You have to hand it to Conor van der Reest. Overseeing the wine production across three of Tasmania’s most historic vineyards, beneath the figurative shadow of David Walsh’s iconic cultural behemoth MONA, must be no easy feat.
Then there’s the respect for tradition such sites deserve, not to mention providing assurance of longevity and sustaining relevance in an industry as fashion-driven as wine. But van der Reest, a Canadian-born winemaker who has called Tasmania home longer than anywhere else, and his team at Moorilla (Derwent Valley), St Matthias (Tamar Valley) and, as of 2018, Domaine A (Coal River Valley), are checking off these boxes with what seems like relative ease. In a wine-producing region as en vogue as Tasmania, the future of these vineyards is in safe hands. And it’s never been more exciting.
Of course, it has taken fair effort to get to this point. The site known to the Mouheneenner people as ‘Moorilla’ (‘rock by the water’) was first established with grapevines in 1958, making it the island’s second oldest vineyard. It carries some serious vinous pedigree, despite little of the original vine material remaining on its 2.5ha. Those first vines (riesling, by the way) were planted by Claudio Alcorso, an Italian immigrant who, in addition to helping form Tasmania’s wine industry, was also the founder of textiles brand, Sheridan. In 1995, after Moorilla went into receivership, Walsh purchased the site, its vineyard and striking modernist architecture. The story goes, explains van der Reest, that Walsh was living across the river and needed somewhere to store his art. The rest is history, well an art history museum.
Moorilla’s location is remarkable, too. Convenient for Walsh to build his museum here it may have been given he was already the site’s custodian, but with its 180-degree views of the Derwent and Mount Faulkner and Kunanyi looming in the background, there is a definite air of tranquility. Buzzing with museum-goers or not, Moorilla is a special place.
During Alcorso’s tenure, in the early 1990s, Moorilla also acquired St Matthias Vineyard in northern Tasmania’s Tamar Valley. Its soils, vastly different and decidedly more fertile compared with those at Moorilla, are home to 13.5ha of vines, which now produce the majority of wine under the Moorilla label. Currently, it’s planted to shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, riesling, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, and chardonnay musqué. The latter, planted in 2009, is an aromatic mutation of the Entav 809 chardonnay clone (it results in wines with chardonnay flavours but floral, muscat-like aromas, hence ‘musqué’) and is van der Reest’s tribute to home – the variety is widely planted in Ontario.
Van der Reest had just finished working at Champagne’s Moët & Chandon in 2003 when he set his eyes on the Apple Isle. The modern Tasmanian wine industry was still very much in its infancy and with its limited web presence, he struggled to get much information on its producers, so instead went to the King Valley. After four years on the mainland, he heard about the job opening at Moorilla. “I jumped at the chance,” he reminisces. “It was either work for Moorilla or move back to Canada. I was offered the job and moved down with high expectations. I haven’t been disappointed.”
From day one, van der Reest has been instrumental in the shaping of Moorilla’s reputation for high-quality, small-production wine. He’s also been an important contributor in the Taswegian wine industry’s journey to the reputation it enjoys today. Van der Reest is not one to stand still: there is fierce determination here – not just to make exceptional quality wine, but to future-proof all Moorilla’s operations through what is now a decade-long set of meticulous, best-practice plans, covering everything from clonal selection to vineyard biodiversity. When you’re making wine from only around 15ha of vines, and catering to one of the most iconic tourist attractions in the Southern Hemisphere, you want to make sure you’re doing everything right.
With MONA’s ever-growing popularity, it was likely only a matter of time before they needed more wine. So, when recently retired Peter and Ruth Althaus put the Domaine A winery and Stoney Vineyard on the market in early 2018, the timing was fortuitous for Walsh to add it to his portfolio. But it wasn’t a case of just needing more wine. Domaine A is one of Australia’s most well-respected labels. Althaus was a revered, passionate and pioneering figure in Tasmanian wine, and the Stoney Vineyard, situated in Campania, in the Coal River Valley, was an unlikely beacon for some of the most exceptional cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc-based wines in Australia.
The operations the Moorilla team found at Domaine A were decidedly more boutique to those over at Moorilla, with things like labelling and bottling to order (even just 10 cases) a trademark of Althaus’ commitment to the long-term ageing of his wines.
“It wasn’t good; it wasn’t bad – it was just the way it worked for his business,” says van der Reest.
But these are minor differences. The respect van der Reest harbours for Althaus is understandable and admirable. The pair worked together during the business transition, where van der Reest made wine with him and gained great insight into Swiss-born Althaus’ European way of doing things.
