Gourmet Traveller, Great Wine Drives

Great wine drives: Tasmania

Get a taste of island life with this cellar door-packed four-day itinerary for wine lovers who like their climate cool and their wineries and restaurants even cooler. From the Coal River Valley, up the East Coast to the Tamar River, if it’s worth tasting or visiting you’ll find it here by the barrel-load.

Tasmania is a special slice of a wine lover’s Eden. The wines are enticing enough to seek on retailers’ shelves or a restaurant’s list, but the region is a rewarding haven far more so for the wine traveller, prepared to spend a few days visiting one gem of a vineyard after another. This wonderfully scenic and enticing island holds advantages over other states in that, it is small enough to cover the vast majority of it in a few days, but large enough that crowds seem like something found in other worlds.

In terms of production, Tasmania is but a drop in Australia’s wine ocean with around 6500 tonnes harvested annually – a mere half a per cent of our total. This comes from 230 vineyards (just 1400 hectares) with 160 producers. On the face of it, hardly enough to make a blip on the radar, but no less so than the tiny percentage of great Burgundies which stand up for that region. Tasmania’s trump card is quality. There are no bulk wines here, no massive tank factories (perhaps a few smaller ones hidden away at the larger local wineries); just first-class wines aspiring to be the very best representation of what the much-varied terroir of the island can offer. Cellar doors are an integral part of almost every operation, not just for selling their wines, but to promote them for the future, by mail order. And, of course, there are more and more Tassie drops to be found on the mainland.

Even more exciting for wine travellers, the grapes that shine here are pinot noir (45 per cent) and chardonnay (26 per cent), whether as still or sparkling wines. Tasmania has just claims to sit behind only Champagne itself in the pantheon of great sparkling wine. Chardonnay may suffer from the current ennui that afflicts the grape everywhere but when it recovers, as it surely must, Tassie examples will be well placed to take a leading role. Pinot noir tends to be mostly from the leaner, elegant, fragrant end of the spectrum, many almost unrecognisable as the same variety as the blockbusters that emerge from Central Otago, but these wines have a beguiling delicacy and will prove to be much longer-lived than pinots from most other regions. Sauvignon blanc makes up a further 10 per cent of production, though in a more moderate style than that of the Kiwis. Riesling (eight per cent) is becoming more popular and there is a move by many wineries to release styles with increased residual sweetness. Good Tassie rieslings have broader aromatics than those from the Clare Valley, which are perhaps more focused in their youth. But Tasmanian rieslings will rival those from every other region for longevity. In time, they’ll surely be seen as equally impressive as those from the Clare, simply in a different style.

I have been visiting Tasmania for 20 years, and have seen the wine industry evolve from one of great promise through to showing sign-ificant potential 10 years ago. Today it is a place of considerable achievement, but the best is yet to come. What is now evident, as vines age, more winemaking experience is gained, specific sites are identified, larger investments are made, is that Tasmania is well on the way to recognition as not only one of Australia’s premier wine districts but one of the world’s most exciting.

However, Tasmania is not just about wineries. A great array of accommodation at all levels and many exciting places to dine add to the appeal. Outside of that, there are all manner of sights and activities from the extraordinary new museum at Moorilla, MONA (reputed to have had some 200,000 visitors – many from the mainland and overseas – in its first six months), to some of the best fly-fishing in the country. And, of course, this is an incredibly beautiful island. Sometimes, it is hard to remember that you are still in Australia, with so many different experiences on offer.

Day 1 
If planning an assault on the Tasmanian vineyards, I’d recommend flying in to Hobart, in the south of the island, the evening before. The airport is close to the city and it will give you a chance to unwind and enjoy the extensive hospitality of the state’s capital. Our loose plan for the next four days is to explore the Coal River and Derwent Valley regions around Hobart, drive up the East Coast to Freycinet, then make a bee-line north across the mountains to the wineries either side of the Tamar River, around Launceston.

After settling in on your first night, it is time to sally forth to the Coal River Valley. Morning peak hour in Hobart may have moved on from the days of the old traffic report joke: “There have been two traffics this morning, but the second one might have been the first car coming home.” But it should not slow you down for long.

