The Ultimate Guide to the Best
Tasmanian Wineries & Cellar Doors
In Australia, Tasmania is the only wine region that is also an entire state, one rather vast region, and, naturally, only a fraction of it is under vine. In truth, Tasmania can be more helpfully divided into its seven unofficial subregions, with three in the north around and either side of Launceston, the fourth stretching down the length of the east coast, and with the last three clustered around the southern centres of Richmond, Hobart and Cygnet. For the visitor, Hobart and Launceston are ideal lunching points to explore most Tasmanian wine regions, and with over 160 wine producers and 95 cellar doors, there’s a lot to discover.
Tasmania likely had the first vines committed to Australian soil, when William Bligh optimistically planted some cuttings along with fruit trees when the Bounty dropped anchor off Bruny Island in 1788. Neglect was not kind to them, though an apple tree did survive. Those twin fates neatly predicted the history for both fruits up to the latter half of the 20th century, with orchards thriving and meaningful vineyards barely featuring until the late 1950s, when the Tasmanian wine industry started to take a firm grip.
Bartholomew Broughton planted vines at his Prospect Farm property on the banks of the Derwent in the early 1820s, and there is documentation that he made wine from them from 1826, even foreshadowing Tasmania’s future in sparkling wine: “FOR SALE, at MR BROUGHTON’S at Newtown, 200 Gallons of GRAPE WINE, made in imitation of Champaigne [sic], from the last year’s Grapes, in Casks of 20 Gallons each.”
By 1830, there were commercial vines in both the north and south, with grape cuttings imported to the mainland to plant some of the first South Australian and Victorian vineyards. But the continuity that was maintained in South Australia, and to a much lesser degree in Victoria, eluded Tasmania, with the industry never really establishing a commercial face.
In 1885, Diego Bernacchi planted a significant vineyard on Maria Island, off Tasmania’s south-east coast. And while the commitment and ambition were there, with grand plans for the island to become a thriving community and centre of industry – the town of Darlington was even renamed San Diego – Bernacchi’s venture was doomed. By 1892, Bernacchi’s grand scheme was scuttled, as was the immediate future of the Tasmanian wine industry.
It wasn’t until 1956 that commercial grape-growing took hold, though that foray started as a hobby. Jean Miguet planted vines on land he rented, and later bought, in what is now the Pipers River region. He named the vineyard La Provence. Miguet was a fitter, who emigrated to work on the Trevallyn hydroelectric dam and power station, but he was also a fifth-generation winemaker.
Miguet tried to source varieties that he was familiar with, such as gamay, but the bulk of his plantings were initially based on a handful of furtively imported cuttings, as well as those from local nurseries and backyard vines in and around Launceston. The property was no haphazard affair, though, with Miguet having selected the family home based on its viticultural capacity – according to legend, not even viewing the house before agreeing to the lease.
Down south, Claudio Alcorso, a very well-educated textile merchant originally from Rome, but having lived in Australia since the 1930s, began a similar exploration by planting vines on what was known as “Frying Pan Island”, a promontory extending into the Derwent in the northern limits of Hobart. His first 90 vines for Moorilla Estate came from South Australia, courtesy of David Wynn, and were all riesling. The first harvest came in 1962, made in a very classic hands-on, or feet-on, way.
While Miguet’s venture was beset by local opposition and an unshakeable bureaucracy, he expanded plantings and built a winery, though his untimely death in 1976 saw the La Provence venture only continue for another four years under the supervision of his wife before being sold. (The vineyard still exists with some of those original plantings, though it is now called Providence.) Alcorso’s venture was more successful, with it rightfully credited with shaping the Tasmanian wine industry.
Interestingly, although Alcorso had wisely, or luckily, planted Riesling, and Miguet pinot noir and chardonnay, the direction many subsequent producers took was to favour Bordeaux varieties. Both Alcorso and Miguet also planted cabernet sauvignon, as did Graham Wiltshire. Inspired by the writings of Max Lake, but fiercely opposed to his contention that Tasmania should be written off for wine-growing due to its cold climate, Wiltshire sourced cabernet vines from South Australia to plant at Legana (now Veló Wines).
