There are a lot of challenges growing wine grapes in Tasmania, but the rewards balance these out. Wine grapes are in high demand but the vineyard area is being expanded at a steady pace. There seems to be a positive story wherever you look. Nathan Gogoll reports.
THE PAST TWO vintage reports from the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia provide an insight into the parallel universe that Tasmania operates in. While many regions across the country battled with unprofitability in 2014 and 2015, this year 99 per cent of Tassie’s grape production was declared profitable – which almost matched the previous year’s 100 per cent strike rate.
Demand outstrips supply on the island and grape prices are high, but they have to be, because it is not an easy or cheap place to grow grapes.
There are about 1800Ha of wine grapes planted across Tasmania (including new, non-bearing vines) and this figure has jumped by between 250 and 300Ha in the past five years.
The average crush across the past five years has been 8,500 tonnes, but the largest single season saw close to 12,000 tonnes crushed.
There are 160 licensed producers, of which three-quarters crush less than 100 tonnes.
The average vineyard holding in Tasmania is about five hectares, but one viticulturist reckons there wouldn’t be a grower on the island who hasn’t been approached by a winery to see if they had any plans to expand their vineyard.
“There is huge demand for fruit and Tassie wine is very popular at the moment, but despite this the vineyard growth has been very steady,” said Marty Smith, from Absolute Viticulture. “It’s often left to the bigger companies – if the smaller growers are having a go most of the time ii is no more than one or two hectares at a time.”
Sheralee Davies, Wine Tasmania CEO, confirmed “a lot of growth is coming in the ‘middle’ segment, in terms of size” and is not restricted to vineyard planting, there are also upgrades to processing facilities and improvements being made to cellar doors on the back of the growth of wine sales.
“We’re also delighted to have established companies here, often the larger and more mature operators, that are based off the island,” said Davies.
“There is a recognition from all the producers that Tasmania is the focus and can attract a premium – I think the producers realise the more we can all do, the more success we have together, everyone benefits.”
DEMAND FOR FRUIT ENCOURAGES DEVELOPMENT
Julian Allport, from Moores Hill Estate (Tamar Valley) – and a former Wine Tasmania board member, said it was hard to get access to fruit. “It’s so tight it’s not funny.”
“Most people make what they grow, so things have been very slow to grow. Every large company and a lot of smaller guys are all trying to buy more fruit,” Allport said.
“I guess what we’ve seen is organic growth and where there has been investment we’ve had some really good investors, like the Hill Smith family, come in and make a positive contribution. I also think all the work Wine Tasmania has been doing around market-driven growth has been great.
“I think we have got all the skills down here, but everything costs more.”
It costs Allport “thousands” to transport equipment and tanks to Tasmania. And when it comes to moving the finished product to the key markets, freight costs are again an issue.
“If you are shipping wine to Melbourne, you’re looking at $250 per pallet. Sydney is up near $550. But you can get a pallet to Hong Kong for about $400.”
While there are limited exports from Tasmania, there is clearly awareness of the quality of the wine from the island in export markets. Some of this, as people have already mentioned, relies on the strength of the larger brands. Jansz, which is owned by Hill Smith Family Vineyards, is one example.
“We bought it from Andrew Pirie in 1997 and the first vintage we were involved with was 1998,” said Robert Hill Smith. “Our family and I were always fascinated by Tasmania. We knew if we were ever going to make really seriously sparkling wine this would be the place.”
But Hill Smith Family Vineyards have also been active in Tasmania’s more recent developments. The family company added a second Tasmanian brand, more vineyards and a small production site to its portfolio when Dalrymple at Pipers Brook was purchased in 2007 from Burt and Molly Sundstrup.
THE HOMEWORK HAS BEEN DONE
Marty Smith is currently managing the second biggest single-year vineyard planting project in Tasmania’s history. This expansion belongs to Vanessa and Neville Bagot, who recently bought Barringwood, near Devonport, and is located on an ex-Gunns property at Evandale, near Launceston. There was already a large dam established on the Evandale site and the former owners were planning to develop vineyards on the site.
“We have put a heap of effort into the research for this project. Dean Lanyon, who used to be with the CSIRO, has been on site to help out and we dug 50 soil pits down two metres and had the soil tested. With all that information we then did some mapping and matching for where varieties and clones would be planted.
“We’ve matched different clones to different soil types across the property,” said Smith. “In areas where we’d expect a bit more vigour we have planted the sparkling clones and the leaner dirt is where we have the table wine clones.
“Most of the fruit will be sold and the Bagot’s have already attracted a fair bit of attention because of that, people are desperate to get hold of fruit at the moment so it’s a very ‘talked about’ project.
“I think this sort of development is really good for the industry.”
Robert Hill Smith said there’s a lot of enthusiasm for development in Tasmania at the moment, “but it is not without risk”.
“There are a lot of people down there who’d like to grow more grapes but they’re either in the wrong spot, only have a small title, or lack water. A lot of people think Tasmania is a wet and rich and fertile place but it’s just not true,” said Hill Smith
He encourages anybody who wants to plant a vineyard to do the sort of research that Smith has done at Evandale – to work on site selection, soil mapping and where the water will be sourced from.
“It is a place of high risk and high reward. You don’t know how high until you put your own money down,” said Hill Smith.
“By its very nature it will look, externally at least, like an artisanal wonderland. There is a real sense of discovery about Tasmania, which is helped by things like MONA and the heritage and environment. But it all leaves a very positive image in people’s minds. I’m still very excited by it, I love it.”
Site selection for vineyards is incredibly important in Tasmania, but even when you find the right spot there are still challenges. Smith grew up in Tasmania but had been working in Langhorne Creek before he moved home to start his own consultancy, so he knows how much extra work is involved in Tasmania.
“It’s a whole different kettle of fish that’s for sure. There is less expertise down here and it’s more expensive to get hold of things, we’re looking at a premium of 25 per cent on top of what the guys on the mainland pay for just about everything,” said Smith. “And you only have to look at the deep clay ripping we’ve been doing on this latest development, there’s probably only two or three tractors in Tasmania that are set up to do that job for us.
“But we all talk to each other and that way we can find out who is able to help with different jobs.
“There is still absolutely lots of scope for improvement though, if you look at it we don’t have any true source blocks set up yet and there’s no local vine improvement committee. So it will all be upwards and onwards from here. Tassie is going gangbusters and it’s a really good story for the industry.”
POSITIVITY AND EXCITEMENT
Davies said people across Tasmania were still celebrating the Jimmy Watson trophy being won by the Huon Valley’s Holm Hill.
“We are lucky we’ve got that sort of opportunity, but it feels like we’ve had a bit of a constant run of good news. There is a lot of positivity.”
Davies said the best sign of confidence in the Tasmanian wine and viticulture industry has been seeing “people putting money back into their own sector”.
“We know people aren’t doing it here because it’s easy, there are many other regions where it would be cheaper and easier, but people are excited about development in Tassie.”
This article was first published in the November 2015 edition of the Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine.
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