If You Can Get a Bottle, That Is
If all you know about Tasmania comes from a carnivorous marsupial made famous by the demented geniuses at Looney Tunes, you’re not alone.
But you’re also missing out, because, while the output of this up-and-coming wine region is infinitesimally small, it harbors the fermented fruit of some of the most promising terroir in the world.
Thirsty? Read on for details about Tasmania’s delicious past, present, and future.
Where is Tasmania?
Tasmania is one of Australia’s 65 officially recognized wine regions, but it is not part of the mainland. The 26,410-square-mile island, shaped like a cloven hoof, rests off the Southeastern tip of the mainland.
The region is mountainous, and those stern peaks serve as vineyard guardians, sheltering them from extreme ocean winds and whipping rain. The soil is made up of ancient sandstones and mudstones, river sediment, and igneous rocks resulting from volcanic explosions deep in the distant past.
The climate is considered moderate maritime, meaning it is cooled by winds from the Southern Ocean, with mild spring and summer temperatures, and cool nights. The soil and climate work together to create grapes that have plenty of time to reach optimal ripeness, without giving up their structure or balance.
Tasmanian Winemaking History
Vines arrived in Tasmania in 1788 on the HMS Bounty. The early experimental plantings were a flop, and it wasn’t until 1823 that the first real vineyard was established by Bartholomew Broughton.
Winemaking thrived for a few decades, but petered out in the wake of the Victorian gold rush around the middle of the 19th century. It wasn’t until the 1950s that vintners began sensing the promise of the terroir, and commercial viticulture reared back to life.
Today, there are around 185 producers, 230 vineyards, and just over 5,900 acres under vine.
Pinot Noir takes up close to 47% of plantings, according to Wine Tasmania, followed by Chardonnay at around 25%, then Sauvignon Blanc at 9%, Pinot Gris at 8%, Riesling at 6.4%, and Pinot Meunier at 1.6%. About 37% of Tasmania’s wine is sparkling.
While Tasmania itself is the overarching wine region to keep in mind, there are seven different wine-growing sub-regions, each with their own mesoclimates. The leading regions are Tamar Valley (with 39% of plantings), Coal River Valley (21.7%), Pipers River (14.3%), and East Coast (12.8%).
Tasmania’s wine scene is exploding—but its production levels are still relatively low. Last year, 906,000 cases of wine were produced (For perspective, Michigan and Illinois with a comparable number of wineries—233 and 126, respectively—each produced 1,400,000 cases). And for the most part, Australians aren’t eager to part with their beloved Tassie vino. According to the latest numbers, Tasmania accounts for just 0.1% of Australia’s total production, and 92% of Tasmanian wine is consumed in Australia, with the remaining 8% making its way to lucky wine lovers around the globe.
If you see a selection from one of the following, do your taste buds a favor and grab a bottle.
Producers To Know
Founding Story: Tolpuddle was established in 1988, and was named for the Tolpuddle Martyrs, a group of laborers sent to Australia from Britain. In 1834, they were convicted and arrested for essentially attempting to launch a union. They were pardoned in 1836 after widespread protests were launched on their behalf. Their leader, George Loveless, lived in a cottage on the now-estate.
In 2011, Michael Hills Smith, who, in 1988, was the first Australian to pass the Master of Wine examination, and Martin Shaw, encountered Tolpuddle and persuaded the owners to sell.
“In 1989, we co-founded Shaw + Smith in the Adelaide Hills,” Smith says. “We have been focusing on cool climate wines ever since. We had been hearing exciting things about Tasmania, and, in 2011 we visited, with no intention to do anything but take a look.”
While they were in Tasmania, they tasted wines made from the Tolpuddle Vineyard—at the time, under previous ownership—and were so enchanted, they visited. The Coal River Valley estate, with dry and cold conditions, Smith says, appeared to be ideally located to withstand the increasingly extreme conditions much of the rest of wine country across the world is contending with.
“The rest, as they say, is history,” Shaw explains. Originally planted in 1988, Tolpuddle Vineyard now has 67.7 acres under vine. They also work with grapes sourced from the 45.7-acre MMAD Vineyard in Blewitt Springs.
Terroir: “Tasmania is truly beautiful, with about 40% natural forest, striking mountains, beaches, and rivers,” Shaw says. “Our estate is both cold and dry, creating grapes with wonderful acidity and low disease risk. The ripening process is long and slow, which gives us wines of great flavor intensity.”
Bottle To Try: Tolpuddle is celebrated for their still Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. If you could only have one to try, Shaw recommends the 2021 Chardonnay. “It was recently named Decanter Magazine’s White Wine of the Year, and it reflects the work we’ve done in the vineyard since purchasing it in 2011. This vintage is also our 10th in Tasmania.”
