Thursday, October 11, 2012

Down, Down Under: Tasmanian Pinot Noir

The east coast of Tasmania, a far-off haven for pinot noir.
Shiraz isn’t the only premium wine coming out of Australia. Regions like Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and Coonwarra may have put Australia on the wine map, but remember that Australia is a huge place, full of incredibly diverse soils and climates capable of producing more than just blueberry jam-flavored red wine.

Today I want to focus on a producer from Tasmania, that lonely island off the continent’s southern coast. The winemakers at Spring Vale have been growing grapes in the unique climate of Tasmania’s Freycinet Coast for almost 25 years. Located on the east coast of the island, this is the driest part of Tasmania, and the vines require drip irrigation to flourish. The Freycinet Coast also gets quite cold, and the Spring Vale crew uses overhead sprinkler systems to fight frost and a wind machine to blow cold air away from the vines when the temperature drops. Spring Vale planted its first vines (two acres of pinot noir) in 1986. In 1996 they planted more pinot noir as well as three different white grape varieties: chardonnay, gewürztraminer and pinot gris.

Spring Vale pays homage to classic French grapes but it is a distinctly Australian endeavor. Their cellar is a stable that was built in 1842 by convict labor. The cellar door is open to the public seven days a week, from 11-4, but closed on Boxing Day. And winemaker Dave Cush loves to use the word “reckon.”

Spring Vale takes pride not only in their wines but in the Freycinet Coast as a serious wine region. They strive to “promote the Freycinet Coast and Tasmania as food and wine destinations” and to “promote the Freycinet Coast and Tasmania as super-premium Pinot Noir regions.” My experience with pinot noir from Tasmania is rather limited, but I think Spring Vale is on to something. And other producers like Pirie and Freycinet Vineyard have tempted my palate to explore more Tasmanian pinot.

This week I had the pleasure of drinking a 2005 Spring Vale Vineyards Pinot Noir. Aromatically, this wine was a bit reticent at first, but it opened up over the course of the evening to show sour cherries, chewing tobacco and an aroma that reminds me of tree bark. On the palate this pinot has a creamy body, fine tannins and tangy acid. Sour cherry and red plum fruit dominate, with secondary flavors of rhubarb, rose petals and a hint of tobacco. The approach is elegant and refined. It has the structure of a well-aged village-level Burgundy, but it lacks some of the earthier characteristics of Burgundy. Flavors of tangy cranberries and pickling spices linger on the finish. This pinot has aged well, but it may be entering it’s twilight. I'd like to try it again in five years and be proved wrong, though. I rated this wine a conservative 88 points.

After drinking Spring Vale’s 2005 pinot noir I realized the winemakers put up a YouTube video on this very wine. It’s fun hearing them discuss the 2005 vintage in “Tazzie” and how their pinot can age. “I hope you learn something drinking the wine,” says the winemaker. Well, I sure did: I need to track down more Tazzie pinot.

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