Sadly, Althaus passed away in January 2021; his wife Ruth died in 2019. For Moorilla, it’s a huge legacy to take on and standards to uphold.
But van der Reest isn’t fazed – he’s excited for the future. “I have a huge amount of respect for Peter,” he explains. “But I know I’m not going to be able to make wine the way Peter did.
“I’m not under any illusions that I can do that.
“For me, it’s really about trying to interpret the vineyard, working around consistency and seeing how awesome the wines were – but slowly trying to change the direction.”
When the Moorilla team arrived, all the Domaine A wines were spending around three years in barrel. The cabernet spent that time in 100% new oak, because it was the only way Althaus could get the staunch tannins to soften. Conversely, van der Reest blends cabernet franc with cabernet sauvignon for softening and earlier bottling.
“I’ve cut one year out of the Petit A (cabernet/merlot blend), and a year and a half out of the pinot noir, because they just didn’t need it,” he says. “And I think a lot of that came down to the fact they were bottling when orders came in.”
There’s also been a lot of planting taking place at Stoney Vineyard. In 2020, almost 3ha of one-year-old rootling vines were put in the ground, all in the name of bringing more fruit on site, and not relying on growers.
“The site here is super low-yielding,” says van der Reest. “When I first moved to Tasmania, I thought, this is crazy. Like, how does this possibly make any sense? Then I came out to Stoney Vineyard and it’s a good 20% lower yielding than Moorilla. It’s slim pickings.”
Althaus had always made enough for the site with the Domaine A label, but with long ageing prior to release (the cabernet sauvignon famously ages between 7 and 10 years before release) there was a need for cashflow wines. That’s where the Stoney Vineyard label came in.
And, pinot noir, on a dedicated cabernet sauvignon site? “Peter never really wanted to make pinot noir,” admits van der Reest. “But the market said they wanted it. Most of what we’ve planted now is pinot.”
That said, it’s not all about what the market wants, either. For van der Reest and viticulturist Peter Mueller, it’s about what works best on the site, too. Cabernet has proven itself on this site and will continue to be a focus.
“There’s a lot of talk about what makes a cool climate, cool,” says van der Reest. “People use formulas and degree days, but for me, it’s almost as simple as, what variety takes the whole season to ripen? We use the whole season to ripen cabernet, and we have no problem ripening pinot, either.”
Regardless of grape variety, the future-proofing work done here transcends any trends. It’s thanks to vinous pioneers like Alcorso and Althaus that we have these incredible vineyard sites, and talented, driven winemakers like van der Reest that we have equally incredible wines to help satiate our thirst for Tasmania.
Top Current Releases
2008 Moorilla Cloth Label Late Disgorged Sparkling, A$145
A fresh, textural, wondrous wine – all brioche, tea biscuits and white flowers with grapefruit undertones and vibrant, lengthy acid.
2015 Domaine A Pinot Noir, A$75
“Pinot noir for cabernet drinkers,” says Moorilla Wholesales Manager Olivia McMenamin. She isn’t wrong – this is vastly different to the lithe pinots associated with the Coal River Valley. Black fruits and spice with ripe, puckery tannins. Hold for at least four to five years.
2015 Moorilla Cloth Label Red, A$75
Fancy a proper field blend? Pinot noir, shiraz, cab franc, cab sav and riesling all made their way into this. Scents of Amaro and alpine herbs, blackcurrant and earthy mushroom. Medium-bodied and delicious drinking.
2017 Lady A Sauvignon Blanc, A$75
Medium- to full-bodied and modelled on the top whites from Bordeaux, this is elite sauvignon blanc with beautiful complexity. Sage, coriander and vanilla bean flavours with gentle oak tannin.
2016 Moorilla Muse Pinot Noir, $54
From a very warm year by Tasmanian standards. A perfumed, characterful pinot with fresh red and black fruits, pepper and cinnamon spice framed by fine tannins.
2015 Moorilla Muse Cabernet Sauvignon Cabernet Franc, A$40
69/31% blend. A sweet, brambly core with blackberries, cassis and tilled earth. It’s almost medicinal in its approach, and distinctively cool-climate.
2014 Domaine A Petit A Cabernet Merlot, A$40
An incredible perfume of bramble and blackcurrants with a graphite edge. It’s medium-bodied with perfectly integrated oak and tannin.
2011 Domaine A Cabernet Sauvignon, A$110
This wine pays testament to Peter Althaus’ vision of long ageing before release. It is truly distinctive, with dark, brooding savoury fruit aromas with tobacco, char and an attractive ferrous note. Fine, beautifully integrated tannins. It definitely has a long life ahead of it. A cabernet sauvignon of distinction.