The 2021 Tolpuddle Vineyard Chardonnay is perked-up and keen, offering lemon peel and quince, opulence reined in with bristling acidity, and focus. Put yourself on the list for a bottle here.
Founding Story: Dalrymple was established in 1987 by Bertel and Anne Sundstrup, who traveled to France for inspiration and guidance before selecting their vineyard in Pipers River.
“I grew up in Tasmania and came back for family reasons, and also the opportunity to dive into the growing wine industry,” winemaker Peter Caldwell says of his decision to join.
Terroir: Pipers River is in the northeast corner of Tasmania, and the vineyards are planted on sloping hills overlooking Bass Strait, the wild strip of sea separating the island from the mainland.
Bottle To Try: The terroir brings grapes with lean acidity and intense flavors to the cellar, which Caldwell then crushes, ferments, and ages in individual barrels before blending. The 2020 Dalrymple Cave Block Chardonnay is sourced from two blocks, with soils dominated by basalt rock. You’ll find apple blossoms, ripe peaches, Asian spice, and honeydew melon. Shop for Dalrymple wine here.
Founding Story: Jansz was founded in 1986, a partnership between Champagne’s Louis Roederer and Heemskerk Wines. The goal was to create terroir-driven New World sparkling wines produced in the Champagne method.
Winemaker Jennifer Doyle joined in 2008, drawn by “the natural beauty,” and the incredible terroir.
Terroir: Located in Pipers Brook, Doyle says that their pocket of Tasmania is “the perfect place to craft premium sparkling wines.”
Their vineyards are located near the coast, with ocean breezes keeping the region’s temperatures higher in the winter and minimizing frosts, and lower in the summer, which helps grapes ripen slowly. The result: flavors that are intense but delicate.
Bottle To Try: Try the 2018 Vintage Cuvée, a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
“Both varieties bring their own elements to the wine,” Doyle says. “Chardonnay provides crisp, pristine acidity, fresh and delicate lemon citrus flavors supported by sea spray, oyster shell, and toasted brioche. The Pinot Noir softens the wine with Turkish delight and red fruit flavors, richness, and a fine, creamy texture.” Shop Jansz wine here.
Founding Story: Handpicked Wines is a multi-regional business with vineyards in Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley, Barossa Valley, and Tasmania. Winemaker Rohan Smith and chief winemaker Peter Dillon were drawn here in 2018 by the incredible terroir.
Terroir: “On the western bank of the Tamar River, not far from where it feeds into the surging waters of Bass Strait, lies a patch of untamed paradise where north-facing hills spill into a lake surrounded by native forest dense with wild turkeys, black swans, and hopping pademelons,” Smith explains. “The site’s remarkable soils and spring-fed dam sparked our attention.”
They planted various clones of Pinot Noir (mostly Pommard 777, 114, 115, MV6) and Chardonnay (mainly 95, 809, 548).
Their second Tamar Valley vineyard is one of the few occupying a position on the eastern side of the Tamar River.
“With its north-east facing hills collecting warmth from the sun and reflected off the river, Native Point was a perfect counterpoint to Auburn Road,” says Smith. “Its north-westerly aspect and position in Swan Bay – one of the most intact wetland and bird habitats in Australia – and its location about 31 miles inland from Bass Strait, make this vineyard one of the warmer sites in Tasmania, and it has the advantage of good rainfall and irrigation dams aplenty.”
Half of their fruit goes toward sparkling wines, and the other half goes to still.
Bottle To Try: 2019 Handpicked Collection Pinot Noir. Sourced from both vineyards, you’ll find aromas of ripe cherries and rose petals, with notes of black cherries and blackberries, fine tannins, balanced with perfect structure and brightness. Shop Handpicked Wines here.
Founding Story: Simply put, Tasmania attracted the attention of the Brown Family Wine Group – one of Australia’s leading family-owned wine companies – because of its relative climatic stability in the face of climate change. “As a multi-generation family wine company, we have always had an eye on the long-term sustainability of our business,” Joel Tillbrook, chief winemaker for Brown Brothers and Devil’s Corner says. “Accepting that a warming climate will change the suitability of viticulture in some regions over time, we undertook a search for the very best cool climate region in Australia and found ourselves in Tasmania.”
Terroir: Devil’s Corner has vineyards in the Tamar Valley to the north, and the East Coast.
“Both regions are influenced by proximity to water, which moderates the temperature and enables us to ripen Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in a very cool climate,” Tillbrook says.
Bottle To Try: The 2020 Devil’s Corner Pinot Noir offers bright cherry in color, aromas, and flavor, with orange rind and baking spices throughout. Shop Devil’s Corner wines here.