A pair of bare feet leap close past my head as I lie exhausted at the peak of Cradle Mountain in northern Tasmania. I had been reminiscing about the heady fruits of the Apsley Gorge wines from the previous night. The gamey, plush 2017 Apsley Gorge Pinot had stood up to the juicy rib-eye, served up at the Black Cow Bistro (blackcowbistro.com.au), a chic steakhouse in Launceston with a fabulous wine cellar chock-full of diverse and quality local offerings.
The feet belong, I find out soon enough, to a local named Dean. “If you can’t touch nature, you can’t really experience it,” he announces.
It’s the same for curated tastings by appointment at the nearby northern Tasmanian wineries. Only if you go there can you experience first-hand some of the finest wines blessed by nature. The temperate maritime climate, with cooling prevailing Southern Ocean winds and long, mildly warm growing seasons, hits the ripening jackpot: slowly built intensity with impeccable acid retention.
It was this cool climate, reminiscent of Burgundy and Champagne, that attracted one of Tasmania’s great modern pioneers, Dr Andrew Pirie, to northern Tasmania. Pirie and his brother David established Pipers Brook Vineyard in 1973 (now owned by Belgium wine conglomerate Kreglinger).
Pirie remains a leading figure today with his Apogee Tasmania (apogeetasmania.com) winery and a host of collaborative consulting roles for other vineyards. Located in the Pipers River region, about 40km north-east of Launceston and home to the House of Arras, Jansz and neighbour, Clover Hill, Apogee Tasmania sits proudly among them all.
Pirie has created an inviting tasting experience on the cottage verandah overlooking lush rural gardens. Wines on offer range from the rich, fresh Alto Pinot Gris to the complex mineral, fragrant Deluxe Vintage Rosé and the perfumed Alto Pinot Noir. If so inclined you can even chopper in, landing in the front paddock (
When I visit (by land), Pirie says he’s in the midst of writing a new book. He has written extensively in the past, and I’m keen to find out what more he’s got to say on the topic of winemaking. “It’s a lot to do with the humidity, higher humidity and low evaporation.” Pirie says these are the keys to unlocking delicate, perfumed wines, conditions that he has been able to find in Apogee’s special gently sloping, north-facing pocket. He has also created his own version of the Scott Henry vine trellising, reducing overly dense canopies from forming and allowing much needed cooling airflow. His grapes are secretly thankful.
Without doubt, Pirie has cracked the code in his recently released 2018 Apogee Deluxe Rosé, and his perfumed, softly textured 2019 Apogee Alto Pinot Noir, the latter he would happily take to Burgundy to show to one of his favourite makers in Volnay.
Just a little north down the road from Apogee is laconic ex-sheep farmer turned vigneron, Pete Caldwell at Dalrymple Vineyards (
dalrymplevineyards.com.au). Assisted by his Basque-born wife, Mayie, Caldwell’s tasting room resembles a lab, but this lab’s professors are genial, the science low-key and the potions conjured up are “just simple elegance”. Then there are the views, picture perfect across the gently sloping expanse of vines.
While we start with the nutty, stone fruit Cave Block Chardonnay and the spicy forest-fruit Tasmanian Pinot Noir (“a blend of 35 separate parcels”), it’s the string of single block pinots that shine, showing distinctive regional and site specific characters. These range from the plums and spice of the 2016 Swansea Pinot to the flavoursome dark cherry 2017 Coal River Valley Pinot and the spiced berry-rhubarb bake of the 2018 Ouse Pinot, a crowd favourite.
Bernard Brain’s Ouse River Wines’ grapes can be found in Caldwell’s Ouse Pinot (
ouseriverwines.com.au). Brain’s own pinots and chardonnays are laser-sharp, and exquisite. Some of Tassie’s finest labels take his chardonnay fruit for their top drops. The Ouse is a unique site. Stony and elevated, it is in the hottest area in Tasmania, but with a very marked diurnal temperature variance. Caldwell likens it to Central Otago, in climatic conditions and pinot style alike.
Leaving Pipers River, heading west over the Tamar River, we come to Chartley Estate Vineyard (
chartleyestatevineyard.com.au). The estate sits at the northern apex of the Tamar Valley, the largest wine region in Tasmania, and on the west bank of the Tamar River. Chartley is tucked away in its upper reaches, off the beaten track somewhat – my digital navigator sent me to a neighbouring farm. But it is well worth the trek. Loraine Kossmann, with abalone-diver husband Peter, have created an idyllic setting for enjoying their wines on one of the widest parts of the Tamar River, which cuddles their 45ha property, 12ha of which is under vine.
