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Tasmania’s Gourmet Paradise

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Photo: Hugo Stewart

"In an industry of our scale," says Hood, "one individual can be involved from the ground to the consumer. We're one-quarter of one percent of Australian production. The mainland does a huge volume of industrial-scale wine. But when you look at superpremium wines, it's a different story. You couldn't talk about Pinot Noir in Australia without thinking of Tas­mania." Small, to Hood and Scherer, means free. (Hood sums up their world­view bluntly: "Here is what comes out of my vineyard. If you don't like it, bugger off.") It also means very, very vulnerable. Big players are coming into the market, with an eye on China's growing predilection for fine wine. And then there is climate change. "Global warming," says Scherer, "has huge implications for what we'll be eating and drinking over the next fifteen years." Hood agrees. "I've seen a dramatic change," he says. "When I was a kid, the snow on Mount Wellington stayed throughout the winter. Now it snows and it's gone the next day."

Terroir is a painfully sensitive register of environmental change. So far, ironically, despoliation has been kind to Tasmanian Pinot Noir. Vintages used to be hit-and-miss; now, thanks in some part to global warming, for the past three years "each one has been a knockout," says Scherer. High UV radiation, courtesy of Australia's depleted ozone, has thickened grape skins, deepening the color of the wine. In Launceston, I met with Andrew Pirie, the preeminent student of Tasmanian terroir. Pirie created the modern Tasmanian wine industry out of virtually nothing, and is one of only three Tasmanians mentioned by name in Jancis Robinson's definitive Oxford Companion to Wine. "It's a question I could spend days answering," Pirie tells me over tea. "As it gets cooler, as sunshine gets softer, you get more delicate flavors. The mainland is hotter, so they have stronger flavors, with characteristics of olive and leather. Here it is more temperate. We have fruit essences, flowers, and spices."

A soft-spoken and elegant man, the Sydney-born Pirie is "distantly French," as he puts it; he moved to Tasmania in 1980. When Pirie arrived on the scene, wine in Tasmania was still little more than a hobby—there were maybe 1,500 planted vines. He saw immediately that the Tamar Valley was a close cousin to Alsace and Burgundy—where he had apprenticed—with respect to a host of variables like latitude and intensity of sunshine. Pirie and his brother ordered 51,000 vines, and within months, they had started the first commercial development of the modern era.

Thirty years later, the Tasmanian wine industry is a raging success. Two hundred and fifty vineyards now cover 3,200 acres, both numbers representing a twofold increase over the past eight years alone. But, as Scherer and Hood told me, size could spell trouble. In 2003, Tasmania's logging giant, a company called Gunns, acquired the Tamar Ridge label, making them the largest landholder in the northern wine region. Two years later, Gunns hired Pirie to run its vineyards. "It was a shock to everyone," says Hood. "He put Tasmanian wine on the map." Whether Gunns is interested in crafting fine wine is unclear. The company would, however, like to build a pulp mill in the Tamar Valley, in the heart of Tas­mania's northern wine country. The plant would allow the company to process for themselves the old-growth forest they clear-cut. Along the way, its many critics claim, the mill would pump sulfurous effluent into the Bass Strait, to the severe detriment of marine life, not to mention Tasmania's new clean-and-green image. "I won't be renewing my lease until I find out what's been going on," says Daniel Alps. "This could potentially ruin the last ten years of my work."

Pirie appears unruffled by the outcry. "I think it's a response from a small-scale industry," he says. By Tasmanian standards, Tamar Ridge is huge, and yet, adds Pirie, "I go to conferences where I'm considered a boutique producer. The Gunns connection is controversial, but it is a source of funding for an industry that thrives on capital. Many of the better vineyards in France are owned by corporate overlords, and they're fairly relaxed about that." He remains unconvinced by the anxiety brought on by the mill. "Only two days ago," Pirie says, as our tea comes to a close, "I saw the boss of Gunns. He'd just come back from seeing a pulp plant in Chile. It sits in the middle of a sea of vineyards. Vines go up to the walls of the plant. There's a photo of the plant manager drinking the effluent water." He smiles at me reassuringly. "There is a degree of emotion in this that's not entirely rational."

Many places are beautiful; Tasmania burrows deep into your consciousness. Here, on a small island, in an hour's haunting drive, you find everything from dry bushland and white-sand beaches to eucalyptus rain forest and lush pastureland that rivals Vermont. It is like no place on earth, a paradise intelligently designed, if not by God, surely by Alice Waters. Delicacies everywhere, delivered from a nearby arcadia, produced by people who expressed their deepest essence in making it. But then the euphoria fades, and one remembers Tas­mania is like every place on earth. At the very moment it's coming to self-consciousness as a final redoubt of the small, the forces of exploitation are redoubling their efforts to degrade it. And then nature takes its bite. A month after I returned to the States, a bushfire, goaded on by extra-dry conditions and converted into a fireball by 60-mile-an-hour winds, descended into the Buchanans' little valley, destroying the Eureka berry farm. "We sustained quite a bit of damage," says Ann now, "but we survived." Their pipes had melted; fencing evaporated; their heavily mulched soil had been scorched beyond use. But they stayed on in Tasmania. "We rebuilt," says Ann. "And we're bigger and better than ever."

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