One for the road
When vignerons Stuart Bryce and Andrew Hood walked into Tasmania's Department of Primary Industries 20 years ago to propose planting vines, they were made a laughing stock. 'Plant maize,' said the government, 'there's no future in grapes.' One of the planet's most southerly islands, Tasmania has long been known for its isolation, wilderness and ability to produce four seasons in one day. But Bryce and Hood were convinced grapes could flourish and vowed to follow their dreams, the fruits of which have recently sent excitement rippling through the international wine scene. Tasmania's wine industry is booming and is at the forefront of one of the island's latest tourist ventures: self-drive wine tours.
Gazing over his small but abundant vineyard outside Lilydale in northeast Tasmania, Bryce laughs at the government's shortsightedness of old. The Sydneysider was a pilot for the Royal Australian Air Force, but gave up his career after driving through Lilydale's lush rolling hills and abundant forests while on holiday in the early 1980s. The basalt-rich soils coupled with warm summers and cool winters are similar to that of Champagne in France, and ideal for ripening grapes slowly and developing the intense, delicate and refined flavours essential in sparkling and dry white wines.
Grapes weren't new to the small acreage established by fifth-generation winemaker and French migrant Jean Migeau in the 1950s, which Bryce bought soon after his holiday. Migeau was ostracised by the conservative locals for brewing alcohol, but he sewed the seeds for the future of wine. Some of the old vines still stand, including a row of pinot noir that Bryce prizes above all others and used to make his celebrated pinot noir reserve, winner of the Australian Pinot Noir Challenge two years in a row.
Tasmania's wine industry couldn't have blossomed at a better time. After years spent struggling for recognition, the island's gourmet food and wines are setting new standards in quality. Tasmania is Australia's leading producer of cheese, oysters, salmon, abalone, olives and mustard, as well as saffron, wasabi, ginseng, straw-berries, cherries and apples. All produce draws on the island's greatest assets: clean air and water. So pop a cork at the wineries listed here and sample the fruit of the vines that flourish in pristine conditions.
In the north
Starting in Launceston, the wine trail loops the Tamar Valley, with its sleepy riverside villages and pretty vineyards. All wineries in the north are about an hour's drive from the state's second city. Maps are available at all good hotels and from Tourism Tasmania.
Providence Wines Owned and run by Bryce, this eight-hectare vineyard produces some of the finest wines on the island. The Cellar Door also features wines from smaller vineyards. Try Providence's dry fruity riesling, A$20 ($120) a bottle, or Bryce's best drop, the reserve pinot, made from his 50-year-old vines, A$125. See www.providence-vineyards.com.au.
Jansz This winery produces an all-sparkling cuvee range made according to the methode champenoise, introduced by celebrated champagne house Louis Roederer. The zesty, award-winning Jansz Premium Cuvee was declared best-value wine of the year at the International Wine Challenge 2002. The winery is in the heart of the Pipers River region. See www.jansztas.com.
Ninth Island Named after a small island in Bass Strait that is overlooked by the vineyard, Ninth Island produces high-quality, aged table wines under the label Pipers Brook, notably riesling, gewurztraminer and pinot gris. See www.pbv.com.au.
Rosevears Estate This picturesque vineyard can be a little snobbish but it has stunning views from its award-laden restaurant overlooking the Derwent River. If you can bear the attitude, Rosevears also has plush rooms from A$180 a night in peak season. See www.rosevearsestate.com.au.
In the south
Branching east and south from the capital, Hobart, the southern wine route plunges into the lush Huon Valley before heading to historic Coal Valley, which is speckled with convict-era ruins and colonial villages. Wineries are no more than two hours' drive from the capital.
Moorilla Estate Arguably Tasmania's most famous winery, Moorilla (Aboriginal for 'rock by the water') was established in 1958 by Italian entrepreneur Claudio Alcorso and produces some of the island's best vintages. On a peninsula 20 minutes' drive from Hobart, the winery has a museum, a restaurant open for lunch and slick apartments overlooking the Derwent River that start at A$310 a night in peak season. See www.moorilla.com.au.
Home Hill One of the wine route's best-kept secrets, Home Hill is 30 minutes' drive from Hobart and has vistas of the Huon Valley. Its restaurant serves simple but luscious food and wines, including rose, chardonnay and cuvee. See www.homehillwines.com.au.
Meadowbank The winery occupies a stunning site overlooking the Coal Valley. A restaurant at the vineyard serves fancy food and outstanding wines. Try the Henry James Reserve Pinot (A$45) and the slightly spritzy, unwooded chardonnay (A$22). See www.meadowbankwines.com.au.
Springvale Wines Situated on the Freycinet Peninsula on Tasmania's sunny east coast, Springvale produces a range of German- and French-style wines. These include a marvellous pinot noir scented by cherry oak and rich red fruits (A$32). See www.springvalewines.com.
Try before you fly A range of Providence, Rosevears and Moorilla wines is available from Boutique Wines in Horizon Plaza, Ap Lei Chau (tel: 2872 4234).
Don't forget James Halliday's Australian Wine Companion 2005 (A$29.95, HarperCollins). This book has tasting notes, information on the vineyards, vintage ratings and advice on optimal drinking and matching food with wine.