That first planting led to interest from the mainland, and in 1975, working in league with wine merchant Bill Fesq and Colin Haselgrove from Reynella Wines, Wiltshire founded the iconic Heemskerk by planting at Pipers River. Meanwhile cabernet-based wines were making a stir coming off the vines in Legana, with Sydney Hamilton, who had just founded Coonawarra’s Leconfield, teaching Wiltshire some modern winemaking methods. A Heemskerk cabernet from 1976 won gold at the Royal Melbourne Show, and Tasmania was on the map.
Adjacent to the Heemskerk site, and apparently coincidentally, brothers Andrew and David Pirie had bought land for vines in 1974, also planting in 1975 for their Pipers Brook vineyard. In fact, the two operations pooled resources to propagate nursery material, mainly riesling, chardonnay and cabernet. It wasn’t until the 80s that pinot noir started to make much of an impression (Heemskerk’s first was the 1982). But cabernet was still seen as key, and when a wine each from Pipers Brook and Heemskerk racked up gold medals in 1981 at Royal Melbourne, a Bordeaux emulating culture was further bolstered.
A partnership with Champagne Louis Roederer in 1986 saw Heemskerk launch the Jansz brand some years later – which furthered the cause of chardonnay and pinot noir – while Pipers Brook launched their Pirie sparkling in 1995. That interest in sparkling wine grew rapidly, with Bay of Fires founded by Hardys in 2001 after several years sourcing Tasmanian fruit.
Some other key players in the early days included George and Priscilla Park’s Stoney Vineyard (1973) in the Coal River Valley, Geoff and Susan Bull’s East Coast winery, Freycinet (1979), Gerald Ellis’ Meadowbank (1976) in the Derwent Valley, and Lake Barrington (1986), the first in the North West region.
The 90s saw land under vine increase dramatically, with a narrowing focus on pinot noir and chardonnay, and for both still and sparkling wine. At the same time, there was an increased professionalism in winemaking, with both formally trained locals and makers lured from the mainland, like Steve Lubiana (Sefano Lubiana), as well as overseas, such as Peter Althaus (Domaine A). It was also a time when contract winemaking became a vital cog in the state’s burgeoning wine industry.
Andrew Hood and Julian Alcorso became Tasmania’s most famous winemakers, and especially in the case of the latter, not for their own wines. While Hood was also known for his Wellington label (and later an involvement with Frogmore Creek), the vast weight of the influence of both men was in making everything from a tonne or two to several thousand tonnes as contract winemakers. It is not unusual for a wine region to have contract facilities, or for other wineries to bolster their income by making wine for others, but there is no region in Australia that has been so dominated by the practice as Tasmania has been.
As Tasmanian firmed as a cool climate gem, the value of fruit skyrocketed, and large companies vacuumed up grapes to make regional and multi-regional blends. This affirmed the quality of Tasmanian wine in general, but it lost much of the detail in the process. Chardonnay vineyards like Pooley’s Cooinda Vale site was blended to make Penfolds ‘Yattarna’, while the Hardys flagship ‘Eileen Hardy’ chardonnay bottling had a large Tasmanian component. Without those contract services, even more individual expression of site would have ended up in those blends, but contract making was only a stepping stone, and it was never going to result in true pinnacle expressions.
Today, the sameness that dominated Tasmanian wines has thankfully been long banished, with both a greater level of detail and nuance in contract making, an explosion of makers going out on their own, and mature vineyards now in new hands. Pivotal moments like Nick Glaetzer’s 2011 Jimmy Watson win, the first for Tasmania, as well as generational changes at established stars like Pooley, winemaking changes at the much-acclaimed Home Hill, with Gilli and Paul Lipscombe taking the reins, Peter Dredge reviving the fortunes of the pioneering Meadowbank and Shane Holloway and Fran Austin presiding over the renaissance of Delemere, have helped shape the Tasmanian wine industry of today. Add in Dredge’s own label, Dr. Edge, the Lipscombe’s Sailor Seeks Horse, Kate Hill’s eponymous imprint, James Broinowksi’s Small Island Wines, Jonny Hughes’ Mewstone, Jim Chatto’s Chatto Wines… the list really does go in… and Tasmanian wine is in an incredibly dynamic and exciting place right now.
