Wine Region Spotlight: Tasmania
Header image: Devil’s Corner
At National Liquor News, we love wine and the people who make it. Like many industries, Australian wine has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and so to support the sector so dear to our hearts, we’ve launched the Wine Region Spotlight series. Each spotlight, we’ll focus on a region, to celebrate its local producers and shine a light on what’s happening there. This week, we take you to Tasmania.
Tasmania is Australia’s southernmost and coolest wine region, with some of the most varied soils in the world. The island’s weather creates unique challenges for growers and winemakers, and the skill it takes to overcome the risks in the region add an extra layer of complexity behind every bottle of wine from Tasmania.
According to Wine Tasmania, 160 wine producers call the region home, with more than 230 individual vineyards across upwards of 2000 acres. The most commonly produced grape is Pinot Noir, followed by a range of whites including Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
In 2020, although the Tasmanian vintage has been of exceptional quality, the yields are lower and it’s become an incredibly challenging time for growers and makers in the region.
Wine Tasmania Technical Officer, Paul Smart, said: “The island is both one of the most challenging and the most rewarding places to grow grapes in Australia – there are no two seasons and no two vineyards the same. Our dedicated grape growers have to be highly skilled to deal with the variabilities and extremes, as they again demonstrated in 2019/20.”
“Regardless of vineyard location, the 2019/20 season will be remembered as one of the most challenging in recent years.”
We spoke to the people behind Tasmania’s Bay of Fires Wines, Pooley Wines, Home Hill Winery and Brown Family Wine Group’s Tasmanian portfolio (which includes Tamar Ridge and Devil’s Corner) about how they’ve weathered the challenges of the year so far.
Challenges during vintage
According to Wine Tasmania, the harvest period of this year’s vintage in Tasmania went from March through to May, and this of course coincided directly with Australia’s first COVID-19 peak and initial lockdown.
Home Hill Winery’s Kelly Bennett said everything has been compounded this year to create one of the toughest situations they’ve ever had to face
“We have been here for 20 years this September and the last four months have been the hardest ever, especially with losing our Pinot Noir crop last year due to the bushfire smoke taint,” Bennett said.
Angela Gosden, General Manager at Pooley Wines, said most wineries in the region encountered operational challenges with their vintage because of COVID-19, but that they were all just trying to push through it.
“Pooley Wines closed its cellar door for three months from end of March to the end of June. As an essential service business, we had already commenced vintage in March which continued through lockdown,” Gosden explained.
“We were able to redeploy most of our permanent and long term casual cellar door staff to the vineyard, except for about five casuals. We turned our focus to our retail and online wine sales, offering stimulus deals to our club and database. This additional revenue did cater for some revenue lost through the cellar door, but we were heavily reliant on JobKeeper and State growth grants through this period.”
At Bay of Fires, the diverse makeup of staff was an extra cause for concern, as they were worried about Coronavirus both on the island and across the world. This made for an anxious vintage, as Penny Jones, Manager and Winemaker told National Liquor News.
“We were really only getting started with harvest when COVID began in Tasmania, and with a diverse international team of winemakers working in our cellar (from Italy, Germany, Wales and the USA) we were all very anxious about what we were to expect here in Tassie, but also further afield across the world,” Jones said.
“One of the benefits of being based in Pipers River, in Tasmania’s north east, is our natural isolation, so we bunkered down, and committed wholeheartedly to getting through the vintage, one day at a time, with minimal access to life outside the winery.”
Marketing Manager for Brown Brothers Tasmania, Will Adkins, said their team was also very busy and anxious at this time, but like the other wineries, adapted quickly to get through the vintage.
“Lockdown occurred right in the middle of our 2020 vintage in Tasmania which made an ordinarily very busy period even more chaotic. Like everyone around us, we were required to pivot our plans quickly to adhere to the restrictions both in our vintage operations and our customer experience,” Adkins said.
“We closed both our Tamar Ridge and Devil’s Corner Cellar Doors and quickly developed pickup and delivery options for both brands into their local areas. We saw a tremendous amount of support from our local communities during this time and this continues still as Cellar Doors have once again opened.”
Even without the Coronavirus factor, 2020 was shaping up to be extremely challenging for the region. Wine Tasmania said it was a cooler than average season leading to a slower harvest, with cold and constant Spring wind and both too much and not enough rainfall received in different areas.
Jones said: “Tasmania experienced a very difficult growing season, with early drought, and incessant wind that affected flowering and ultimately yields. Rain came frequently during the harvest period, along with high disease pressure, so you can imagine the relief post the hectic vintage period, to realise that the quality of the wine in tank and barrel was actually something pretty special.”
Adkins had a similar sentiment, and said that it was the talent of their team that helped them to persevere.
“The vineyards had a really challenging season but our crews worked around the clock for days to harvest fruit in prime condition before forecast rain events,” Adkins said.
“It reminds us that we are first and foremost farmers working with the seasons to produce a wonderful product in the wilds of Tasmania, relying on our resilience and experience to handle whatever gets thrown at us.”
The road to recovery
A lot of Tasmanian wineries rely heavily on tourism, and with local tourism the only option right now, the road to recovery after lockdown is difficult. As Bennett said: “Home Hill Wines has been extremely slow during this time.”
But weekends are slowly bringing more people back out to support the wineries. Gosden said that is definitely making a difference at Pooley Wines, although it’s just the start.
“We have been very appreciative of the support and it has made a massive difference to staff motivation and morale,” Gosden said.
“We have kept a very close eye on expenditure and continue to do so – we are still not out of the woods yet with the borders continuing to stay closed for the foreseeable future.”
Jones said border closures, both for the state and the entire country at large, may limit tourism, but they also encourage people to support local. Bay of Fires has appreciated the connection retailers give to make this possible.
“I think that COVID has really forced us to look closer to home in sourcing all kinds of supplies, but especially things locally grown and produced… Supporting your local producers is a great way of keepings your neighbours afloat,” Jones said.
Adkins not only described how the support of retailers has been great for the Tasmanian wineries themselves, but also mentioned further reasons to get behind the region.
“Tasmanian wine justifies over double the average sell price than that of any other GI (Aztec) therefore acts as a key region to drive premiumisation. The wines that are coming out of the 2020 vintage are of the highest quality and consistency, so there are some positives for 2020 after all,” Adkins said.
Gosden agreed that “we can all support each other during this time,” noting how the future of the industry can be positively changed.
She said: “The Tasmanian wholesale wines business, including ours, were seriously impacted during lockdown, we are starting to see some recovery with businesses opening but it’s still early days. Call our brand rep Matthew Pooley, he would love to come in for a staff or in-store tasting!”
Smart from Wine Tasmania also encouraged this, and said: “This will help Tasmania’s small wine producers during these challenging times, as well as bring a little flavour of Tasmania to wine lovers.”
Catch up on our previous Wine Region Spotlights here.