The Kossmanns have grand designs for this site – a cellar door cantilevered over the edge of the bluff overlooking the Tamar River or a riverside tepanyaki restaurant with a glass floor for viewing sparkling wine bottles, which are caged and submerged on the river bed, ageing on lees in restful bliss.
We start on the deck by the river with the lively, red-berried 2016 Sparkling Rosé and then glide through the complex, full-flavoured 2016 Lavinia Premium Sparkling and the lightly oaked, ripe stone fruited 2017 Chardonnay, culminating in the deep, concentrated pinot duo – the 2018 Estate and the 2015 Reserve.
The rieslings sparkle like the river beneath me; they’re award-winning and excellent. This doesn’t happen by chance – the mesoclimate by the river has its part, but Loraine’s meticulous care plays a key role. She admits that she has “become very fussy”, stalking the vineyards daily “with secateurs to check each and every vine. One of my winemakers says I have a name for every bunch of riesling I grow.”
Heading south about half-way back to Launceston is Bob and Rita Richter’s Grey Sands Vineyard (
greysands.com.au). On the western edge of the Tamar Valley, where fine silty grey sand over hardpan and clay rules, the low fertility soil is ideal for their Bordeaux-style wines. Hand-tended, pruned and picked, the vines are planted to malbec, merlot, pinot noir and pinot gris as well as a dozen other experimental varieties that make their way into blends, such as the earthy, sweet-spiced jostaberried 2016 Romanesque Semi Seco, blended from late-ripening Italian varieties. Things are done a little differently here.
Bob and Rita are now looking for a serious Bordeaux style with new plantings of carménère and cab franc. It’s not that The Mattock is frivolous: the merlot-dominant, purple-hued 2015 vintage smells of rich cassis with a grippy, plum-black olive palate with fine oaky tannins. Grey Sands wines are built for cellaring and as Rita points out, “Some varieties need longer in the bottle to meld, so we don’t release our wines until we feel they are a pleasure to drink.” The Richters have conquered the cellaring for you, although further ageing will reward.
Bob and Rita have a new winemaker for their current vintage. Swiss-born Matthias Utzinger, along with Tassie wife Lauren, owns Utzinger Wines vineyard (
utzingerwines.com) just down the road near Rosevears, about 15km north of Launceston. The gently sloping, elevated block, with sweeping views of the Tamar Valley and its river below, is high-density planted, mainly to pinot noir and chardonnay. The pair are looking to add three indigenous Swiss varieties to Tasmania: petite arvine, cornalin and divico. They are optimistic they will adapt well and produce something special to befit this terroir.
Utzinger is enamoured with the region’s long, slow ripening phase that has allowed his winemaking to become more relaxed. “Here has probably the longest vegetative phase I’ve seen anywhere in the world,” he says. “My winemaking has become more of a feeling approach. I don’t use recipes. I approach every vintage with a blank sheet and colour it in as I go.”
The Utzingers have plans to open a cellar door and accommodation to augment the existing rudimentary but picturesque setting. Matthias grabs a few bottles, a couple of glasses and we head up above the vines to take in the views with the Mount Barrow Ranges as a backdrop, and enjoy his fabulous wines: from floral-smoky 2019 Fumé Blanc, the textural, opulent 2019 Chardonnay, the chalky, pure 2020 Riesling and the super-tasty 2019 Pinot Noir.
Before I leave he takes me on a quick tour of his barrel-tank room down below, tasting from tank his superbly perfumed, fruit-forward 2020 Pinot Noir. But I’m distracted: I notice a particular affection he has for his various barrels and tanks as we move through the room. He confides: “I regularly hug my tanks, especially during fermentation.” I become all of a sudden keen to bid him farewell, lest he mistake me for a piece of his wine equipment.
Utzinger is also collaborating with Cate Sumner and Konrad Muller at Supply River Mill Vineyard (
supplyrivermillvineyard.com) to create “greater phenolic ripeness and fruit intensity”. The vineyard offers cabin-style accommodation that “floats above the vines” overlooking the Tamar River: a perfect sojourn to relax on the deck while savouring the complementary latest release.
For Supply River Mill Vineyard’s recent vintages, Ricky Evans, from Two Tonne Tasmania (tttwine.com.au), assisted with the winemaking. While Evans, an acclaimed Bay of Fires alumnus, makes his wines from sites around Tasmania, he has set up his own urban cellar door at Havilah (havilahwine.com.au) in the heart of Launceston. At this cosy, well-appointed wine bar, Evans offers personal curated tastings by appointment. Aside from his quality pinots, try his superbly taut TTT Riesling and beautifully poised TTT Chardonnay.
