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Tasmania – Burgundy and Champagne rolled into one?

If you’re not sure what to expect from Tasmanian wine then you’re in good company. In February this year Kate and I visited this little known winemaking region with a vague expectation that the wines we’d find would be different from those we’d just discovered in McLaren Vale. But we expected that they’d be essentially Australian in character – a variation on a theme. What we found were wines that give the best of Burgundy and Champagne a good run for their money…

Tasmania is a collection of over 300 islands just 150 miles to the South of mainland Australia. But in terms of climate and culture it’s a world apart. The main island is the 26th largest in the world and, at nearly 26,000 square miles, is roughly three times the size of Wales. With just 550,000 inhabitants it is remarkably sparsely populated with over 40% of the landmass given over to nature reserves. Most of those can only be accessed by strapping on your walking boots, channeling your inner Bear Grylls, and settling down to a two day trek into the wilderness.

We found a wild and rugged landscape and a friendly population who exhibited a sense of pride in doing things on “Tassie time” (redefining your understanding of “laid back”) and a good line in laconic humour. In fact one of my favourite characters from the trip helped me boil down my entire business strategy into one line:

“Don’t do business with dickheads and try not to be a dickhead yourself”  

Thank you Jeremy Dindeen of Josef Chromy. Winemaker extraordinaire, philosopher and no nonsense business strategy guru.

In sharp contrast to the McLaren Vale leg of our trip, we found a landscape dominated by dolerite-capped mountains that shelter the state’s wine regions from high winds and rainfall. On the lower slopes, the vineyard soils are formed from ancient sandstones and mudstones and also from more recent river sediments and igneous rocks of volcanic origin. Tasmania apparently has the cleanest air on the planet and I can readily believe it (a consequence of their tiny population and use of hydro-electricity).

Tasmania has a moderate maritime climate, cooled by prevailing westerly winds off the Southern Ocean, providing conditions free of extremes in temperature. Think in terms of mild spring and summer temperatures, with warm autumn days and cool nights. They have no shortage of rain either but relatively little falls on the vineyards. If you’re thinking that sounds reminiscent of New Zealand then take a bow as Tasmania is on roughly the same line of latitude.

All this means that they can grow a wide variety of cool climate grapes that are sheltered from the extremes of climate seen elsewhere in Australia. Which means that if you want to look for comparisons you really need to look to New Zealand or, in our view, Burgundy and even Champagne. Because while we enjoyed the breadth of offering in Tasmania, where they consistently excelled was in the production of knock-out chardonnays, pinot noirs and traditional method sparkling wines.

You might reasonably be asking why, if the wines are as good as I say they are, you haven’t seen or heard more about them – let alone tasted them. That was a question I asked myself as, one day into of our five day tour, I ran out of superlatives to include in my notes. How had I missed these wines? Wines that have the consistency you’d expect from new world wines but the character you’d expect from Burgundy… and at keen prices for the quality too! The clue came from how relaxed the winemakers were about selling to us. In fact we often found wines that we loved only to be told that none was available to export.

And there’s the answer. Of the wine made in Tasmania 50% is consumed right there on the island and 45% makes it no further than mainland Australia. Only 5% goes to export worldwide meaning that of the 7.5 million bottles produced per year only 375,000 make it to export. Compare that to Burgundy’s average annual production of 200 million bottles (of which about 15 million are consumed in the U.K.) and you start to get a sense for how exclusive and elusive Tasmanian wine is.

And you don’t need to take my word for it. If you’d prefer to read what the grown ups have to say about the cracking wines of Tasmania, then Jancis Robinson (Master of Wine) wrote about the “island of opportunity” in 2012 and Fionna Beckett, our favourite food and wine matching guru, wrote that “Tasmania has more in common with Burgundy than Barossa”

Now I’ve whetted your appetite I guess it’s a good time to tell you that, in partnership with friends we made on the trip, we’ve imported some of the stand out wines from our tour of Tassie. Wines made by husband and wife team, Tim and Bec Duffy of Holm Oak; he tends the vines, she makes the wines. After 20 year’s experience respectively as a viticulturalist and winemaker, they met through on line dating looking for a winemaking partner as well as a life partner. We’re glad they found one another as they’ve been making outstanding wine together since 2013.

After a painfully long boat trip, these cracking Burgundy challengers are on our shelves now and will shortly be available by the glass as part of an unapologetic Aussie takeover of the BinTwo summer terrace menu.  Enjoy!

Read more about our Tasmanian wines here…