Geography, Soils & Climate
Tasmania is a region that is both easy and hard to generalise about. Legally, there it is one GI. Its border are the state borders, even though large portions of the island are allotted to national park and the like. It’s a blanket GI and one that desperately needs subregions. The Northern Territory and the ACT are the only other states/territories that are defined by their political borders. The former is more a formality (with no industry), while the latter is, well, essentially the same, with only one winery within the ACT boundary, and the Canberra District actually a wine region of New South Wales. Tasmania deserves better, subregions that have distinct general climatic and geological differences. Those zones are already established, with climatic and soil differences that demand individual classification, if not further division within those subregions.
In the north-west, the aptly titled North West wine region is focused around Devonport, extending inland to around Sheffield. Heading east, the Tamar Valley wraps around Launceston and extends down the Tamar to Bass Straight. A little further west, Piper’s River is the other northern zone, while the rather long, if sparsely occupied, East Coast region extends from St Helens down the length of the coast, terminating a little further south than Hobart’s latitude. From the south, heading further west, the Coal River Valley has the town of Richmond at its approximate geographic centre, while the Derwent Valley extends to the northwest from Hobart. The Huon Valley and D’Entrecasteaux Channel make up the seventh region, and the most southerly, starting south of Hobart and extending past Cygnet.
The regions have a great deal of geological variation, with generalities about the subregions just that – soils can vary greatly over short distances. Pipers River, which is a sparkling wine centre, has friable, free-draining soils over sandstones and silt stones. Volcanic deposits of dolerite characterise the east of the state, with sandy loam, stony brown, and black, cracking topsoils all features. The Derwent Valley, Coal River Valley and Huon Valley contain sandstone and clay sediments under various duplex soils. The Tamar Valley features gravelly basalt over clay and limestone, along with sandy loam. Again, though, these are generalities, with a range of alluvial deposits also complexing the geology. Added to this is the potential for more subregions, with areas of great potential not yet planted.
Tasmania’s climate is essentially maritime, though some of the more inland sites lean towards continental conditions, with greater diurnal temperature shifts. Frost is a major limiting factor on viticulture, with significant wind also posing some challenges at budburst and flowering, but those same gusts help to moderate disease pressure. In general, the growing season is a long one with ample sunshine and relatively mild temperatures, set up by winter and spring rains, and supplemented by growing season falls. This well-timed rain, along with the attendant water resource for irrigation is a great advantage for much of Tasmania, though this benefit is not statewide. Hobart is the nation’s second driest capital, but the general availability of water means that irrigation can readily fill the gaps in the drier zones.
Grape Varieties & Wine Styles
Tasmania’s wine industry may have been founded on Bordeaux varieties, but it has been the grapes of Burgundy that have emerged triumphant, and by quite a margin. Towering over all is pinot noir, which accounts for nearly 95 per cent of red varieties planted. Styles can vary from quite opulent and rich to pretty and red fruited, and to more savoury and structured styles, which vary more due to individual vineyard location and producer than they do due to broader subregion. Chardonnay is easily the next most planted variety, with it comfortably filling more sparkling bottles than pinot noir does, both for everyday fizz and profound lees-slumbered vintage wines.
The national trend for relatively frugal riesling plantings is echoed in Tasmania, even though it is arguably the most promising territory for the grape – with ample supporting evidence. Makers like Pressing Matters, Kate Hill and Pooley are mounting a strong case for a more Germanic style, some with palpable levels of sweetness, and some with barely perceptible ones that contribute to texture and weight. Sauvignon blanc and pinot gris trump riesling for plantings by some stretch – rightly or wrongly – and pinot meunier, due to its traditional role in sparkling production, has a modest but meaningful presence.
Once dominant, a smattering of red Bordeaux varieties is still present, and in the right locations produce wines of significant merit, with Domaine A the leading exponent. Shiraz is still represented in only a nominal way, though with a robust consumer interest in cool climate styles, that can be expected to grow, as will gamay, with many vines planted but not yet in commercial production. Some growers are working with trousseau and blaufränkisch, and grüner veltliner will be a more common sight in years to come. However, the experimentation with ‘emerging’ grape varieties is very much embryonic in Tasmania, with pinot noir and chardonnay still the most common vines going in the ground.