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Tasmania’s Gourmet Paradise

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Photo: Hugo Stewart

Elitist, inevitably; flattering to yuppie narcissism, check; but in Tasmania, utterly necessary. For much of its modern history, Tasmania has been content to molest itself for the commodity buck. In the north, the mountains around Queenstown are a moonscape, thanks to decades of copper smelting. One of Tasmania's largest industries is still logging; and to the horror of environmentalists around the globe, Tasmania's old-growth forests are logged by clear-cutting and burning, only to be turned into wood chips. After a huge swath of forest has been cut, the largest logs are removed; the remaining scrub is lit on fire with liquefied diesel gel, better known as napalm. The ground is then seeded with eucalyptus. Poisoned carrots are scattered to kill off any wildlife—possums, wallabies, wombats, quolls, and potoroos—that might eat the seedlings. In the northwest, I saw the legacy of logging with my own eyes: in the middle of a dense tangle of primeval forest, blue gum trees stand in rows, like obedient schoolchildren.

Here artisanal food and ecotourism are more than trendy sensualism: they're competitors to the island's extractive industries, industries rooted in a thoroughly unsensual worldview. Prisoners, of course, ate nothing but duff, hog peas, and suet; but even affluent settlers were incorrigibly English. Some of them built their Georgian houses pointed to the south, even though in the Southern Hemisphere the sun is to the north. The Anglo-Saxon mind-set only started to give way in the 1950's, when, thanks to newly relaxed immigration laws, continental Europeans arrived in greater numbers. They noticed immediately what their predecessors had missed: Tasmania's climate was a near-perfect facsimile of the Mediterranean's. The first modern Tasmanian grapevines were planted in backyards, by Italians; a wine industry slowly began to develop, followed by specialty cheeses, nuts and fruits.

If ever there were an antidote to a brutish past, it is Annie Ashbolt, a radiant woman in her forties. "The early olive farmers in the midlands were all Greek and Italian immigrants," she tells me over coffee in Hobart. In the early eighties, her husband, Robert, began managing his family's farm. Only a decade earlier, Robert's grandfather had been paid by the government to uproot his old-growth apple trees. "Corporate farming was taking over Australia," says Annie. She and Robert were determined to stem the industrial tide and return the farm to its small-scale roots, planting groves of olive and elder-flower trees. They now produce a beautiful olive oil, fruity and raw with notes of mown grass and apple. It is widely regarded as one of Australia's best.

The story she told me I heard over and over from the island's small producers: we're a raging success; we can't keep up with demand; we're barely hanging on. Production costs are high, regulations stack the deck against the boutique producer, and, in recent years, climate change has aggravated the vagaries of Tasmania's fickle weather. After our coffee, Annie walked me back to my car. She spoke breathlessly about Tasmania's future. "We are too isolated to compete in the commodity marketplace. We have to value-add." But the island's humility is deeply ingrained. Tasmania is a paradise, Annie believes, complete unto itself but for one thing: sufficient self-respect to recognize itself as such.

At the opposite extreme of commodity agriculture lies terroir, the semimystical French idea of soil, air, and climate as they express themselves in grapes, and subtly imprint a wine with the character of a place. The Tasmanian wine industry aspires to cultivate the island's unique terroir, without giving an inch to the byzantine snobberies of the French. Nonetheless, it is a premium wine industry, the cool-climate, small-scale answer to a mainland famous for warm-climate Shiraz and the industrial plonk known as Yellow Tail. In the south, Pauillac-style wines thrive, like the firm-shouldered Cabernets of the Domaine A vineyard. Halfway up the coast is Apsley Gorge, where Brian Franklin, Tasmania's most committed Burgundian, makes a gorgeous Pinot Noir in a repurposed fish factory. (In season, Franklin, a former abalone diver, will catch and grill you a fresh seafood feast to blow your mind.) But my favorite stop along the Tasmanian wine trail was Meadowbank Estate, a temple to the progress the island's wine industry has made over the past 30 years.

Meadowbank's cellar is an open-plan building with massive windows overlooking the vineyards of the Coal River Valley and the glinting blue-black estuaries of Barilla Bay. Inside, all is crisp, lightsome, easygoing, and neat as a pin. Cathedral ceilings are strung with catwalks and Oregon-timber pillars that were once ballast for Tasmanian ships. Visiting Meadow­bank on a blazing day in early spring, I met two of Tasmania's wine-making pooh-bahs, Andrew Hood and Tony Scherer. Hood is the dean of Tas­manian winemakers, the man responsible for designing many of the island's finest Pinots. He is 59, snowy-haired, and for an Aussie, very English. Scherer, a rangy American in work boots and dungarees, runs the vineyard at Frogmore Creek, Tasmania's most prominent organic vineyard. We sat down to an impeccably presented feast—roasted chicken in a soft polenta, seared scallops in a black pudding, cutlets of Flinders Island lamb, and the freshest oysters I have ever encountered—and as we ate, both men began to speak candidly about the state of Tasmanian wine.

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