The island of Tasmania has long held a sense of fascination among wine enthusiasts. Part of the mystique that captivates consumers and the trade is tied up with the region’s unique flora and fauna; a Tasmanian devil goes a long way in that regard. But another part of the appeal lies in the island’s location south of the Australian mainland that should theoretically provide the perfect conditions for the production of cool climate wines.
Today, there can be no doubt that Tasmania has ascended to a place of prestige among Australia’s 65 or so growing regions. Despite the fact that the island’s 160 wineries produce less than 1% of Australia’s total wine production, Tasmania is now seen as one of the country’s best regions for pinot noir, aromatic whites and sparkling wine.
But the problem from an American perspective is that so few wines from the island make it to our shores that it is difficult to gain a fuller understanding of the Tasmanian wine industry. Over the last two decades, there have only been about 15 wineries from Tasmania that have ended up on the shelves and wine lists in the States. Getting a more complete reading on the current state of play in Tassie requires travelling there and immersing yourself in the local industry. Not a bad way to see what is happening but it does take time and money.
That’s why I was particularly excited to hear that Aussie wine writer Tyson Steltzer had organized an overview of Tasmanian sparkling wines that would be required attendance for Australian wine enthusiasts like myself. Tyson’s tasting in New York assembled a smorgasbord of Tassie fizz that included a few mainstays, some small batch releases that I had never encountered and a few of the icon cuvees that one only tastes when lucky enough to judge the sparkling category at an Australian wine show.
While still wine, particularly pinot noir, captures the imagination of Yanks, the sparkling wine category is actually driving much of the Tasmanian wine industry these days. About 40% percent of all grapes grown are destined for the heavy bottle which has helped to keep grapes prices up, an important factor in keeping the expensive farming aspect of winemaking financially sustainable.
While the ability of Tasmania to make fizz got its foundation when the house of Louis Roederer arrived in 1986, lured by a climate they saw as ideal, records indicate that the first bubblies were produced in 1826. Roederer pulled out of the project a decade later allowing Yalumba’s Hill-Smith family to swoop in and acquire the property and Jansz was born. Not long afterwards, neighbor Andrew Pirie, widely credited for being Tasmania’s first grower and winemaker in the modern era, started fiddling around with bubblies as well.
As Australian wines began to gain traction in the American market, sparkling labels like Jansz were joined by Clover Hill (an estate owned by Clos du Val’s parent company), 42 Degrees South, and Ninth Island, the first cuvees made by Pirie. But many of the smaller wineries that dabbled with fizz never made it across the Pacific. This New York tasting would provide a unique chance to see how far the category had progressed since those first efforts.
In the early days, what Tasmanian sparklers that were encountered had mostly possessed subtle and understated palates with an emphasis on delicacy over power. The fruit was youthful and primary with subtle acids contributing to soft finishes. For the most part, toasty/yeasty autolytic characters were rarely encountered.
At this tasting, many of the brands and cuvees that now have 10+ years of production experience under their belt exhibited marked increases in quality. Ninth Island, and some of the Pirie cuvees showed more depth and length with a level of complexity rarely encountered early on. At the same time, there were more than a few bottlings which continued on with the more simplistic, primary fruit style that initially defined the category.
The big excitement, however, laid with the wines that were appearing in the US for the first time. Apogee, the latest sparkling wine endeavor from Andrew Pirie, was on point as one would expect from a winemaker who has spent decades honing his craft. Apogee’s first release came in 2010 and the latest bottling has seen a refinement in style as the new vineyard, located a short walk from his home and winery, gains more maturity. Sourced from the Pipers River subregion which has been the focus of Andrew’s efforts over the years, the palate is intense with loads of citrus placed on the classically tight and focused framework, the vibrant acids acting to add length and line to the finish.
Stefano Lubiana’s vineyards lie in the Derwent River Valley on the southern portion of the island. Over the past 25 years, he has carved out a niche as one of the top pinot producers as he slowly converted his vineyard to biodynamics. A non-vintage Brut blend was quite pleasant, fuller on the palate and hinting at some complexity but the 2008 Grand Vintage revealed another dimension of complexity and presence. Medium bodied, the palate reveled in an array of fruits and spices and stood its ground as a step up from the winery’s classic cuvee.
While it was great to taste some Tasmanian bubblies for the first time and to get re-acquainted with some old friends, it was the chance to actually drink, not taste, one of Australia’s best sparkling wines that got me excited about this event. The House of Arras can legitimately be declared Australia’s best producer of sparkling wine. Indeed, their best wines are world-class and easily rival what the French can do.
Ed Carr is the winemaker here and he has devoted decades to making fizz. He stumbled into sparkling wine production working under Penfolds winemakers John Duval and Kym Tolley making fizz for the value-priced Seaview label which had a small presence in the States back in the day. Lured from there to work for the Hardy family, he set up the Arras wine project in 1998 and the wines have seen nothing but success since then.
The brand today consists of six different cuvees but it’s the various late disgorged bottlings that comprise the peak of the portfolio that shock and delight the palate. They show the classic toasty and autolytic qualities that champagne enthusiasts crave, placed upon a notable yet finely hewn palate. Those characteristics, expansive and coiled, persist on the slowly expanding backpalate and all these qualities came through in the 2003 Arras “E.J. Carr” Late Disgorged Brut, shown for the first time ever in the US.
En tirage for ten years, it seemed that the re-orienting of the shape and flavor of Tassie fizz could have come from wineries keeping their wines in bottle for a bit longer prior to disgorgement. Andrew Pirie was reluctant to see extended time on cork as the cause for increased complexity. Instead, those winemakers that are more comfortable with more oxidative juice handling are shedding these primary fruit flavors and revealing toast and yeast characteristics.
Overall, an exciting tasting and a great opportunity to see a snapshot of the category. It’s through these intensely focused array of wines that some needed knowledge is dispensed and some delicious fizz is consumed. Hopefully, the next one will be soon!