sensitive, attentive Claudio Radenti at Freycinet (Wineglass Bay on export markets): both varietals here are nuanced and classically balanced. Apsley Gorge, by contrast, produces a deliciously baroque Chardonnay. Fully ripe Pinot Gris (as opposed to emaciated Pinot Grigio) is on its way in several locations, and the rejuvenated Moorilla is the source of a Trimbach-like dry Gewürztraminer whose flowers and spice glitter with a little shaved steel.

Botrytis-affected Riesling springs the island’s final surprise. Pioneer Pirie’s 2007 Clark’s Riesling, made from the Kayena site close to the Tamar Estuary, is one of the finest and most naturally articulated botrytis wines I have ever tasted from Australia, packed with luscious, almost salty orchard fruits, and Tamar Ridge Estates (which Pirie now runs) is keeping watch over a promising 9,000-litre stock of the same wine from 2009. The story, though, has many chapters to run.

“We’re like kids in a candy store,” concludes Pirie, even after almost four decades of Tasmanian work. “Lots of new approaches, lots of new clones, lots of new sites. And lots of new possibilities.”

Andrew Jefford is a senior research fellow at the University of Adelaide, and wine writer in residence to the Wine 2030 Research Network Jancis Robinson returns next week


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s