WINING IN TASMANIA – Geography of wine flavour

Many say Tasmania is the road kill capital of the world whilst others prefer to highlight the island’s cool climate and its potential to become Australia’s wine region par excellence. We travel there and see if its reputation as an animal graveyard is deserved and if it’s wines live up to the hype.

On arriving in Tasmania’s capital Hobart, the most southerly point in Australia, one is struck by the clean air, wide clean streets and the sparkling dark blue sea. However, one has to wonder what the convicts deported here from the UK in the 1850s thought when they came ashore to a barren waste of dense forests and steep cliffs. Many of these men and a few unfortunate women had committed fairly low key crimes – poaching, stealing food for a starving family or petty theft and had spent three months on board a ship with horrific living conditions, disease and little food. Thousands of the prisoners were put to work, digging roads through mountains, building fine houses for the colonial masters and working on the land – all without pay.

When they had served their sentence, it was virtually impossible to go back to UK so many settled to life in Tasmania and we met a few of their descendants who are very proud of their ancestors and their contribution to what Australia is today.

Most of Tasmanian towns like Swansea, Stanley and Strachan are on the coast which is truly spectacular and the locals make a living from tourism, fishing, mining, logging and, of course, making wine.

We try Blue Eye at the Blue Eye in Hobart

Tasmania abounds with seafood and our first evening we headed to the Blue Eye Seafood Restaurant not for its food but because we had seen on its online menu that they listed Tolpuddle Tasmanian Chardonnay 2013 a wine on our must-taste list. We ordered Blue Eye, the local fish everyone recommended and a bottle of Tolpuddle Chardonnay which at 75 dollars (£45) was on the expensive side of the available whites. The wine is named after the Tolpuddle martyrs – farm labourers in England who wanted to form a trade union in 1834 and who were consequently transported to Tasmania as convicts. The wine was certainly good quality but lacked a little zip and minerality, normally the hallmark of fine chardonnay in our hemisphere. The fish was very good.

We leave Hobart and visit our first Tasmanian winery

Driving in Tasmania is generally a relaxing affair. Whilst the roads are narrow and winding, the traffic tends to be light and drivers stick to speed limits. Vineyards are common though; the sight of large areas of vines covered in white netting is something we never see in Europe. Tasmanian birds apparently love grapes. Our destination is Domaine A – Stoney Vineyard, a producer with a massive reputation and prices to match. Arriving there, we ring the bell and we are soon ushered into a modern, no expense spared tasting room and cellar. Australian producers seem to accept being interrupted by casual visitors like us but they seem to enjoy talking about their wines and letting the visitor taste whatever they have on sale. Domain A will charge the visitor $20 for the tasting but will be waived if a bottle or two are bought. The wines were very good, the best we had tasted in Australia, especially their Bordeaux blends which have been acclaimed by wine critics like Jancis Robinson. The high prices of most of their wines (£100 plus plus) and their gaudy labels must make selling their wines in Europe an uphill struggle. Why would consumer chose an Australian Bordeaux look alike when Europe is awash with top notch mature clarets in that price range? We took with us a bottle of their 2010 Pinot Noir which considering the price of £54 was rather disappointing suffering from the usual Australian malaise of intense fruity flavours.

They have the attitude and the latitude

It would appear that production of seriously fine wine is inexorably linked to latitude. Why this should be so is the subject of much discussion but it is accepted that cooler climates are a must for seriously good wines, especially white wines. It may well explain why Spain is unable to produce white table wines which can stand up to the best in France, Germany or even Austria. Spain simply hasn’t got the latitude. Burgundy, the producer of white wines par excellence, has a latitude of 47 degrees North compared to Rioja, to name one region in Spain, with a latitude of around 42 degrees North. Only five degrees of a difference but clearly a massive influence as far as fruit quality is concerned.

So what about Tasmania? Hobart with a latitude of 42 degrees South should have similar wine making characteristics as Rioja though the lack of a Gulf Stream in the Southern Hemisphere and cold currents from Antarctica makes for a cooler climate and gives Tasmania a fighting chance to challenge Burgundy and the likes. I suspect we will hear a lot more about Tasmanian wines in the future. The best Chardonnay we tasted goes to Samantha Connew who fairly recently arrived in Tasmania with her dog and planted some vines. Her production is still tiny but her Stargazer Chardonnay oozes finesse. Samantha apparently follows Stephen Hawking’s advise “always look up at the stars, never at your feet.”

To end on a sad note; we discover Tasmania really is the road kill capital of the world

“Per kilometre, more animals die in Tasmania than anywhere else in the world,” says Dan Knowler author of Riding the Devils Highway. The scale of road kill is colossal, he says, with estimates ranging from 300,000 to half a million. We can certainly vouch for Knowler’s comments and we were shocked at what in some sections could only be described as mayhem. Perhaps, it’s the super large forests or the sheer number of animals living there. Possums, wallabies, eagles, crows and even Tasmanian Devils die each day and many are questioning why there is no national outcry.

words | Andrew Licudi AIWS