Wherever you go, expect to encounter sublime pinot, world-class sparklers, alluring chardonnays and bracing riesling. Anything else is a bonus and one of those bonuses lies only minutes from Hobart but first, Pooley Wines (1431 Richmond Rd, Richmond, 03 6260 2895). If you head east out of the capital on the Tasman Highway and take a left on the B31, it’s up past the town of Campania. This winery is a delightful surprise, and a great way to kick off, as it is surely an estate less well known on the mainland, even though they have been making wines here for a quarter of a century. The cellar door is in a wonderful old Heritage-listed, Georgian, stone mansion called Belmont Lodge, purchased by the family in 2003. It was built in 1832 for, of all things, a Hobart wine merchant.

Riesling is a focus here, with three different versions, and inevitably, terrific pinot noir. Some wine lovers may be familiar with the name as winemaker Matt Pooley’s sister, Anna, makes the wines at Heemskerk. They are worth the visit.

A few minutes’ drive back down the B31 and right on Tea Tree Road and you’ll find yourself at one of Tasmania’s more controversial wineries, Domaine A (105 Tea Tree Rd, Campania, 03 6260 4174). This is bonus time. Owner and winemaker, Peter Althaus, makes no secret of his admiration for the finest Europ-ean wines and the influence they have had upon him. Complexity, balance and elegance are all key and Althaus gives his wines as much time as they need before release. A previous visit was the strongest showing I’d seen, but this latest encounter completes the trip to Damascus. Whether the vintages have been more friendly, the vines older, the methods modified or that I am seeing things I previously missed hardly matters. The Domaine A Cabernet Sauvignon is undoubtedly the famous flagship, and far and away Tasmania’s most successful wine of that variety. But there are two others you have to try. The Domaine A Pinot Noir seems to sneak under the radar, though for the life of me, I cannot understand why. Surely, it’s one of Tassie’s finest. And the Domaine A Lady A – a complex, oak-matured sauvignon blanc, is a thousand miles from some of the one-dimensional, in-your-face wines from Marlborough. Beware, it sells out quickly, even with the tag of “Australia’s most expensive savvy”. This is also the home of the Stoney Vineyard wines. 
 
If the proof is in the pudding, while I was there a car pulled up and a young bloke got out. He’d driven the two and half hours from Launceston, simply to make certain he got an allocation of Domaine A, his favourite wines. Having done so, it was back to “Lonnie”, as the locals call it. At the moment, doors are open but in a few years, it will be by appointment only, though Althaus does not that want to deter anyone who is genuinely interested.

It’s on to the Derwent Valley. Continue down Tea Tree Road until it meets the Midland Highway, swing left and head south over the Derwent River. Take a right, heading north-west on the Lyell Highway (A10) until you hit Rowbottoms Road. Take a left and you’ll arrive at a favourite Tassie winery, Stefano Lubiana (60 Rowbottoms Rd, Granton, 03 6263 7457). Lubiana is a bit of a Jack of all trades, and master of the lot. Brilliant fizz, including on occasions, one that has seen the best part of a decade on lees; complex, silky pinots which are some of the most flavourful from the island; rich chardonnays and finely crafted riesling. What more could you want?

How about terrific views, a fully biodynamic operation, a newly constructed cellar door, and a new restaurant, with much of the produce coming from the estate? But you’ll have to wait a little for all of this to come to fruition as it is a work in progress. Twelve months should see everything up and running, much of it sooner.

The list of must-visit wineries in Tasmania is a long one. At the very top, of course, is Moorilla Estate (655 Main Rd, Berriedale, 03 6277 9900). Head back down the Lyell Highway until it becomes the Brooker Highway and keep following it south until you hit Berriedale. Moorilla Estate sits proudly on the banks of the Derwent. Yes, the wines here are very good – better than ever, actually – but this is also home to MONA (Museum of Old and New Art), a truly world-class art gallery, with associated facilities (for more details, see Gourmet Traveller WINE April May 2011). This place must be a world away from the original facility set up here in 1958 by Claudio Alcorso, father of Julian who is one of Tasmania’s best-known contract winemakers today.