Heading west out of Launceston towards the Cradle Coast region lies Lake Barrington Estate (
lakebarringtonestate.com.au), perched in a picturesque setting overlooking the eponymous lake. Owner operator Travis Klerck is reimagining the site. Dating from 1984, it’s the oldest vineyard in the state’s north-west – and just 40 minutes to Cradle Mountain.
Continuing the ultra-cool climate sparkling tradition he inherited with the seven-year on-lees Alexandra Sparkling, Klerck is also producing a fresher, funkier Wild Brut Sparkling and small batches of still wines. His latest small batch release is just the one barrel of the 2019 Ceilidh Chardonnay. Klerck welcomes tastings upon request: he’s likely to be waiting for you by the door taking in his stunning outlook.
Heading in the other direction from Launceston to the east coast is Brian Franklin’s Apsley Gorge Vineyard (
email@example.com), 7ha nestled in the Gulch by the seaside near Bicheno. Former abalone diver and lobster fisherman, Franklin, who has notched up over 20 vintages in Burgundy, makes big, bold Burgundian-style wines. The chardonnays are golden-hued, rich and ripe with fruit intensity balanced with a spine of acidity and fine oak notes. The pinots are plush and powerful, with a natural tension, and flavours that dance long in the glass. The latest releases for tasting – the 2019 Chardonnay and the 2017 and 2018 Pinot Noir – are full-bodied, intensely concentrated and superb.
Brand Tasmania is healthy and its northern region wines are super fit, radiating premium cool climate quality. My Cradle Mountain colleague Deano was right: go touch these Tassie vineyards. You can’t truly experience them unless you do. Just please wear shoes.
2019 Apogee Alto Pinot Noir, A$62, is beautifully soft in texture and highly perfumed in the Volnay style. Sweet berry fruit, fleshy with a mid-body poise. Capped by a savoury, powdery tannin finish. Sheer bliss. Pair with twice-roasted free-range duckling (
2017 Apsley Gorge Vineyard Pinot Noir, A$65, is big, aka the bold and the beautiful. If you like that plush, but finely tannined Burgundian style, it’s well worth seeking out. Opulence that craves an aged Angus rib fillet (
2014 Chartley Estate Riesling, A$35, is flinty and crisp, bursting of lime-citrus fruits, underpinned by a long spine of minerality. A lovely textural mouthfeel. A classic, first-rate cool Tamar riesling. Shuck and drain with fresh bay oysters or Teppanyaki-ed lemon-peppered local blacklip abalone (
2018 Dalrymple Cottage Block Pinot Noir conjures dark spiced fruits on the nose that are reflected in a well-balanced palate of berries and rhubarb, with an earthy beetroot note. Partner with citrus-wood smoked quail with Perigord-truffled chevre (Current release 2019, A$64,
2010 Delamere Vineyards Late Disgorged Blanc de Blancs, A$150, from a closely planted site on a steep chilly hill, is a rich yet graceful citrus-brioche offering. Top notch. Fine to have on its very own (
2013 Grey Sands Pinot Noir, A$60, is deep red-robed, with a bouquet of perfumed cherry and a palate of forest fruits and ripe plums. At its prime. Pair with twice-seared wild clover-fed lamb fillets (
2019 Lake Barrington Ceilidh Chardonnay, A$30, has a crisp verve with a lick of fine minerality. Match with a pan-seared Atlantic salmon, seasoned with herbed salt, pepper and a cumin touch (
2018 Ouse River Chardonnay, A$45, has been whole bunch pressed and wild fermented in French barriques. Taut and minerally, but oozes class with a powerful tangy punch. Very fine: among the best of the Tassie 2018 chardonnays. Flies well with grilled brown trout (
2018 Sinapius Close Planted Chardonnay, A$57, is a favourite of vignerons in the area – and of mine. Straw-hued, it has a floral, stone fruit nose. The palate is unctuous and complex: rich white peach and pear set off by a delicate chalky and subtle mineral mouthfeel. A lingering, satisfying finish. Works a treat with saffron-infused grilled ocean trout (
2019 Supply River Mill Vineyard Pinot Noir, A$44 (minimum order of 6), has a bright red hue and an earthy forest floor bouquet that launches soft, lightly oaked cherry-berry flavours. Try with pan-fried pork belly with a parsley sauce (
2019 Two Tonne Tasmania Dog + Wolf Pinot Noir epitomises Ricky Evan’s maxim “small parcels, big love”: intense fruit concentration on a nervy brink, treading the fine line between “tame and wild”, just as Ricky likes it. A charcuterie board completes the experience (2020 release, A$60,
2020 Utzinger Pinot Noir, A$38, is delicate, but full of super-tasty earthy, spiced red fruits, coupled with fine, powdery tannins. Bang on cool climate expression. Pour at Zmittag (lunch) with a veal ragout or raclette (