The contemporary Tasmanian wine industry is new and small - but with exciting potential. In many ways its cool climate potential and limitations parallels the South Island of New Zealand minus the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc phenomenon. Pinot Noir rules supreme over the reds, while Alsatian-influenced Pinot Grigio and Austro-German style Rieslings are the best of the whites. The Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs are often excellent with tangy bright fruit expression and flinty acids. Its sparkling wines are the national benchmarks.
Wine Tasmania: www.winetasmania.com.au
However, late ripeners such as Cabernets and Merlot tend to struggle here although there has been some qualified success in the warmer parts of the Northern Tasmania's Tamar Valley and the freakish Southern Tasmanian exception of the Coal River's internationally acclaimed Domaine A red wines.
Pre-dating other states
Tasmanians are proud to point out that their wine industry actually pre-dates the wine industries of Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. Back in the era when it was known as the Van Diemen's penal colony the first vines were planted to meet the tastes of the penal officers. Importation of wine from Europe or Cape Town was expensive and infrequent.
There is some debate over exactly what year the first vines were planted but they are attributed to Bartholomew Broughton in the early 1820s. Broughton, who in a brief but remarkable life, rose from convict to town clerk, also planted the vines on his farm at what is now the Hobart suburb of New Town. He died in 1828 at the untimely age of 32 but the vineyard was kept going by the new owner, Captain Charles Swanston. According to newspaper reviews in the 1840s Swanston's clarets were well regarded.
By this stage a couple of wineries had started in northern Tasmania around Launceston. In 1868 there were eight Tasmanian vignerons at the huge Inter-colonial Exhibition in Melbourne.
Population exodus and frosty weather
However, it was pretty much all downhill from there for the early Tasmanian wine industry. Several factors were at work. Firstly there was big population exodus from Tasmania to chase the series of 19th century gold rushes in Victoria. Then there was Tasmania's fickle cold and frosty weather and the absence of fungicides and pesticides to deal with vine pests and diseases.
The final and doomed major commercial enterprise was attempted by silk merchant, Diego Bernacchi, who was producing large amounts of wine on Maria Island off the south-east coast in the 1890s and exhibiting his wine in Melbourne. James Halliday in his Australian Wine Atlas adds the colourful anecdote:
èHe subsequently sought investors, and is said to have attached artificial branches to the vines and sailed past the island at night with potential investors, pointing to the vines with the aid of a lamp. They were unimpressed and Bernacchi faded away.î
By the time of Federation and the lifting of inter-colonial wine tariffs the Tasmanian wine industry was well and truly dead and buried. The emphasis of the Australian wine industry for much of the first half of the twentieth century on fortified wine did nothing to spark a resurrection as this was a style that Tasmania could not make at competitive prices compared to South Australia and NSW.
The contemporary Tasmanian wine industry began humbly in the 1950s by European immigrants with a taste for dry table wines - in the north by Jean Miguet's La Provence (now called Providence) and Claudio Alcorsco's Moorilla Estate near Hobart. Both had to fight for many years against local licensing laws that prevented winemakers from being able to sell their wines directly to the public and the xenophobia against "wogsî. The Miguets' vines were even attacked with Agent Orange!
Fortunately attitudes and licensing laws have changed and since the 1980s the island has undertaken a boutique winery transformation in the Tamar Valley and the series of valleys around Hobart. There is also substantial investment by the several large wine corparations in the nothern Piper's Brook area to produce sparkling and flinty white wines.
Tasmania is a large area with a diverse climates, soils and topography. The Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation still refers to the island as a single zone with no specified regions. Partly this reflects the small size of most of the producers but there has been no local push to create official designated regions.
In recent years there has been a more concerted local push to market an informal division between the North Tasmania (Tamar River and Piper's Brook) and the South Tasmania (Huon Valley, Derwent Valley, Coal Valley and arguably the East Coast around Bicheno).
Until the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation (the body that regulates wine region boundaries) moves to create formal regions we will divide the wineries into the informal North-South divide with the exception of the East Coast wineries that do not fit neatly into this divide. For our purposes here they will be listed under the Tasmanian Zone.