Winemaker Conor van der Reest a transplanted Canuck, has reduced the production here from 500 tonnes to around 120, making it, as he puts it, “a commercial-sized boutique winery”. Quite simply, those behind the project don’t give a fig for potential profits, but rather want to make the best wine possible. Unlike many others here, in the debate of terroir versus style, Moorilla has taken up the cause of the latter, combining grapes from vineyards from anywhere on the island where they believe it will result in a better wine. Muse and Praxis are the two ranges and supposedly merely “stylistically different”, though the lower price point of the Praxis wines ensure they are seen as 
second tier. Good fizz and gewürztraminer, but as with so many places, pinot and chardonnay are the standouts. There is also a brewery making the delicious Moo Brews. For beer lovers, there is something very special here. The new Wine Bar has one of the most amazing beer lists anywhere on the planet, possibly only exceeded by the famous Brickskeller in Washington DC (now known as the Bier Baron).

At the end of the day, when you return to Hobart, if you seek a place that is a getaway in itself, the Islington Hotel (321 Davey St, Hobart, 03 6220 2123) is ideal. How can you not love a hotel that eschews room numbers for descriptions like “The room near the painting with the cat”? There is an impressive honour bar but the standout feature must surely be the bespoke breakfasts. It is also a great place for dinner, if you don’t feel like going into Hobart city. An alternative is The Henry Jones Art Hotel (25 Hunter St, Hobart, 03 6210 7700). More prosaic, and more centrally located, is the efficient Hotel Collins (58 Collins St, Hobart, 03 6226 1111). For the truly decadent Hobart stay, consider the MONA Pavilions (655 Main Rd, Berriedale, 03 6277 9900) at the Moorilla winery. Individual pavilions are the ultimate in luxury, especially if you can work out all the buttons and switches (who doesn’t need to be able to watch TV while having a spa?).

Hobart has become an exciting city for dining, or heading out with the locals for a drink at the end of the week. Garagistes (103 Murray St, Hobart, 03 6231 0558) is leading the way. A little hard to find and with a complex but fascinating wine list concentrating on natural and organic wines, Luke Burgess’s restaurant, with its communal atmosphere, is an attraction in itself.

Others to try include Cargo Bar Pizza Lounge (47 Salamanca Pl, Battery Point, 03 6223 7788), with plenty of local wines by the glass. It’s very busy come the end of the week. Grape Bar and Bottleshop (55 Salamanca Pl, Hobart, 03 6224 0611) sits next to the James Squire Brewhouse and focuses on local wines with an enjoyable tapas menu. Salamanca Place has many other options for both eating and drinking. Consider Smolt, Monty’s On Montpelier and the Fish Frenzy. Also Knopwoods Retreat and the Customs House Hotel, for a top selection of beers. The very popular Lark Distillery Whisky Bar and Café has a great range of local spirits.

Day 2 
If you have pushed the boat out and chosen the wonderful MONA Pavilions as your base, wake up to a glorious sunrise over the Derwent and totter up to The Source Restaurant for a breakfast to remember. Then, it’s time to make your way up the East Coast on the Tasman Highway. The trip will take a couple of hours but it will encompass some of Tasmania’s finest vineyards.

First up, duck into the lovely Darlington Vineyard (63 Holkham Court, Orford, 03 6257 1630), a tiny operation near Prosser Bay as you arrive at the Freycinet district. On my visit, Paul Stranan had to hop off his machinery to come and operate the cellar door, while a neighbour who assists in the vineyards dropped by with a couple of home-made wines in old Mildara Yellow bottles. This is the epitome of a lifestyle tree-change and, hard work though it might be, one feels the Stranans are very happy with their decision. The team at Frogmore Creek make the wines, and riesling is a speciality, with the TGR the pick.

The East Coast of Tasmania is a very special part of the world, remote and uncompromisingly beautiful. Driving north, there was hardly a car. Spring Vale (130 Spring Vale Rd, Cranbrook, 03 6257 8208) is next on the agenda, at the small town of Cranbrook. The Lyne family first planted grapes in 1986 but they have worked the property since 1826. Kristen, daughter of Rodney and Lyn Lyne, assists her husband and winemaker, Dave Cush. Brother Tim is general manager. And if you wondered what the giant iron tub sitting next to the recently revamped cellar door is, it was once used for boiling down whale blubber in the days when that was an important industry in the region. 
 
