Let’s do some free association. I’ll say a word, and you respond with the first word that comes to your mind. Ready? Here we go:

Tasmanian.

Chances are good that you just said Devil. That’s certainly what I would have said a month ago. But now that I’ve been to Tasmania, the first word that comes to my mind is Pinot. Or, depending on my mood, maybe Riesling or sparkling wine.

Most people have no idea where Tasmania is, much less which wines it produces. For the record, Tasmania – which should be distinguished from Tanzania (in Africa) and Transylvania (in Europe) – is an island located just south of Australia’s eastern coast. Tasmania, which is one of Australia’s states (think Hawaii), comes in at roughly 26,000 square miles (think West Virginia) and 500,000 residents (think Wyoming).

The island is remote, tiny, and beautiful. Tasmania’s remoteness contributes to the scarcity of its wines – very few Tasmanian wines ever make it to the U.S., and a good many of the better producers sell out every vintage at the cellar door and via restaurant sales. The island’s small size makes touring its seven wine regions a fairly simple proposition. And Tasmania’s beauty – one-third of the island has been given World Heritage Site designation – means that visiting its wineries is a breathtaking delight. All of this is good news for the oenophile who finds himself in Tasmania – assuming, of course, that the wines are any good.

And wow, are they good.

One of the chief pleasures of wine tasting is discovering a relatively obscure wine region that is chock full of relatively undiscovered wines. When these wines also prove to be elegant, complex, and beautiful expressions of their distinctive terroir – well then, you’ve hit the jackpot.

And that’s what this article is principally about – to tell you that Tasmanian wine is a stinkin’ jackpot. It’s the pot of gold at the end of a really distant rainbow. Tough to get there, but once you’ve managed the journey impossible to leave without having wrapped at least a case of those gold bars into your check-in luggage. (At California airports, U.S. Customs charges duty and tax on cases of wine – probably also on gold bars, I don’t know – unless, of course, you have an eight-months-pregnant traveling companion to distract the officers from the declarations on the back of your customs card. But that’s another story entirely.)

Tasmania is remarkable in the variety of wine that it produces at world-class levels. Burgundy makes amazing Pinot Noir. Champagne makes amazing sparkling wine. Germany and Alsace make amazing Riesling. And the Loire Valley makes amazing Sauvignon Blanc. Tasting wine in Tasmania is like being in all of these regions at once. That may be overstating it, but not by much. I can think of no other wine region like it – including my native Napa Valley.

This is all the more impressive in view of the relative youth and exponential growth of the Tasmanian wine industry. Some wineries have been around for a while, but most of the current wave-making is done by new wineries and young winemakers. Likewise, the Tasmanian wine scene has yet to reach its apex (approximarely150 wineries in the year 2000 grew to 300 wineries in 2006). But its growth explosion does not appear to have lowered the quality of Tasmanian wine. This is in part attributable to the regulations governing the Tasmanian wine appellation: while wineries can ship their fruit to the mainland, they cannot use any non-Tasmanian fruit in their wines.

Although Tasmania is part of Australia, its climate has little in common with the desert regions of the Outback or the tropical regions of the Great Barrier Reef. As the most southerly point in Australia, Tasmania boasts the coolest climate in the country. It is unsurprising therefore, that Tasmanian wines more closely resemble European wines than, say, the Barossa Valley’s typically alcoholic, robust, fruity offerings.

Tasmania’s cool climate of course helps determine its most successful grapes. Pinot Noir, a classic cold weather varietal, accounts for a whopping 45 percent of Tasmania’s wine production. Tassie Pinots compare favorably to those of its neighbor New Zealand, which have been fashionable of late. One of the cellar masters at Meadowbank, a highly-regarded boutique winery in Tasmania’s Coal River Valley, explained this by noting that Tasmania’s Pinot vines tend to be significantly older than New Zealand’s. Some New Zealand producers use hot fermentation to extract more character from their grapes to make up for its young vines. By contrast, Tasmanian Pinots get this depth of character naturally through the age of its vines, which preserves a certain finesse that hot fermentation tends to strip from wine.

It is this finesse that strikes me as the hallmark of Tassie Pinots. Those I tasted possessed complexity and sometimes power, along with classic Burgundian flavors of earth, cherries, forest floor, mushrooms, and a woodsy spice. But they also possessed a lightness of being, a velvet texture, a delicate integration that suggested the perfect confluence of vine, terroir, and climate.

Pinot Noir isn’t the only show in town, however. One can find delightful examples of Chardonnay (oaked and stainless steel), Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon (lots of bell pepper, a little green), Pinot Grigio/Gris, and Sparkling Shiraz. Worth mentioning at greater length is Tasmania’s impressive Riesling, which is probably the second most important grape in the region next to Pinot. Almost every winery in Tasmania produces at least one Riesling, and many make several. While some of these Rieslings are ripe/semi-sweet in the Germany Spatlese style, the majority is more akin to Alsatian Rieslings – dry, steely, mineral-laden, full of lime and slate, and often infused with a petrol quality. And like German and Alsatian varieties, many Tasmanian Rieslings have the acidity to facilitate long aging. Several enjoyable swallows of Riesling from the 1990s made this point clear enough.

Notwithstanding Tasmania’s small size and relative anonymity in the wine world, its winemakers aren’t shy about their wines’ success or potential. Especially when it comes to one of their favorite subjects – Tasmania’s delicious sparkling wine.

To wit: My first winery visit was to Moorilla Estates in the Derwent Valley, a small winery in a modern building boasting lovely views, prominently-hung art, and a restaurant gastronomique. The naked bodies on the wine labels, photographed in a bacchanalian embrace, wasn’t the boldest thing about this winery – though its chosen theme of “licensciousness” was indeed quite brash. No, the boldest thing about Moorilla Estates was a casual statement made by Daniel, who was pouring wines for me to taste.

“Tasmania’s fruit may be better for sparkling wine than Champagne’s fruit.”

A little stunned, all I could ask was Really? He continued:

“Tasmania should be producing the second-best sparkling wine in the world, behind Champagne. Our fruit is as good or better, but we don’t have the knowledge or skill that Champagne’s vintners have. But in time, we will.”

Perhaps. Having tasted first-hand the stunning quality of which Tasmanian wine is capable, I’m not inclined to doubt it. What’s more, a serendipitous encounter with a bottle of 1995 Arras, the first-ever vintage of what is widely considered Australia’s best sparkling wine, convinced me that Tasmania’s pretensions to the Champagne throne is something more than vain fancy.

But the real question is whether we Americans will ever get a chance to find out. Very little Tasmanian wine ever makes it to these shores. The best wineries, like Meadowbank and Moorilla, easily sell all of their stock through a combination of cellar door sales, restaurant wine programs, and in some cases, domestic retail distribution. For most of these boutique producers (and almost every winery in Tasmania qualifies as boutique), shipping to the U.S. is cost-prohibitive and unnecessary.

Maybe one day some American importer/distributors will seek out high-quality Tasmanian boutique wineries and find a way to include them in their portfolio. If so, watch out – before you know it, Tasmania may be better known for its Pinot than its Devils.

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