The purchase of the nearby Melrose property has enabled the guys to offer an extended range and there always seems to be a wide variety of wines open for visitors. Inevitably, pinot noir takes a starring role and theirs is exemplary. Chardonnay also excels but don’t miss the gewürztraminer, one of Australia’s best. Plus they do tiny quantities of a sticky gewürz that you’ll struggle to find outside the cellar door.

A brief drive further north along the highway are the vines and winery of Freycinet Vineyard (15919 Tasman Hwy, Bicheno, 03 6257 8574), which is blessed with a natural amphitheatre that provides such a perfect place to grow grapes. For me, this is the home of Tasmania’s most exciting wines and a winery that should, by any standards, sit comfortably in any Aussie top-five list. A welcoming cellar door, with great coffee if you need a caffeine hit along the way is a plus, but it is the wines that excite. Radenti might not be a well-known sparkling wine but it is always one of our very best. Claudio Radenti (Gourmet Traveller WINE Winemaker of the Year finalist in 2011), after whom it is named, ensures that it has a period on lees that exceeds that of many flagship Champagnes. Riesling and chardonnay are both special and will cellar superbly. A recent 1990 Freycinet Vineyard Chardonnay was so amazingly youthful and fresh that I would defy anyone to find a white Burgundy of similar age to compare (they may offer more complexity and weight but not the vibrancy), let alone one from the mainland. One could almost say the same for the Freycinet Vineyard Pinot Noir. The current, 2009, was as good a wine as I saw in Tasmania.

Accommodation and dining in the region are continually improving. Freycinet Lodge (Freycinet National Park, Coles Bay, 03 6257 0101) is ideally located.

It is hard to imagine a more exquisitely scenic marine vista than the gorgeous Wine Glass Bay, shaped like a perfectly moulded wine glass, sans stem. And as romantic as all this might seem, the truth is rather less of a fairy tale. Apparently, according to locals, the bay got its name, not because of its resemblance to a wine glass, but because back in the days of the whaling industry, it would turn the colour of red wine as the carcasses were butchered.

Day 3 
It is definitely worth spending some time in the Freycinet region, staying overnight at least. After breakfast looking out over the water, if you can finally tear yourself away from this beautiful part of the world, it’s time to drive over the mountains to the Tamar River in the north of Tasmania. It will take a couple of hours, and you’ll be skirting around Launceston to start with, but it’s a lovely drive. Hop back on the Tasman Highway and drive north until you hit Lake Leake Highway (B34), head north-west and you’ll eventually arrive at the Midland Highway (A1), which will take you up to Launceston.

First stop of the day, when visiting the vineyards to the east of the Tamar, is one of the state’s most exciting emerging wineries, Josef Chromy (370 Relbia Rd, Relbia, 03 6335 8700). It’s just to the south-east of Launceston off the Midland Highway. This is a total-experience winery. My first question, having last visited in the early days, was did they stock the man-made lake with trout as intended? Not only had they done so, but the lake had recently been the venue for the Australian fly-fishing team to practice for the coming World Championships.

The story of Josef Chromy, the man, is one of the most compelling in Australian wine. More than 60 years ago, without a cent in his pocket, a young Chromy escaped his Czech village, ravaged by continued Nazi and then Soviet occupation, crossing minefields, avoiding dogs and soldiers, before eventually arriving in Australia. His companions in the escape were caught and imprisoned. Trained as a specialist butcher, he established a major meat business before venturing into wine, buying and subsequently selling both the Rochecombe and Heemskerk vineyards. He then established Tamar Ridge, sold it in 2003, and then brought this eponymous operation to fruition. They were undertaking renovations during my visit but the cafe and cellar door have first class reputations and should emerge even better. And if this is your first stop for the day, it’s a great place for a coffee. They also hold various events, hosting concerts for such stars as Blondie and the Pretenders (the crowd for this one consumed a whopping nine bottles a minute for six hours), and also Tom Jones. And yes, you can fish – catch and release only. Good wines across the board but don’t miss the sweeter style riesling, Delikãt. 
 
Drive through Launceston, hop on to the East Tamar Highway, swing right on to the B81 and, once you pass the town of Lebrina, turn left on to Pipers Brook Rd where you will arrive at a winery with a singular focus, Jansz Tasmania (1216 Pipers Brook Rd, Pipers Brook, 03 6382 7066). Part of the Yalumba empire, but totally devoted to sparkling wine, the cellar door operates as a Wine Room and Interpretive Centre. Visitors will be taken through the range and can match it with a plate of local cheeses. The fun is picking your favourite, though it will be hard to go past some of the wonderfully complex sparklers that have spent many years on lees.

Effectively part of the same property, so you don’t need to allocate long for the trip, is perhaps Tasmania’s best known winery, and for many the one that established this island as a credible wine region when Dr Andrew Pirie commenced operations in the early ’70s, Pipers Brook Vineyard (1216 Pipers Brook Rd, 03 6382 7527). Nowadays, part of the Kreglinger Wine Estates empire, a Belgian multinational, it might have been coming in from the cold and wet but I don’t think I enjoyed a coffee more than at their cafe. There is also a well-stocked gift-shop. And this is the home of the extremely popular Ninth Island wines.

The sparklers are excellent; the aromatics superb, though grab whatever gewürztraminer you find as we are seeing the end of this variable variety; and the Burgundian varieties are as good as ever.

Once finished, Launceston is only about 30 minutes away and a convenient overnight stay. The Hotel Charles (287 Charles St, Launceston, 03 6337 4100) is part of the Chromy empire. For an interesting evening on the town, try the Royal Oak Hotel (14 Brisbane St, Launceston, 03 6331 5346). On some evenings, it can be a bit like a university bar, but expect live music, a decent feed and a good time. Supposedly, it even has a resident ghost.

Day 4 
Time to explore the western bank of the Tamar and another smorgasbord of wineries. Almost adjacent to the West Tamar Highway (A7), a short drive out of Launceston, is the surprising Moores Hill (3343 West Tamar Hwy, Sidmouth, 03 6394 7649), with winemaker Julian Allport. He has an affinity for great sparkling, which is why he purchased the property, moving from his job with Bay of Fires, but at the moment, the wines that shine are the Moore’s Hill Chardonnay and Moore’s Hill Riesling. Pick up a bottle or two of the wonderful CGR Riesling.

Head further north along the A7 to the aptly named Beauty Point and there are three wineries that you will not want to miss. Goaty Hill (530 Auburn Rd, Kayena, 1300 819 997) offers delightful aromatics, the Goaty Hill Gewürztraminer a star, and Goaty Hill Pinot Noir is first class. Food is available, either as a lunch platter or cheese plate. This is a friendly, family-orientated winery, quickly making all visitors feel at home.

Not far away, sneaking through the vines, is Holm Oak Vineyards (11 West Bay Rd, Rowella, 03 6394 7577), operated by Rebecca Wilson as winemaker, and husband Tim Duffy as viticulturist. They are in demand as contract winemakers and have a wide range of varieties planted, making Holm Oak Vineyards an exciting and often surprising place to visit. The cellar door has recently been revamped, to become even more welcoming. They have an intriguing arneis, a better riesling, and without meaning to sound like the proverbial broken record, a terrific pinot noir.

To round out the day, visit the increasingly impressive Tasmanian Estates, better known as Tamar Ridge (653 Auburn Rd, Kayena, 03 6394 1111). Andrew Pirie has continued his long involvement with Tassie wines, working with the Estate’s winemakers. This is a large property but, having the opportunity to watch the cellar door in action during my visit, I’m not sure there is another place making visitors feel quite as much as though they are the centre of attention. This is an operation with knowledgeable staff and an array of wines at cellar door that include a number from the “museum”. A great place to fill up a few holes in your own cellar. And they bring in some superb local food, if you are hungry. Riesling and pinot star. Brown Brothers have recently purchased this winery, suggesting its future is even brighter, and providing compelling evidence of how highly mainland wineries regard Tasmania.

For a bite of lunch, the locals strongly recommended Koukla’s BYO Cafe (285 Gravelly Beach Rd, Gravelly Beach), run by three local Greek ladies, cooking up a storm.

By now, the options are to head back to Launceston for the evening, go straight to the airport, or to enjoy a leisurely drive to Hobart, where you can enjoy the capital city’s warm hospitality one last time. Another alternative is to return via the famous Cradle Mountain region and take in all it has to offer. If nothing else, your wine-drive adventure around Tasmania will have convinced you of one thing – you’ll need to come back soon.